IT Jargon Explained

Service Desk

A service desk is a centralized support center that provides help and assistance to users in an organization for IT-related products or services.

For IT organizations of all sizes, the service desk represents one of the most important core activities, requiring management on a daily basis. If you're just establishing your IT department and looking to implement a service desk for the first time, the process can seem intimidating, especially if your goal is to follow the best practice recommendations from ITIL® right from the beginning.

Service desks play a key role in ensuring the availability of all services that the IT organization delivers and supports. While a well-implemented service desk can drive efficiency throughout your organization, a poorly executed one can really weigh down your business. Organizations striving toward improving and maturing service management often begin by establishing a service desk that adopts ITIL standards.

Not only does ITIL offer best practices for incident management and request fulfillment—two of the core functions of the service desk—it also describes how organizations should assign and share the responsibilities of operating the service desk to ensure optimal efficiency, accountability, and exceptional service standards.

Let's take a further look at the roles and responsibilities associated with managing and operating an IT service desk within your organization.

What is a service desk?

A service desk is a centralized support center that provides help and assistance to users in an organization for IT-related products or services. The service desk is typically the first point of contact for users who need technical guidance or help related to IT-related products and services. It is responsible for managing requests from users, assessing their needs, and providing support or solutions accordingly. It is also responsible for ensuring compliance with IT policies and procedures established by the organization.

Service desk in the ITIL framework

The ITIL framework offers IT organizations a complete pathway to implementing a service desk and implementing and enforcing IT service desk responsibilities within the organization.

ITIL 2011 identifies 26 processes and four functions that fit into the five stages of the service lifecycle: Service Strategy, Service Design, Service Transition, Service Operation, and Continual Service Improvement.

The service desk function is described as part of the Service Operation book of ITIL. The goal of ITIL Service Operation is to ensure that IT services are delivered effectively and efficiently. There are five processes covered in the ITIL Service Operation manual:

  1. Event Management
  2. Incident Management
  3. Problem Management
  4. Request Fulfillment
  5. Access Management

While Event Management, Problem Management, and Access Management are separate processes that may be handled by separate teams, the service desk staff will have complete ownership over the processes of Incident Management and request fulfillment. These two processes are the core drivers of every responsibility of the service desk staff, and the majority of action taken by the service desk each day will be to satisfy the requirements of either the Incident Management or request fulfillment process. In the next section, we review the three core functions of the IT service desk and the associated responsibilities.

3 core functions of the IT service desk

The service desk acts as a single point of contact between the IT organization and the business for all incident reports, service requests, change notifications, and any other necessary communications. IT Service Desk Responsibilities revolve around the role of the service desk in Incident Management and Request Fulfillment along with communications. Let's take a deeper look at each process and the responsibilities of the service desk.

Service desk owns the incident management process

In ITIL 2011, the service desk owns the Incident Management process and is responsible for resolving incidents according to service level agreements with the goal of restoring services as quickly as possible and getting the customer back to work. IT service desk responsibilities that are associated with Incident Management include:

  • Incident Management Support - Service desk managers must ensure that adequate tools, processes, and skills are maintained throughout the service desk team to ensure the timely and effective handling of incidents. Without adequate support, the efficiency and performance of this IT service desk process is significantly diminished.
  • Incident Logging and Categorization - Service desk analysts are expected to keep an accurate and up-to-date log of each incident that is reported, including the category/type of incident. Incidents need to be organized and prioritized based on the level of disruption that they cause. A service desk must properly allocate its resources to the handling of the most critical incidents.
  • Incident Resolution - Service desk analysts typically play the role of 1st-level support within the IT organization—they're the ones that answer the phone or respond to your message when you first contact IT, and their goal is always to resolve the incident on the first call and restore service as quickly as possible. In cases where it is impossible for a 1st-level support provider to resolve the issue immediately, the incident may be transferred to a 2nd-level support analyst or Service desk supervisor.
  • 2nd-Level Incident Resolution - Service desk supervisors have responsibilities beyond the resolution of escalated incidents, but they are still expected to get their hands on escalated incidents and either take action themselves or involve specialist support groups or suppliers that can help. External support is sometimes known as 3rd-Level Support—a service desk supervisor should be able to understand the problem and find the right expert that can provide a timely resolution.
  • Handling of Major Incidents - Some incidents are classified as major incidents, meaning that they cause a massive business interruption and need to be fixed immediately. When this happens, the service desk should react by rapidly escalating the issue, recruiting 3rd-level support if needed and issuing timely communications and status updates to users. Again, the primary goal of the service desk in a major incident is to establish a workaround and restore service as quickly as possible.
  • Incident Management Reporting - If your organization has an established Problem Management process, most of the information you receive about problems will come through the service desk. When an incident is reported, service desk staff work on the issue and manage escalations until a workaround is found. Even when a workaround is found, there may be an underlying issue that will cause the issue to reoccur in the future. In cases where a workaround is found but the error is not fully understood, the service desk team reports the incident to Problem Management where the PM team will conduct a root cause analysis and find an ultimate solution to the incident.

IT service requests are handled through the service desk

Although the service desk handles both Incident Management and Request Fulfillment, it would be a mistake to think that these main IT service desk responsibilities weigh equally on the minds of service desk analysts. In most cases, service requests are relatively minor and don't reflect a high-priority issue. Users may call and request to have their password reset, or for a piece of software to be installed on their machine, or they may simply be requesting information ("How do I access my pay stubs for this year on our employee intranet?").

Still, the service desk ensures that employees have somewhere to go for the most basic IT service issues that they can't resolve on their own. The IT service desk responsibilities for request fulfillment include:

  • Request Fulfillment Support - Similar to the Incident Management support process, the service desk manager needs to ensure that the tools, processes, personnel, and training are adequately maintained to realize an effective and efficient request fulfillment process. This includes training service desk analysts on how to deliver services for customers as well as building a service catalog and including automated self-service options that proactively reduce the number of service requests and help maintain agreed service levels.
  • Request Logging and Categorization - Service requests, like incidents, are logged and categorized according to their type and priority. Importantly, service desk analysts must include a check step to verify that the person submitting the service request is authorized to do so.
  • Request Model Execution - Request model execution simply means fulfilling customer requests in an appropriate time frame. IT departments should manage expectations by agreeing with the business on the service level to be provided and ensuring that requests are fulfilled within the agreed time schedule.
  • Request Monitoring and Escalation - Service desk staff must work together to ensure that service levels are not breached. This means consistently monitoring the status of all service requests and escalating service requests to a higher resolution level when service level agreements are in jeopardy.
  • Request Closure and Evaluation - The service desk has the same reporting responsibilities for the request fulfillment process as it does for the Incident Management process. If any problems or errors are discovered that require further attention, they should be passed on to problem management for a root cause analysis. Otherwise, the service desk should generate a Request Record with all of the most important information about the request so that it can be documented for future analysis and investigation.

Request fulfillment and Incident Management can be equally important processes within the IT organization. When customers can't access their machine because they forget their password, it's important that a member of the service desk staff is available to offer a quick password reset that can get them back online quickly. At the same time, this is exactly the type of service that can be automated through a service catalog that offers self-service. Service desk staff should continuously develop a knowledge base and self-service portal that empowers customers to handle IT issues on their own when it is convenient and reduces the burden on the service desk.

The service desk acts as a single point of communication (SPOC)

The third major role of the service desk is as a single point of contact between the business and the IT organization for all communications related to IT. In view of what we've already discussed, you might think that the majority of these communications are related to either Incident Management tickets or service requests, and for the most part, you'd be right. Still, there's one other type of communication that forms a major part of the responsibilities for the service desk.

The IT service desk manager is responsible for ensuring that users are proactively notified of existing or imminent service outages that could threaten their productivity or lead to excessive call volume. If a number of customers are experiencing an error, there should be a proactive effort to disseminate the solution or workaround throughout the company rather than having every single employee calling into IT throughout the day for the resolution.

In addition, there are times when IT will implement changes that affect the availability of services, or that will result in a reboot of systems that affects access to particular services for a short time. In these cases, IT service desk managers should ensure that users are given advance notice and can prepare for the period of service unavailability.

Putting it all together...

The IT Service Desk is one of the four core functions of ITIL and houses two of the most rudimentary processes of ITIL: Incident Management and Request Fulfillment. Many organizations choose to bootstrap their IT compliance by implementing an ITIL-compliant service desk and working towards effective Incident Management and Request Fulfillment processes before developing their capabilities to execute other ITIL processes. Developing an understanding of IT service desk responsibilities and expanding Service Desk capabilities is an excellent way to jump-start your organization's compliance with ITIL.

What's the next step once you've established an ITIL-compliant service desk? If your organization maintains records of personal data for your clients of subscribers, you may want to establish an Information Security Management System (ISMS) in compliance with ITIL's Information Security Management process as your next step.