When it comes to managing the technologies that support their enterprises, many small-business owners just throw up their hands and turn the job over to professionals.
Generally speaking, using a managed service provider is a good idea. The owner of a small chain of pizzerias, for example, rarely has the time or the expertise to keep its tech infrastructure running smoothly and securely. (He probably doesn’t work as a mechanic to keep the company’s delivery fleet in tip-top shape, either.)
But finding the right managed service provider can be challenging, especially if you don’t “speak geek” or know much about how the networks, applications, or systems your business relies on work. Here are nine questions to help you determine whether a potential vendor is a good fit.
- What is your billing model? “Technology spending based on time and materials creates a natural conflict of interest,” explains Kevin Trottier, CEO of Twist Solutions, a managed service provider. “The technology vendor wants to come back and so is not concerned about fixing the problem right the first time.” A better billing model, he says, charges a fixed fee (vs. an hourly one) for a portion of the support. “The smoother things are for the client, the better it is for the technology vendor.”
- What are your technical specialties? “IT professionals love technology and generally will say ‘yes’ to any technological problem, even if they lack the expertise,” Trottier says. To gauge the best fit for your business, he suggests, look for providers with references and experience in your particular industry.
- Do you use outsourced monitoring or help-desk services? To lower costs, your managed service provider may hand off the baton for monitoring or help-desk services. But you may also get lower-quality services and have difficulty communicating (particularly if the third-party subcontractor is based outside the United States). Trottier says it’s better to keep all of the services in-house with your contracted provider.
- How will things work when your technician arrives? Standard, repeatable processes should be in place. “For example,” Trottier says, “the technician should check in with their point of contact, review open items, resolve what can be resolved on-site, assign items to remote staff as needed, and check out with the point of contact, explaining where things stand.”
- What response times do you guarantee? A solid IT support contract guarantees someone from the managed service provider will respond to problems and requests within a given period of time. Without that, response times for ad hoc agreements leave the business vulnerable to whatever other, higher-priority commitments the service provider has.
- What does the contract cover? Increasingly, small-business owners rely on more than just the PCs in their stores or offices. If your company uses tablets, smartphones, or even just other peripherals, such as printers, be sure those devices are covered in your agreement if you want them serviced too. Equally important, if certain hardware, software, or services are not covered by the contract, that’s good to know in advance, so you can plan accordingly.
- What type of insurance do you have, and how much? Everybody makes mistakes. Accidents happen. Smaller managed service providers may not have the resources on their own to help you recover from these unforeseen events, but their insurance companies can.
- Do you provide services proactively? “Preventive, proactive maintenance lowers your total cost of ownership over time,” Trottier points out. “By avoiding preventive maintenance, many small- to mid-sized businesses have outdated technology systems that are not maintained or managed correctly, and [they] are setting themselves up for expensive problems over time.” In most cases, an advanced analysis can project when capacity will require additional resources or equipment will, or should, be upgraded.
- What is the length of the contract? Anyone can enter into a contract. When things don’t go as planned and the managed service provider doesn’t take steps to correct the situation promptly, you’ll want to know how to get out of the contract — or at least how much longer you’ll have to put up with it.