What is an IT Service?

Written by David Crouch

Definition of a Service

The ITIL books officially define a Service as, “A means of delivering value to Customers by facilitating Outcomes Customers want to achieve without [taking on] the ownership of specific Costs and Risks.” Services differ from products in that they don’t always provide something tangible with which you can measure whether that Service meets your needs.

What is a Service?

To better understand what a Service is, think about a restaurant vs. a supermarket. Both provide food, but you are buying a Service from a restaurant – namely, you want to be fed. At a supermarket, you can only buy the raw ingredients, which you put together yourself. With a restaurant, a Service provider puts everything together for you. They have to worry about the specific costs like ingredients, glasses, tables, chairs, rent, salaries for management as well as the wait staff, etc. All you have to determine is whether the price of the menu items is worth it for you to eat there and not have to cook.

The Service provider also takes care of the environment and ambiance – your overall experience. They refill your water glass, deliver your food and drinks, and take care of any issues along the way. Don’t like your meal? No problem. It’s the job of your Service provider to make it right, whether that is by offering you something different, re-cooking the same dish, or refunding your money. That’s what it means to be able to transfer the risk of that Service. The Service provider is going to waste some amount of food during the week and has to figure out how to work that amount (along with all of their infrastructure costs) into pricing on the menu.

The Stuff IT Does

A lot of IT shops equate services with what I call “the stuff IT Does.”  Simply put, part of what IT does is that it gives people stuff – laptops, desktops, software, telephones, and the list goes on.  When IT thinks of itself as a stuff-provider, at least two risks emerge: 1) The “stuff” IT does ends up being defined by IT; not by the customer and 2) Customers begin to see IT as an order-taker; not as a trusted advisor.  In the first case, when IT defines the “stuff,” the risk is that IT promotes things that are “cool” from IT’s perspective; but the customer’s idea of what is needed may be very different.  When IT does not provide what the customer wants, customer satisfaction goes down.  And sometimes the customer begins to look elsewhere, outside of the corporate IT shop, to procure what they need.  The second risk – when customers treat IT as an order taker – places IT in the same category as a fast food drive-through window.  The customer will constantly ask for something that we may or may not have the capability of providing and always want it quicker and for less money.  Even if we improve delivery times and costs, the customer will always be at least somewhat dissatisfied when IT is the order-taker. In fact, in some ways, the fast food restaurant has an advantage over the IT order-taker.  At least the fast food joint has a menu and standardized items.  IT shops that act as order-takers often do not have standardized services or offerings let alone a menu.  Wouldn’t it be better to work collaboratively with the customer and, by serving as a trusted advisor, help influence the demands that the customer base placed on IT?

Examples of IT Services

This same concept applies to IT Services. Customers come to you because they can’t or don’t want to have to worry aboutmanaging infrastructure (hardware, software, employees, data, changes, etc.). They want to pay one price for a Service and have you take care of it for them.  They also want to transfer the risk to you. When something breaks, they want to be able to call someone who will work quickly on their behalf to resolve it.  A few typical IT Services include E-mail and Collaboration, Desktop Services, Security, Virtual Machine Hosting, and Telecommunications.  Consider the latter example, Telecommunications.  Telecommunications Services provides you with the telephone on your desk (or the one in your pocket).  But that’s not all they do.  They provide dial-tone to make the phone work (or manage the contract with the cellular service provider).  They also manage telephone moves, adds, changes, jack installations, provide support and repair services, conferencing calling, etc.

Services as Outcomes

Another way to think of a Service is by looking at the outcome. What you want as a customer is to be fed (without having to cook or do any dishes) and hopefully have an all-around nice dining experience. Thus, the Service IS the outcome.

With an IT Service, for example, people don’t necessarily buy email. They buy the ability to be able to send cheap written communication to colleagues, customers, whomever. If you want to get a better handle on a particular Service, look at it from the perspective of what it allows your customers to do. If you’re still having trouble, ask your customers how they use your Service and what value it provides them. This exercise will give you a much clearer picture on the outcome of that Service. Taken one step further, you can do this exercise with all of your Services to design a pretty great IT Service Catalog, which is the equivalent of a menu for IT services (more on how to categorize services here).

How to Define IT Services

Many IT improvement initiatives never get off the ground because defining IT Services can be difficult.  Many of our clients engage us to help them develop service catalogs.  Typically the same clients struggle to define services.  A good approach is to gather key IT stakeholders in a day-long workshop to define the critical things IT provides to the business.  In the first couple of “brainstorming” rounds, you are likely to hear a mix of high-level and very granular “things.”  For example, some people are naturally more likely to say that IT offers “telecommunications” (sounds like a service) whereas others will say that IT offers Windows 10 (sounds like a piece of software that can be rolled-up into a service).  Ultimately, you want to define about thirty true services and a handful of associated service offerings associated with each.

After drafting a set of services and service offerings, gather key customers from major business units into focus group sessions.  Show them the services and service offerings you have defined and document their feedback.  Remember, the services have to provide value to the customer and not to IT.

Sometimes people wonder why customers are not involved and interacting with IT in the initial workshop.  The reason is that it is just as hard for customers to define services as it is for IT.  In this case, too many “cooks in the kitchen” does spoil the soup.  Instead, develop a rough service listing first to give customers something to respond to and ask for their feedback.

Perfect is the enemy of progress in defining IT services.  If you have severe budgetary or time constraints, start by defining your vital business services – the ones without which your business is dead in the water.  As you become better at service definition, continue to define and publicize less critical services.


Okay! Now, let's get those Services organized!

Our Service Catalog template is 100% free and a great place to start.
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Originally published January 01 2018, updated December 12 2019