Help Desk Vs Service Desk – Definition, Difference and a Complete Dissection

Users of our service desk – Freshservice – often bombard me with one question: “What’s the difference between service desk and help desk?”.

Can the two words be used interchangeably? Do you need both or can you manage with one of these?

In today’s day and age, the definition of service desk and help desk is left to one’s own interpretation. The reason? How you define them varies according to the size of your organization, the maturity of your processes, and the needs of your business (and customers).  We will try and get to the crux of help desks and service desks with definitions, differences, and some examples.

Help Desk Vs Service Desk

A lot of IT pundits, analysts and our own customers argue that there’s no significant difference between the service desk and help desk. To differentiate the two, it’s very important to look at where they originated and how they were defined back then (the early 1980s)

  • Help desk as we knew it then was designed to focus more on fixes and troubleshooting IT issues. The focus was on the IT teams and NOT the end user. Since the primary goal was to help IT teams (and not end users) there was no cap on timelines (Read: SLA), and nothing to govern priority or urgency.
  • According to the ITIL glossary that came out in 2011 – A service desk is “The single point of contact between the service provider and users. A typical service desk manages incidents and service requests and also handles communication with the users”.

Simply put, a help desk is a subset of a service desk.  

Let me explain that. Here are a few more use cases and explanations to help us understand this better.

  • A service desk was born out of the need to provide an IT service to end users (as pointed out by ITSM glossary). A help desk is a subset of a service desk with a focus on solving/easing tasks for IT teams.
  • Help desks are designed for solving ‘incidents’ (or immediate/infrequent fixes), whereas a service desk is focussed on service requests (laptops, new employee onboarding etc.), self-help articles (How do I set up my printer?), and other communication channels (chat, phone, email, walk-in) between IT teams and end-users.
  • Building on what was said previously, a help desk is centered around the existing needs of the IT team, whereas a service desk is built for what ITIL defines as the “Service lifecycle” consisting of 28 processes.

Help Desk Vs Service Desk – A visual representation

They say a picture speaks a 1000 words. Let me try and break down the differences pictorially.  

As you can see, ITSM is the blanket that covers anything and everything related to communication/service exchange between IT teams and end users (and among themselves).

ITSSM – An abbreviation of IT service support management (A term coined by Gartner) covers the most common concepts like:

  1. Incident and Problem management,
  2. Change, Configuration, and Release management
  3. Service request
  4. Knowledge management

A service desk hence becomes an enabler/means that fulfills these requirements to provide a full-fledged IT ‘service’. However, it’s pivotal for a service desk tool to have additional capabilities like self-service, reporting, asset management among others.


And finally, a help desk is a subset of a service desk with a focus just on incident management.

Cover illustration by Srinivas Dhotre