You Say Tomato: Help Desk vs. Service Desk

You Say Tomato: Help Desk vs. Service Desk

Whether you ask for your pizza with extra “tom-mah-toe” or “toe-may-toe,” the end result is going to be the same – extra tomatoes on your freshly baked Italian cuisine. But, in the IT service management (ITSM) world, we need to be careful when discussing help desks and/or service desks.

In the past, organizations were relaxed about discussing their IT-cuisine and freely dropped in both ingredients without much thought as to the specific meanings of each. But they are not the same, so you need to put the trans-Atlantic accent differences aside and lock in your understanding of both.

So here’s how they differ and why you need to care – buon appetito!

Different Ingredients, Different Flavors

Many people consider a help desk as solving tactical IT issues only, whereas a service desk is considered to handle issues more strategically. But the line blurs in that the service desk in an organization will also get involved in the tactical resolution of issues.

There is, however, usually a greater focus on the service desk to consider, analyze, and implement new internal business-led operational changes in the pursuit of long-term and permanent resolutions. For example, a help desk will simply react to an end user who can no longer find their files on their hard-drive after a system upgrade by linking them to the location of the files they are looking for; whereas a service desk is more likely to consider the internal employee communication processes during upgrades and if necessary roll out new desktop shortcuts to all employees.

A service desk should also always be looking for ways in which to improve the quality of IT service and to spot possible efficiencies; whereas a help desk is often merely reactive, just solving the issue right now for the end user.

This isn’t to say that a service desk is in any way superior to a help desk – both serve valuable functions. After all, when your house is burning down, you’re better off calling the fire department than the fire safety inspector! That immediate response and resolution can make all the difference.

Why You Need to Check and Understand the Ingredients

The definition and attributes of a service desk versus those for a help desk can be extremely important when hiring IT support people. Correctly referring to the role and team by the right terminology will mean that you’ll have a better chance of attracting the right candidates with the right expectations. Everyone will be on the same page.

Also, while many software packages will promote suitability as both service desk and help desk (management) software, some vendors offer specific and tailored solutions for help desks rather than service desks. And thus having the correct understanding and using the right terminology will mean that you’ll be able to walk into tool selection conversations prepared and with your needs and requirements fully understood.

However, possibly one of the most important reasons to be fully aware of the differences is in understanding the needs of your organization and whether it need a service desk (with help desk capabilities) or simply a help desk. Some companies might only need a help desk – a single point of contact for all end users in the organization to contact with their issues and to have the issues resolved as quickly as possible. These organizations are probably not ready for, or simply do not need, the processes and enabling technology for a service desk.

Importantly, understanding the function, benefits, and costs associated with help desks and service desks will allow senior management to make strategic decisions about which is needed internally. And this might be starting with a formalized help desk with plans to evolve it into a service desk over time.

The Key Things to Remember

You’ll probably find different interpretations of what help desks and service desks are on the Internet, especially in non-IT support scenarios. Hopefully these final takeaways will help with your thinking:

  • Help desks are focused on the tactical issues of end users – “fix this right now”
  • Service desks do more, including focusing on the larger strategic requirements and efficiency opportunities of the organization
  • Help desk capabilities can be considered a subset of a service desk’s
  • Most organizations need a help desk but not all organizations need a service desk

Finally, if you want to read more on the differences between help desks and service desks, I suggest “Are You An IT Help Desk Or An IT Service Desk?” also by yours truly.

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Posted by Joe the IT Guy

Joe the IT Guy
Joe the IT Guy

Native New Yorker. Loves everything IT-related (and hugs). Passionate blogger and Twitter addict. Oh...and resident IT Guy at SysAid Technologies (almost forgot the day job!).


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