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Service Desk versus Help Desk: What’s the difference?

This article was originally published here on January 23, 2021.

Some people think that an IT service desk is the same thing as an IT help desk. It isn’t, as I’m going to explain. Sure, there are some similarities, but there are also many differences. Let’s start by exploring what a service desk is and what a help desk is.

What is an IT help desk?

A help desk is a function within an organization that is responsible for providing help to the users who contact it. A service desk also does this. The help provided by the staff of the IT help desk includes giving answers to questions about products and services that the organization provides to its users, and assistance in resolving any issues with them. The responsibilities of a help desk usually only include these two aspects, whereas a service desk has a broader range of responsibilities. Help desk staff typically use a combination of their own knowledge and experience, together with information collated into a knowledge base that is accessible to the help desk staff. This system is often called the knowledge management system.

For example, help desks will provide assistance on how to use the IT systems and IT services, including giving instructions to users on how to get over a particular issue, even if the advice from the help desk is as simple as ‘reboot your PC’! A help desk might need to get help from specialist functions within the organization, such as IT support. Where this is the case, the help desk acts as the first level, which is set up to answer common and straightforward questions. If the IT help desk cannot resolve the question themselves, then they forward the question to the next level. This second level is not a help desk. It has staff with higher levels of skill, training, and experience. Service desks use this same structure as help desks.

The help desk provides a single point of contact for users to get assistance. This avoids users having to know who to contact for different products and services. All they have to do is to contact the help desk, knowing that the help desk will either sort them out or pass the query onto the second level. This is also the case for a service desk. Typically an IT help desk will use a tool designed explicitly for help desks. This help desk tool provides the capability to record the question or issue and track its progress through to resolution. Tools that are designed for help desk use only tend to be quite simple to operate with a low cost of ownership, and often exist in isolation with no integration to service management practices. In contrast, service desk tools tend to have richer functionality than dedicated help desk tools, with seamless integration to other parts of service management.

Both help desks and service desks can provide IT support to users that are internal or external to the organization. The ways for users to contact help desks and service desks include telephone, email, websites, online chat, and social media tools.

The primary duties and responsibilities of a help desk include responding to requests for technical assistance, finding the answers to questions posed to the help desk by users using available information resources, and advising users on appropriate actions.

What is an IT service desk?

At face value, an IT service desk can seem to be pretty much the same as an IT help desk, as both provide a single point of contact for users. The IT information library (ITIL® 4) has a very simple definition of a service desk — ‘The point of communication between the service provider and its users.’ Whilst you could apply this same definition to a help desk, it’s useful to look at the definition that the previous version of ITIL used for an IT service desk. ITIL 2011 defines the 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 also handles communication with the users’. This definition of what a service desk is brings in the concept of management, which is missing from most definitions of a help desk.

(See also, “Five Ways To Improve Major Incident Management”)

So a service desk doesn’t just answer queries and help users to resolve issues, which is what a help desk does. An IT service desk also actively manages the activities that result in a resolution, even if the service desk’s first line has passed the query or issue onto the second line, or even third line, for resolution. While some help desks do some management, many don’t. This leads to poor customer service, which, in many ways, led to the development of the IT service desk as a concept. Management by a service desk includes chasing second and third line for updates, providing escalations to senior staff and other key stakeholders, monitoring progress against service levels, and taking proactive actions where these are in danger of being breached.

Some of the confusion about the difference between a service desk and a help desk might have arisen from an earlier version of ITIL, which is now known as V2. According to this ITIL V2 definition, the service desk was just another term for a help desk. ITIL V3 helped to change this misconception and differentiated between a help desk and a service desk. This differentiated between the IT help desk and the IT service desk, saying that service desks offer a broader range of service capabilities than a help desk, solve more problems in fewer steps, and enable the integration of business processes into the service management infrastructure.

Service desks are designed to handle both issues, incidents, and service requests. In this context for the service desk, an incident is an event that results in a disruption in service availability or quality. The same definition can be used for help desks. A service request to a service desk is when a user wants help with a routine task; this type of request is rarely included in the scope of traditional help desks. Service requests include the service desk assisting a user in changing their password, adding a new user to particular systems, organizing moves of IT equipment. IT Service desks can also help users to get new software loaded onto their PCs, and obtain new equipment such as external disk storage. Unlike help desks, service desks also provide additional IT services, including change management, release management, and configuration management related tasks.

(See also, “Using data visualization to assess the impact of an incident, so you can resolve incidents quickly”)

Hence service desks provide a more extensive range of services for users, which is why they are called ‘service desks’ rather than just ‘help desks.’ The help desk provides help and solutions, whereas a service desk provides service. In some ways, a help desk is tactical, whereas a service desk is strategic.

Can you make a help desk into a service desk?

To make the change from a help desk to a service desk, you have to amend the scope of what your help desk does and probably change the attitude, behavior, and culture of the staff working in the help desk.

The first thing you should do is to properly understand why you want to turn your help desk into a service desk, including the expected benefits. This could be to keep up with your competitors, who have already made the change form a help desk to a service desk and have publicized the fact to their customers. Or it could be because you want to make a change to improve the morale of your help desk staff and keep them in your organization by making them into an service desk — some people who have always worked on IT help desks view a move to a IT service desk as the next step on their career ladder.

Whatever is the situation in your organization, if you don’t understand why you want to make the change from a help desk to a service desk, then you should not try to do it. While the change shouldn’t be complicated, it will still cost you money and potentially disrupt the service that your help desk already provides to your users.

The second thing you should do is to plan for changing from an IT help desk to an IT service desk. The change will not just happen by itself, and there are a lot of different aspects to consider when making the help desk-service desk transition. You will be adding new processes for your service desk, as well as amending processes that you developed for your help desk. Your IT help desk staff will need to be trained on these new and amended processes to maximize the effectiveness of the service desk. This needs careful planning, as it can be challenging to take staff off the help desk to give them the service desk related training.

Additionally, your plans need to include communication about the changes. This is essential as moving from a help desk to a service desk usually requires changes in attitude, behavior, and culture for staff in the IT help desk, the rest of IT, and the users.

You also need to consider any changes that are required for your help desk tool. It might already have IT service desk features in it that need configuring, but if not, you will have to plan to replace the help desk tool with one suited for a service desk. This can be complex. Making the transition from a help desk to a service desk can help add value to IT in your organization, providing improved customer service and growing the capabilities of your customer-facing staff.

Virima’s IT discovery, IT asset management (ITAM), and IT service management (ITSM) solutions can help you maximize the value of business processes and service management investments. Virima features can automatically discover and map your critical IT resources and the interconnections that link them to one another, your applications and services, and your users.

Learn more about Virima’s IT and service management solutions online, or contact Virima today.




Virima is a SaaS platform that solves your toughest IT operations management and reporting challenges. Learn about the various IT challenges IT Asset Discovery, App & Service Dependency Mapping, IT Asset Management, Build a CMDB, Change Management etc.

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