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Sometimes you may need to dig a little to get the most important items of information.

Introduction

Sometimes the most important items of information may not be available on their website or in company proposals, and it may not come out during any exchanges if the service provider prefers not to draw attention to them. Many of these items aren't problematic or negative issues, however it is always good to be clear from the outset about any bumps or sticky patches when developing any new business relationship.

What questions should you ask any potential IT Support provider?

Technology 

outsourcing technology gears smallEach piece of your infrastructure works together. Ensure your IT Support provider has the expertise to either support each piece, or the ability to transparently manage 3rd parties for proprietary or outside the core skill set..

What is their industry specific experience?

Ask what industry specific experience they have that is relevant to you. Different industries use different software e.g. manufacturing finance, accounting or the architectural disciplines all use packages which specifically support their activities.

Different industries also all face unique issues to do with how IT is used within their discipline, as well as non-technical problems which impact their business such as cyclical demand - e.g. many accounting firms are incredibly busy in December and January, and cannot suffer any downtime during this period. Being able to support many of the accounting and filing packages easily and quickly, and ensuring that they have the resources available during this period and not committed elsewhere is invaluable.

How broad is their technological experience?

Ask what their technological experience is, as it's easy to take for granted that every IT company is created equal given the highly transferable nature of IT skills. There are more flavours of operating systems than Windows, and these days many organisations are becoming more enlightened and integrate Apple Mac, UNIX or Linux-based systems in their organisational setups. There's not much point in finding an excellent service provider who is very customer focused but who can only support two-thirds of your IT equipment.

This is further exacerbated by the number of vendors that operate in e.g. networking, IT security infrastructure, server technologies etc.- the list goes on, and not all organisations can support the broad range of technologies that companies use these days. It is important that the service provider is clear about your current setup and how it is configured, and is able to demonstrate the technical competency to cover the various technologies that you use. Ideally, they should suggest that they carry out a (supervised and secured) audit of your IT assets, and talk to some of your most technologically competent users, so they are clear about what they are getting themselves in for.

Who are their partnerships and accreditations with?

Ask about any partnerships or accreditations they have that are relevant to the technologies you have within your business, as you want to ensure that while your potential service partner has the relationships in place to get the best deals on equipment and licencing that they are also vendor neutral and are able to both support the technologies you have without replacement and is able to recommend the best solution for any needs or problems you may encounter. Quite a few IT service providers are tied strictly to certain brands and technologies, which limits their ability to put in place the best or most cost-effective solution in some situations.

Process 

outsourcing workflow smallThe way in which you work with your IT Support partner should be consistent and clear.

What are the day-to-day working protocols?

Ask about the day-to-day procedures for communication and raising support requests. You want to be absolutely clear when you start working with the organisation, and not afterwards, how the details of the relationship will work. Ask how individual support requests are raised, and also how larger projects are initiated and managed on a year-to-year basis. Find out if they proactively propose works they feel are important to your business, or do they sit there waiting for you to enquire about improvements or routine works to their systems.

The service provider should proactively provide you with documentation as to how all of these eventualities are covered, as this both benefits them in terms of a smooth operating relationship and allows them to exercise some control over how and how much support is metered out.

Do they use a professional helpdesk system?

Ask them if they use a professional ticketing system or what software they use for managing user requests and your overall IT services. Tickets are the industry name given to every individual request made by either your organisation or an individual user representing a distinct piece of work. As this is often the most frequently used interface between the two organisations you need to be confident that it works well and is fit for purpose.

The service provider should be able to provide clear on boarding documentation for users enabling them to understand how to use the system pretty much straight away. Also find out if they have various levels of administration you need to wade through when requesting support as some organisations triage support requests through the ticketing system via a first, then second and finally third level support engineers to enable them to granularly manage resource allocation and assign work to the most appropriate personnel, however this means often working through three or four different people to get to the right person. An organisation who has the resources and systems to immediately direct you to someone who can help is always a better bet.

How long will it take them to provide on-site IT support?

If required, what are their on-site attendance times and also do they make a routine distinction between providing support to either systems or users remotely or in person? Many try to avoid having to visit unless absolutely necessary.

This speaks to the convenience of a nearby location and also the fact that there is usually a higher inherent cost to the service provider of having people on site rather than working from an office, as the cost of travel time is often absorbed either to or from the client's site. They shouldn't make a distinction, and only prefer working remotely as it tends to be instantaneous. A good service provider will be able to attend to user requests more readily if they can switch from one request, and one site, to another instantly from the comfort of their own chair.

What is the basic interface between your users and the IT Support company?

One of the most fundamental things to find out about is how any services or support are actually provided: is it delivered in person, via the phone, via email or via online chat software.

It can be a nasty surprise to dot all the i’s and cross the t’s and feel you have an all-you-can-eat buffet of systems management and end-user support to discover that this support is provided via typing text into a web interface with someone responding from the far side of the world, maybe hours (or days) later.

Commercial

outsourcing commercial aspectsContracts should never need to be referred to once you have established trust in your supplier. Bu when they do, they should be clear and simple.

What is the detailed scope of their proposed IT Support services?

Make sure you ask about the exact scope of the support to understand exactly what is included in any fixed fee, and what the process is for how extras are charged. If you were working on a managed timecard basis this won’t be as important as on either time card or pay-as-you-go you only pay for the work you actually consume, however if you have a fixed contract in place whereby a fee covers all of the work they do, you need to be clear about what that work actually is, and what work isn't included, and then how you pay for it all. It is unlikely that a fixed cost agreement will cover every eventuality and it is important that you understand how to manage out-of-scope works to avoid any unpleasant surprises when it comes to your IT budget.

What are the exclusions?

Equally as important as finding out what is included is to find out what the explicit exclusions are, as this will help when trying to understand what your overall real cost is likely to be. Understanding the exclusions properly is important when helping to reduce the possibility of any potential disputes. You will probably find this may be far more detailed that the list of included services....

What does any retainer or per user/per device fee cover?

If your agreement is based on some form of standing service charge or retainer it is important to understand what this actually means, as many people are often surprised to learn that this fee is in addition to the costs of providing any actual support. Sometimes service providers cite server monitoring or management costs, or other nebulous reasons why you need to pay to play, however if your retainer is a significant portion of your overall contract fee you need to understand what it is for. If you are paying a per device or per user charge to gain access to the support companies services you should ensure that this actually represents some real-world support and not just a fee for them to keep you on their books and to pick up the phone.

Do they audit your infrastructure before making a proposal?

It can be very difficult, especially if you are a large company with some established IT infrastructure and many users to support, to put together a sensible proposal without some research and inspection first. In order for any potential supplier to be able to accurately determine the scope and cost of working with you, and particularly if you are experiencing issues you would like addressing, companies should want to review your setup to get a clear picture of what is involved. Otherwise they are getting all of their information from you, and basing their costs, duties and their basic ability to support you satisfactorily on second hand, and potentially inaccurate, information.  

People

outsourcing personnelIt all comes down to the people you will deal with day-to-day, and building long-term relationships that benefit everyone.

What is their employee profile?

It is important to understand their staff numbers, as you want to be certain that they have enough full-time staff to ensure a consistent level of service. Many IT service providers make up the numbers with a mix of contract and permanent staff, however if that mix is too high, they can be constantly losing valuable client-specific information and expertise through contract staff turnover.

Also be very wary of permanent staff turnover as this is often a sign that the staff are not receiving the training they need to develop as professionals and their role.

Will you have a dedicated account manager?

There must be a single point of contact with whom you can discuss any non-day-today IT Support matters regarding your service provision, such as budget setting, medium and long term strategy and plans for your systems or the reporting of your actual service delivery against the service levels stated in your Service Level Agreement. 

This will also be the route through which you will initiate bigger 

Can they provide any relevant references?

You should definitely ask about any references they can provide for organisations of a similar size and type to yours, though it may be difficult to find an exact match as some service providers will be wary about e.g. putting one firm of accountants in touch with another for a reference as there may be perceived conflicts of interest and they may feel this will affect the quality of reference they would receive. Either way, you should definitely speak to a representative sample of two or three of the service provider's existing clients to get a sense of the quality of the service they provide.

Next steps

 Once you have created your final shortlist, there are some final factors which will help you identify the serious contenders and to avoid those who aren't right for your needs.