Help Desk vs. Service Desk

Oct 31, 2016 | Rob Pfeifle | Managed Services
Help Desk vs. Service Desk

If your company relies on IT, chances are you’ve heard the terms Help Desk and Service Desk used interchangeably. But what exactly is a Help Desk? What does a Service Desk do? Aren’t they the same thing?

The answer is no. While the Help Desk and the Service Desk both address IT concerns, the two have been considered separate services since ITIL V3 was published nearly ten years ago. At a high level, a Service Desk is a planning, decision-making entity that dictates operations that will achieve a goal, and a Help Desk is a group that performs specific actions to act out those operations.

In short, Help Desks and Service Desks differ in purpose:

A Help Desk is tactical.

A Service Desk is strategic.

To illustrate this fundamental difference, you can think of a Service Desk as an architect and a Help Desk as a construction worker. An architect draws out the plans for a building, taking care to address concerns related to compliance, safety, and aesthetics; then, a construction worker performs the specific, concrete actions that make the architect’s plan a reality. Similarly, a Service Desk determines which processes need to be followed for IT to function, and the Help Desk performs those processes.

Help Desk

Help Desk

An IT Help Desk provides actionable IT troubleshooting, incident management, and support for end users at an organization. Successful Help Desks follow a customer service approach, under which end users (“customers”) solicit support for software applications, devices, and hardware endpoints. While some Help Desk functions can be provided virtually, end-user needs are typically resolved quickly via walk-up support or desk-side support.

Under a walk-up model, end-users take their devices to a pre-determined physical location and either sit down with technicians or drop off their devices for support. Under a desk-side model, technicians travel to an end-user’s location and guide the user from there.

Effective Help Desks use ticketing software to manage issues, incidents, and requests. This software allows the Help Desk to keep track of the kinds of services they provide, as well as gather metrics related to response times and time-to-close data. This not only enables the Help Desk to provide evidence of SLAs, but also facilitates proactive resolutions and root-cause analysis. Finally, the Help Desk is often responsible for Active Directory management software, which allows them to maintain all of the users and systems in their corporate network.

Service Desk

Service Desk

Rather than focusing on the needs of individual end users, a Service Desk focuses on the needs of the entire organization. Instead of providing support for tangible hardware and devices, Service Desks make strategic decisions about processes to support the business’s overall goals.

Service Desks are designed for process improvement, so they often drive IT Service Management (ITSM) decisions within an organization. Specifically, the Service Desk plays a key role in each of ITIL’s core five service components: Service Strategy, Service Design, Service Transition, Service Operation, and Continual Service Improvement (CSI).  In other words, the Service Desk is responsible for creating, executing, and refining IT services consistently and cross-functionally.

Because end-user support falls under the umbrella of ITSM, many Service Desks contain a Help Desk component for incident, request, access, change, and problem management.  While it is common for a Help Desk to exist without a Service Desk, the inverse is far less common.

Let’s Review

While the line between Help Desk and Service Desk can be blurry, there are several distinct differences between the two, particularly in terms of purpose. Below is a high-level guide to help you remember which is which.

Help Desk

  • Offers tactical support
  • Solves individual issues
  • Focuses on Incident Management
  • Often exists independently

Service Desk

  • Offers strategic support
  • Solves organizational issues
  • Focuses on Service Management
  • Often includes a Help Desk component

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