Understanding Help Desks, Service Desks & ITSM – A Complete Guide

understanding help desks

The tech industry is obsessed with jargon and abbreviations that they even had to shorten “IT” (information technology). Keeping track of all the obscure terms that make up IT support can be equally as confusing as telling the difference between help desks, service desks, and ITSM. 

What is an IT Help Desk?

An IT help desk is an organizational process that resolves issues with a break/fix concept, typically with the help of internal help desk software. Help Spot and other Help Scout alternatives place their focus on helping IT employees instead of customers or clients.

However, IT help desks are also considered a subset of service desks, so they are often used with a service desk. In the end, an IT help desk takes an “incident management” approach to problems, meaning its system is more tactical and reactive rather than strategic and proactive.

What is an IT Service Desk?

An IT service desk provides a service, which in term includes helping a client with their IT needs. Service desks are more concerned with adding new services, maintaining existing ones, and issue prevention. On the other hand, a help desk tries to fix a problem as it’s happening.

For these reasons, an IT service desk is seen as the strategic cousin of the tactical help desk. Although a service desk does work together with a help desk, service desks take the entire business into account when solving problems, rather than dealing with the end-users problems.

What is an ITSM (IT Service Management)?

ITSM, or IT service management, describes how a team manages the end-to-end delivery of IT services to customers. ITSM includes all the processes and activities that lead to the design, creation, delivery, and support of IT services, meaning it goes beyond the scope of basic IT.

ITSM teams oversee a wide range of workplace technology and consist of multiple core processes. These processes include but aren’t limited to IT knowledge, incident, change, and problem management. ITSM is broad, whereas help desks and service desks are narrow.

What Are the Main Differences Between Each Service?

Although there are fundamental differences between each service, it’s common for IT teams, employers, and non-IT employees to mix them up. 

Here’s how to tell these 3 services apart.

  • ITSM was the first “service desk” and is responsible for creating help desks.
  • The help desk uses ITSM’s IT Infrastructure Library to serve customers/employees.
  • The service desk made the help desk better by adding a service aspect.
  • Help desks are IT-centric, whereas service desks are customer-centric.
  • Help desks take a break-fix approach, whereas service desks assist most requests.
  • Help desks can help with other requests but are more concerned with the “now.”
  • Help desks are an add-on to existing activities and may not complement other systems.
  • Service desks are one part of a large IT ecosystem called the “service lifecycle.”
  • Help desks are tactical and reactive, whereas service desks are strategic and proactive.
  • Help desks are often limited in their scope, whereas service desks are multifaceted. 

To sum up, ITSM is a term that encompasses every aspect of the IT support system. ITSM breaks off into two categories: a help desk and a service desk. For the most part, the help desk takes care of immediate, pressing problems, and the service desk tackles long-term issues.

The confusion surrounding these 3 terms is made worse by how often they’re interchanged. You’ll often hear someone call a “service desk” a “help desk” and vice versa. Tech support, IT/IS support, support center, call center, and customer support center are also used quite often.

Knowing the difference between each service can ensure you find the right tool for your needs, but if you want to provide full IT support, consider adopting a help desk and service desk.

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