Are You An IT Help Desk Or An IT Service Desk?

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Talk about a tricky question. Are you offering, or working on, a help desk or a service desk? And does it really matter?

Looking at this from another perspective, what do your customers, your end users, call it? If you look past the expletives, and jokes about “no-help desks” and “out-of-service desks,” they probably refer to it as the IT help desk rather than the IT service desk.

Why? Because they need IT’s help, although they could also want one of your IT services. And what does “service desk” actually mean? If I was to use the term “service desk” in the US it would probably be interpreted as the place where I return damaged or unwanted goods within a store.

But, thanks to ITIL in the main, most of us IT guys now like to talk of the IT service desk. Although I do sometimes wonder whether we talk more about the IT service management (ITSM) tool – in many ways the desk –  rather than what we achieve through using the tool.

So Riddle Me This Batman …

… What’s the difference between an IT help desk and an IT service desk?

I wouldn’t bother Googling the question as you will probably only find personal opinions as to what the differences are. Or software vendor definitions designed to differentiate an IT ticketing tool from something far grander (and expensive) to sell more stuff.

So there is that ITIL process-based view on the difference – where an IT help desk is considered to operate a limited number of processes, probably ticketing or incident management in the main. Then ITIL talks of other processes such as service request management and change management as being part of, or strongly associated with, an IT service desk. Then there is also the Gartner, the global research firm perspective, where ITSSM (IT service support management) sits between service desk and ITSM in terms of tool capabilities.

But maybe this is focusing too heavily on the words “IT” and “desk.” What if we instead focus on the words “help” and “service”?

“Help” Versus “Service” 

So, if we cast our minds back to the 1990s when my father, Joseph the IT Guy Senior, was working the IT help desk (yes it’s a family business), end users did call for help. The IT help desk provided technical support – for help with an IT issue, help on how to do something, or even help in getting new IT or telephony equipment. So things haven’t changed much, end user requirements of the IT service desk are much the same. They want help or assistance and we are still hopefully helping them.

I guess what has changed though is that we are no longer just providing help, we are now providing services. With the IT service desk now one of the many services the corporate IT organization provides to its customers. ITIL has a relatively narrow definition for IT service desk:

“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.”

And, interestingly, no definition or mention of IT help desk in the 90+ page ITIL Glossary.

It’s as though the demise of the IT help desk was part of a rebranding exercise as we all “serviced-up” on the back of ITSM best practice and ITIL adoption. But let’s jump back to one of my opening points – end users still call us the IT help desk not the IT service desk. After all they want us to help them.

And maybe they don’t see the “service” in IT service desk. Maybe they don’t see what we are providing as services even though we have ITIL qualifications, pins, and processes up to our eyeballs. In many ways they don’t see IT at all until it isn’t working. And then it is an IT issue not an IT service issue. So the use of IT-service-management-based terminology is probably lost outside of the IT organization.

But maybe there is another way to look at the word “service” in IT service desk. That the move from help desk to service desk should have been about more than the technology and ITSM processes. That it should have been more about how we deliver the help to end users. That we are serving and servicing their needs, providing customer service, and a great service experience. That there is a deliberate emphasis on service; and that’s why we offer an IT service desk not an IT help desk. It makes you think doesn’t it?

So How Is Your Service Experience? 

My phone has gone manic again after the lunchtime IT service desk lull so I need to stop typing.

I’ll return to this in another blog but, in the meantime, if you are interested in reading more on “service” then I suggest that you take a look at this blog from Sarah Lahav – the big cheese here at SysAid; my boss’s, boss’s boss; or Ma’am. She talks about how, with so many use cases for the word “service,” that it’s no wonder we sometimes get a little confused.

So are you a help desk or a service desk? I’d love to hear your opinions.

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  • Greg Fliearman

    We are a Managed Services Provider, and we actually use both terms depending on the work that our Support Services team members do for a client. Our Help Desk clients use our “services” to supplement their existing support organization either by extending the hours of support or as overflow to their teams. In this scenario we follow the clients processes, use their toolset, escalate to their technical resources when first call resolution is not achieved.

    On the other hand our Service Desk clients completely outsource their support needs to us as a MSP, relying on us exclusively for their Support Services. We selected using the ITIL term because we own the support life-cycle from open to close and everything in between. We follow our processes, we use our tool-set and we manage the full customer experience.