Service Desk vs Help Desk: Differences and Use Cases

Does it matter whether your organization has a “help desk” or a “service desk” for responding to IT-related issues and requests? While what you call your IT desk doesn’t matter, how you structure it very much does, as help and service desks serve distinct purposes and rely on different methodologies and tools.

Understanding the differences between the two is key for any organization aiming to deliver great IT support. You need a desk that can handle a substantial volume of requests and incidents, identify and track important trends, build and maintain an IT knowledge base, and, most importantly, handle requests quickly so users can get back to being productive.

This article explains what help desks and service desks are, the differences between them, and how to make your service desk exceptional.

What is a Service Desk?

According to the IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL), the industry standard for IT best practices, a service desk is defined as “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.”

In simpler terms, a service desk is a one-stop-shop for managing incidents and requests related to an organization’s IT services. It is designed to handle the needs of a variety of audiences, including company’s employees, customers, partners, and vendors. It’s also a key part of IT service management (ITSM), which encompasses all IT-related functions in an organization.

A service desk accepts requests from users via telephone, email, chat, and web tickets. When it receives a request, a service desk formulates a plan for responding and then manages the response process until the issue is resolved — if it can’t resolve it upon first contact. The service desk remains the point of contact for keeping the user aware of the status of the request and collects any additional information that may be necessary to resolve it.

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Because it serves as the single point of contact for all IT needs, a service desk must be prepared to handle issues that fall within any area of ITSM, including incident resolution, service request management, and change management. Although service desks are designed to be able to handle any type of IT request, that does not mean that service desks independently respond to and resolve every issue. Service desk personnel will identify the resources needed to solve an issue, but they integrate with other IT staff, processes, and departments to handle requests as needed.

Effective service desks solve problems and provide answers quickly, ensuring that users have the resources they need to remain productive. The assistance provided by the service desk — especially an outsourced one — also allows for the rest of the organization’s IT staff to focus on strategic initiatives. When properly implemented, the improved and streamlined support provided by a service desk will also reduce operational costs. Service desks also facilitate reporting on important metrics like response time and end user satisfaction. Taking an ITIL-aligned approach helps ensure that an organization will receive these benefits from its service desk.

What is a Help Desk?

Help desks, like service desks, are intended to respond to incidents and requests from end users. However, help desks are dedicated to delivering a specific type of support, rather than serving as a central location for handling requests of any type. They focus on incident management, which involves handling unexpected IT problems and disruptions, such as a hard drive failure or internet connectivity issues. Due to this limited focus, help desks are best equipped to support a narrow audience — such as a company’s own employees — rather than handling requests from any type of end user.

The Difference Between Service Desks and Help Desks

Here are some of the most prominent characteristics that separate help desks and service desks:

  • Scope of support: A service desk is intended to handle any type of IT request, while help desks are limited to issues that fall within a single area of ITSM. You could consider help desks to be a subset of service desks, and, in fact, service desks evolved out of the idea of help desks.
  • Types of users: Whereas service desks are central locations for responding to requests from anyone who uses a company’s IT resources, help desks typically focus only on a limited group of users.
  • IT process integration: Service desks are tightly integrated with external IT processes and resources. The limited focus of help desks means that they are required to handle requests on their own.
  • Mission type: At a conceptual level, service desks fulfill a broad mission: sustaining and evolving a company’s IT resources and management processes over time. In contrast, help desks offer one-off solutions to problems on an as-needed basis.

Why the Difference Matters

It’s important to understand whether a help desk or a service desk suits your organization’s needs best.

Small to mid-sized organizations that have limited IT needs may be able to get by with a help desk. Help desks handle common, relatively minor issues raised internally or by customers, but they aren’t designed to tackle more complex or systemic issues and will struggle to address the needs of more than a couple types of end users. If you’re mostly interested in providing incident management services to a small number of users who will be interacting with only a single website or product, then a help desk may be sufficient.

If your needs go beyond this, then you should consider a service desk. The expertise and integration with other ITSM processes provided by a service desk allows it to meet the many needs of a large and diverse audience quickly. Service desks can also handle fluctuations in the number of incidents and requests throughout the day. Finally, the reporting capabilities of a service desk allow for constant improvement and adaptation to the new business circumstances often faced by larger organizations.

How to Provide Customers with an Exceptional Service Desk

While implementing a help desk is a relatively straightforward task, centralizing and systematizing your organization’s response to all types of IT requests using a service desk is a bit more daunting.

Many companies are first inclined to build a service desk in-house. While this approach may work in some cases, it is not generally the best way to deliver exceptional user support. Instead, many businesses are better served by outsourcing their service desk needs.

An outsourced service desk offers a range of benefits compared to those that run in-house:

  • Expansive knowledge base: An in-house service desk is limited to the expertise of its team. An outsourced service desk provider offers a broader range of experience, often codified in a transparent knowledge base, ensuring that it can address any type of IT request and identify recurring patterns in issues that arise.
  • 24/7 availability: Outsourced service desks are available at any time of day or night. In-house resources may shut down at the end of the work day, which is not enough to deliver excellent support in a 24/7 work environment. An outsourced service desk is always ready to provide communication and assistance during critical events like service outages.
Is outsourcing your service desk right
  • In-depth reporting: Outsourced service desks are equipped from the beginning to collect comprehensive data about each request they handle and deliver detailed reports about how incidents were handled, what the average resolution times for different types of requests are, and so on. In-house service desks may lack such comprehensive reporting and information-management practices, leading to a lack of visibility into performance. 
  • Quality assurance: Outsourced service desks are held to higher standards. An in-house service desk doesn’t have competition, but those that function as outsourced resources for hire do, which drives quality and leads to better results.
  • Easy integration with other ITSM processes: Outsourced service desks offer the ability to integrate with almost any type of IT service management process. In-house service desks, in contrast, may integrate only with the most widely used capabilities inside a company. They may also struggle to adapt as new processes are deployed.

Contegix’s service desk provides these features and more, offering a turnkey solution for deploying a service desk that can address any type of IT-related need. Businesses like Chobani, Welch’s, and Knoll have outsourced their service desks to Contegix and loved the results. Contact Contegix to learn more.