Service desk vs. help desk: what’s the difference?

| By:
Kathy Smith

*This blog was originally posted in January 2017.

Are the terms ‘service desk’ and ‘help desk’ interchangeable, or are they two entirely distinct and equally necessary operations for your business? Maybe you’re hoping that they are one and the same to avoid additional headcount or maybe you know they’re different somehow, but you’re confused on the roles you need to staff.

Let’s discuss what the key differences are and answer whether you truly need both or if not, which skill set you should focus on hiring.

What’s the overall difference between a service desk and a help desk?

Up until the release of the Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL) v3 in 2007, the terms service desk and help desk were used interchangeably. There was never a difference between the two. This all changed with ITIL v3, which looks at the IT process from beginning to end and maps how IT should be integrated into the overall business process.

So, based on strict definitions in the ITIL v3:

  • The service desk is a key component of managing the overall process from a strategic ‘big picture’ cross-organization perspective, reviewing IT processes and functionality.
  • The help desk feeds into the service desk with a tactical, day-to-day role in responding to end-user needs.
Service desk focus—client strategy

As the single point of contact between users and IT service management, a service desk follows ITIL v3 best practices that not only deliver services with software and defined processes but that focus on process and company strategy. The ITIL v3 breaks down these best practices into five ITIL Core Service Lifecycles:

  1. Service strategy: Evaluate current services and ensure a plan is in place to modify and implement new and existing services when required.
  2. Service design: Evaluate and ensure a new service will meet current and future needs. Confirm a new service can be introduced into the live environment.
  3. Service transition: Define a plan that ensures no service outages or gaps during a service transition; thus, the effects of the transition on the corporation are minimal.
  4. Service operation: Responsible for the ongoing monitoring of a service that is used to deliver services.
  5. Continual service improvement: Review and analyze opportunities to improve all IT processes and functions.
Help desk focus—end-user functionality

As the ITIL v3 defines, a help desk is a component of the overall service management and feeds into the service desk. In fact, help desk best practices are outlined in each of the five ITIL Core Service Lifecycles mentioned above. When using these best practices, help desk functions include, but are not limited to:

  • Computer or software consultations
  • Change and configuration management
  • Problem escalation procedures
  • Problem resolution
  • Single point of contact (SPOC) for IT interruptions
  • Service level agreements
  • Tracking capabilities of all incoming problems

A help desk utilizes software to track incidents, making sure that no issues get lost or unresolved. It also manages tracks all IT assets to enable access to real-time information about software and configuration of the IT system.

The main focus of a help desk is end-user functionality. While the goal is to get end users back in service as quickly as possible, best-in-class help desks utilize processes and software to provide proactive support to keep interruptions at a minimum.

Should you have a service desk, help desk, or both?

A help desk is essential for providing actionable, technically skilled resources for problem resolution. Since service providers are in the business of getting end users back in service quickly, many companies start with a help desk to address customer needs. Since the service desk is focused on corporate strategy and generally take a more proactive stance to IT issues, some companies aren’t ready to implement one in their IT structure.

A lot of service providers are able to function with just a help desk to address end-user issues and provide technical support and add a service desk when the business matures. Since a help desk and service desk perform different functions and serve different organization purposes, having both will benefit your business.

When do you know the time is right to implement a service desk? There are instances when your help desk will get calls that aren’t of a technical nature. You’re paying a premium for a technical resource when one isn’t needed for this issue. When those calls become more frequent, you’ll know the investment in a service desk will be worth it.

The bottom line

Regardless of strategic and tactical differences, the bottom line is help desks and service desks share a common ‘reason for being.’ Their purpose is to meet the ever-heightening expectations of technology users—both internal and external to your organization—for the best possible service experience. If that goal is being successfully accomplished, you can most likely relax about sweating the semantics.