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What’s the role of a help desk in modern ITSM?

Best practices and implementation guide

So, you’re thinking about a help desk. You’ve researched, but you still have questions. What exactly is a help desk? How does it differ from a service desk? Does your company need one—and, if so, why? And what are the best practices the most successful help desks follow? We asked our experts and here’s what they said.

Defining “help desk”

A help desk is the first point of contact for customers and employees alike. Customers need answers and the help desk is where they turn.

When employees need someone to troubleshoot a printer, upgrade security on a laptop, or give them access to a new system, it’s the help desk to the rescue. When customers can’t get into their systems, need help with setup, or encounter a bug, it’s the help desk that typically gets a call.

Help desk vs. service desk: what’s the difference?

Often, people use the terms help desk and service desk interchangeably, but the truth is that they both serve different, important purposes. 

A help desk was born of IT-centricity (mainframe computing), whereas a service desk was born of IT service-centricity. The main focus of a help desk is fixing issues, a service desk’s main focus is delivering service to its customers or users. There’s a certain emphasis on service delivery and customer-centricity in service desks that’s less of a focal point in help desks. 

A help desk can be a good starting point for organizations looking to organize their approach to addressing customer problems.

Help desk vs. service desk: what’s the difference?

Often, people use the terms help desk and service desk interchangeably, but the truth is that they both serve different, important purposes. 

A help desk was born of IT-centricity (mainframe computing), whereas a service desk was born of IT service-centricity. The main focus of a help desk is fixing issues, a service desk’s main focus is delivering service to its customers or users. There’s a certain emphasis on service delivery and customer-centricity in service desks that’s less of a focal point in help desks. 

A help desk can be a good starting point for organizations looking to organize their approach to addressing customer problems.

Help desk functions

A help desk should perform several functions:

  • Provide a single point of contact. Customers—internal or external—should always know where to go when they need help.
     
  • Answer questions. Customers should be able to use self-service or contact a help desk agent when they need answers or step-by-step instructions.
     
  • Free up time. A well-run help desk centralizes knowledge and provides workflow guidance that makes solving customer problems quicker and easier. 
     
  • Measure customer satisfaction. Customers should always have a way of rating the help desk and giving feedback to improve processes, knowledge bases, and solutions.

Types of help desks

IT support help desk

An IT help desk supports internal staff, solving problems that range from a simple password reset to a network outage.

Customer service help desk

A customer service help desk focuses on the external customer, answering questions about and helping troubleshoot issues with products and services they’ve purchased.

Business help desk

Teams outside IT (such as HR, finance, and legal) can and sometimes do create and run a business help desk. HR can help employees do things like modify payroll elections or get employment verification letters. Legal can respond to contract review requests. And finance can field accounts payable and expense questions. 

Help desk roles

Help desk manager: A help desk manager leads the day-to-day operations of the help desk. This includes hiring and training agents, structuring support processes, and tracking KPIs such as agent productivity and customer satisfaction. A help desk manager will typically be responsible for managing the overall budget and reporting on performance to the executive team.

Help desk agent: A help desk agent responds directly to help desk questions. This can include everything from hardware issues to password reset requests and inquiries may come in by phone, email, or through a help desk portal.

Help desk agents are also often responsible for updating the company’s knowledge base and looking for ways to coach others and spread their technical expertise. Depending on the size of the company, there may be several tiers of agents, split based on support experience.

Help desk team lead: The help desk team lead supports the help desk manager by coaching new agents and ensuring everyone delivers great customer service and meets their Service Level Agreement (SLA) goals. A team lead also monitors performance and provides feedback to managers for improving support processes.

What is help desk software?

So, how do most companies run their help desks? The answer is help desk software, like Jira Service Desk

When businesses start out, they often rely on email for support. But as companies grow, moving beyond email as the primary support channel becomes critical. Support needs to scale with a business. If agents are struggling to keep up with requests and inboxes are stacked with unanswered emails—it’s definitely time for help desk software.

Help desk software allows companies to accept, track, and respond to support requests in an organized fashion. Many help desk programs also provide knowledge bases, self-service portals, SLO management, and reporting. Choosing the right help desk software for you depends on your company’s specific needs.

4 reasons your company needs help desk software

1. Email is a lousy tracking tool.

If every help request becomes a string of emails, agents may struggle to prioritize and respond to each request. Move the conversation away from inboxes to better organize your help desk queues.

2. Customers want to help themselves.

For many companies, help desk software also offers a simple way to organize an FAQ or knowledge base that lets customers self-serve common questions.  

3. Prioritize important tickets.

Forget calendar reminders, sticky notes, and email. Help desk software lets you define not only ticket order, but priority levels and resolution time requirements.

4. Monitor the health of support.

Help desk software can track metrics like ticket volume, resolution time, customer satisfaction, and even individual engineer performance.

Popular help desk software features

Email support

Send support emails to a designated address such as support@domain.com. Those emails will then be automatically converted into tickets so agents can benefit from a structured ticketing workflow.

Knowledge base

A knowledge base is a store of common answers and useful articles such as how-tos or best practices. It provides a self-service experience that can improve customer satisfaction and reduce support requests.

Self-service portal

The self-service portal is an intuitive place to submit questions in the form of help desk tickets or get immediate answers via the knowledge base.

Community forums

Forums are a place for users to ask questions and have them answered by the community.

Reporting and analytics

Help desk software reporting features allow companies to track key metrics such as agent productivity, customer satisfaction, and support costs. Detailed analytics allow for continuous improvement of service quality and efficiency.

Help desk automation

Help desk software can automate common tasks to free up agent time while keeping actions consistent. Automation can close an inactive ticket or alert a manager when a new priority-one issue is created.

SLA/SLO management

Service Level Agreements (SLAs) are a contract between the business and the customer. Service Level Objectives (SLOs) are the objectives or goals outlined in the SLA. These SLOs define expected service levels, such as time to first response or time to resolution, that agents need to work within. 

SLOs can also be quality-based, such as ensuring customer satisfaction stays above 90%.

Customization

Most help desk software allows companies to customize their help desk so that it carries the company colors and logo. You can also build custom integrations on top of the help desk to extend the software’s functionality.

Getting started with help desk software

Which help desk software you choose depends greatly on your needs, number of agents, and budget. When shopping for a solution, our experts recommend asking yourself:

  • Which channels do we need to offer support on (web, email, social, mobile, etc.)?  
  • How many agents will use the software?  
  • Does our company need a self-service solution/knowledge base?  
  • Does our company need automation for repetitive help desk tasks?  
  •  What kind of reporting do we need?  
  • What is our timeline?  
  • What is our budget? Do we have any wiggle room?  
  • How many resources can we invest in software setup?  

The answers to these questions should guide you as you choose the best help desk software for your organization.

How to implement help desk software

Step one: research and get management buy-in

Define your help desk goals and needs. Research the benefits and understand what you want out of your help desk. And then present your plans to management and get buy-in.

Step two: plan before you implement

Plan your help desk processes with IT staff’s roles and capabilities in mind. Build workflows to drive those processes. And identify the metrics you’ll use to track success.

Step three: install and set up your solution

Install your help desk software. Import contacts, user information, and other assets as needed. Add your IT users and admins. Define ticket categories and issue types. Set up queues and automation rules. And edit email templates and define filters.

Step four: add advanced configurations as needed

Integrate help desk software with other applications. Import your documentation into the knowledge base. Define your SLOs. Set up reports and notifications. And configure approval workflows.

How much does help desk software cost?

The price of help desk software depends on company size, team size, and business needs. Typically, it’s calculated by how many agents are resolving tickets. Cost questions are always tough to answer because the range is so huge—from basic free programs built for small businesses to thousands of dollars per month for enterprise-level, customizable solutions.