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Help desk vs service desk: What’s in a name?

Help desk vs service desk vs ITSM—a rose by any other name would smell as sweet

By Trent Seed, CTO, Oomnitza

Published May 21, 2019
Last updated July 20, 2020

Have you ever overheard people having heated discussions about the differences between help desks, service desks, and IT service management (ITSM)? Many in our line of work actually have.

Help desk vs service desk

The short answer is that help desk and service desk are the same thing in theory and in practice.

Some argue that help desk is an outdated term referring to an IT-centric support capability born in the late 1980s (think mainframes), with little attention to the end user. They may say the terms IT service desk—or simply service desk—were coined to describe a new focus on serving end-users in a timely manner. Others argue that ITSM is characterized by proactive capabilities, such as remote monitoring, and automating tasks like patch management. The overlap between the roles of technical support and support agent also come into play.

We’ve also heard all the jargon around help desk, service desk, and ITSM, including time to ticket resolution, ticket management, change management, active listening, average call duration, blended call center, cost per contact, escalation, and more. The list of buzzwords is long.

To all this, we say “potayto, potahto." Does it really matter, from a corporate strategy point of view, what you call your IT support team? After all, many a helpdesk is proactive, automated, and focused on end users. An IT service desk may spend most of its time only solving IT issues, depending on the organization’s mission. Or, ITSM processes may not be easily automated due to system incompatibilities and integration issues. In other words, there is no typical service desk or hard borders around any of these concepts.

Goals for your help desk or IT support team

Regardless of what you prefer to call these support teams, there are many solutions that help you better meet customers' needs and increase the chances of high customer satisfaction—at the end of the day, providing good customer support and good customer service is always the goal for these teams. By any name, the goals of enterprise IT support and an ITIL framework are the same:

  1. Resolve issues quickly and efficiently so customers can get back to work

    For issues related to machines and technology, one of the best ways to accomplish this is having bidirectional integration between your IT asset management and your customer service software. When support agents receive tickets, they can see the status of the employee’s asset, its needed maintenance, refresh schedule, age, how the asset is being used, and so on. This bidirectional capability between IT asset management and customer service software allows them to provide high-quality, swift service.

  2. Operate under the philosophy that every company is a tech company

    This means attracting and retaining employees who possess the technical skills to solve customer support problems in the moment, as well as the customer service chops to advise users on the best path forward. To keep employees happy and maximize their productivity, organizations must continuously equip them with the best possible technologies that support their efforts. Equipping employees with the best technologies also puts them in a better position to provide high-quality customer care.

  3. Secure the organization’s precious intellectual property (IP)

    Every "smart" asset is a window into your network, one that can shed light on the proprietary IP that is the lifeblood of any organization.

  4. Ensure IT efficiency by automating manual tasks to save time

    This will require integrating best-of-breed technologies and disparate systems, and creating workflows that complete many tasks for you. The Internet of Things (IoT) revolution will only increase the need for automation, because IT support teams will go from managing support for desktops, laptops, and smartphones to incident management for smart coffee machines, smart washing machines, smart refrigerators, and more. They will need to figure out which sensor is acting up on a wind turbine or discover why a smart car is acting dumb. The IoT will go beyond IT asset management to a new era of “Thing Management.”

  5. Find help desk software solutions that tie your service desk solutions, messaging, system management, mobile device management, single sign-on, and finance tools together

    With so many APIs and easy integration options, it no longer makes sense to have all these systems operate separately. Integrating them will make your life easier, slash manual work activities, and break organizational silos that can impact productivity across the board.

  6. Help the organization stay report- and audit-ready at all times

    With a single source of truth for every asset, centralized in one place, companies can stay continuously audit-ready and make the monthly/quarterly/annual audit process a breeze.

  7. Make it as easy as possible to report issues, in ways that are convenient for end-users

    Some integrations allow users to create support tickets within their favorite collaboration software. Instead of filling out support tickets when they have a problem or need, users report issues about an asset from within the collaboration platform.

It’s time to stop splitting hairs about what to call the IT support, because there are more important things to consider when building ITSM processes: the emergence of IoT devices, the need to integrate best-of-breed technologies, security, compliance, and more. Above all, these guiding principles are already in the mixed bag of terms we spent so much time arguing about: providing help, customer support, and good customer service whenever we're needed.