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Help desk vs. service desk vs. ITSM: What's the difference?

IT, and not just IT support, is full of jargon. And don’t get me started on the IT three-letter acronyms (3LAs) that seem to breed when you’re not looking. In some ways, I think that such jargon and acronyms are used not to help, i.e. so we are all on the same page, but actually the reverse – to make things seem more complicated than they are. After all, the more complicated things are the more we get paid – have you ever spotted the “crony” in acronym?

But I digress, this blog isn’t about IT jargon per se, it’s about three IT support phrases that are sometimes confused and misused:

  • IT help desk (or just plain old "help desk")
  • Service desk (or "IT service desk")
  • IT service management (ITSM)

Should you care?

As with most things in life, “it depends.” It depends on what you want your IT support to be, who you're talking to, what you wish to convey, the level of pedantry of those involved (including me), actual IT support and IT service management understanding, and probably a lot of other things. For example:

  • A conversation about help desk might mean something entirely different to one about service desk (and I’ll explain why shortly).
  • Industry analysts and journalists who write about ITSM tools by calling them “service desks” probably don’t know as much about the space as they should.
  • ITSM tools that have “service desk” in their name when they offer much more than the capabilities to support an IT service desk.

While the corporate IT organization might call its IT support capability a service desk, the other 95 percent of the company, i.e. the end users, will most likely call it “the help desk.”

Does it matter if you use the term help desk, service desk, or ITSM to describe IT support? It does – as you might be underselling or overselling capabilities (either to yourself or others) including your IT support technology.

How are help desks and service desks different?

Some would argue that help desk and service desk aren’t that different and, looking into history, the terms were often used interchangeably throughout the 2000s.

In my opinion, it’s best to differentiate these two IT support terms with their origins:

  • The IT help desk was an IT support capability born in the late 1980s to fix IT issues, focused on the IT rather than end user, usually with no targets for fixes, and immediate fixes were infrequent.
  • The service desk was an evolution of the help desk, born out of the ITSM best practice framework ITIL (formerly known as the IT Infrastructure Library), and based on the underlying concept of “managing IT as a service.”

The ITIL definition of 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.”

Source: ITIL 2011 glossary

Some explanations on how a help desk is different to a service desk:

  • A help desk was born of IT-centricity (mainframe computing), whereas a service desk was born of IT service-centricity (the above-mentioned ITIL-espoused approach to delivering IT as a service).
  • It might seem petty, but many will say that a help desk provides help, whereas a service desk provides service, i.e. with a service desk there’s a focus on delivering a service to end users with some semblance of customer service.
  • A help desk is considered to be focused on break-fix (what ITIL calls incident management), whereas a service desk is there to assist with not only break-fix but also with service requests (requests for new services) and requests for information (such as “how do I do X?”). Although there’s no reason why a help desk can’t also offer these additional capabilities (other than IT terminology trends).
  • A help desk was an add on to existing IT activities, whereas the service desk is part of a service-based IT service delivery and IT support ecosystem built around something called “the service lifecycle.” Probably a big reason why the term service desk was used over help desk in ITIL.
  • Those versed in ITIL will state that a help desk is tactical, whereas a service desk is strategic. This will, of course, differ across organizations.
  • A help desk might be considered as offering a subset of service desk capabilities by some, or be qualified as limited in scope by statements such as “the evolution of help desk to the service desk.”

So a "service desk" is a help desk created in an ITIL mold. And sadly, for those baptized in the River ITIL, help desks are often considered old-fashioned vs. the more modern service desk. How we arrived at this conclusion is unknown. Maybe it was a result of ITIL-based marketing of ITSM tools, other service-based ITSM offerings, or the fact that the term “help desk” is absent from ITIL publications.

But of course, one person's help desk is another person's service desk – organizations will call their IT support capability what they want as evidenced by the following HDI research:

Source: HDI 2015 Support Center Practices & Salary Report

We see 41% of help desks and service desks are called something else. Plus, there’s no guarantee that the service desks and help desks reported in this HDI survey align to my descriptions above.

So, as with beauty, the difference between a help desk and a service desk is very much in the eye of the beholder. There are differences as I've outlined above but an organization will ultimately call their help desk or service desk whatever they want. I'd love to say that it doesn't matter what you call your IT support capability, and in many ways it doesn't, but it is important to understand what a modern help desk or service desk should provide whichever name you decide on.

Update: Part 2 of this blog where I look at ITSM vs. service desk vs. the Gartner-defined term "IT Service Support Management" (ITSSM). 

Which service desk/help desk is right for your team?

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About the author

Stephen Mann

Independent IT and IT service management consultant

Stephen Mann is an independent IT and IT service management (ITSM) content creator, and a frequent blogger, writer, and presenter on the challenges and opportunities for ITSM professionals. He has previously held positions in IT research and analysis (at IT industry analyst firms Ovum and Forrester), ITSM consultancy, enterprise IT service desk and IT product management, IT asset management, innovation and creativity facilitation, project management, finance consultancy, internal audit, and most recently SaaS ITSM tool product marketing.

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