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Service desk vs. help desk: What is the difference?

Service desk vs. help desk What's the difference

Some people think that an IT service desk is the same thing as an IT help desk. It isn’t and we’re  going to explain the difference between service desk and help desk. 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 answering questions about products and services that the organization offers 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 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 instructing 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 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, 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 features of a help desk include:

  • A single point of contact for support. You can go to one place, and they’ll connect you with the right person or team to get your issue resolved.
  • The core system that records and organizes customer complaints into tickets, tracks their progress and resolves them.
  • A knowledge base with an online database of common problems, solutions, best practices and other useful information.
  • The ability to automate ticket tracking and routing, as well as email notifications to keep your team and your customers informed.
  • Incident and service request management capabilities at a basic level.
  • The ability to provide end users with basic self-service options, including the ability to search for answers or ask questions about problems. They also offer support for IT staff, who may need help from the help desk when working on a difficult issue.

What is an IT service desk?

At face value, IT service desk operations can seem to be pretty much the same as IT help desk operations, 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 how a help desk functions. 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 the 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. 

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 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 issues, incidents, and service requests. In the context of the service desk, an incident is an event that results in 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 a 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 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”)

The various features of a service desk include:

  • The ability to integrate with other ITSM processes, like help desks or incident management systems. Because of this integration, it can act as a single point of contact for all IT areas. This includes business processes and applications.
  • The ability to track service level agreement compliance so that organizations can measure their performance against agreed-upon standards.
  • Integration with other ITSM processes, such as incident management and problem management. This means that the service desk agent is able to handle incidents or problems that occur with a specific technology or business process, then pass along information about the issue to another team for resolution.
  • Provision for self-service capabilities for incident and service requests while maintaining an integrated service catalog. This helps to ensure that all users have access to the information they need and can easily request support from their IT department.
  • Integration and communication with the configuration management database (CMDB), which is used to track changes made to the infrastructure and ensure that no issues arise when changes are made.

Service desk vs. help desk: Is there a difference?

Service desk and help desk are two terms that are often used interchangeably. They have similar functions, but they are different in many ways.

The service desk was developed as a way to expand upon the capabilities of a help desk while maintaining its core values of customer service, based on the underlying concept of “managing IT as a service.”

The primary goal of a service desk is to provide high-quality customer service and support to end users and internal employees. In order to do this, it must be able to handle a variety of requests ranging from simple questions about how to use software programs to more complex technical issues. A help desk supports an organization’s mission and vision by providing technical support for its employees and customers. It focuses on solving problems, not encouraging user self-sufficiency.

The main difference between the two is that a help desk will focus on the specific problem at hand and solve it. It has a more reactive approach to incidents. Whereas a service desk is more proactive and will take care of everything an end user may need, including requests for new services and information.

A help desk was an add-on to existing IT activities. The help desk was there to provide support for users when they needed it. The service desk is part of a service-based IT service delivery and IT support ecosystem. This means that when you call up your service desk with an issue or question about your computer or phone, they’ll walk you through solving it in an efficient way—and then make sure that solution sticks so that future issues are avoided as much as possible.

A help desk can be used to resolve immediate issues and respond to requests, while a service desk provides continuous support by utilizing tools that can predict and address issues before they arise.

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 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 from 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 a service desk – some people who have always worked on IT help desks view a move to an 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 the IT departments, 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 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. 

We hope this blog provided sufficient insights on the difference between a service desk and a help desk. 

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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.

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