Looking for a working definition of an ITIL Service? Is it Customer Service, or something more? Read on for a straight-forward explanation.

Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve seen a lot of “Service Management” discussions lately where it’s clear those talking don’t share the same understanding of “service”.

 Photo Credit: army.arch via Compfight cc
Photo Credit: army.arch via Compfight cc

Unfortunately, it’s more than simple semantics. Service Management encompasses everything an IT service provider does to provide services to customers. If you think of ‘service with a smile’ – the soft side of service delivery, you’re missing the whole point of Service Management.

What is a Service?

So, what exactly is a Service in ITIL?

When we say “Service Management”, are we talking about service, as in ‘service with a smile’? Helpful, friendly people who make for a pleasant experience with the provider? Or are we talking about a service that provides specific useful functionality to the customer. (Like a gutter cleaning service.)

Straight from the pages of ITIL itself, a Service is:

A means of delivering value to customers by facilitating outcomes customers want to achieve, but without the ownership of specific costs and risks.

Many people struggle with this description. The talk of value and outcomes sounds kind of fluffy, and they think customer service. Which, we all know is important, so what’s the big deal?

Well, for starters, it’s not talking about a great customer experience, or knock-your-socks-off service. It doesn’t even touch on how the service is delivered (or by whom.)

What it does say is that a service facilitates results (outcomes) customers need. Which begs the question – what kinds of outcomes is the business looking for?

Things like:

  • Reduce operating costs
  • Decrease time-to-market of new products
  • Increase customer engagement

Services should be defined in terms of how they will help the business achieve these kinds of results.

This is a radical departure from old school IT, that’s traditionally been a provider of technology. It’s a different mind set.

Service Management is a set of organizational capabilities for providing value to IT Service Managementcustomers in the form of services. (ITIL Service Operations. London: TSO, 2011. Print) The end goal of our work must be achieving the results the business wants. (If the business isn’t getting the desired results, the Service isn’t performing as expected.)

Service Management is more than a partnership with the business. (we do our part; you do yours.) It’s a skin-in-the-game commitment to helping the business achieve their results.

The Value of a Service

Services in and of themselves have very little value. Their value is what they enable the business to achieve. It’s also worth noting that it’s the business who determine how valuable a service is. (Which means it’s theoretically possible for IT to provide a flawless technical solution that has no business value.)

Services are described by their utility and warranty

Utility describes how well a service meets the needs of target users. Does it provide the features, ease of use, cost, and other requirements. The associated phrase is “fit for purpose”.

Warranty describes how well the service, in practice, meets the requirements. For instance, the service may be designed to provide 7/24 access, but in actual use, it is so unreliable that users dread using it. The associated phrase is “fit for use”.

In order to consistently provide the desired levels of utility and warranty, much care is taken to define the strategy, technical design, and transitioning of the service into operations. It’s critical the service be clearly defined, well engineered, tested, and thoughtfully deployed into production.

Without the Ownership of Specific Costs and Risks

To maximize results, businesses focus on ‘core competencies’ – those critical few capabilities that are unique to the company which gives a strategic advantage over competitors.

Nearly all businesses have a critical need for IT services to achieve their goals, but they want to do so without losing focus on their core. IT Services (as defined above) allow them to fully leverage technology, but without taking ownership for the costs and risks of directly managing IT resources and capabilities.

There’s a highly interwoven dependency, but the business is free of managing a capability that is not core to it’s business.

Enabling Services

While the business is focused on outcomes, IT still has to deliver a lot of technology services – email, network, server hosting, applications. In the past, these have been the bread and butter of IT. But, increasingly, IT customers don’t care to be bothered with the underlying technologies.

These infrastructure elements are themselves Enabling Services.

They include things like:

  • email and collaboration tools
  • File services
  • Network infrastructure
  • Application hosting

Each of these services are managed as a Service, and are combined with other services to deliver the business services described above.

Service With a Smile

But, customer service is still a good thing, right?


Service, in this context, refers to the art and science of providing excellent customer experience with the provider. There’s a lot of good work out there around customer service. Organizations like Help Desk Institute have provided leadership in excellent customer service for decades.

Definitely do provide excellent customer service. Just don’t confuse Customer Service with Service Management!

Say it With Me: Service Management is Not Customer Service

Don’t confuse “Service Management” with Customer Service.

Services are what IT delivers to facilitate business outcomes. Service Management is a framework of capabilities that encompasses every area, function and aspect of IT Service delivery, including strategy, design, transition, operations, and continual improvement.

It is most definitely not limited to those areas of IT providing direct customer support.