IT Jargon Explained

IT Help Desk

A strong IT help desk provides critical support for your organization. When customers need technical support or answers to important questions, help desk professionals must be on hand to resolve their issues and address their concerns. Dependable, informed IT support is essential to employee satisfaction and productivity, as well as the health of the overall business.

What Is an IT Help Desk?

Our modern concept of the IT help desk emerged in the mid-1990s. Today’s IT help desk is designed to be the first point of contact between an organization and end users. Team members behind the desk are assigned to answer questions or resolve technical issues relating to the hardware and software they use, usually via email, telephone, or website chat.

RELATEDWhat Does The Princess Bride Have to Do with Your Service Desk?

Without the help desk in place, the productivity of employees—and thus, the business as a whole—can suffer. The IT help desk ensures that business users have the technical support they require: This includes providing them with software and hardware, minimizing downtime and outages, preventing security or data breaches, and solving IT problems large and small so that users’ productivity is not negatively impacted. It is no exaggeration to say that for nearly any business, the failure to have an effective IT help desk in place can have devastating consequences to productivity, security, and more. 

The structure of an IT help desk may differ from one organization to another, due to size and services offered. It’s important, for instance, to ensure a help desk’s offerings can scale to the number of end-users who require support. However, the core purpose of a help desk is always the same: providing support to its users and ensuring they can go about their work without interruption.  

How can you ensure that your help desk is set up the right way? What considerations should you keep in mind? Read on to learn more about what proper help desk implementation looks like, tips for choosing help desk software, and potential pitfalls that you should avoid.

Help Desk vs Service Desk

If you're looking to establish IT support capabilities at your organization, you might be wondering whether you should call your new department a "service desk" or a "help desk"—or whether it matters at all. While the difference between the two might seem entirely semantic, the concepts of a service desk and a help desk come from very different periods in the history of IT implementation, and each tells a different story about what your IT organization does and the level of service that end users can expect.

Throughout the history of IT, especially in the early 2000s, the terms "help desk" and "service desk" were often used interchangeably. This could have been expected as the field of Information Technology expanded significantly during this time, and most IT professionals were new to the industry and failed to recognize the historical differences between the two.

The concept of an IT help-desk first emerged in the late 1980s. As organizations began to develop IT infrastructure and incorporate IT into their business models, the IT help desk emerged as a department that could help organizations maintain functionality of their IT resources. Traditionally, the IT help desk focused on the IT itself rather than the end user—its goal was to ensure the ongoing operation of critical IT resources that allow the business to function. Early functions of the help desk included basic ticket management, incident resolution, and fulfilling service requests from customers.

The concept of a service desk was born out of the ITIL framework, a widely adopted protocol that describes best practices for IT service management. The 2011 ITIL glossary defines a service desk as "the single point of contact between the service provider and the users. A typical service desk manages incidents and service requests and handles communication with the users." The widespread adoption of ITIL by large organizations has led to increased popularization of the term "service desk" to describe an organization's IT support capabilities—a survey conducted by HDI Connect in 2015 found that 36% of companies use the term "service desk" while just 23% use "help desk."

How to Avoid Common Implementation Mistakes

Tip #1: Don’t bite off more than you can chew 

Before you make any decisions on your grand plan for the IT help desk, take a step back and think about where your company is at. Setting overly aggressive goals when you first get started will lead to headaches down the road.

Start by soliciting feedback from each department that stands to benefit from your IT help desk, so you understand their greatest pain points and opportunities for improvement. Based on this input, create an implementation roadmap that prioritizes the most impactful improvements first. 

Phasing in the implementation of an IT help desk helps mitigate adoption issues, as well as avoid issues and mistakes that require remediation and re-work. Think about how you can work smarter and not harder; doing so will save you and your team countless hours in the future.

Tip #2: Hire, train, and retain top talent  

Every smart business owner knows the right employees can make or break a company. This perspective is equally true with an IT help desk staff who interact daily with internal users.

To get the right IT support staff in place, focus on hiring people who have the right combination of skills. And don’t undervalue the importance of soft skills: personnel who are patient, empathetic, and eager to solve problems are of great value, especially if they are level-one help desk technicians. Technical skills can always be taught.

Second, when it comes to attracting the right talent, carefully consider the profile of your end users. Help desk staff working with doctors and medical staff, for example, will require a different approach—and possibly a different temperament—than  those tasked with assisting students. 

Third, be sure to hire enough people for the job. An understaffed IT help desk means problems don’t get resolved quickly, and questions go unanswered. This situation will frustrate business users and lead to poor productivity and outages—which can have a big impact on your business’ bottom line. An understaffed help desk will also result in burnout and high turnover rates among your best workers. 

Fourth, establish a common knowledge base of internal support documentation to aid team members in quickly finding solutions to problems. Documentation will enable your team to provide better service, and make the process of training new hires easier. 

Finally, it’s important to emphasize teamwork. Fostering a sense of camaraderie and unity goes a long way toward keeping morale and team energy high—your end users will notice (and appreciate) a positive, enthusiastic attitude.  

Tip #3: Understand and anticipate business needs  

An effective IT help desk always focuses on the outcome of supporting end users and answering questions. Processes are important, but they should be formulated with end-user experiences and business needs in mind. Any process that hampers efficiency or stands in the way of end user productivity should be reassessed. 

To fulfill business needs, a help desk must: 

  • Be proactive — Ideally, the help desk will actively seek to prevent problems before they escalate.
  • Analyze and identify trends and recurring issues — If the same issue happens week in and week out, the underlying cause needs to be addressed. 
  • Set up service-level agreements (SLAs) and key performance indicators (KPIs) — The SLA sets expectations for the speed and completion of help desk tasks, which is essential. This metric is how everyone—users and support staff—can know what service should be delivered. Having the right KPIs in place allows insight into when performance slips. (See more on this in tip #7.) 
  • Set realistic expectations — The best strategy is always to under-promise and then over-deliver. 

The goal of an efficient IT help desk is simple. Provide customer support so that users can return to work with as little disruption as possible.

Tip #4: Create specialized teams within the help desk 

Don’t throw all your help desk team members into one box. They’ll eventually become overwhelmed with support tickets and requests. The smarter solution is to practice a “divide and conquer mentality” by structuring your help desk into support tiers.

A tiered system places help desk staffers into smaller teams that are focused on specific issues. For example, one team might be dedicated toward rapidly categorizing and routing user questions and support inquiries to the right department. Another team is then tasked with responding to and working with the bulk of service requests, but reserves the ability to forward on nuanced or difficult problems to a specialized team of experts. This multi-tiered support system is common inside larger companies.  

No matter the breakdown you choose, building specialized teams inside of your help desk department cuts down on chaos and ensures everyone can work efficiently. Allowing staff to zero in on specific responsibilities frees them up to provide better service.

Tip #5: Clearly define your help desk processes, workflows, and policies

The process of preparing and supporting individuals before a business implements something new is known as change management. Why is this process important? Because change management provides a structured approach that helps your company figure out the nuances of a help desk system.

Here are some tips:

  • Don’t be afraid to automate — Automating certain help desk processes can go a long way toward smoothing out workflow. Companies sometimes rely on chatbots or artificial intelligence to answer basic customer questions or to siphon inquiries to a specific help desk staff member. 
  • Stay human — Automation should support your help desk, but it shouldn’t be your help desk. In many situations, customers need answers to complex questions and help with more than one issue. Be sure to provide the right experience and connect them to real service people through email, chat, call centers, and so on.
  • Keep compliance in mind — Other considerations about help desk architecture include security and regulatory compliance. Compliance is especially important when dealing with entities in the European Union who must adhere to General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR).
  • Define processes and policies — When you map out what it is your help desk should do and how it should do it, process definition is crucial. Turning to the Information Technology Infrastructure Library (ITIL) can be useful to determine standardized workflows and policies you should implement. Remember: processes are the routines your help desk follows to accomplish tasks, while policies are the rules they stick to when conducting these operations.

Tip #6: Clarify the role of ITIL  

You’re probably aware that ITIL functions as best-practices guidance. But don’t feel like your company has to implement all practices to succeed. This feat is usually achieved by only the most mature organizations in the IT field. Your company should be savvy when it comes to ITIL—determine which practices are applicable to your organization and table the rest.

IT help desk support falls under the ITIL Service Operation lifecycle. The key aim is simple. Operate at a level where there are no issues while continuing to respond to day-to-day incidents and requests.

Processes that are undertaken in Service Operation include.

  • Incident Management: Where users contact the customer help desk and staff renders aid based on a specific set of processes
  • Problem Management: Minimization of the impact of incidents that are unable to be avoided while preventing issues from occurring
  • Request Fulfillment: Completes customer requests, like a password reset or grants access to a specific software license
  • Change Management: Minimize disruptions to company operations and IT services by controlling risk

Other processes including: Event Management, Access Management, IT Operations Control, Facilities Management, Application Management, Knowledge Management, Asset Management, and Technical Management. These processes deal with everything from prioritizing tasks based on events, to granting user access, maintaining IT infrastructure, and supporting applications.

Tip #7: Establish your help desk KPIs and metrics

Clear and concise goals are essential elements of effective service management. If your team is not clear on the type of support they should provide, proper response times, or what constitutes “successful” ticket management, service desk help will not be as effective nor as reliable as it could be.

A smart way to lay out expectations is to craft a service-level agreement (SLA). This SLA establishes two-way accountability for customers and support staff about how to measure performance and manage relationships.

A good SLA improves customer service and fosters better communication by providing users a thorough understanding of the type of support they can expect from your help desk by making clear what issues are beyond the scope of your staff.

It also can help set accurate response times. For example, an SLA can inform a customer that a high-priority request will be addressed within one to five hours, while an inquiry of low importance might have a five- to seven-day response time.

If your support team is having trouble adhering to aspects of the SLA, it’s time for an evaluation. It’s probably prudent to provide additional employee training or bring on more staff to meet demand.

Key performance indicators, or KPIs, can help your service desk monitor and adjust performance. These KPIs can keep tabs on performance for incident management and problem management processes. There are many KPIs, but some common ones include:

  • Number of incidents/problems
  • Number of repeated incidents
  • Average initial response time
  • Number of escalations
  • Incident resolution time
  • Number of unresolved problems
  • Problem resolution time

All of these KPIs can help you get a clear picture of how well your help desk is operating. Use them to pinpoint any problem areas, make adjustments to improve efficiency and customer satisfaction, and boost team member morale by giving credit where credit is due.

Finally, aside from using KPIs, soliciting user feedback through customer surveys is a smart way to hone in on where your help desk is succeeding and falling short. Don’t be afraid to ask your customers for their honest opinion. All of this goes a long way in helping you understand the value your IT help desk brings to your business.

Tip #8: Educate your internal customers

Once your help desk is up and running, make sure to get other employees on board. If a customer is speaking with another one of your employees about an issue, teach the employee to politely direct the customer to open up a help desk ticket.

It’s important to engage internal customers when educating them about how to use technologies. You can do this by including tips and tricks in weekly or monthly newsletters, releasing a company portal that offers training, creating an accessible knowledge base, hosting workshops, and more. Get creative and address common pain points—when customers know the value of using your technologies, they’ll want to learn how to become more proficient.

All customer interactions, in and outside of the help desk, are teachable moments that your company can reflect on for the future. Don’t pass up the opportunity to leverage the help desk internally.

Tip #9: Pick the right help desk tool

What does your help desk do? This question is key when choosing the right help desk software to support your business. After all, you want to make sure you provide valuable service through the right experience, no matter who your customers are. It’s important to implement tools that are appropriate for your business by considering the size of your organization, who you’re serving, and how you want to solve customer issues.

Businesses large and small should think hard about help desk capabilities. Tools are available to automatically categorize tickets, give canned responses to customers who are waiting for help, or open up other communication avenues besides a phone call or email.  

Don’t underestimate the importance of having help desk technology on your side. The right equipment can speed up response times and make it easier for your tech support desk to operate. Moreover, the right help desk solution can go a long way in improving your service and your business overall.

Tip #10: Establish IT self-service

The best IT service desk help is the one where your customers can support themselves. This objective might seem counter-intuitive, especially if you worked hard to build up an effective support team.

However, writing up an online customer portal with FAQs or building a knowledge base for your services or products can dramatically reduce the IT help desk burdens. This approach frees up your team to focus time and energy on higher-level work.

Today’s consumer is all about self-sufficiency. Many are reluctant to reach out to get IT help unless they really need it. Self-service resources empower your customers to seek resolutions to their own problems and follow up on a help desk ticket in real time. 

*This content originally appeared on, prior to the acquisition by Ivanti.