Service Desk vs Help Desk

You might think that “Service Desk” is just a fancy name for the Help Desk. Others will tell you that a Service Desk is a Help Desk with other functions added on. IT terminology is confusing and the need to project expertise puts off many IT professionals from ever asking exactly what each term actually means.

We define the precise meaning of Help Desk and Service Desk and explain the difference between them. By reading this guide, you can ensure that you never use each term inappropriately. You will also learn how each of these concepts can be deployed to enhance the efficiency of the business you work for.

What is a Help Desk?

You probably think that the Help Desk in a business is the IT support department that answers calls from company staff who have encountered problems with software or hardware or who don’t know how to use a particular computing facility. You are right. However, those who work on the IT Help Desk will tell you that there is so much more involved in the job.

Help desks are not just an IT concept. Every business function and service needs a support desk both for customers and for staff. The IT Help Desk specifically supports users that are experiencing technical issues.

A Help Desk is staffed by IT professionals who know how to fix computing problems. The main driver of the work of the Help Desk team is contact from system users. In some cases, the problem can easily be fixed by advice on how to use a particular piece of technology that is causing problems. Help desk staff receive calls about a small number of usage problems over and over again and become very familiar with how best to guide users through those errors.

Some problems received by the Help Desk can’t be fixed immediately, These are system performance problems, of which the IT administrator technicians are probably already aware, and new issues that the Help Desk has not encountered before.

The Help Desk will receive contacts from the user community through email, web form, chat facility, or phone calls. Large Help Desk departments will have many employees and therefore have the opportunity to optimize budgets by grading staff responsibilities and pay grades. This creates two Help Desk jobs: First-Line Support Technician and Second-Line Support Technician. Here is the difference between these two job descriptions.

First-line Line Support

First-line support staff work as the public face of the Help Desk. These staff should be guided by inquiry scripts and a knowledge base that suggest solutions based on past experience.

Although first-line support staff requires training, they do not need deep technical expertise. Depending on the contact method allowed to access the Help Desk, first-line support staff need to have strong interpersonal skills, particularity for phone support and should be both methodical and quick thinkers.

The wages of first-line support staff are usually lower than those of second-line support technicians.

Second-Line Support

Second-line support staff need strong problem-solving abilities and deep technical knowledge. A second-line support technician does not need to be good at dealing with the public but should be prepared to work as part of a team in order to solve complex problems.

A good second-line support technician should be capable of working under stress and be willing to work through possible causes. The technician should be thoroughly trained in the uses of analytical tools.

Cutting Help Desk costs

Companies have two opportunities to cut the costs of their Help Desk.

The first is to introduce a self-service portal that enables users to find solutions to their problems themselves. Many calls to Help Desks concern forgotten passwords. These can be reset automatically on request by the user, thus, cutting out a lot of the work that would otherwise be performed by the first-line support staff. The portal could include a knowledge base that is directly accessible by the user community. This could be enhanced by a chatbot that simulates a support technician and guides the user through an inquiry script, leading to a knowledge base-sourced solution.

The second-line support functions could be allocated to existing IT department maintenance staff who are responsible for heading off system performance problems through monitoring. User problems that are not related to a lack of experience and pertain directly to system errors should be dealt with by the team that is responsible for ensuring efficient operations of IT services.

What is a Service Desk?

A Service Desk is the face of the IT department. Those first-line support operators provide what is known as “incident management.” This is one of the tasks of the Service Desk, so Help Desk functions are part of Service Desk responsibilities.

The Service Desk’s responsibilities extend to all IT services. That includes change management, which provides company departments with support for the addition of new services or the replacement of existing services with more efficient new alternatives. The change management responsibility includes the task of planning the introduction of services or timing and managing the handover from manual processes or legacy systems into new IT services.

Curiously, the Service Desk concept splits those two Help Desk teams so while first-line support technicians are part of the Service Desk, the backroom second-line support technicians are not.

Help desk innovations, such as a self-service portal and a knowledge base are part of the Service Desk concept. Day-to-day system management is not a Service Desk function.

Service desk and Help Desk strategies

The Service Desk is the storefront of the IT department. It represents IT professional services to the rest of the company. As such, first-line support operatives are part of the Service Desk.

The difference between the Help Desk and Service Desk concepts is one of departmental organization. In the Service Desk model, the deeper technical functions of user support are classified as IT operations. However, moving second-line support staff into IT operations doesn’t make the Help Desk into a Service Desk.

In the Help Desk model, all incident response functions are separated out from IT operations. Change management is regarded as the responsibility of the main IT department. Moving change management and request fulfillment into the Help desk department creates a Service Desk.

The choice between using the Service Desk or Help Desk models is down to the preference of the IT department’s management.

Service desk in ITIL and Help Desk functions

The growth in popularity of the Service Desk model derives from the adoption of ITIL guidelines, which define best practices for IT Service Management (ITSM). ITIL delineates the Service Desk as the IT department’s single point of contact for all other company departments.

ITIL Service Desk includes five processes:

  • Event Management
  • Incident Management
  • Problem Management
  • Request Fulfillment
  • Access Management

Of these processes, the only one that is completely fulfilled by a Help Desk is Incident Management. Part of the Access Management process is covered by the first-line support team of the Help Desk. However, ordinarily, full Access Management will be the responsibility of a System Administrator who is not part of the Help Desk team.

Request Fulfillment sounds like a Help Desk function. However, this describes a management-to-management request for advice on system enhancements and so is not a Help Desk function.

Problem Management is partially fulfilled by a Help Desk. More complicated system errors that get identified by users and notified to the Help Desk form a trigger for the Problem Management process. These are the tasks that get passed to the second-line support team. However, system problems can also be identified by monitoring tools deployed from within the IT operations department. This dual source of issue awareness is why it can make sense to merge the second-line support section of a Help Desk into IT operations.

Event Management deals with equipment status problems that are identified by system monitoring tools. In the Help Desk model, these responsibilities lie with the operations section of the IT department and not the Help Desk.

Organizing Service Desk and Help Desk

Key differences in the implementation of Service Desk and Help Desk strategies lie in the organization and management of technician teams. The Help Desk system puts first-line and second-line support staff in one department. Departmental heads of other sections of the business will contact IT operations department management with change requests because catering to those requests lies outside of the domain of the Help Desk.

In the Service Desk system, the first-line Line Support technicians and IT analysts are put together into a department. The managers of other business departments contact the Service Desk team of analysts with change requests. Second-line technical requests are dealt with by technicians in the IT operations department.

Whichever strategy you prefer, you will need a task scheduling system that includes team management features.

In the Help Desk model, a request for assistance coming from the user community gets queued for attention and allocated to the next available first-line Line Support operator. Incidents get dealt with at that point or escalated to the second-line support team through the task scheduling system. That scheduler will assign the task to the next available technician. However, the work allocation algorithm can be modified to create separate task queues for staff with different specializations.

When serious events are identified by the system monitoring service, the request for technical action can be treated as a help request and fed into the second-line support task scheduler. System improvement requests can be interpreted by IT department managers into individual tasks and then also fed into the second-line support scheduler as support tasks. Thus, all tasks that the skills of the support team can complete get managed through the Help Desk task scheduler even though many of those tasks don’t originate with the user community.

In the Service Desk model, the underlying software tools are remarkably similar to those used in the Help Desk scenario. The first-line Line Support team has its own task scheduling system that can transfer tasks to the IT operations team for action. The system monitoring tools are managed within the IT operations department and events identified by that software are dealt with directly by the technicians of that department.

The Service Desk analysts have their own project management software that helps them define requirements brought to them by the managers of other departments. The analysts negotiate a budget for the project and reserve technical resources that are available within the IT operations department. Task scheduling is organized within the project management software. Some Service Desk software packages include project management functions.

Managing Service Desk and Help Desk

The optimum way to deal with the IT requirements of a company is to filter out help requests with self-service portals, chatbots, and knowledge bases to reduce the number of first-line Line Support staff needed. Automating system impairment detection also reduces the number of calls that the user community will make to support staff. Whether user support is organized in a Help Desk department or a Service Desk department, that team will need a task queuing and team management systems.

The main difference between running a Service Desk or a Help Desk model lies in the provision of Request Fulfillment and Change Management. Those functions are outside of the Help Desk department. A Help Desk can be transformed into a Service Desk by moving over IT operation department managers and reclassifying them as analysts.

Ultimately, all IT requirements of a business are going to be fulfilled by the IT department staff. The question of whether that job is performed under a Service Desk model or a Help Desk scenario is a question of strategy.