Times sure have sure changed for most of us over the past year due to the Coronavirus Pandemic. Business looks quite different in some ways with many people working from home and some companies operating with a completely remote workforce. This past year forced many organizations down the path of digital transformation much more quickly than some were ready for and faster than any other event I can recall.  This sudden shift to remote workforces and virtual learning put a serious strain on most IT departments who were trying to keep up with supporting all of this new technology. That said, one thing still remains quite the same. Organizations are always looking for ways (now maybe more than ever) to improve the efficiency and productivity of their Help Desk or Service Desk and there are sometimes still questions about what the differences are between these two types of groups.  Though the two groups share similarities regarding responsibilities and capabilities, they also have some differences and do not always have the same objectives. 

  • Some organizations may have both a Help Desk and a Service Desk performing their associated duties.
  • Some companies may have one IT department that performs the tasks of both a Help Desk and a Service Desk.
  • Some organizations have an IT team that performs the duties of a Help Desk but refers to themselves as a Service Desk.
  • Some teams have an IT group that operates like a Service Desk and refers to themselves as the Help Desk because their duties have evolved into more of a Service Desk but they have always been known as the Help Desk so the name is the same, even though the work has changed. 

The only thing that is clear is that by definition, a Help Desk and a Service Desk are fundamentally different, providing similar services in different ways. Depending on size, complexity, budget and needs, different organizations implement them in different ways. Organizations may implement Help Desk like services and others may implement Service Desk type services and what each company calls their “Help Desk” depends largely on individual preferences and perceptions. What the group is called really is not as important as how they operate so personally I don’t like getting hung up on the terminology. To me, Help Desk vs. Service Desk is like the “tomay-toh and “tomah-toh” of the IT industry. How the groups are organized and how well they perform their duties is the most important part, not what they are called. 

Let’s take a look at the standard definition of a Help Desk and a Service Desk to better understand their defined roles in the business. Just keep in mind that your organization may do some of each or none of one and all of the other. These are industry terms and industry guidance and one size doesn’t necessarily fit all. 

Definition of “Help Desk”

The role of the Help Desk is typically designated for solving IT problems. The Oxford dictionary definition of help desk used by Google defines it as a service providing information and support to computer users, especially within a company.

Help Desks can be a department within the company they serve or an independent agency that services the company on a contractual basis. The Help Desk almost always utilizes some kind of tracking software to manage tickets and issues. 

The services that the Help Desk offer are usually limited to IT resolution, with more complex or involved issues being escalated to other departments or teams. Efficient Help Desks typically set up automated systems to classify, track, and route tickets, and send automatic email updates to involved parties. Efficient Help Desk systems will also provide some degree of self-help to its users, providing services such as searchable knowledge bases, FAQ documents, how-to articles and a method for users to log and track the status of issues themselves. Common problems that a Help Desk addresses include computer issues, software issues, technical questions, hardware problems, and other tactical day to day IT related questions from users. 

Definition of “Service Desk”

Interestingly, the same Oxford powered Google Dictionary service referenced above does not currently provide a definition for the term Service Desk. If you search for the term on Google, you will find numerous software companies blogging about its meaning. This may be because it is a relatively new term (although I hardly consider late 80s terms new), there is ambiguity in what a Service Desk really is or it is simply the term used by the inventors of ITIL. (IT Infrastructure LibraryWhat is ITIL?)

In any case, for the purposes of this discussion, it is generally accepted that a Service Desk covers a wider area of responsibilities than a traditional Help Desk while still providing many of the same services that a typical Help Desk would provide. Service Desks handle IT and other business service needs, considering impacts to other users, other services and other systems when responding to issues or implementing new solutions. Service Desks are also usually involved with higher level projects that impact the overall organization from a technology perspective like infrastructure upgrade projects, the network security posture, telephony services, IT service requests, etc. Solving help desk tickets is usually a subset of the services provided by a Service Desk but only a part of their overall responsibilities. Service Desks generally follow the ITIL standards mentioned above as well for process implementation, usage and ongoing improvement.

The goal of the Service Desk is to ensure proper handling of Incidents and Requests reported by users as well as to anticipate IT challenges and address them before they become bigger problems for users or the organization. Service Desks view Incidents and Requests logged by users keeping the bigger picture of overall company success and uninterrupted delivery of all critical business services in mind at all times. Service Desks also track compliance with industry standards, security requirements, industry regulations and service level agreements as well. 

Like some Help Desks, Service Desks will almost always provide self-help functionality to allow users to submit tickets and service requests themselves. Additionally, Service Desks typically utilize some sort of configuration management database to analyze potential impacts of issues on hardware systems and business services. A Service Desk also tends to follow the ITIL processes for Incident and Service Request handling, Problem Management, Change Management, Asset Management and Release Management. 

Many organizations use part of the ITIL framework or slightly modified parts of the framework and in some cases adhere strictly to the framework. The implementation and usage of ITIL varies between organizations and is typically adhered to more stringently in larger and more sophisticated IT organizations.  Many times the overhead of the ITIL framework is overkill for small Help Desks but even a small IT shop can take advantage of some useful best practices by studying the ITIL framework and implementing things that make sense for their environment. While smaller companies with basic Help Desks may provide some of the services mentioned above, it is very likely they do not provide all of them or at the same level as a larger organization operating a full Service Desk. 

Key Differences Between a Help Desk and a Service Desk

The biggest difference between a Help Desk and a Service Desk is the scope of responsibilities each group faces. Help Desks typically are responsible for responding to help desk tickets relating to network issues and user issues with software or hardware, while Service Desks tend to focus on the larger IT needs of the entire company. Service Desks many times have a Help Desk group operating within the larger service desk.  

Another key difference is that Help Desks are usually reactive by nature and while Service Desks may handle issues of this nature as well, they also tend to be more proactive, anticipating and preparing for the company’s evolving technological needs. Companies will typically have only a Help Desk group handling IT related tasks or in many cases the Help Desk is a subset of the Service Desk, acting as the front line group that interfaces directly with users. Help Desk Desk only IT environments are typically seen in smaller organizations, whereas Service Desks are usually seen in large organizations where IT service delivery is more complex. 

The concept of the Help Desk originated in the early 1980s and the creation of the IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL – What is ITIL?) by the British government’s Central Computer and Telecommunications Agency (CCTA) during the mid to late 80s. ITIL represented a new focus on service and the IT department being more than just a cost center. Help Desks and Service Desks began to evolve as more and more companies started to embrace the idea of the Service Desk and ITSM (IT service management) practices. Even though I normally prefer to not use Wikipedia as a source, they do have a decent definition of ITSM.

Help Desks, whether stand-alone or part of a larger Service Desk, are expected to be the front line response, quick with their answers and responding on demand to end user issues.  The Service Desk function is usually focused on the bigger picture, overall company service delivery and increasing its users’ overall effectiveness. 

Similarities between the Help Desk and Service Desk

Many Service Desks have a Help Desk component and both Service Desks and Help Desks may be responsible for handling users’ technical issues. The two organizations are fundamentally different by definition but they are very similar in that they both are tasked with solving IT issues for the company, helping users with questions or problems and ensuring the smooth operation of IT services and other services within the company. Some companies may specifically segment out the two different groups or have one group performing all tasks. In the end, no matter what the organization decides to call them, the Service Desk and/or Help Desk are there to manage the IT support needs of the organizations that they serve. 

Utilizing the right help desk software is vital for both types of groups to succeed since specialized software offers features such as ticketing, knowledge management, change management, service level management, self-service portals and automation of common tasks like prioritization, categorization and routing. The right software tools will help any group manage their tasks and workload more effectively and efficiently. 

Why It Is Vital to Choose the Right Process for the Job

Treating a Help Desk and a Service Desk as one in the same can be a costly mistake for an organization to make, especially if an organization chooses the wrong process for their size/complexity. Smaller organizations run the risk of wasting valuable time and money by employing or establishing complicated Service Desk processes when all they really need is a basic Help Desk. Many small, emerging companies are not at the point where they need to address long-term, all-encompassing IT needs or follow lengthy time and resource intensive processes and procedures prescribed by ITIL for use in a Service Desk environment. Doing so and implementing sophisticated ITSM software and processes may lead to issues down the road. When processes are too complicated or seen as unnecessary, IT team members may be reluctant to utilize the process, skipping valuable steps or modifying the procedure in order to get their work done. Unneeded processes and procedures can overkill and stifle the productivity of a small IT group leading to wasted money on tools and training that are not utilized, processes that are not followed, slow response times, poor service to end users and low employee morale in the IT group.   

On the other hand, organizations that are large or complex may hinder themselves by employing a simple Help Desk instead of a Service Desk with proper ITSM processes. Major corporations have many things to be concerned about when it comes to proper IT service delivery and the failure in any one area could be catastrophic for the organization.  Large organizations need to be prepared for ever changing IT requirements, security requirements, communications requirements, privacy and even industry regulations. Large organizations have to monitor all of these services and systems, employ proper change management and follow more complex ITSM processes in order to minimize or avoid impacts to overall service delivery which could negatively impact end user productivity, customers, company performance, image and even revenue.

How to start a help desk? Start Simple

If you are a small organization starting to think more strategically about IT service delivery for the first time, it is usually best to start small, set some simple goals and purchase only what is needed to get started. You can always expand the process, implement new procedures and upgrade software gradually in response to organization changes or improvements in IT maturity. 

If you find that the first set of goals and processes were not implemented well or are causing more harm than good, it is easy when the process is less complex to go back and revamp what isn’t working and try again before adding more processes and services.  

On the other hand, if the first few processes were implemented well, are being followed and are making a positive impact on service levels and end user satisfaction, then you can look at adding more processes to improve things further or address issues in other areas.  

Keeping things simple to begin with can help keep the cost of acquiring software, tools and training down while allowing you to focus on a particular problem area to ensure success. If you start out by implementing all the recommended ITIL processes at one time from day one, you may easily find yourself in over your head, experiencing difficulty getting all of those processes implemented properly and getting everyone to follow them, potentially leading to more problems and lack of confidence in the processes you are trying to implement. 

Be Ready to Course-Correct as the Organization Changes

As is the case with other IT aspects, the structure and processes of a Help Desk or a Service Desk will change as the company changes. Small IT groups in growing companies will need to become more sophisticated to handle the needs of a larger organization. Large IT groups need to consistently maintain high service levels in complex environments. In any size organization, the key to success is in continually reviewing processes and procedures as well as measuring the productivity of the IT group and the satisfaction of end users, making changes or adjustments as needed to ensure timely and satisfactory service delivery.  

An IT group should also monitor how their ITSM or help desk software software handles the company’s needs and institute corrective actions required to keep IT service management as productive and efficient as possible. 

IT Service Management Software Should Empower Users

When a user can resolve their own problems or check the status of any tickets they have submitted without involving someone from the Help Desk/Service Desk, it improves the efficiency of the organization and reduces the overall workload of the IT department. Both Help Desks and Service Desks should provide options for users to self serve, find answers to their questions and address low complexity common issues on their own. 

Self-service portals allow users to search the company’s knowledge base to search for similar incidents and related documentation such as FAQs. IT departments that utilize help desk software to automatically convert user emails into help desk tickets and allow end users to submit tickets themselves in the self service portal are two things that can save time for both the end user and the IT department.

How Help Desk Software Can Prepare for the Formation of a Service Desk

We have previously discussed how the right help desk software can prepare a company for business growth. Some of the functionality offered by help desk software can be of assistance for companies that want to transition from no help desk system or a home grown help desk system to something more organized. It can also help companies that want to move from a Help Desk only environment to more of a Service Desk/Help Desk model. Help Desk software that provides functionality for ticket management, knowledge management and change management generally provides a bit of customization capability to allow organizations at any stage of IT maturity to benefit.  Help Desk software with IT Asset Management functionality allows a company to track IT assets and determine when assets need to be patched, acquired, updated, and retired, another vital function commonly associated with Help Desks and Service Desks.

“Help Desk Versus Service Desk” can be a contentious issue among some technical communities because different organizations see and handle things differently. The level of IT Maturity or IT Complexity is not always directly related to the size of the organization or their needs and software requirements.  There are small businesses out there that utilize full ITIL processes and a complete Service Desk with a fully implemented ITSM software solution. On the other hand, there are also large organizations that prefer to keep things simple and utilize a basic Help Desk setup and basic Help Desk Software to serve their users. There are also organizations with mature ITSM processes who choose to save money on their ITSM software and do many things manually with a basic Help Desk software package. There is no hard and fast rule about which IT service management solution is better. The answer lies somewhere in the type of organization, its IT needs, its tolerance for risk, budget, tracking and reporting requirements, industry laws, rules and even government regulations at times. 

Small, less complex organizations can benefit from forming their own Help Desk or contracting with an outside agency to perform IT duties while large, complex organizations often require an in house Service Desk to handle the organization’s IT needs. The choice between a Help Desk and a Service Desk should not be taken lightly but it is more important to have repeatable, reliable processes that ensures reliable IT service delivery and a positive working environment for both IT and end users than it is to get hung up on the semantics and terminology of which type of system you are using. Implementing any solution poorly can stunt an organization’s growth or lead to morale problems with IT or end users no matter what it’s intent or what you call it. It is more important to start somewhere and implement a repeatable, reliable process that makes it easier for IT to provide reliable services for end users.  Happy employees make for more productive employees and that is a good thing for any organization. 

Cris Coffey

Cris Coffey

Cris is the Principal Product Manager for Track-It! and BMC Client Management. Track-It! is a help desk software application designed for small to medium sized businesses and Client Management is an End Point Management software application designed for Medium to Large sized businesses.