How to's, Tips & Tricks
September 19, 2019

What's the Difference Between a Service Desk and a Help Desk?

Do you know the difference between a help desk and service desk? In our first pass, we thought, a help desk provides help and solutions, whereas a service desk provides service - however, what we found was it's not as straightforward as we thought. Which is why we put together this blog and broke down the features of each tool to better dissect how a help desk and service desk are used in the proper way.

Depending on your background, you might refer to the tool you use to manage conversations with your end-users as either a help desk or a service desk. Are these terms interchangeable? Does your team need both? Do hamsters like Coca-Cola? In this article, we’re going to break down the differences between both and determine which tool is right for you, AND give you the full details on hamster soda habits. 



Service Desk vs Help Desk: the ITIL definition

Many of the discussions around service and help desks are based on ITIL (Information Technology Infrastructure Library) and ITSM (IT service management) practices. ITIL is a set of detailed practices for IT service management (ITSM) that focuses on aligning IT services with the needs of business. ITIL describes processes, procedures, tasks, and checklists which are not organization-specific nor technology-specific, but can be applied by an organization towards strategy, delivering value, and maintaining a minimum level of competency. It allows the organization to establish a baseline from which it can plan, implement, and measure. The ITIL definition of a service desk is:

"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." - ITIL Glossery

On the other hand ITSM sys it's a set list of practices and procedures, it tends to be very precise around the use of language - including exactly what a help or service desk should do. When we talk about the differences between the two tools, we rely on the ITIL definition of each, because we do things by the book, dawg. Here are the feature sets ITSM suggests a help desk and service desk should include: 

Features of a Help Desk

At its core, a help desk is used to manage tickets and conversations with users. As HubSpot describes, a help desk tool “provides a central point of contact for all incoming issues, handles information requests, and keeps track of the level of service you are providing for customers.” Most small teams will have started with email (oh, did yours start with a bunch of people shouting in random parts of the office until someone answered? That’s one way to go about it too...), or maybe a physical help desk to keep track of incoming requests. However, as more requests come in and tasks become more complicated, teams upgrade to a help desk to ensure nothing falls through the cracks. 



To do this, help desks use a set of helpful features: 

📧 Email Management

As users email the service team, emails will be converted into tickets (or cases) and put into a queue to be answered. Different team members can respond to incoming emails, take action, and record any notes on the ticket. Because everything is shared in the help desk, every agent can see the full history of the conversation and help as needed. 

🏷️ Tagging and Prioritization

as the ticket moves through its lifecycle to resolution, it might be labeled with a specific issue type, a priority, and a status. These labels help teams keep tickets organized. Once a ticket has been resolved, it can be closed. By using the tagging features, management can report on incoming issues. 

🧰 Automation

From sending auto-reply messages when a ticket is created, to following up with a user to confirm their issue is resolved, automation can help you provide a better experience to your end-users. Most helpdesks will include automations that help keep tickets moving smoothly through your process and keep users up to date with what’s happening. 


Features of a Service Desk 

Because a service desk needs to assist with the 28 processes included in the ITIL service lifecycle it offers more functionality than a traditional help desk. In fact, a help desk is often a part of the entire service desk. The main features that differentiate a service desk from a help desk are:  

💻 Asset management

IT teams often need to track the status of many different pieces of hardware. They’re accountable for ensuring equipment is available and in top working condition for the entire company. Because of this, they need to closely manage the inflow and outflow of IT assets. A spreadsheet or binder might work for smaller companies, but for larger teams, a tech solution is much more reliable. 

📑 Change, Configuration, and Release Log

When IT teams are tasked with making changes to the working environment, they need to carefully plan, track, and execute in order to ensure no one’s work is disrupted. Following ITIL practices and using a service desk equipped with change management features ensures the smooth release of updates. 


🖊️ Self Service Functionality

Traditionally, help desks were created to help IT teams manage tickets internally. However, as employees (internal customers) became more comfortable with helping themselves, the need for a self-service IT strategy emerged. Modern service desks include:

  • Knowledge management tools to allow employees to help themselves faster than waiting for an IT help desk agent to respond to their ticket 
  • Self-service portals for submitting requests and following up on tickets. Employees can confirm the status of ongoing issues without contacting IT for an update 


📈 Continuous Improvement Reporting

One of the core tenants of ITIL is continuously improving the service experience for end-users. But to do so, service managers need access to helpful reporting that can show where their opportunities are. Some of the continuous improvement features include: 

  • SLAs - service desks will include Service Level Agreement (SLA) tracking and reporting to ensure each ticket is responded to and resolved in a timely matter 
  • Satisfaction surveys - after each interaction, service desks can automatically ask the end-user if they were satisfied with the result. These survey results can be used to plan ongoing improvements 
  • Advanced reporting - understanding exactly what kind of service your end-users want (and what you’re giving them) can be a full-time job. Modern service desks provide advanced reporting features that allow you to mix-and-match metrics to create reports that show exactly what is happening behind the scenes   

Are you using a Service Desk or a Help Desk? 

If you read through the list of features above, you might find your current set of tools falling into both categories. Many teams will benefit from using a service desk with a help desk included. 



Ultimately, using a service desk can expand the level of service you provide to your end-users. While help desks are reactionary, service desks are often more proactive. They include features that help users help themselves, and they also focus on continuous improvement. Both of these features are important in providing an excellent experience. However, the line between your tool sets might not be as black and white as these feature lists. You might not be able to define your current tool as just a help desk or a service desk. 

Does it matter?

Does anything really matter? Honestly, not really (we’re talking about service/help desks, not anything, that’s up to you and your pet). The most important thing when deciding if you need a service desk or a help desk is to understand the features your team needs to provide a great experience to their customers - whether they are internal or external. As the terms have become more frequently interchanged, many tools that are advertised as “help desks” have features that would typically be reserved for a service desk. 



For example, if you look at either Zendesk, Freshdesk’s or Halp’s help desk software, it includes knowledge management, incident tracking, and automations. Many also include self-service portals and integrations with asset management apps. If you restrict yourself to only looking at “service desk” branded tools, you may be missing out on some top solutions. 


Instead, create a list of required features and “jobs to be done” for your team and look for a tool that will fulfill your needs. Your customers won’t care what they call your desk, as long as they can easily get the help they need. But, if you’re looking for cool new names to call your desk, might we suggest: Mamma Mia, Oh Lord Jesus it’s a fire, or Oops I broke it again.


And for the answer you’ve all been waiting for, come on, isn’t it obvious how hamsters feel about Coca Cola?


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