Help Desk vs Service Desk: What’s the Key Differences?

Help Desk vs Service Desk: What’s the Key Differences?

Whatfix’s 2023 Digital Adoption Trends Report discovered that 84% of technology end-users don’t know how to use core features and processes in the software they use daily. 

This digital skills gap defeats the purpose of technology-enabled work, instead causing employees and customers to become frustrated and stuck with unintuitive software that lacks the contextual support they need to extract value from them. This leads to end-users, both customers and employees, experiencing technology friction that requires them to submit a support ticket or other form of IT incident management. 

Help desks and service desks are critical for organizations to enable users with contextual, real-time end-user support. They provide an incident management solution for end-users to overcome IT-related roadblocks and are a key driver of digital adoption, which ultimately accelerates digital transformation and maximizes end-user productivity.

While quite similar, help desks and service desks have nuanced differences depending on their intended use, the target end-user, and what outcomes a company intends to achieve. In this article, we’ll break down these small but critical traits to help you understand the difference between a help desk and a service desk.

What Is a Help Desk?

Like a service desk, a help desk is also a point of contact for end-users (mostly customer end-users, but also includes internal employee end-users for larger organizations) to submit support queries and requests for additional IT-related assistance.

CRM with help desk software integration

For example, a help desk assistant will spend most of their time resolving help desk tickets as quickly as possible. It’s a reactive form of customer support that is important for organizations to communicate promptly with customers and prevent any backlogs of unresolved issues.

What Is a Service Desk?

A service desk is responsible for helping your organization provide end-user support on IT products and services to avoid service disruptions, as well as service-related questions and requests (ie, “How do I do X process?” or “How to add X new service?).

Customers can typically reach a company’s service desk through voice calls, email, website form submissions, chatbots, social media, and other traditional customer support channels. Modern service desks are powered by self-service end-user portals where support tickets can be submitted by end-users, managed by IT teams, and both can communicate through the service desk.

zendesk help center

By providing more robust and accessible service desk options, you’re ultimately building a more reliable customer experience for your users and improving the adoption of your product. 

A service desk helps organizations streamline and manage customer service responsibilities, such as: 

  • Reviewing and troubleshooting incidents like network issues, service outages, or software and hardware installation errors.
  • Providing assistance for service requests for access and permissions, software updates, security protocol, IT training, and licensing for technology tools. 
  • Timely communication with customers about IT topics, issues, or changes that may affect them.
  • Updating and maintaining knowledge bases with resources about IT policies and guidelines. 
  • Relaying important information or findings from customer incidents to IT and engineering teams.

What’s the Key Differences in a Help Desk and a Service Desk?

The responsibilities of a service desk or help desk are similar, but have nuanced differences that make each a different tool for support teams.

The main difference is that a help desk focuses on helping customers in a more reactive and transactional manner. In contrast, a service desk allows companies to operate and scale IT service delivery that exceeds customer expectations through proactive, process-orientation approaches.


Depending on your product or service, both provide value for your end-users and the IT support team. 

Let’s further break down the main differences between a help desk and a service desk:

  • Help desk: Resolving tickets is a reactive approach to customer support. In industries like IT, telecommunications, hospitality, retail, healthcare, and more, fast-paced issue resolution is critical to ensure service continuity for key customers. For example, healthcare organizations need access to a help desk to quickly resolve issues in their electronic health record systems or patient care technologies. Delays in resolving these tickets can cause severe implications for critical care patients.
  • Service desk: The responsibilities of a service desk include proactively identifying and addressing customer-facing issues before they become problems that disrupt the overall service experience. Unlike help desks, service desks may conduct in-depth customer research or analytics to monitor customer behavior and work with IT teams to implement better service strategies. Organizations in industries susceptible to security threats or network disruptions — like aerospace and defense, finance, and energy — benefit from having a proactive service desk to flag disruptive patterns before they impact customers.
  • Help desk: A help desk has a more limited scope of responsibilities around helping companies handle immediate customer support tickets. Help desk tickets can include inquiries regarding billing, software bugs, and questions on how to use a feature or interface. These tickets are time-sensitive because they usually involve customers who require this real-time assistance before they can continue using a product or service as intended. Therefore, help desks have more than enough on their plate just fielding these incoming requests reactively.
  • Service desk: A service desk has a broader scope of responsibilities because it manages the entire service lifecycle — from building strategies for service requirements to defining service level agreements (SLAs), creating service documentation, navigating service transitions, and implementing an IT framework to maintain the quality of service operations continuously. Service desks are also an essential point of accountability for giving companies visibility into the causes of recurring issues.

  • Help desk: A help desk — with its emphasis on fielding and closing customer support tickets — revolves solely around incident management. If a customer has an issue, they contact a help desk to fix it immediately. Help desk assistants have to be on standby at all times during hours of operation to ensure that customers receive prompt assistance and can resume regular operations of a product or service as quickly as possible.
  • Service desk: Unlike incident management, service management encompasses a broader range of service-centric responsibilities. These responsibilities include incident management, change management, problem management, knowledge management, and ongoing customer communication. The goal of service management isn’t to help customers as quickly as possible but to ensure that customers receive high-quality service delivery at all times.

  • Help desk: A help desk benefits from some of the processes outlined in the ITIL framework, primarily around incident management. The framework helps help desk teams use the right tools and resources to prioritize, close, and document incidents effectively. Following the guidelines outlined in the ITIL framework, organizations can optimize their help desk operations such as: 
    • Detecting and recording incidents
    • Classifying incidents 
    • Investigating and diagnosing incidents 
    • Resolving incidents
  • Service desk: According to ITSM Tools, the ITIL 4 framework defines service desk practices that help organizations improve their “ability to recognize, understand, predict, and project the interests, needs, intentions, and experiences of another party to establish, maintain and improve the service relationship.” Far exceeding the scope of just incident management, ITIL principles point to service desks as the point of contact for all matters related to a customer-facing service instead of just resolving issues.
  • Help desk: Help desks contribute to a more substantial customer experience by helping companies ensure speed and reliability when resolving customer support queries or incidents. Customers don’t want to wait days to hear back from companies when they encounter issues, with 64% saying they would spend more with a brand if their problems are resolved right where they are — without disruptions or waiting. This is hard to do without a help desk managing customer support tickets.
  • Service desk: A service desk is actively involved in helping organizations define and standardize service delivery policies that are critical for the customer experience. From ensuring that services meet SLA requirements to sharing service announcements with customers, delivering customer education, and tracking important customer support metrics, the responsibilities of a service desk revolve around putting customers first and making them happy.
  • Help desk: Help desk agents are typically trained to become proficient at your product or service. They must have comprehensive know-how of all FAQs, including those more technical. Agents are equipped with all the knowledge, tools, and resources they need to communicate effectively with customers, help customers resolve problems immediately, and point customers in the right direction for additional support and guidance.
  • Service desk: Service desk agents tend to have a more robust set of skills in IT service management, which involves strengths in technical IT topics, process management, and customer service. Companies must have a more comprehensive onboarding and training syllabus for service desk agents covering topics like: 
    • How to use standard operating systems, software applications, and networks
    • What are the most effective ITSM frameworks, processes, tools, and tools
    • When to use the right analytical strategies to identify and resolve issues
    • How to operate and maintain internal knowledge bases
    • How to navigate internal change management processes
  • Help desk: Due to its emphasis on resolving customer tickets on a case-by-case basis, help desks often collaborate with other departments in an organization in a more ad-hoc way. Help desks are primarily centered around the requirements of the customer support ticket rather than the need for collaboration. If a ticket can be resolved solely by the help desk team, then nobody else needs to be involved. However, help desk software and CRM systems should facilitate the collaboration between help desks and other teams by making historical customer data accessible. Agents can then document customer interactions and joint issues and use these tools to push the right activity logs into the right places in a technology stack.
  • Service desk: Collaboration is a critical component of service desk responsibilities. Rooted in ITSM principles, service desk agents must be aligned with all stakeholders responsible for designing and delivering customer services — like IT departments, engineers, customer account managers, and executives. As the central point of contact for all matters related to the service lifecycle, service desk software is often integrated with platforms involved in monitoring and tracking IT service reliability, performance, security, and more.
Enable end-users with Whatfix’s in-app guidance and real-time support to deflect support tickets and create better technology experiences

Whatfix’s digital adoption platform (DAP) empowers organizations with self-service support and in-app guided experiences within your digital UI. Whatfix’s no-code platform empowers IT and customer support teams to enable their customer and employee technology end-users with:

  • Self Help that aggregates your knowledge base, FAQs, training documents, and more into one searchable resource center that overlays your UI.
  • Guided Flows that provide in-app interactive walkthroughs on complex, multi-step processes.
  • Tours and Task Lists that help new users familize themselves with an interface and set up their account with a user onboarding checklist.
  • Smart Tips that provide contextual information and nudge users to take specific actions.
  • Beacons that highlight new features or changes with in-app pulsating elements.
  • Pop-Ups that overlay your entire UI to alert end-users of company news, new features, product updates, and more.
  • Field Validation to ensure end-users enter data in the correct format.
  • In-App Surveys which collect end-user feedback directly in your app.

Analyze your end-user behavior, build optimal user flows, create contextual end-user experiences, and overcome technology friction with Whatfix Analytics.

Whatfix Analytics enables IT, customer success, and product teams with a no-code event tracking platform to analyze and monitor user behavior. This helps products to build optimal user paths, segment journeys by user type, perform cohort analysis, identify areas of user friction, understand user engagement, monitor end-user adoption, and track any custom event.

“Whatfix has made it super simple for us to incorporate helpful visual guides into our knowledge base content. Our users are able to get seamless self-service even on complex features with Whatfix’s intuitive interface. Plus, it’s a breeze for our team to create and maintain our guides.”

Abigail Albright, Director EPM, Maxwell Health

What Is Whatfix?
Whatfix is a digital adoption platform that provides organizations with a no-code editor to create in-app guidance on any application that looks 100% native. With Whatfix, create interactive walkthroughs, product tours, task lists, smart tips, field validation, self-help wikis, hotspots, and more. Understand how users are engaging with your applications with advanced product analytics.
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Whatfix's digital adoption platform empowers your employees, customers, and end-users with in-app guidance, reinforcement learning, and contextual self-help support to find maximum value from software.

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