3 main differences between a help desk vs. service desk

Woman working remotely on a laptop getting technical help from an IT help desk or service desk

What we call things matters, even when two things share some core similarities. When it comes to IT service management, users who need support might turn to either an IT help desk or an IT service desk. Does it matter what you call it? Some of the basics of “help desk vs. service desk” might be the same, but there are also some significant differences. But that doesn’t mean one is better or worse. It really depends on the maturity of the IT organization and resources available.

Defining terms: ITSM, help desk vs. service desk

Before we start describing differences, let’s define what a help desk and a service desk are, and what they have in common. Both desks exist to help users and both fit within a larger context of ITSM, or IT service management. ITSM is defined as the way IT teams manage the end-to-end delivery of service to customers, which embraces all of the processes and actions to design, build, deliver/deploy, and support IT services. Help desks and service desks are therefore both under the larger umbrella of ITSM.

An IT help desk, as we know it today, was originally intended to focus on troubleshooting and fixing IT issues. The historic “break-fix” model of help desks meant that they didn’t typically manage requests for service or information, but worked to resolve “incidents.” Today, help desks typically provide more services, but the term remains rooted in a longstanding break-fix tradition.

An IT service desk, on the other hand, was developed after the help desk and exists to help users not only with break-fix scenarios, but also with service requests and requests for information (such as “how do I do A, B, and C?"). The IT service desk makes customer-centricity and meeting customer needs (beyond break-fix) its primary focus.

In small and midsize businesses (SMBs), the IT help desk is often tasked with doing more than break-fix. In addition, remote and hybrid working models have added IT complexity that help desks must manage and support. Today's help desks have generally moved well beyond their historic “break-fix” model. Our GoTo Resolve solution enables your support center (whatever term you use for it) to do more with both reactive (break-fix) and proactive (managing service requests) support capabilities.

Difference between service desk and help desk

In general, the term help desk still retains some of its historical break-fix connotation, while the service desk remains focused on (yes) IT service that goes beyond break-fix. Here are a few key differences that may still remain in the help desk vs. service desk linguistic debate:

  1. A help desk was historically bolted on to existing IT activities/assets, making it an add-on, whereas the service desk is an integrated part of a holistic service-based IT support ecosystem (i.e., ITSM) built around “the service lifecycle.” Thus, a help desk can evolve into a service desk, at least functionally if not in name, by adding the capacity to address service/information requests. A service desk was simply "born" that way.
  2. A service desk is generally more proactive and service-oriented in focus, with more of a strategic, wider-lens focus, while a help desk tends to be more reactive and "tactical" in scope. Again, there's been an ongoing blurring of the lines and KPIs between the two desks.
  3. Less than a quarter of organizations use the term "help desk," with "service desk" now a more popular term. What you call your IT support center is less important than how it functions and what capabilities it possesses. The term "service desk" is used by 36% of organizations, while "help desk" is used by 23%. Other orgs use “technical support” (9%), “IT/IS support” (9%), and “support center” (7%), according to HDI research.

Does it matter what you call it?

Whether you call your IT support services a help desk or service desk, providing the right context and setting the right expectations among the audience you’re servicing is key. At that point it doesn't really matter what you call it.

What really matters is are you able to meet those expectations given the tools you have? Because no matter what type of requests come in, no matter what you call your IT support center, having the right tools is essential for your IT team so they can serve users. For instance, whether it’s a break-fix issue or a service/information request, conversational ticketing helps integrate support into the end users’ daily workflow and keeps tasks organized and efficient to manage for your IT support team. And having a comprehensive IT support solution means your IT people won't need to constantly toggle back and forth between multiple platforms to resolve user issues and service requests.

Having the right tools enables your IT support team to meet your goals and crush your KPIs. See how GoTo Resolve can help.

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