Before any organization issues an RFP to a list of potential Managed Service Providers, the first order of business is to define the support requirements.  The trouble is sometimes those definitions require further definition or even a glossary of terms to facilitate a proper solution match. Even when using a term as pervasive as “help desk,” potential clients may mean something else entirely. The fact is it’s rare that two companies are speaking the same language.

So why is there a disconnect?

Unless you’re actually in the help desk support business, alternative use of the terminology is not uncommon. Many organizations define a help desk as being any group of IT support professionals who provide phone support in some capacity. Even if that means those professionals quickly hang up the phone and deploy themselves to the end user’s location to perform hardware repairs or Installs, Moves, Adds, Changes (IMACs) of PCs, laptops, monitors, and peripherals, the “help desk” misnomer applies.  The fact of the matter is if the help desk is a team of technicians who spend a majority of their time performing such hands-on tasks at the end user’s deskside, their role is more aptly defined as “desktop support.”

What is a help desk?

A help desk is a single point of contact call center that manages inbound incidents, logs each of them into a ticketing system, and either resolves them at Level 1 or escalates the incident until resolution is complete. So a key distinction is that help desks only deliver support remotely. In a dedicated staffing model they can indeed be placed on site at a client’s location; however, even in these instances support requests are initiated via phone, email, or web form and resolved or escalated accordingly. Typically, if the help desk team works in the same building as the users they support, they operate from a separate, well-partitioned space separate to discourage end users from initiating support in person as this leads to work interruptions as well as inaccurate documentation and reporting.

Sometimes organizations blend the terms because their staff performs both remote help desk (Level 1) and on-site desktop (Level 2) functions. This model works well for smaller offices with support requirements evenly split between remote and on-site.  Or perhaps there’s a combination of a stable IT environment and a tech-savvy end-user culture that is conducive to support staff serving more of a plug-and-play provisioning role. If so, classic Level 1 help desk tasks such as basic “how to” support for certain applications or resolving access and connectivity issues are at a minimum. Sometimes the separation of duties between help desk and desktop support is blurred because the help desk can leverage remote access tools such as TeamViewer or LogMeIn and perform troubleshooting procedures directly on the end user’s desktop. But such tools merely enhance the help desk’s capabilities rather than redefining the help desk’s role as anything but a remote support entity.

Why should this distinction matter to a Managed Services Providers if they offer both?

It’s true that most Managed Services Providers offer IT support of all stripes including help desk, desktop, and infrastructure or server support both remotely and on-site. But they still need to align their solution to the client’s true requirements which still involves defining support roles and separation of duties in an efficient, cost-effective workflow. The ideal approach is for the help desk to serve as the first point of contact for all incidents. That means help desk agents field inbound contacts via phone, email, web form, then they troubleshoot and resolve everything they can remotely (between 70 and 80% of incidents) only escalating IT support requests that require an on-site presence or additional access and permissions to resolve, like an incident filtration system. Assuming there is an IT Service Management platform or ticketing system in place, the help desk can triage and document the issue and include previously attempted resolution procedures in the notes. So on-site IT staff such as desktop support technicians can more quickly identify root causes based on what’s been eliminated from the triaging process.

This support symbiosis works because help desk and desktop support teams are able to focus on tasks that leverage their skill sets and assigned locale effectively streamlining the resolution process. By contrast, larger, more geographically dispersed companies that combine Level 1 remote and Level 2 on-site tasks often experience slower response times at the help desk when technicians are away from their desks.  Even with the most mobile-friendly ticketing system application, desktop technicians are more likely to omit documentation of their support tasks and update the ticket than if it were handled by a remote agent at their desk. Another consequence of Level 1/Level 2 double duty is technicians waste an inordinate amount of time managing walkup support requests and roaming from desk to desk addressing issues that could have been resolved remotely in a matter of minutes.

When conferring with potential clients, terminology matters and is vital to a collaborative discussion. But for the Managed Service Provider, establishing the difference between help desk and desktop support is more about determining how the support will be delivered than the language itself. Otherwise, the solution would be meaningless.

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