Help desk vs service desk: What’s the difference?

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Help desk vs service desk: What’s the difference?
One-sentence answer:

While the help desk focuses on fixing upcoming customers’ issues, the service desk is a strategic tool. It adjusts IT service delivery to the goals of the business and the end-users.

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Help desk vs. service desk, and why the difference matters

What is a help desk vs. a service desk–a newbie might be puzzled by this question. However, even companies with established ITSM practices use the terms interchangeably. So what’s called a help desk in some companies may, in fact, be a service desk.

We’ll be considering the differences between these two terms from the standpoint of ITSM. A short note to remind you what ITSM is: it’s a set of practices of IT service delivery in an organization. So help desks and service desks are tools to deliver your IT services efficiently.

You could ask, why should I care about differentiating them? Is there a strict rule on how to manage ITSM in your company? No, there are no strict rules on structuring IT and services. Even ITIL is not a standard; instead, it’s a framework. But knowing how best practices define these two terms is essential. It will help you understand whether you should establish both or only one, and if you only need one, then which one? If you are already managing divisions that resemble help desks or service desks, how would you allocate critical resources without knowing the purpose of each entity?

Help desk – first contact point for users

Help desk as a term came from outside of IT. It was a place is where users of a service or a product could come to request information. In the analog world, help desks were physical points with company representatives available at certain hours. In this form, help desks still exist as, for example, information points in malls where you can ask if they have a mother and child room or request assistance for a person with a disability.

Organizations became increasingly dependent on IT in the 1980s, so the first IT help desks appeared. They were points of contact between the IT service provider and the customers. They were also physical, like a separate floor in the office building. Still, due to the nature of the services provided (IT) and the shift towards online and remote work, online help desks have become the ultimate solution.

Girl passing printer to person at help desk

The primary purpose is to resolve issues

Help desks are a physical, virtual, or hybrid point of contact between the IT service provider and the service user. A help desk’s purpose is to resolve issues customers face when using the product. It’s the organization that collects customer requests and fixes them.

To do that, the help desk team might use special software, like a ticketing system, that streamlines ticket collection and assignment. The more complex the issues the help desk team receives, the more advanced workflows it will build to handle these requests. For instance, it’s already an industry standard when the help desk provides multilevel support. In this model, tickets are first assigned to a less skilled support specialist. They will be routed to a colleague with more profound expertise only after several unsuccessful resolution attempts on the first level. This approach saves costs because skilled technicians don’t spend time resolving simple requests.

At some companies, the expertise of the help desk goes as far as sorting out requests. While other teams, like the service desk’s, take on service request management: getting the fixing job done, recruiting specialists with the relevant experience for the fixes, and communicating with the customer along the way.

The help desk’s objectives are tactical and ensure customers receive support with the product and get their issues solved.

A way from help desks to service desks

Later, rapid digital transformation in organizations posed new challenges for IT Service Management practitioners. Service desks were introduced as a way to improve traditional help desks by providing users with more comprehensive and proactive support. They offer a broader range of services and support, such as incident management, problem management, and change management, as well as more advanced features like automation and analytics. In contrast to the help desk, the service desk’s goal is to holistically improve the level of IT service delivery. Consider the service desk as a version of the help desk that came later and was influenced by ITIL.

ITIL, deciphered as the IT infrastructure library, is a methodology that advises on how to employ ITSM practices in your organization. One of ITIL’s underlying principles is that IT services in a company should be delivered in a client-oriented way, just like any services we buy for money. IT team’s work should therefore focus on the needs of the business, which influences how it is managed. For the IT team, it means that they should pay special attention to the feedback of IT services’ users and not just collect it but also constantly take action based on that feedback. All IT service receivers are considered end-users for the IT department from the ITIL standpoint.

The holistic approach to IT services

In line with ITIL’s ideas, a service desk aims to provide IT support in a customer-centered manner. A service desk is an entity that does everything to make IT service delivery seamless. While the help desk focuses on only one of the core ITIL processes, namely incident management, the service desk can handle several processes, like knowledge management, problem management, IT asset management, and service request management. Unlike the help desk, your service desk will be responsible for such processes as:

  • IT asset tracking and their record in CMDB,
  • Defining and tracking SLAs,
  • Identification of root problems based on requests coming to the help desk, etc.

It is essential to highlight that service desks retain their point-of-contact function. It’s not just a center that manages all things ITSM, rather, it’s a center of communication between the service provider and the service receiver. And the purpose of this communication is to ensure IT services delivery is aligned with the company’s goals and the customer’s actual needs. A service desk strives to make core ITIL processes consistent with what customers want.

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Help Desk vs Service Desk – Choosing the right structure

The help desk is often part of the service desk. So a company is choosing between two options: to implement a service desk function that usually includes a help desk or to use the help desk only.

Service desk advantages

There are several benefits to implementing a service desk rather than a traditional help desk:

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Improved efficiency.
Service desks can be more efficient in addressing and resolving issues thanks to features like automation and analytics.

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Enhanced user experience.
Service desks are designed to provide a more personalized and proactive support experience.

Better management of IT assets.
Service desks can help organizations better manage their IT assets and infrastructure by providing a central location for tracking and reporting on issues and monitoring performance and availability.

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Reduced costs.
Service desks can help organizations reduce costs by automating routine tasks and identifying and addressing issues before they become more severe and costly to fix.

Reasons to choose help desk

However, there may be reasons for an organization to choose a help desk over a service desk.

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Service desks require more complex software and processes, making them more expensive to create and operate. Help desks may be cheaper for firms with limited resources or IT support needs.

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Scope of support.
Help desks provide technical support and troubleshooting for IT systems and devices. A help desk may suffice for an organization’s minimal IT assistance needs.

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IT maturity.
More mature IT systems and procedures utilize service desks. A service desk may not be suitable for an enterprise still constructing its IT infrastructure.

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Some firms prefer to respond to issues rather than manage and optimize IT systems and services. These situations may require a help desk. In these cases, a help desk might be a better fit.

Ultimately, the decision to implement a help desk vs a service desk will depend on the specific needs and goals of the organization, as well as its budget and resources.

How Alloy Software can help

Whatever management structure you choose, you’ll require solid software support. Our flagship product Alloy Navigator offers a suite of modules in its IT Service Desk, including ticket management, network inventory, self-service portal, knowledge base, and IT asset tracking solution. We are proud to have a highly flexible product that fits your preferences.

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