Help Desk vs Service Desk: What’s The Difference?

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Help Desk or Service Desk – Semantics or Strategy?

So what is the difference between a Help Desk and Service Desk?  Is this just a matter of semantics and terminology or are these in fact very different and distinct disciplines that impact an organization’s IT approach and strategy?  Yes I know, I am revisiting this age old discussion and question but it is such an interesting topic that has lots of different answers, interpretations and points of views.

service desk vs help desk

Why does the help desk vs service desk debate keep resurfacing?  I think it is because end user’s expectations are so much higher today.  Even for the most basic services, business users are expecting the most simplistic, easy to use, mobile, collaborative service solutions.  Because these expectations and demands are so high, providing the best possible service to our customers is so important these days.  We all want help or service in our everyday life and have all experienced good and bad of both.  We all know personally what a great customer experience is and want one with every purchase we make or service we subscribe to, whether it’s IT Support, at a retail store (especially during the holiday season), restaurants we dine at, getting our car serviced (I can’t tell you how many customer satisfaction surveys I get after I have my car serviced), you name it.

The distinction between the two is pretty fluid, as a matter of fact, just a simple search reveals equal numbers of people who do and don’t believe there’s a difference.  Some of the discussions and views on this topic are based on how organizations interpret these words and some are more specific using the ITIL 3 meaning and guidelines.  I wouldn’t say that anyone is more right than the other and there are no hard and fast rules that mandate the use or best practice.  It really depends on what works best from an organizational standpoint, an organization’s size and level of IT complexity ultimately meeting your customer and business needs.

Let’s start with some of the standard or most widely used definitions of these two terms along with some examples and differences of each:

Help Desk – the IT Help Desk is viewed as more tactical or I’ll say more day to day actionable helping to quickly resolve end customers immediate needs and technical issues and incidents (sometimes referred to as externally focused).  It can be separate or part of the Service Desk to improve the overall organization’s Customer Services. The ultimate goal of the Help Desk is to offer first contact resolution as efficiently and quickly as possible.

  • Single point of contact (SPOC) for IT Support
  • Basic Incident Management and Problem Management
  • Limited integration with other IT Service Management Processes
  • Some areas/application supported by specialty groups outside of the help desk
  • Level 1/2 support and passes incident ownership if escalation is needed
  • Problem resolution and escalation procedures
  • Knowledge Base
  • Service Level Agreements (SLAs)
  • Tracking solution for all incoming incidents

Service Desk – the IT Service Desk is thought of as a broader term that is more strategic and cross organizational (sometimes referred to as internally or organizationally focused).  This looks at the business needs rather than solely focused on resolving the user’s needs and takes into account the broader business context.    The ITIL 3 definition of the Service Desk (Service Operation) is 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.  The Service Desk typically has a help desk component and should have an overall goal of improving IT and business processes across the organization looking for opportunities for all IT processes (including the Help Desk) to run more efficiently.

  • Full integration with other Service Management process
  • Act as Single Point of Contact for all IT areas/applications/business processes
  • Change and configuration Management
  • Release and Problem Management
  • Service Level Management
  • Self-Service/Service Catalogue (Although these are sometimes for more advanced implementations, I would say that these can also be part of Help Desk solutions as well as this is becoming table stakes for users)
  • CMDB and Asset Discovery and Management

Can a company just have a Help Desk and not a Service Desk and vice versa?

As I said, there are no specific rules here and there are many instances where a company does not require or may not be ready for the processes and service offerings of the broader Service Desk.  In that situation a Help Desk is perfectly fine to meet these tactical needs.  The Help Desk provides business users a place to contact when they are having specific IT issues.  The goal here is to have that initial point of contact to reduce the wait time and get the issues resolved quickly to get the user working and productive.

The Service Desk looks at the overall IT processes and the individual components that function and interact with each other on both a software and process level.   One area that is a must in any IT service offering is the ability to manage specific end user problems and issues.  A Service Desk either has to have Help Desk functionality embedded as part of the Service Desk infrastructure or has the ability to link into a Help Desk offering for the end user.  The Service Desk is typically focused on corporate strategy and ensuring all the IT functions are currently working and will work in the future, they must also have the ability to ensure all end users up and functioning.

Here are some additional and important capabilities for a Help Desk and Service Desk deployment:

Enabling a Mobile IT user solution provides more self-service and user enabled capabilities in your business user’s hands and reduces the resource burden on the Service Desk and Help Desk

Providing an Intuitive User Experience that empowers your business users by making it easy for them to get service, support, information, and apps no matter where they are.

Enabling Business or Process Automation to help drive greater responsiveness, efficiency, and standardization in your service management operations allowing you to respond to the growing challenges of scale and new demands from the business by automating repetitive and time consuming tasks

Better decision-support capabilities with Actionable Intelligence to help your IT Service Management organization manage the evolving challenges of delivering effective service in increasingly complex environments. Provide your teams with a detailed view of your infrastructure and its dependencies with diagnostic data, performance information, and actionable knowledge.

Learn more about help desk and service desk software: Gartner Magic Quadrant

Help Desk & Service Desk Differences

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These postings are my own and do not necessarily represent BMC's position, strategies, or opinion.

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