What’s the difference between a service desk and a help desk?
Help Desk vs. Service Desk… What’s in a name? Depending on your organization, you may have heard these terms used interchangeably—and when trying to decipher the difference, you may end up wondering if there is one at all. Is this simply a matter of semantics, or does what we call our IT support system send a message? And if they are different after all, which one (or both) most adequately conveys the services you offer/seek?
The concepts of service desks and help desks have different origins, and their names both reveal something different about what an IT organization has to offer. Depending on which term you choose to use, you may be underselling or overselling your abilities without realizing it. To help avoid this, we will break down the differences between the two.
According to the ITIL (IT Infrastructure Library)’s 2011 glossary, a service desk is “the single point of contact between the service provider and users.” It is certainly worth noting that while “service desk” has an official ITIL definition, “help desk” isn’t recognized in ITIL literature even once. This could explain recent trends: as more organizations work toward compliance with ITIL, the term “service desk” has become the more popular way to describe said organizations’ IT support systems—a 2015 survey conducted by HDI Connect showed that 36% of companies use the term, over 23% opting for “help desk.”
The primary goal of a help desk is typically to resolve the immediate needs of an end-user in a very timely manner—whether these issues be simple glitches or incidental technical issues. In this way, the help desk is reactive—rather than focusing on systemic changes or improvements, help desk capabilities usually focus on solving problems as they come in an extremely efficient manner.
An IT help desk can exist separately, or may be a tactical subset of an organization’s larger service desk operation. Small organizations that do not typically experience complicated technical issues (and thus have a limited need for regular IT support) may opt to utilize a help desk on its own simply because it is cheaper and can offer them what they need.
A service desk, on the other hand, operates on a broader scale—and rather than being reactive, it typically is responsible for analyzing more complex, ongoing, and far-reaching needs and proactively building process improvements organization-wide.
According to the ITIL glossary, “a typical service desk manages incidents and service requests and also handles communication with the users.” Which means that, generally, a service desk will include a help desk component to resolve incidental issues, but the basic functions of the service desk itself extend far beyond those of a help desk. To better understand the difference: the general consensus among those fluent in ITIL is that while a help desk is tactical (generally addressing the needs of customers on a case-by-case basis), a service desk is strategic (focusing on the overall needs to the business itself).
Large organizations who rely on complex IT infrastructure that involve multiple integrations with other services in order to conduct business will be more likely to need the help of an all-encompassing service desk that can ensure efficiency and ease of use.
All of that being said, for many, the definitions of service desks and help desks can be left up to interpretation—which means that being clear about the kinds of services you seek or offer is extremely important in ensuring a proper fit. At the end of the day, both help desks and service desks exist for a similar, shared purpose: to make interactions with technology more efficient (and pleasant).