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What is a service desk?

An IT service desk is a delivery mechanism that provides a single point of contact (SPOC) between IT organizations and end users.

A foundational element for IT service management (ITSM), service desks handle the full lifecycle of IT service delivery, from managing service requests to resolving service issues and planning service upgrades.

Defined by the IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL), IT service desks are a superset of the standard help desk. The main focus of an IT help desk is on fixing issues, while a service desk is more broadly focused on delivering services to users. Therefore, the former is for tactical IT support, while the latter is more strategic. For example, the service desk also handles software licensing, service providers and third-party contracts related to ITSM.

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Why are service desks important?

Service desks are the “face” of IT operations for employees, customers, suppliers, and business partners. They provide a centralized resource for getting help with IT incidents, as well as IT service requests like password resets or database access requests.

IT service desks are a critical part of ITSM, the best-practices framework for “managing IT as a service.” Service desks are often responsible for multiple ITSM activities, including service request management, incident management, knowledge management, self-service portals, performance reporting, and SLA management. Some service desk tools also include functionality for problem and change management.

Benefits of IT service desks

IT service desks are playing an important role in the rise of remote working and digital transformation. Remote employees have a greater need for reliable technology and real-time collaboration. Organizations that have adopted self-service have increased satisfaction and scaled the capacity of their service desks, achieving, on average, 20% self-service resolution [1].

Some of the key benefits of service desks include: 

  • Operational efficiency: Service desks standardize IT processes, and automate routine tasks as much as possible, to enable faster incident response—and more cost-efficient operations. Deploying a virtual agent and AI chatbot within a service desk can reduce response times from 10 minutes to just seconds [2].
  • Greater alignment between business and IT: Service desks are the interface between users, business processes, and the IT services that enable them. This provides valuable insights into user satisfaction, enabling proactive problem management and better planning of future IT services.
  • Increased productivity: Self-service tools, shared knowledge bases, and automated workflows streamline the delivery of IT services. This helps users get back to work faster and frees up IT staff to focus on more strategic activities. Service desk software can lower client ticket volumes by up to 80% [3].
  • Improved IT asset management: Service desks act as a hub for all hardware and software assets, as well as any contracts, enabling easy information retrieval, asset valuation, configuration, maintenance, etc.
  • Greater reliability: By speeding incident resolution, reducing incidents and problems, and even automatically preventing or resolving issues, service desks keep the business up and running at less cost. One of the largest health insurance providers decreased costly pre-service calls with conversational AI [4].
Key capabilities of service desks

Organizations rely on IT service desks to:

  • Monitor for IT incidents—that is, unplanned outages or interruptions in service—and resolve them with minimal impact to users and the business.
  • Troubleshoot problems and facilitate solutions to known problems.
  • Manage changes to minimize IT service disruptions, compliance issues, and other risks to critical operations.
  • Address service requests from individual users as well as business units. These can range from employee requests for new devices, to partner requests for portal access, to departmental requests for new software licenses.
  • Provide service catalogs and “self-service” tools to help users resolve issues quickly and independently.
  • Broaden departmental knowledge, then share that information with others via searchable knowledge bases.
  • Track the effectiveness of the IT team and service desk tools via specific metrics and detailed reporting.

Modern service desk software uses AI-powered automation to prioritize, assign, and manage service tickets to ensure faster resolution. Virtual agents can manage the escalation of different issues with automatic routing to the right support teams, which optimizes IT operations and user experiences at the same time.

Service desks have also evolved to support business needs that are not traditionally IT-related, such as HR, legal and finance/accounting tasks. Some service desks may manage employee onboarding, supplier/partner contracts, data access management, etc.

What’s next for IT service desks?

With new technologies emerging every day, IT service desks must constantly adapt their processes to meet users’ needs. But keeping employees productive and satisfied is a steep challenge. According to Forrester research, just 17% of global information workers say that it’s a simple process to get approval to access the data they need [1].

In response, IT service desks are tailoring new service offerings to improve digital experiences. New communication channels, such as chat and chatbots, make it easier to contact the service desk. Other tools, such as a service app store, enable users to request apps, services, endpoint devices and assistance—even while working remotely.

Service scope is also evolving into enterprise service management, with formalized processes to support HR, facilities, finance, security, and legal departments. IT teams understand how to configure even non-IT tasks to deliver better business outcomes.

Service automation is not only accelerating the resolution of incidents, but also increasing employee and customer satisfaction. Users don’t have to wait around for a simple request, like getting access to a new database. Requests that require deeper IT knowledge can also get addressed faster, thanks to automated incident categorization and intelligent ticketing systems.

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[1] Charles Betz, Andrew Hewitt, “Service Desk 2020: It’s All About Employee Experience,” Forrester Research, October 6, 2020.

[2] IBM Client Story: Bradesco

[3] IBM Client Story: Cognizant Technology

[4] IBM Client Story: Humana