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Is the Term “Service Desk” Merely an ITSM Marketing Coup?

By | February 14, 2017 in Help Desk

Is the Term “Service Desk” Merely an ITSM Marketing Coup?

There are lots of different names for “the corporate team or function that provides internal IT support to end users.” Examples that I’ve seen used on my IT service management (ITSM) travels include:

  • IT help desk
  • Service desk
  • IT support
  • Support center
  • Technical services/technical services center
  • Technical support (center)
  • Technical customer support
  • Level 1 support
  • Frontline support

And there are probably many more.

But how often do each of these get used “in the wild”? And are some of the names better than others?

Let’s Start with What HDI Members Use

HDI, which is a professional association for the technical support industry, showed how different names are used by its members in their 2015 Support Center Practices & Salary Report:

HDI 2015 Support Center Practices & Salary Report

Source: HDI 2015 Support Center Practices & Salary Report

So we have service desk at 36% and help desk at 23%, with the remaining 41% of companies using a variety of other names.

Have We Been Killing Off the IT Help Desk One ITIL Exam at a Time?

In many ways the HDI results are to be expected.

ITIL, the most commonly-adopted ITSM best practice framework, took the IT help desk of old, and IT operations best practice, and built a body of ITSM advice around them. But, as ITIL and ITSM evolved, the term “IT help desk” no longer fit the new world of “managing IT as a service” and the term “service desk” was deemed to be a better name for the help desk 2.0 – which now offers more than just help for IT issues.

In fact, the term “help desk” has been removed altogether from the ITIL lexicon. If you don’t believe me, then take a look at the ITIL 2011 books or the online ITIL Glossary:

It makes sense – we have ITSM, IT services, and the service lifecycle so why not a service desk instead of a help desk? Or does it?

What Does the “Service” in Service Desk Allude to?

It’s an interesting question, one that I’m not sure most people stop to think about. So I thought I’d give it a go. Why is the service desk called a service desk?

Is it because the service desk is there to support the needs and wants of the users, or consumers, of services? If so, then a service desk is just the same as the supermarket meat counter that provides specially-tailored meat portions to customers. Or is it called a service desk because it services end-user needs, in the same way that supermarkets have service desks or customer services?

Both reasons are conceivable.

Or, is it called a service desk only because ITIL, backed by many ITSM tools, says that this IT support capability should be called a service desk rather than a help desk? If we go back 5-10 years, ITIL was a big part in ITSM tool marketing and selection; and ITIL-educated customers wanted to buy service desks not help desks.

Importantly, Do the Above Reasons Actually Matter?

Not really, as this is all inside-out thinking, which is where decisions and actions are made with internal rather than customer-focused motivations. So far this is more about what people in IT want to call it – due to evolution/reinvention or wanting to introduce a better help desk, rather than thinking about the customer perspective. For instance, they might say:

  • “Help desks only deal with break-fix issues.”
  • “Service desks take a different, more customer-focused, approach to IT support.”
  • Or, “Help desks of old didn’t do first contact resolution (FCR).”

However, there is, and was, no reason why an IT help desk couldn’t do more than break-fix, be more customer focused, or hit high levels of FCR. Instead, I think that the term “IT help desk” just didn’t fit with the “service-this” and “service-that” lexicon of service management best practice. Plus it didn’t help vendors to market and sell something better than the existing customer IT help desk tools, and therefore had to go.

Let Me Play Devil’s Advocate for a Moment

So to sum up – the “service desk” is named as it is because it’s what most people call it these days, it’s best practice. Agree?

Well I disagree. Not with the logic of good or best practice but with it’s what most people call it these days. In my experience, most people still call the service desk “the IT help desk” or “IT support” not “the service desk.” Why? Because “most people” are the corporate end users, or customers, that need support – as surely they must outnumber service desk, and even all IT, personnel in the majority of companies!

So was “service desk” merely a new term introduced to market and sell more books, training, exams, technology, and consultancy? Sadly, I’m struggling to see beyond this, as an IT help desk could have delivered everything a service desk does without the name change.

You can read more on the help desk vs. service desk debate in Joe the IT Guy’s blog: “You Say Tomato: Help Desk vs. Service Desk

Dena Wieder-Freiden

About Dena Wieder-Freiden

As SysAid’s Content Marketing Manager, Dena values most her friendships and daily conversations with the awesome IT service management (ITSM) authorities from all over the world! As they share their knowledge with her, she enjoys paying it forward to the IT community at large. Outside of work, she’s most likely at the gym, the beach, or at home watching a movie and spending time with her family.

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