Some final tips for sorting the wheat from the chaff.
Armed with a better understanding of the organisations you are dealing with, there are a some common traits, good and bad, which should make the final selection easier.
What to look for in an IT Support partner
Good, customer focused, outsourcing service providers share many common traits regardless of whether it is for IT, HR, Accountancy or any other professional service.
They are in it for the long term
Look out for any organisation that wants to discuss the longer-term picture for your IT infrastructure and services, particularly to build a 3- to 5-year plan for renewal and improvement. Avoiding any organisation which is only interested in the day-to-day for your IT, as an engaged service provider will want to ensure that over time your infrastructure and service levels improve through their involvement and can only do this by taking an active interest in your organisation and its plans.
Pay particular attention to the service providers who ask you as many questions as they can about your organisation in an attempt to develop a deeper understanding of who you are and how you work. A good IT partner will want to integrate as much and learn as much as possible to be better able to serve, and this will also pay dividends for them in terms of efficiencies they can bring to your service provision.
Flexibility in their business model
A mature service provider will be able to accommodate how you want to work commercially, and be able to shrink-wrap the costs accordingly. On a continuum from fixed costs to timecard-based works they should be able to mix and match how they cost and deliver their services such that it leaves you in complete control over your IT spend. The fee structure and how it can be managed should be crystal clear, and how the non-technical part of the relationship works should be as clearly documented as the technical aspects.
A good service provider may be able to provide total flexibility, providing a fixed cost bedrock for managing infrastructure and scoped support, and allowing the client organisation to consume other works on a transparent timecard basis, and also be able to fix the cost of any piece of work instantly for peace of mind.
When dealing with any service provider there should be complete comfort and clarity when dealing with either the technical, commercial or service level related documentation. Be extremely cautious of any individual or individuals who use technical jargon as a means to baffle, intimidate or obfuscate any aspect of the process. At no point should you not be completely clear about every aspect of the relationship and you should understand all that has been discussed. If you feel that you are being bamboozled by jargon and left feeling that you aren't in control then show them the door.
What you need to be wary of, and sometimes avoid
Following this guidance should give you a good understanding of which companies to progress and which to avoid however there are a number of recurrent pitfalls to draw your attention to. It is difficult sometimes to understand all of the problems inherent in providing a consistent level of service however there are some key items which are worth avoiding at all costs if you think they're going to be a problem for your potential IT service partner.
Supporting Custom software
If you have invested in bespoke software for your organisation then it will be difficult for any third-party support company to take over the maintenance and support of this. You are much better off keeping in contact with the original developer and putting in place some form of support contract, as very few IT service organisations have the capability or desire to support or maintain what can be an incredibly complex and expensive system created outside of their design or control, and with little knowledge as to the standards of quality of the work that went into producing it. If you find an organisation willing to take over an application like this either you are very lucky, they will be very expensive, or they are possibly lying about their ability to do so to win the contract.
Being partners in crime
Avoid any organisation which is willing to cut corners when it comes to software licensing. If you have 100 users and each of those users use a commercial piece of software like Adobe Acrobat or Microsoft Office every single one of them needs valid licensing in place, otherwise you are breaking the law. In the bad old days this was difficult to police and the temptation was to only fully licence a small proportion of the user base. These days software houses take the situation much more seriously and it is a trivial matter to detect when licensing has been infringed in this way. If you feel that an organisation is likely to bend the rules, either at your request and with your knowledge or if you simply don't trust them, then you should have nothing to do with them. Software piracy is simply theft.
Being overly protective of your assets
You should be cautious about any organisation who is not prepared to work with any internal resource that you may have that you want to keep. Sometimes IT support providers want to be the only people involved in the support and maintenance of your users and infrastructure, however with appropriate systems and safeguards in place that should be no issue with working with any existing staff you have. They should be prepared to work and collaborate with your internal resource and if necessary provide training and direct assistance. Some service providers will lock you out of your own systems, with the side effect that firing them becomes a much more daunting prospect. Always remember that, remaining practical about the implications of ill-informed end-user access, they are managing YOUR equipment.
Sometimes IT support organisations have too many generalist staff, meaning they have a skills base of a number of Jack of all trades but no one particular referee or consultant for a technology. It is difficult for them to strike a balance between having their staff being generally useful for clients versus developing niche expertise which isn't required all the time, however a competent and well utilised IT support provider will be able to balance this effectively and be able to develop a workforce capable of providing both specialist expertise and general IT knowledge.
Varying levels of service
Be wary of organisations which provide many different levels of support (Gold, Silver, Bronze etc.) or complicated service level arrangements based on a differential or tiered fee structure. This simply means that they don't work as hard when it is not worth as much to them. Any service provider worth their salt will provide the best level of service they can and the most responsive service at all times, and not put in place artificial restrictions based on how much or how little they are being paid. Everything they do should always be on a best-efforts basis. Costs can be managed on any number of bases apart from quality of service, which should be the last thing you tamper with.
Jargon, Jargon, Jargon
As previously mentioned avoid any organisation which relies heavily on the use of jargon and technical terms to promote their expertise or in an attempt to intimidate any prospective clients. It's just not necessary, and as a wise man once said if you truly understand something difficult you can make it sound simple.
Salespeople are often highly polished and presentable and can win your trust and confidence, but are rarely the people that you will end up dealing with on a day-to-day basis for the next five years when dealing with your support requests and IT infrastructure issues. Ideally you want to deal with senior managers within the organisation and potentially even one or two of the people who will ultimately be providing support so you can get a sense early on of the people that you will be dealing with. Some element of sales is always required however it is reassuring to know that the people making the promises are also the people who will have to keep them.
Attempting to identify a good IT services partner can be difficult. There are so many factors to take into consideration, and unfortunately the better IT folk are notorious for being task-oriented and occasionally introvert, whilst IT salespeople (in a potentially high-value industry) tend to be the exact opposite. You should get a good sense from the best IT support providers that they can balance the human and technical aspects of delivering what can be a challenging service. It is a stressful process, having to boil down and reconcile the commercial, technical, and human requirements of trusting your organisation's data and productivity to an outside party.
If you get it wrong it can be disruptive and expensive, and incredibly frustrating, however if you choose the right IT partner who wants to tie their success to yours and become a member of your team then it can be a tremendously empowering relationship which will help you manage what can be a significant cost, and drive productivity. It could be the beginning of a long and rewarding relationship with an organisation that can help you manage and harness the true power of IT.