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Article 8 min read

What's the difference between a help desk and a service desk?

Don’t know the difference between a help desk vs. a service desk? While these IT tools share similarities, they have distinct approaches to solving problems. Read our comparison guide to learn how they differ.

By Alex Smithers, Contributing Writer

Last updated March 14, 2024

Are you new to customer service and struggling to see the differences between help desks, service desks, and information technology service management (ITSM)? You’re not alone.

The intricacies of a help desk vs. a service desk may seem nuanced, but experts agree that the two terms differ. The main differences lie in how they relate to users and the value they offer—and support reps should know them. Read on to understand help desks vs. service desks and navigate the ocean of IT support with confidence.

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

Service desks and help desks have critical roles within an IT support strategy. While many companies use the terms interchangeably, service desks tend to handle a wider array of IT support activities than help desks and provide a complete end-to-end service. Help desks are reserved for when “stuff hits the fan”—they’re designed to solve problems.

The main difference between a help desk and a service desk is that:

  • Service desks are where your employees go if they need something fixed. They traditionally support a company’s technology infrastructure.
  • Help desks are where customers and employees go to get answers about your company’s products or services, including solutions to any IT outages or end-user issues.

The main similarities between a help desk and a service desk are that they both:

  • Aim to improve satisfaction for both businesses and customers

  • Provide fast support and positive experiences

  • Save users time by streamlining collaboration

  • Offer self-service

  • Enable smarter decisions based on analytics

  • Eliminate manual tasks and boost efficiency

Help desks

Service desks

Focus: End user Business
Result: Reactive service for short-term user issues Proactive solution development for the long term
Model: Break-fix: Address a specific user issue when it comes up Big-picture: Fix an issue surrounding business goals
Approach: Task-oriented to provide a solution to each user as needed Process-oriented to improve the entire support process

What is a help desk?

A help desk diagnoses and fixes immediate problems—particularly technical IT issues—like slow-running software, glitches, blue/black screens of death, and connectivity issues. In ITSM terms, experts call this incident management.

Help desks as a service also drive customer and employee satisfaction, as they enable a business to provide support at scale. For example, a help desk can provide reactive service, letting agents respond to user issues on a case-by-case basis, following a task-oriented approach.

Additionally, an internal help desk is a cloud-based solution that allows employees to submit issue requests and manage, catalog, and monitor them all in one place. Essentially, it’s the internal point of contact for any technical issues within a company.

What is a service desk?

A service desk offers support for a broad range of IT issues, serving as a single point of contact between the user and the service provider. It can handle password resets, answer questions about functionality, update subscription details, track new feature requests, and more.

Service desks engage in multiple ITSM activities, including:

  • Incident management: restoring normal service when something goes wrong
  • Service request management: authorizing access to a new technology
  • Knowledge management: creating and publishing helpful resources for users
  • Self-service: empowering users to resolve their own tech-related problems
  • Reporting: notifying concerned parties about important changes, issues, or events

IT service desks are accountable for the quality of support they provide, too. The goal is to deliver timely standout service. So, they’re evaluated on response time, ease of access, concern shown for the customer, and so on.

IT service management (ITSM) definition

ITSM is how IT teams deal with the end-to-end delivery of IT services to their customers. This includes the activities to plan and design new IT services. ITSM teams oversee several processes, such as:

  • Problem management

  • IT asset management

  • Incident management

  • Service request management

Compared to help desks and service desks, the scope of ITSM is broad—help desks and service desks are just smaller parts of ITSM.

Importance of service desks and help desks

Importance of service desks and help desk, holding a phone

When you compare a service desk and a help desk, you’ll notice that the help desk is narrower in focus. While a help desk is limited to incident management, a service desk can cover various activities. So, you might be wondering: If service desks are more broadly useful, then why are there still help desks?

Here’s a breakdown of the importance of both service and help desks.

Employee productivity and retention

Help desks and service desks boost employee productivity by streamlining workflow management. They also feature automation tools that eliminate manual work, saving workers from performing tedious, time-consuming tasks.

Service desks and help desks can also prevent employee churn. 85 percent of employees are likely to stay with a company if they feel like they can be productive from anywhere. By providing help desk and service desk tools, businesses can retain their employees for longer.

Operational efficiency

Operations become more efficient with help desks and service desks. By using these tools, you can:

  • Keep a pulse on your employees with automated reports

  • Share insights across the business

  • Use pre-built and custom reports to measure the metrics that matter most to your business

  • Make smarter decisions at scale

Build a best-in-class customer self-service experience

Our free guide can help you create the right internal practices and build the best self-service experience for your customers.

Benefits of help desks and service desks

Benefits of help desks and service desks

Though service desks and help desks are distinct tools, you can use both to provide great support and positive experiences. The two types of IT support offer similar benefits—explore them in depth below:

Features to look for in help desk and service desk tools

The right solution enables IT staff to easily interact with users, improve the user experience, and better manage their workload. Without modern service desk software or help desk software, IT support teams risk frustrating users with long wait times. Here are some features to look for in help desk and service desk tools:

Chatbots and automation

Chatbots and automation are among the main features to look for in these tools. AI chat technology, like Answer Bot from Zendesk, is ideal for offering around-the-clock support, resolving low-priority or easy-fix items, and speeding up response times.

Knowledge base

Your help desk and service desk tools must have a knowledge base or a knowledge management portal. The knowledge base should include:

  • Knowledge base articles

  • System user guides

  • FAQs

  • Informative articles

Knowledge base capability boosts the credibility of your support efforts and helps to promptly address customer issues. It also provides an internal space for employees to access information.

For example, Tesco, a grocery retailer, partnered with Zendesk to improve its help desk experience and streamline ticket volume. Using Zendesk, Tesco launched its knowledge management and self-service solution. Since rolling this out, employees have been viewing 30,000 articles a week, and 79 percent of all tickets are resolved by the first assigned group—without rerouting or escalation.

Routing and intelligence

Your help and service desk tools should feature routing and intelligence to collect critical details and reduce manual data entry. For example, artificial intelligence helps route tickets to the right agents, and automated ticket queues prioritize tickets by time sensitivity and importance so requests are tackled efficiently and quickly.

Collaboration tools

Look for collaboration tools within your help and service desk options. Collaboration tools make it easy for front-end support and back-end teams to share data and integrate apps like JIRA and Slack to streamline ticket escalations.

For example, OpenTable uses Zendesk with JIRA, allowing the IT operations team to share tickets with the bug-tracking system for major technical issues. As a result, OpenTable’s help desk agents can handle 250 end-user requests per week.

Analytics and reporting

With analytics and reporting, you can gain a deeper understanding of the quality of your support. The right help desk or service desk will give you insights into different customer service metrics, such as:

  • Busiest hours for the team

  • Average first response time

  • Average resolution time

  • The number of customers that access your knowledge base

  • CSAT rating for team members

As a result, you can see where you’re excelling and where there’s room for improvement.

Community forums

Community forums let customers get help from other users or see if their issue has been solved before. Help desks and service desks can offer both internal and external community forums:

  • Internal community forum: This is a private space for employees to learn and ask questions about company matters, like news, updates, strategic objectives, and more.
  • External community forum: This is a space for both employees and customers to discuss and solve issues.

Community forums can increase customer loyalty and engagement and bring teams together within your company.

How to choose help desk and service desk tools: Best practices

Tips for choosing help desk and service desk tools

Looking to add a help desk and service desk to your business operations? Here are some best practices to consider when choosing the right tools for your company:

Identify your use case

It’s important to identify your use case for a help desk or service desk. For example, there are various types of help desks and service desks you can use for:

  • Internal use

  • External use

  • IT

  • HR

Each use case could require different tools and capabilities, so it’s good to know why you’ll need it ahead of time.

Consider TCO and ROI

Also, consider your total cost of ownership (TCO) and return on investment (ROI). TCO refers to how much money it costs to set up the tool, and ROI determines how much value you’ll gain from investing in it. These factors can help you decide which help desk or service desk to pick.

Evaluate the ease of setup and scale

When choosing help desk and service desk tools, you want something that’s simple to set up but flexible enough to scale with your business. Help desks and service desks that are easy to set up can help your team hit the ground running and better manage customer communications.

Check with your sales and customer service teams to ensure that the tools you’re considering can support your customer base.

Use help desks and service desks to boost employee and customer satisfaction

With a help desk and service desk, your business can streamline communications and provide quick, helpful resources to your customers and team members. Use help desk software and service desk software from Zendesk to create better experiences today.

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