Helpdesk vs Service Desk: What is the difference?

Successful companies rely on either helpdesk or service desks to offer essential support to their customers. When automated well, these platforms embody the critical role of IT in the workplace, providing an easy environment to align support teams and bolster customer satisfaction.  As a result, they have become valuable tools in the customer experience landscape.

Now, most business owners or managers treat the helpdesk and service desk as one and the same thing.  Of course it’s true that both provide support to customers. But there are important distinctions between the two that are worth comprehending. 

This understanding puts your business in a better position to allocate the right resources to each type of desk.  Better allocation of resources translates to better provision of support to customers.  In fact, sometimes, you may not need both. Or you might be using the wrong desk!

Let’s look at helpdesk vs service desk, starting with the basic understanding of both. 

What is a helpdesk?

A help desk is a support service that helps users with technical problems. The term can refer to either a physical desk where technicians provide support in person, or a virtual desk where technicians provide support by phone or online. Help desks are typically staffed by IT professionals who are trained to troubleshoot technical issues. In addition to providing support, help desks may also offer self-help resources such as FAQs and user manuals. 

So a help desk is used mainly for tactical purposes, involving immediate technical issues and concerns. A helpdesk's main aim is to offer effective solutions for user requests.

A help desk can also be defined as a group of people who offer information and assistance, typically for electronic or computer problems. The main focus of a helpdesk is to fix issues rather than deliver service to its end users and customers.  

A help desk is often limited to one IT Service Management (ITSM) activity, particularly the break-fix process or incident management. 

The key values of helpdesk support are:

  • Problem management,
  • Incident tracking,
  • Self-service options for end users, 
  • Problem resolution, and
  • Service level agreements (SLAs).

What is a service desk?

A service desk is a central point of contact between an organization and its customers. It is responsible for handling customer inquiries and providing support for the organization's products and services. The service desk is often the first point of contact for customers, and it plays a vital role in providing excellent customer service. The service desk is typically staffed by customer service representatives who are trained to handle a wide variety of inquiries. In addition to handling customer inquiries, the service desk may also be responsible for managing the organization's knowledge base, scheduling appointments, and providing information about product updates and policy changes. 

In other words a service desk has wider operations than a help desk and serves as a Single Point of Contact (SPOC) between the end user and the service provider. Instead of focusing on problems, a service desk looks at business needs as a whole. 

Helpdesk vs service desk: what is the main difference?

A helpdesk is typically used to provide support for technical issues, such as troubleshooting a software problem or changing a password. In contrast, a service desk is designed to provide a more holistic support.  The main focus of a service desk is to provide complete customer service to end users. On the other hand, a help desk facilitates quick solutions to issues. There is an emphasis on customer-centricity and service delivery in service desks. 

As their names suggest, one may argue that a service desk delivers a service to end users, with some resemblance to customer service, while a helpdesk provides help. Though it might seem petty, the word “service” is a key point of distinction.

IT-centricity (mainframe computing) led to the creation of helpdesks, whereas IT service-centricity led to service desks. In simple terms, service desks deliver IT help.

The service desk is an evolution of the help desk and was developed from ITSM’s best practice framework, the Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL). It is based on the underlying principle of managing IT as a service. 

Essentially a help desk focuses on fixing an issue, what ITIL refers to as incident management. On the other hand, a service desk assists with not only fixing a problem but also with service requests, such as requests for information and new services. 

A service desk is part of an ecosystem known as the service lifecycle, which includes service-based IT support and service delivery. In contrast, a helpdesk is more or less an addition to existing IT services. This is probably why ITIL preferred the term service desk over help desk. 

Industry experts will state that the service desk is strategic while the help desk is tactical. A service desk is strategic because it is long-term and creates the path that organizations need to achieve greater customer experience. A helpdesk is tactical because it is concrete and oriented towards a shorter time and smaller steps, i.e., fixing an issue. 

The main types of help desks

There are various help desks, which can fit the unique needs of different businesses. Understanding these types will enable you to choose the best for your company’s current needs. They include:

1. Cloud-based help desk

A cloud-based help desk is a software-as-a-service (SaaS) application hosted on the vendor’s server. Your support team accesses all the helpdesk features by logging into the vendor’s website or through a locally installed mobile or desktop app. 

The end user of this helpdesk pays a monthly or annual subscription that mostly includes data security, maintenance, and technical support.

The key advantage of a cloud-based helpdesk is that it is easy to set up and maintain because you don’t need technical skills to get started. In addition, it is scalable and accessible anywhere, anytime, as long as you have an internet connection.

The main drawback is that you don’t have access to the source code, hence limited customization options. In case of technical issues, you will have to wait for the vendor to resolve them.

Also on cloud:  How can small businesses benefit from cloud computing?

2. Self-hosted help desk

Self-hosted help desks are also referred to as on-premise help desks. These are licensed proprietary software bought by companies. In simple terms, you become the owner after purchasing the software license and host it on your own server. Though you only incur a one-time setup fee, you may spend more on updates. 

The main advantage of a self-hosted help desk is that you have complete control over your data and security, which makes it ideal for companies that handle sensitive data. It is also easier to customize the platform to fit the needs of the business.

However, you will need a huge upfront investment to purchase the license and servers for on-premise use, plus additional costs for updates, data backups, and maintenance. In addition to the charges, you will need an internal team to regularly maintain the servers and ensure your data is safe. 

Recommended reading: comparing the cost of cloud vs on-premise

3. Open-source help desk

Open-source help desks allow developers to access the source code. Your IT team can modify and enhance the platform based on your business needs. Developers can also improve integration capabilities, release periodic updates, fix bugs, and add features. Open source help desk vendors leverage community collaborations to enhance their final product.

The benefit of an open-sourced help desk is that it is mostly free and has minimum limitations. You can also enjoy customization capabilities, community updates, and suggestions. 

However, you will need a team of IT experts to develop and customize the platform for your business. It could take months to set up, and data integrity is always a concern. 

4. Enterprise help desk

Enterprise help desks have more advanced features, hence ideal for large companies. They offer features like IT asset management, multi-brand support, and enterprise reporting. These help desks are designed to be both employee and customer-focused. Therefore, they track and resolve day-to-day issues through an internal ticketing system.

The main benefit of an enterprise help desk is that it is a one-stop-shop offering full support to clients, employees, and other stakeholders. You can also customize it to fit the needs of a large organization.

However, this helpdesk is costly, and the numerous features can lead to more complexities.    

The main types of service desks

Like helpdesks, there are also a couple different types of service desk. Here are the main types:

1. Centralized service desk

Centralized service desks are centers of interaction for query resolution. They keep everything centralized and ensure all queries are resolved via a single point of contact. These service desks help with the following:

  • Ticket resolution.
  • Effective ticket management, regardless of volume. 
  • Centralized control, i.e., they merge all local service desks.

2. Local service desk

A local service desk is located near or inside the company’s premises. It usually caters to the customer support needs of small to medium-sized enterprises. 

Local service desks are suitable for:

  • Dealing with a limited number of support tickets.
  • Resolving issues within the business location,
  • Efficient ticket resolution for limited tickets.

3. Virtual service desk

Virtual service desks are the most popular for businesses these days. These service desks rely on the cloud plus good internet connectivity. You can effectively leverage these platforms for your company from any device, no matter where your service desk is deployed or located. 

Virtual service desks ensure:

  • Efficient ticket resolution regardless of where the business is located,
  • Efficient agent performance tracking,
  • Easy ticket categorization and organization based on geographical location.

The common queries that help desks resolve

A helpdesk will receive queries from clients and employees, no matter how small the business is. However, the real problem begins when your helpdesk faces many issues and things spin out of control. So it’s important to be clear on the queries that a helpdesk should handle so that you don't overwhelm this desk. These are the most common helpdesk queries:

  • “I cannot log in to my account.” This issue comprises a significant portion of the ticket volume.
  • “My card has been declined.”
  • How to reset a password.
  • How to install software.
  • How to use specific software features.

Common queries that service desks resolve

As we have already seen, service desks are responsible for handling a wide range of customer inquiries. Here are the most common queries that service desks handle:

  • “I need to update my contact information. How can I do that?”
  • “How can I order more business cards?”
  • “I received an error message when trying to access the software. What does that mean?”
  • Questions about company policy or procedures
  • Request for new user accounts

Important to recall that a service desk can handle all the helpdesk issues.  

Service desk vs helpdesk: which one is right for your business?

Helpdesks are typically used by small businesses with fewer customers. They offer a more limited range of features that are biased towards technical issues and can be less expensive to set up and maintain. Service desks, on the other hand, are designed to provide a more comprehensive range of support services, making them better suited for larger businesses with more complex support needs. 

You need to be clear about what's expected from your providers of IT support services, and they need to be clear about what they can deliver. This is something that should be outlined in your contract, so there are no surprises along the way.

Ultimately, the choice between helpdesks and service desks comes down to assessing your business's needs and budget. If you're looking for a simple and cost-effective solution for technical issues, a helpdesk may be the way to go. But if you need something that is more elaborate, a service desk may be the better option.

Helpdesk vs service desk: A summary table of key differences

Help DeskService Desk

Focuses on a task i.e. on providing a suitable solution to the user.

Focuses on a process i.e. on improving the entire support process.

Break-fix model. Users request the support team to fix a specific issue.

Works to find solutions beyond a specific problem.

Reactive: Allows support agents to reactively respond to issues. 

Proactive: Proactively develops long-term solutions.

Focuses on the end use.

Focuses on the business as a whole.

Recommended reading: popular IT services befitting small businesses


Hopefully you are now in a better position to make the right choice between helpdesk and service desk, or make the right changes if you have just realized that your company is using the wrong option. Most importantly, helpdesks and service desks are intended to simplify everyone's lives, both the customer and the support reps. 

So whichever option you find to be best for your organization, remember to make it the best. And as you implement or upgrade either, think seriously about automation which is now becoming a huge component of these services.  In fact, according to Research and Markets, the global helpdesk automation market alone is expected to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 30.4 percent and reach 21.8 billion US dollars by 2027. Businesses leverage these two platforms to offer exceptional customer support and gain a competitive advantage. So don’t be left behind. 

Remember not to keep clients waiting for a long time. According to The Washington Post, customers are on hold for a long time because of agent shortages and call volumes.  Consider using support tiers to fix this challenge if present in your organization.

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