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Inside info on the requirements that every good IT Support provider should satisfy, regardless of your needs.

Introduction

It's not easy, but once you have shortlisted up to 10 local businesses that look like they could provide the support that you need you can progress to filtering the list down to the ones you want to open a dialogue with. We’ll now give you some pointers as to what to ask and look out for to narrow the field down further.

When working through any shortlist, there are a number of universal requirements you should be aware of that every potential partner should satisfy. Regardless of the size or type of organisation that you are, or the size and type of organisation you are looking to work with, you should discount any IT support provider who doesn't tick the box in all these areas.

Location is very important

Unless you have internal IT support resources one of the most important factors is where the IT Support company is based. They should be as local as possible, as this affects their ability to be on-site when needed and how fast they can respond to an emergency which requires them to be there in person. Nearly all of the routine administrative and support activities can be carried out remotely using a wide variety of readily available tools and technologies, however it is essential that they can be with you quickly in a pinch. Many of the larger managed service providers are based in lower cost locations, whether that be out of the town or out of the country, and will sell the benefits of a less expensive fully remote service. But when you need a physical presence the most you will realise the many inherent problems with cutting costs in this manner.

Ideally they should be able to be with you in under an hour, and if you are based in a central metropolitan location it should be much less. We do have some outlying clients that we have built a relationship with outside of our usual geographical comfort zone but usually we can be with the vast majority of the businesses we work for in under 15 minutes when needs be.

IT Support companies should work to a Service level agreement (SLA)

Every single service provider whether they be a one-man band or a business of a thousand trained technicians should be able to clearly state, in concrete terms, the standards you should be able to expect when working with them with respect to how fast they respond to service requests, whether routine or priority, their mechanisms for measuring and reporting key statistics on how they are doing with respect to these self-published standards, and any protocols for issue escalation or penalties when things don't go according to plan.

outsourcing sla smallYour SLA should be S.M.A.R.T. and clear, and cross referenced with your contract so that it is enforceable.

If you can't have their service level explained to you in five minutes or less in clear English then you should run very quickly in the opposite direction. It is the most fundamental statement there is of how well they say they do what they do for a living. It should cover very clearly how they prioritise tasks, the response times (and by response times we mean the point whereby a human is in touch with one of your personnel and actively working on the issue, not when an automated service spits out an email) and how they generally manage the business of providing you with a consistent and reliable IT service and ensure you have reliable IT infrastructure.

Response times are integral to how IT Support companies work

As documented in their SLA, they should be clear and not be open to any interpretation and also be stated in, at most, hours and not days. There should be clear documentation of how to communicate and work with the IT supplier and also how the process is managed in terms of ongoing communication and eventual closeout of every issue, request and project.

It is important at this point to distinguish between the concepts of response times and fix times, as it is notoriously difficult to provide an accurate timescale for when an issue will be actioned or fixed - particularly if it is complicated. Often the best you can hope for is a clear statement of how you will be kept appraised of the situation throughout its life cycle such that as the situation becomes clearer you become more informed.

Response times are easy to predict as they are completely under the service providers control, however fix times are at the mercy of third party equipment suppliers, completing a troubleshooting cycle to fully determine any emergent problems, and the fact that depending on the complexity of the issue in hand it can be impossible to know in the beginning exactly the scope of what the technical staff are facing.

More routine problems and straightforward IT service requests should be very easy to determine however, and these may be covered in some detail for instance how long can you expect it to take to procure the equipment and set up and configure what is needed for a new staff member joining.

Contract documentation should not be deliberately murky

Every IT Support service provider should be able to furnish you with a contract. The contract should be clear, brief and simply worded as the most important issues dealing with the day-to-day operations between your organisations should be covered by the service level agreement.

As with any contract it should clearly cover items like the term, and termination procedure, how payment is made, and how the work initiation mechanism functions. The main area of contention is usually detailing the scope - what is included in the agreement - and the exclusions i.e. the things which are specifically not included. Most IT service contracts tend to heavily favour the IT supplier, and not the client, as they try to rigidly ring-fence what is and isn't included under the agreement and this can often lead to frustration when the client is hit with unexpected bills.

outsourcing contracts complexityBe wary of unnecessarily lengthy or complicated contracts.

The contract should clearly provide a schedule of services provided, equipment to be managed and any restrictions on support to be provided to the end-users. Likewise, exclusions should be as clearly detailed as possible however the world of IT is broad and wide and it can be difficult to cover all of the eventualities. Following on from this, a clear and amicable dispute resolution mechanism should be clearly detailed, most usually favouring arbitration rather than formal litigation as any misunderstandings can be quickly cleared up and not jeopardise the ongoing relationship as changing IT suppliers regularly can be disruptive.

If you find yourself needing to refer to professional legal expertise to understand and negotiate the terms of the contract you should ask yourself if you are comfortable moving forward with an organisation likely to be inflexible and potentially uncooperative.

Be wary of Industry accreditation and partnerships...

...but also be wary of their absence. A quick review of any IT supplier's website will doubtlessly throw up a plethora of third-party suppliers logos testifying to either formal accreditation or partnership. Be wary of any company which doesn't appear to at least have a passing relationship with the industry leaders such as Microsoft, Dell, HP and Apple as well as the main software vendor's, as you want to ensure that your IT setup remains as brand-neutral as possible to facilitate, potentially, transition to other suppliers in the future.

You should avoid a situation whereby you deal with a supplier who either self-builds equipment, or uses lesser-known brands, as the savings are often modest and are negligible when compared to the inconvenience of trying to find another IT service provider prepared to take on their support should you decide to move. Many IT service providers will only agree to support and provide an SLA for equipment from the industry-leading manufacturers which also has an active support warranty in place.

Having accreditations from the industry-leading hardware and software providers means there is a higher likelihood that their staff have both been properly trained in their support and use and also have accumulated experience with them, enabling them to provide an appropriate level of support and assistance.

Flexibility and scalability shouldn't be a problem

Any good service provider should be able to seamlessly scale up, or down, your service requirements as you either grow or downsize. There should be no difference in the quality of service that you receive, though the support and services that a start-up needs is very different to that of a mature enterprise of several hundred people.

outsourcing graphGood service providers will understand the peaks and troughs of corporate fortunes and the business cycle, and will accommodate as far as practical.

You only want to go through the selection process once and develop a long-term relationship with a partner who understands the organisations needs and issues, and they should be able to both commercially and technically evolve to suit your needs at any point in time. If they require a minimum headcount to support, or only step up their charging structure in large blocks of either supported equipment or user numbers, or insist on being the sole provider of either your software and hardware or, most importantly, have monolithic and inflexible (and opaque) fixed cost contracts then you might find working with them over time can be very inflexible. Rather, find a support provider who is willing to respond to your changing needs in a flexible and collaborative way.

Remotely monitoring and managing your systems is easy

All good IT service providers are able to provide remote monitoring and management of your systems, and also a professional helpdesk, and not work via ad-hoc emails or voicemails or calls to a mobile. These tools are relatively inexpensive to implement and make both the service provider and client's life a lot easier, providing stable platforms for service automation and reliable reporting.

Be wary of any support organisation who does everything "by hand" and doesn't use industry standard software for the administration of your systems or for the management and administration of your IT service requests. One of the first things a good service provider will do is review and audit your systems to ensure they are in good shape and compliant with licensing, and then they will configure them to be remotely monitored and administered such that trained technicians can spot issues and troubleshoot from the comfort of their offices in real time.

Working with a professional helpdesk allows clear management and reporting of requests. Any organisation which doesn't use these ubiquitous tools is either small, or very unprofessional.

There is no need for unreasonable cancellation terms

Pay particular attention to cancellation terms as some can be impractically long, sometimes running into years. We have encountered contracts in the past from competitors whereby the rolling service contract covers a 2 to 3-year window with a minimum six-month termination clause. Often when challenged organisations struggle to justify these terms, occasionally mentioning resourcing issues and licensing commitments for software invested in the client systems upkeep, however there is rarely a justification for providing such onerous terms.

outsroucing contract termsDon't sign for anything longer than a year, with very clear cancellation terms, unless you are offered a very significant inducement.

Like any professional services contract the terms should be cross-referenced with the SLA to ensure that, when required, they are practical and make sense if challenged. In the event of a breach of the SLA there should be clear documentation supporting an arbitration process to hopefully resolve the dispute, however if not and the breach is serious enough then there should be clear protocols in place to action meaningful penalties and, if the breach is profound or if no reconciliation can be achieved, then a mechanism for breaking the contract should be clear. Be extremely wary of any organisation which looks beyond a standard 12-month contract, unless they offer some serious price breaks for committing to a longer term.

Next steps

Knowing the right questions to ask helps you to match the supplier to your brief, and also lets you find out more about the organisations and how they work.