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Help Desk vs Service Desk vs ITSM: What’s the Difference?

Jan 23, 2024
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11 min read
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Hiver HQ
Shobhana

Table of contents

Help desk. Service desk. Information technology service management (ITSM). You might’ve searched for these terms on Google, only to find that they all deliver similar results.

But, aren’t they different?

Yes — but there’s a lot of overlap. Help desks and service desks both cover several ITSM activities — like incident management, service request management, and asset management. Help desks and service desks also meet the same business goals:

  • Managing IT support tickets
  • Tracking agent productivity
  • Resolving customer issues and internal queries from employees
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To clarify these IT support terminologies and help you understand them like a pro, we’ll define and compare them.

Key Takeaways

Here is a summary of the key differences:

ParametersHelpdeskService deskIT Service Management
Level of ServiceQuick fixes for tech snags.Broader range of IT services, system updates info.Strategic planning for long-term tech success.
ScopeAddresses immediate glitches swiftly.Digs deeper to prevent future glitches, coordinates with other IT processes.Analyzes glitches for bigger picture improvements, enhances IT service quality.
ActivityIncident resolution, password resets, basic troubleshooting.Service requests, change management, knowledge sharing.Strategic planning, service design and transition, continuous improvement.
Skills RequiredTechnical know-how, communication skills. Basic diploma or certifications like CompTIA ITF+.Broader technical expertise, project management. Bachelor’s degree and certifications like ITIL® Foundation.Strategic thinking, advanced tech knowledge, leadership skills. Bachelor’s/Master’s degree and certifications like ITIL® Expert, CISM.
Cost and MaintenanceCost-effective, major on staffing and basic tools. Low maintenance.Step up in cost due to broader services and advanced software. Ongoing training for staff.Highest cost due to strategic scope, advanced software. Higher maintenance for continuous alignment with business strategies.
Tools UsedSupport solutions for ticketing, omni-channel support for communication.Advanced ticketing software like ServiceNow, tools for change and asset management.Wide spectrum of tools like BMC Helix for service management and analytics, decision-support tools for strategic IT investments.
Help Desk Vs. Service Desk Vs. ITSM

Table of Contents

What is a help desk?

A help desk is a business department that uses software to handle customer or employee requests, especially technical issues. IT help desks specialize in resolving one-off technical incidents — like software glitches, connection problems, or system crashes. This process of analyzing a service issue, finding a fix, and applying it is called incident management. Therefore, enrolling in an ITIL foundation certification course can provide professionals with valuable skills for optimizing incident management processes.

Companies started using help desks in the 80s to troubleshoot IT problems, so they’re seen as reactive instead of proactive. Some even consider help desks outdated.

Help desks are great for managing incidents. But traditional help desks carry an ironic reputation for being unhelpful because:

Did You Know?
Since the 1980s, help desks have evolved from basic IT troubleshooting units to comprehensive service centres. They’re now integrate to multiple functions – customer support, sales, and IT service management (ITSM) amongst others.

What is a service desk?

A service desk is a contact center or single point of contact (SPOC) between a company and its stakeholders — customers, employees, vendors, and partners — for recurring issues. Service desk agents often answer product-related questions and manage access to new tech.

Like help desks, service desks help teams focus on incident tracking and escalation. Service desks also cover other ITSM tasks like:

  • Service request management: Addressing requests for new features
  • Knowledge management: Creating and storing answers to frequently asked questions in a knowledge base
  • Self-service: Providing self-service options like community forums or chatbots
  • Reporting: Presenting metrics on agent performance and customer satisfaction 

Because an IT service desk typically handles more activities than a help desk, it’s easy to start looking at help desks as less valuable service desks. But in practice, they do the same thing: help companies support their customers or employees.

What is ITSM?

ITSM (also called IT service management) refers to the range of activities a company performs to plan, deliver, and maintain quality IT services for end users.

Various IT service providers use ITSM processes for their businesses, including:

  • Subscription-based software like music streaming apps or customer communication tools
  • Network servers like web or application servers
  • Hardware companies that sell products like laptops or printers

The main difference between help desks, service desks, and ITSM is that the first two are support centers, while the third is a related function whose processes they carry out. Help desks and service desks are ITSM subsets, just as content marketing and product marketing are marketing subsets.

Help desk vs. Service desk

Many businesses use these two terms interchangeably. A company may call its service desk a help desk because the latter is more common. At the same time, another company may call its help desk a service desk because the company wants it to seem more service-oriented. But let’s understand their differences based on different parameters:

The similarities between a help desk and a service desk
The similarities between a help desk and a service desk

1. Based on Level of Service

Helpdesk:

The level of service here is straightforward. When you hit a tech snag, like a forgotten password or a software that’s acting up, you typically reach out to the helpdesk. They’ll assist you with a reset or a workaround, ensuring you can swiftly move on with your day.

Service Desk:

The service desk steps it up a notch. It’s like your go-to for a broader range of IT services. Got an issue with your computer? They’ll sort it out. They’re also the friendly neighborhood IT folks keeping you in the loop about system updates or changes. 

Now, say you need a new software installed. You ring the service desk. They not only handle the installation but also ensure you know how to use it. They’re also the folks who’ll let you know when there’s a system update and guide you through it.

ITSM (IT Service Management):

Now, ITSM is playing the long game. It’s not just about solving today’s problems but planning for tomorrow’s success. When the office is relocating, ITSM ensures the tech transition is smooth. They’re setting up the network, making sure the hardware is ready, and ensuring security is tight. 

They’re there to ensure that the tech aspect of the move supports the broader business goals. In the big office move scenario, their level of service is about strategic orchestration of tech resources to support the business’s journey, every step of the way.

2. Based on Scope

Let’s take the example of handling a software glitch that’s preventing employees from accessing a crucial database:

Helpdesk:

When you first encounter this glitch, the helpdesk is your initial call. They’ll dive into the issue, aiming for a quick fix to get you back on track. Maybe they’ll guide you on a workaround or reset the software to resolve the immediate issue. Their service is about swift resolutions to keep your day moving.

Service Desk:

Now, the service desk goes a bit farther. Besides addressing the glitch, they might look into why it happened and how to prevent it. They could coordinate with other IT processes, ensuring that not just you, but the whole team or department, doesn’t run into the same glitch down the line. It’s more about a comprehensive service to ensure smoother operations.

ITSM:

On the grander scale, ITSM looks at how this glitch impacts the bigger picture. Was the glitch a one-off, or is it a sign of a bigger issue with the software? They might strategize on whether the software needs an update or perhaps a replacement to better serve the company’s needs. It’s not just about fixing problems as they arise, but enhancing the IT service quality to support business objectives over the long haul.

3. Based on Activity

Helpdesk:

  • Incident Resolution: Sorting out day-to-day issues like a frozen computer or a malfunctioning printer. For example, guiding you on restarting a stalled application.
  • Password Resets: Helping reset passwords when you’re locked out of your account.
  • Basic Troubleshooting: Offering basic solutions like rebooting hardware or updating software to fix common problems.

Service Desk:

  • Service Requests: Handling requests for new hardware or software. For example, installing a new software suite you need for a project.
  • Change Management: Coordinating IT changes like software upgrades to ensure minimal disruption.
  • Knowledge Sharing: Providing guides or advice on how to use certain applications or adhere to IT policies.

ITSM (IT Service Management):

  • Strategic Planning: Laying out IT strategies to align with business goals, like planning for a transition to cloud computing.
  • Service Design and Transition: Designing new services or modifying existing ones for better efficiency. For instance, redesigning the network architecture to improve performance.
  • Continuous Improvement: Analyzing incidents and problems to improve the IT service delivery over time, such as implementing a new monitoring system to catch issues before they affect users.

Recommended Read:
Top 11 IT Help Desk Software To Watch Out For in 2024

4. Based on Skills Required

Helpdesk:

  • Technical Know-how: A solid understanding of common software and hardware issues is key. Knowing how to troubleshoot common problems like network connectivity issues or software bugs is essential.
  • Communication Skills: Being able to explain tech jargon in simple terms is crucial. It’s all about helping users understand the fix.
  • Patience and Problem-Solving: Sometimes issues can be tricky or users might be frustrated. Keeping a cool head and working through the problem step-by-step is the game.
  • Education/Certification: Usually, a basic diploma or an associate degree in IT or related fields is beneficial. Certifications like CompTIA IT Fundamentals (ITF+) can be a plus.

Service Desk:

  • Broader Technical Expertise: A step up from the helpdesk, this role requires a good grasp of IT processes and more complex systems.
  • Project Management: Handling various requests and managing changes efficiently is part of the drill.
  • Interpersonal Skills: Building relationships between IT and other departments is key. It’s about ensuring everyone’s on the same page regarding IT services and changes.
  • Education/Certification: A bachelor’s degree in IT or related field is often preferred. Certifications like ITIL® Foundation or CompTIA A+ can be beneficial.

ITSM (IT Service Management):

  • Strategic Thinking: Being able to align IT services with business goals requires a strategic mindset. It’s about seeing the big picture.
  • Advanced Technical Knowledge: A deep understanding of IT infrastructure, services, and how they intertwine with the business operations is crucial.
  • Leadership and Management Skills: Leading projects, managing teams, and ensuring continuous improvement in IT service delivery are part of the role.
  • Education/Certification: A Bachelor’s or Master’s degree in IT, Business, or a related field is usually desired. Certifications like ITIL® Expert or Master, or Certified Information Systems Manager (CISM) are highly valuable.

5. On the basis of Costs and Maintenance

Helpdesk:

Generally, the most cost-effective as it deals with basic IT support. The major expenses might include staffing and basic tools for ticketing and communication. Maintenance costs could be lower too, focusing on keeping the helpdesk software updated and training staff on basic troubleshooting techniques.

Service Desk:

There will be a step up in cost due to a broader range of services and possibly more advanced IT service management software. Ongoing training for staff to keep up with evolving IT processes and technologies could add to the maintenance costs.

ITSM (IT Service Management):

Potentially the most costly given its strategic scope. Expenses could span advanced software suites, high-level professional expertise, and long-term planning initiatives.

Continuous improvement and alignment with business strategies could lead to higher maintenance costs, especially if adapting to new tech or implementing major changes to improve service delivery.

The financial commitment scales up from helpdesk to ITSM, reflecting the broader scope and deeper impact each department has on the organization’s IT landscape.

Recommended Read:
Customer Service in the Information Technology (IT) Industry – a Primer

6. On the basis of Tools Used

Helpdesk:

With a helpdesk, the tools are pretty straightforward. Think of a simple ticketing system where you report an issue, and they track it. For instance, any support software like Hiver or Zendesk might be used to log your call, track the issue, and ensure it’s resolved. They also provide omnichannel support, enabling you to reach out via live chat, access a knowledge base, or use voice support to find a quick fix.

Service Desk:

Now, step into the service desk arena, and the tool belt gets a bit more fancy. They might use more advanced versions of ticketing software that can automate certain processes, like routing your request to the right tech person. They also have tools that help with change management or asset management. 

A tool like ServiceNow can help not just with tracking issues but also managing IT changes, ensuring nothing falls through the cracks. Whether it’s incident, problem, or change requests, a unified interface like ServiceNow’s helps in prioritizing and handling requests efficiently. Its strong integration capabilities allow for a seamless connection with other business applications, creating a cohesive ITSM ecosystem.

ITSM (IT Service Management):

ITSM is where the tech tool game is strong. They employ a wide spectrum of tools that help manage services from a bird’s eye view. They’ve got service management software that’s looking at the whole IT process landscape. They use analytics tools to measure performance and spot trends or issues. 

For instance, using a platform like BMC Helix to not only manage services but also analyze performance data to make informed decisions. They also have decision-support tools to help strategize on IT investments, ensuring the tech bucks are spent wisely to support the business goals.

The tech utilized scales up from the basics at the helpdesk to a more integrated and strategic suite of tools at the ITSM level, each serving the unique needs of their domain.

Features to look for in a help desk or service desk tool

Empower your support team to communicate with customers smoothly, fix issues quickly, and handle their workload easily with these tools and workflow automation.

1. Visibility into your team’s workload

When you can see the support requests each agent is handling, you’ll be able to redistribute and balance out their workload, in a more efficient way.

A help desk software like Hiver gives you viewing and workload allocation features that let your team respond to clients quickly — without burning out.

2. Live chat widget

A live chat widget is a little chat box you add to the bottom of your website or mobile app to allow customers or employees to talk to support agents.

Use a service or help desk solution that offers live chat so your support reps can resolve issues, engage leads, and send self-service options through chat in real-time.

The importance of offering live chat support
The importance of offering live chat support

3. Comprehensive analytics on agent performance

Track agent performance with a help desk or service desk tool that generates in-depth reports, including:

  • Conversation reports that let you seehow your team is managing customer messages — from how many conversations each agent is handling to individual turnaround time.
  • User reports that cover every part of individual agent productivity and show what top performers are doing better than less efficient agents.
  • Tag reports that let you monitor customer conversations by their tag names — like critical or low priority — find common trends or blockers and tackle them.
  • Custom reports that give insight into any agent performance metric you need without having to code, use another tool, or hire a data analyst. Say you want to track how many critical conversations your team has resolved; you can create a “critical resolved conversations” report.

These reports will also help you reward top-performing agents and train your team based on their skill gaps.

4. Service level agreement (SLA) management

Service level agreements (SLAs) keep customer support reps accountable for responding to requests in a timely manner. Imagine you set an SLA for five hours. If no agent has picked up a customer query in that time period, your service desk or help desk software alerts managers so that they can step in.

Recommended Read:
10 ITSM Email Templates: Mastering Scheduled Downtime Communication

Select a help or service desk tool that lets you:

  • Set up multiple SLAs around your business hours
  • Add automatic SLA violation tags
  • Get notifications for SLA violations

Improve your IT management processes and service delivery by tracking SLAs based on preset business hours — for one location or across multiple time zones.

5. Customer surveys

According to research, 57% of customers are loyal to brands with good customer service. Use a help or service desk tool’s customer survey feature to understand what your audience thinks about the support they get — and improve accordingly.

Control how you collect feedback with a software that lets you customize and send customer surveys after specific support interactions.

The importance of collecting customer feedback through customer surveys
The importance of collecting customer feedback through customer surveys

6. Data security

Cybersecurity is a concern for every business that operates online. Stay prepared by using a help desk or service desk software that keeps your data safe with airtight security features.

Many software companies list their data protection processes on their website security page — like third-party security audits, incident response policies, use of no logs VPNs with authentic providers, vulnerability disclosure programs, and more.

Check that the help or service desk you choose has a solid privacy policy and clear guidelines for how:

  • It stores and backs up user data
  • Its software interacts with third parties
  • The software verifies user access

Power your customer service with user-friendly software

There are so many help or service desk options to choose from today. Even when you know the features to look for, selecting the one that fits your business needs can be a challenge.

To make a decision, shortlist products that have the right functionalities, then sign up for free demos and trials. This process will help you find a tool that’s easy to use and customizable to your business needs.

FAQs

1. What is a Help Desk in IT?

A help desk in IT is a focused department that addresses customers’ or employees’ technical issues, such as software glitches, connectivity problems, or system crashes.Such a help desk turns queries and complaints into ‘incidents’ and gives team members the ability to assign, track, and collaborate on these incidents – for faster resolution.

2. What is the difference between a Help Desk and a Service Desk?

A help desk typically addresses one-off technical incidents. A service desk, on the other hand, provides a broader range of IT services, including managing recurring issues, and offering knowledge management (organizing and sharing information about the product/service with customers).

3. What is ITSM and how does It relate to Help Desks?

IT Service Management (ITSM) encompasses activities that help a company plan, deliver, and maintain IT services. Help desks and service desks are subsets of ITSM – they focus on support and service delivery.

4. What are the key features to look for in a Help Desk or Service Desk Tool?Key features include workload visibility, live chat widgets, comprehensive analytics, SLA management, customer surveys, and robust data security measures.

Shobhana has been recognized as a 'Top Customer Support Voice' by LinkedIn. Her expertise lies in creating well-researched and actionable content for Customer Experience (CX) professionals. As an active member of popular CX communities such as CX Accelerator and Support Driven, she helps professionals evaluate tools for their support team and keeps a keen eye on emerging industry trends.

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