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Understanding the Differences Between a Help Desk & Service Desk

Posted by on August 02, 2018

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If you're looking to establish IT support capabilities at your organization, you might be wondering whether you should call your new department a "service desk" or a "help desk"—or whether it matters at all. While the difference between the two might seem entirely semantic, the concepts of a service desk and a help desk come from very different periods in the history of IT implementation, and each tells a different story about what your IT organization does and the level of service that end users can expect.

Did you know that "service desk" has an official definition in the ITIL® literature, whereas help desk isn't mentioned in ITIL even one time? If you're working towards compliance with ITIL, doesn't it make sense to use the same terminology to identify your IT organization?

To help you decide, we're taking a deep dive into the history of service desks and help desks in IT. We'll explain the differences in service levels between a help desk and a service desk and where they fit into the ITSM paradigm. At the end, you'll be able to decide on the nomenclature that best suits your organization—even if your end users just call it "tech support."

The History of Help Desk vs Service Desk in IT

Throughout the history of IT, especially in the early 2000s, the terms "help desk" and "service desk" were often used interchangeably. This could have been expected as the field of Information Technology expanded significantly during this time, and most IT professionals were new to the industry and failed to recognize the historical differences between the two.

The concept of an IT help-desk first emerged in the late 1980s. As organizations began to develop IT infrastructure and incorporate IT into their business models, the IT help desk emerged as a department that could help organizations maintain functionality of their IT resources. Traditionally, the IT help desk focused on the IT itself rather than the end user—its goal was to ensure the ongoing operation of critical IT resources that allow the business to function. Early functions of the help desk included basic ticket management, incident resolution, and fulfilling service requests from customers.

The concept of a service desk was born out of the ITIL framework, a widely adopted protocol that describes best practices for IT service management. The 2011 ITIL glossary defines a service desk as "the single point of contact between the service provider and the users. A typical service desk manages incidents and service requests and handles communication with the users." The widespread adoption of ITIL by large organizations has led to increased popularization of the term "service desk" to describe an organization's IT support capabilities—a survey conducted by HDI Connect in 2015 found that 36% of companies use the term "Service desk" while just 23% use "help desk."

Now that we understand where the two terms originated, let's dive right into the major differences between help desks and service desks.

Help Desks and Service Desks: Tactics vs Strategy

Just like "Help Desk" and "Service Desk," many people incorrectly use tactics and strategy interchangeably. Strategy refers to high-level, long-term planning which can involve complex procedures, activities, and decision-making processes that govern tactical decisions. Tactics refer to short-term, concrete plans that are meant to satisfy a strategic objective. Businesses need high-level strategic thinkers that can orient the organization towards a specific end-goal, but they also need capable tacticians who can design effective methodologies that advance the organization's strategic objectives.

When IT professionals distinguish between the Help Desk and Service Desk, they often make the distinction that the Service Desk concerns itself with organizational strategy while the Help Desk takes a tactical approach to handling tickets for incident management or fulfilling requests. A service desk looks at the overall strategic needs of a business rather than simply focusing on short-term problem resolution.

An organization's help desk might handle simple service requests like an e-mail password change, setting up a new account or repairing a server—that's low-level tactical execution that supports strategic goals like "Ensure that users can access their email," "Ensure that users can access their accounts," or "Minimize server downtime."

While a help desk manages these requests reactively, a service desk would work to define the organization’s strategic goals with respect to IT and implement new service offerings with a goal of continually improving IT functions at the organization. An ITIL-compliant service desk does this by following the core processes of ITIL:

  1. Service Strategy - Evaluating current service offerings, changing them, and introducing new ones to benefit the organization.
  2. Service Design - Looking at new services and whether they can meet the business needs on an ongoing basis if introduced.
  3. Service Transition - Ensuring minimal business disruption when a service is being implemented or phased out.
  4. Service Operation - The continuous monitoring of service delivery.
  5. Continual Service Improvement - Analyzing opportunities to improve IT processes and functions.

Service Management vs Ticket Management - The Core Difference Between Help Desk and Service Desk

By now, the differences between Help Desk and Service Desk should be getting clearer. The service desk is a critical part of how organizations manage the big picture when it comes to IT. An effective IT service desk does more than simply respond to incidents or fulfill requests, it reviews the overall IT processes and functionality within an organization with a goal of continual improvement.

In contrast, the help desk is most concerned with end-user functionality and providing incident management and escalation services that are designed to resolve customer issues or requests as quickly as possible, ideally on the first contact. Effective call handling is at the core of help desk activities for many organizations, including the timely resolution of tickets and escalation of tickets when greater resources are required that level-one help desk representatives don’t have access to.

Help desk systems are optimized to minimize user wait times, deliver decisive solutions as quickly as possible, and maintain function of the organization's IT by using a ticket management system to handle incidents and manage requests.

As you might have guessed, help desk and service desk can co-exist in a single organization, given that they perform different functions. Typically, the help desks functions are limited to Tier 1 IT support activities like handling requests and managing incidents, which is then rolled into the responsibilities of the service desk that include managing change requests, software licenses, maintenance contracts, configuration and availability of services, and other strategic initiatives.

To help clarify the difference between help desk and service desk, you might think about the difference between the emergency line to your local police station and the regular telephone number. When you call the emergency line, you're calling for "Help"—you need a technician, or in this case a police officer, to come and fix your problem so you can get back to living your life. When you call the service line, you could ask to hire a police officer for a security role, request a tour of the station or the release of records, make a traffic complaint, arrange a ride-along, and so forth.

What Key Functionalities Separate Help Desks and Service Desks?

Help desks provide a single point of contact where users can engage IT to handle requests and find solutions to technical problems, troubleshoot, and resolve known problems with software and hardware that form the organization's IT infrastructure. Help Desk software is typically quite basic compared to service desk software, which often includes the establishment of an IT service catalog that users can access to review information about service offerings and request changes. Help Desk software was primarily developed with a focus on ticket handling for requests and incidents—its core function is to log reported problems, assign them a tracking number, and track them until they get resolved.

IT Help Desks are all about meeting the immediate needs of the end user and are typically configured as break-fix solutions—when something is broken, you go to the help desk and log a ticket, so it can get fixed. Help Desk software provides ticket management and tracking for IT along with some self-service options for the end user, and often has limited integration with today's ITSM processes. Help desk agents may be divided into teams based on their technical specialty—one team to deal with computing issues, one for networking issues, one for server issues, one for issues with telecom, etc.

In contrast, service desks function best when a service catalog is established and offered to users. A service catalog lists the services that the department or organization offers along with information about how to access services and resources and may include automated and self-service options that allow users to "help themselves" instead of waiting for a response. The service catalog helps to automate and expedite certain types of service delivery and support, so that service desk team members can allocate time towards strategically innovating for the business.

The biggest difference between help desks and service desks is that a service desk is integrated with other IT service management processes, including the organizational of service level agreements, integration of asset management protocols, and the five core processes of ITIL. One thing that help desks and service desks to have in common is their role in facilitating communication. Both provide a single point of contact for IT issues and offer a platform of communication between the IT department and the customer.

Why Does the Difference Between Help Desk and Service Desk Matter?

In practice, not everyone follows the accepted naming conventions when assigning a name to the department responsible for IT services at their organization. Organizations that leverage information technology need a dedicated support team that can handle calls, resolve tickets and fulfill requests that involve IT, and it could be called a help desk, a service desk, tech support, the call center, or some other name. Some help desks even perform some of the functions associated with service desks—handling certain types of service requests, facilitating changes etc.—thus occupying the space between a dedicated response team and a fully ITIL-compliant service desk.

Often, the distinction between a help desk and service desk comes down to the maturity and size of the organization. Small organizations that are just developing their IT service capabilities might call themselves a Help Desk, but larger organizations that have established compliance with ITIL and expanded their capabilities beyond incident management and request fulfillment are far more likely to use the name Service Desk, reflecting their ITIL compliance and broad capabilities in IT.

At the end of the day, we still think it's important to use these terms correctly when describing the function of an IT group.

The idea of a service desk that handles incident reporting and manages communication while looking to advance business objectives with IT integration is closely tied to ITIL and the accepted ITSM framework, while the help desk comes from an older paradigm that focuses primarily on ticket management and resolution. The two are not the same and using them interchangeably could mean that you're overstating or understating the capabilities of the system.

What Are the Benefits of Service Desk Software?

The companies that build service desk software today understand that most companies are looking for something beyond help desk—they want to build an IT department that pushes the company forward strategically, not a reactive one that simply keeps the business afloat without contributing anything new. Applications like Cherwell Service Management are increasingly appealing for enterprises that want to leverage:

While a basic help desk software whose feature set primarily includes incident management and tracking might be suitable for companies with the smallest IT needs, organizations of many sizes can benefit from the implementation of a service desk software that automates aspects of IT service delivery and facilitates IT asset management, while still handling the incident management and traditional help desk processes.

The Bottom Line

IT departments come in many different shapes and sizes, and while a small team focused on incident management and break-fix activities might suitably be called a help desk, the name becomes less appropriate as the team works towards expanding its capabilities and building systems that can deliver greater value to an organization.

At the end of the day, it isn't the name of an IT organization that matters—it's the underlying processes and systems that make the difference for your organization. 

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