What is an IT Service Desk?

The IT Service Desk is intended to be a primary point of engagement between users and an IT organization. According to the ITIL, the service desk is the single point of contact (SPOC) between the service provider (IT) and users for day-to-day activities. A typical service desk manages incidents (service disruptions) and service requests (routine service related tasks) along with handling user communications for things like outages and planned changes to services. A service desk typically has a broad scope and is designed to provide the user with a single place to go for all their IT needs. This results in the service desk playing a pivotal role in facilitating the integration of business processes with the technology ecosystem and broader service management infrastructure.

Where did IT Service Desks Come From?

The IT helpdesk function was born in the late 1980s as a support capability to fix IT issues. It was a highly technical function focused on the technology rather than the end users. Early IT helpdesks didn’t have the concept of SLAs or time-based targets for resolving issues. It wasn’t until ITIL came onto the scene in the 1990s, capturing IT Service Management best practices, that the concept of the user-centric IT service desk began to emerge. The service desk was seen as an essential part of “managing IT like a service”.

In the mid-1990s, research by Iain Middleton of Robert Gordon University found that value was derived not only from a reactive response to user issues, but also from the help desk's unique position of communicating daily with numerous customers or employees. Information gained about technical problems, user preferences, and what satisfies users can be valuable for the planning and development work of IT services.

With the publishing of ITIL v2 in 2001, the Service Desk function and its role in incident and request management became one of the core components of IT service operations in many organizations. As the decade continued, globalization along with increasing pressures to reduce IT operational costs led many organizations to centralize IT Service Desk functions with many engaging 3rd party support partners to staff them. Outsourcing of IT service desk functions led to further standardization of processes and a growth in the market for of help desk ticketing software.

Modern technology trends including cloud-services, the widespread use of 3rd party components in the IT ecosystem and advancements in discovery and monitoring capabilities have led to the integration of stand-alone helpdesk ticketing systems into more comprehensive ITSM platforms that serve as the hub of operations not just for the IT service desk, but the entire IT function. As companies seek to further modernize and pursue Digital Transformation initiatives, the IT Service Desk is evolving again to become more business centric, with greater awareness of business processes and data – in many cases becoming an integrated part of companies’ business operations.

What is the Difference Between an IT Service Desk and a Helpdesk or Call Center?

Companies often use the terms “call center”, “helpdesk” and “service desk” interchangeably which can lead to some confusion. ITIL regards call centers and help desks as limited kinds of service desks, offering only a portion of what a service desk offers. With ITIL taking a service centric perspective and focusing on IT, this makes sense. For many companies, the ITIL definition doesn’t align with operational practices making the distinction is much more complicated. Here are explanations of the helpdesk and contact center functions to help in providing contrast with an IT Service desk.


A help desk is a resource intended to provide the customer or internal user with information and support related to a company's processes, products and services. The purpose of a help desk is to provide a centralized resource to answer questions, troubleshoot problems and facilitate solutions to known problems. Common examples of help-desks include: Technical Support centers, Product Support /Warranty functions, Employee Benefits desks and facilities service centers. Helpdesk support may be provided through various channels including physical locations, toll-free numbers, websites, instant messaging, or email.

Call Center

A call center or contact center is a central point for managing customer contacts and interactions. office tasked with handling a large volume of requests typically by telephone (but could include letters, faxes, social media, instant message or email as well). Inbound call centers are often use for things like product support, customer service, order processing and 24/7 phone services. Outbound call centers are use for things like telemarketing, debt collection and market research. A company may have multiple call centers supporting different parts of business operations (including IT) and they may either be managed in-house or through a 3rd party agency.

As one can see, there is a lot of overlaps between the definitions of helpdesks, call centers and IT Service Desks. The distinction among them really centers around the scope of what the function covers and how they are structured:

A helpdesk is focused on providing “help” and “break-fix” support. Helpdesks don’t have to be IT focused and can be used to support exceptions to normal operations that take place all over the company. They can either be physical locations interacting directly with requestors in-person or remote/virtual locations using technology such as phone, email, chat and other technologies to facilitate a virtual engagement.

Call Centers are the broadest in the scope of issues that they cover, including both technical and non-technical topics. Call centers don’t interact with requestors in-person and always involve some sort of intermediary technology to facilitate engagement.

IT Service Desks focus only on supporting IT Services, but handle both the reactive “help” services as well as supporting routine tasks like provisioning of resources, access management, etc. IT Service Desks may be physical locations that users can visit in-person or they may be remote operations like a call center. Those versed in ITIL may say that help desk is tactical while a service desk is strategic – this will vary across organizations.

What Does an IT Service Desk do?

The primary role of an IT service desk is to serve as the primary point of contact for monitoring / owning incidents, addressing user requests/questions and providing a communications channel between other service management functions and the user community. In addition to these core functions, the service desk often plays an active role in capturing change requests, maintaining 3rd party support contracts, managing software licenses and assisting with problem management.

In some organizations, the service desk is integrated into other business processes such as:

Benefits of an IT Service Desk

Cost Savings and Scalability

Cost savings and scalability are the two most common benefits that companies are seeking when they implement an IT Service Desk. A service desk that is properly staffed and well managed can handle much of the routine work of IT. The service desk provides the organizations with a relatively low-cost option for transferring simple work from expensive engineering teams and subject matter experts, enabling them to focus on activities that add more value to the company. The service desk can also provide a means for the company to provide follow-the-sun support to global operations and distributed user communities.

A Finger on the Pulse of User Sentiment

The service desk is the starting point for many key processes and services for IT and as such is often the primary interface between users, business processes and the IT services that enable them. Monitoring this interaction provides valuable insight into user satisfaction, sentiment towards services and features and un-met needs that could potentially be addressed by IT services in the future.

Early warning of potential problems

Because of the volume of issues and requests that the service desk handles, with the right data and tools for evaluating patterns and trends, the organization can use the service desk as a monitoring tool to identify and preemptively address service issues. The “early warning system” that the service desk provides can enable proactive problem management, preventative maintenance and service changes to reduce the user impacts of outages and service degradation.

IT Service Desk Best Practices

Companies have been operating IT service desks for many years and out of those operations some best practices have emerged.

Customer Engagement
Service Desk Management & Reporting
Using technology to support the IT Service Desk
Knowledge Management

Software that Support an IT Service Desk

An effective IT Service Desk requires a solid technology foundation to provide agents with the tools and information to effectively address requestors’ needs.

Help Desk Ticketing

The helpdesk ticketing system serves as the core transactional platform for the IT Service Desk - orchestrating both incidents and service requests throughout the service desk function and any extended support teams. Essential functions of the ticketing system include:

  • Workflow management
  • Alerts/Escalations
  • Automated Routing
  • Contract/SLA Management
Knowledge Management

Knowledge is the most valuable resource the service desk has and to maximize operational performance they need to make knowledge data the best quality it can be. A knowledge management system is critical to managing this resource and ensuring organizational knowledge is made available to those people who need to use it. The essential functions of a knowledge management system include:

  • Knowledge Database (KMDB)
  • Knowledge Management workflows to support a knowledge lifecycle
  • Known Issue / Known Error Database (KEDB)
  • Separate agent and end-user views of knowledge data
  • Suggestive key-word searching based on incident description
End-User Self-Service

Many issues and requests that generate user calls into the IT Service Desk are things that the user could address on their own if they had the right set of tools and access to information. Self-service support capabilities enable users to resolve their issues faster, without the delays of waiting for an agent. They also save the company money by reducing the need for additional agent capacity in the IT Service Desk to support simple requests. Some of the most common self-service capabilities include:

  • Knowledge Search
  • Self-service diagnostics
  • Automated common processes
  • Service Request form
Service Desk Management and Reporting

Management and reporting functions are critical within the IT Service Desk as leaders seek to optimize operational costs, preemptively identify business impacting issues (major incidents), manage user satisfaction and ensure SLA compliance. Technology can play a big role in enabling the management functions by giving service desk managers access to a holistic picture of their operations and data to make informed decisions. Some of the key service desk management and reporting capabilities are:

  • Major Incident Management capabilities
  • Service Performance and Availability Dashboards
  • Agent / Call management metrics reports
  • SLA conformance reports
  • Known Issue Analytics

Integration with other ITSM Capabilities

The IT Service Desk operates as a piece of the greater Service Management operations of your IT function. While the IT Service Desk can operate independently, performance and value are enhanced by integrating the service desk software with other parts of the company’s ITSM system. Some of the integrations that are particularly valuable include:

Configuration Management Database (CMDB)

Giving agents access to the complex web of technical dependencies and component configuration information to enable them to better assess the impacts of incidents

Change Management

Many technology issues are caused by planned changes. By giving agents access to the change management system, they will be able to identify change related incidents more quickly


Service and infrastructure monitors provide real-time visibility to the health of the IT environment and alerts when something goes wrong. By integrating monitoring capabilities with the service desk system, many incidents can be identified without the need for a user to call in and report a problem

Problem Management

The best way to address incidents is to avoid them happening at all. Integrating with problem management capabilities not only helps service desk agents understand what known issues are already being worked on but it also enables problem management teams to focus attention on issues that are causing the most incidents.

Asset Management

IT Service Desk interactions with users is an ideal time to verify and update asset management information. Providing agents the ability to see and update asset management data can be an effective way of improving the quality of this important ITSM data set.


The IT Service Desk is an essential part of the ITSM function of modern companies. As technology takes on a broader role as an integrated part of business processes and users’ experiences, ensuring that the technology services are working well and accessible to those people who need to use them is critical. The user-centric IT Service desk, with its orchestrated workflows, deep wealth of organizational knowledge and connections into the rest of the IT organization, is the critical link between users and the IT organization.

Every organization is unique and your service desk and the tools you use need to be fully aligned to your business needs. Whether your organization is more technology focused and needing an integrated ITSM solution like Fresh Service or taking a broader view of the service desk in supporting not only IT but other business functions using a customer service helpdesk management system like Fresh Desk, Fresh Works has solutions to help your organization be successful.

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