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5 Questions You Should Ask A Prospective IT Service Provider

There are many questions to ask a prospective IT service provider / partner when evaluating their ability to support your business.  Below are a few that should be at the top of your list.

How long have you been in business?

According to the Statistic Brain Research Institute, 50% of businesses fail within their first four years of existence.  When choosing a technology partner, longevity means the partner has weathered economic storms, dealt with all manner of business and technology crises, and refined their business model through years of trial and error.  A tech business owner’s personal tenure also suggests whether they are committed to building the business, or simply doing the work until an employment opportunity comes along.

When asking about business longevity, you should also ask the business owner and his key staff what management experience they possess.  Are they doing this work for the love of the technology, or do they take a hard-nose approach to their business and make economically viable decisions.  Sure, we’d all like the IT partner who is an amazing “tech guy”, but what good is having such an individual if they don’t know how to keep a business running?

What is your billing model?

IT service providers generally utilizes one of two billing models: Break/Fix (also known as “Time & Materials”) and Managed Services.  Understanding how a prospective IT partner bills for their services will also indicate where their incentives lie.

In the Break/Fix model, the IT service provider waits for the clients’ support requests, then addresses them based on client importance and urgency.  The model is well suited to occasional work, billed on an hourly or project basis.  The client often remains active in managing their IT systems, and will try to address issues internally before escalating them to the external IT service provider.  Stated differently: The client’s priority is to reduce IT expense.  Conversely, for the IT service provider the priority is income generation; if two IT issues arrive in the service provider’s inbox at the same moment, with one coming from a client who calls frequently and pays top dollar on time, and another from a slow paying client who calls twice a year, the service provider will address the needs of the top dollar client first.

In the Managed Services model, the IT service provider delivers proactive and preventive maintenance, identifying and resolving issues often before the client even knows about them.  The client agrees to pay a flat monthly fee for this preventive care (you can think of it as insurance, if you like).  Services can include management of email, file sharing, backups, networks, computers, servers, and usually include access to a help desk.  Most Managed Service providers also have some niche specialties, like file sharing, VoIP telephony, CRM, and printing.

Within the Managed Services billing model, certain providers bill by the device, while others bill by the user; and there are some instances where a hybrid model is used.  Let’s explain these:

  • Per device billing means an inventory of every device is taken, and the agreement states which devices will be included, and which will be billed separately when support is needed. This approach is well suited to servers, networks, printers, security cameras, and other shared peripherals, and is sometimes used for desktop computers, laptops, and mobile devices.

  • Per user billing means a headcount is taken of all the supported users. A user can request support for any device or peripheral they use, within some limits (example: don’t call about your home network when it’s your business paying the bill for your work-related use). This method provides more predictable -and less complex- invoices.

  • In a hybrid model, per user billing may be used as the primary billing model with per device pricing for peripherals, servers, networks, and printers.

The Break/Fix model is suited to smaller firms with limited IT infrastructure, who are trying to control their costs.  By contrast, the Managed Services model is better suited to firms that have transitioned their mindset from “IT as a cost center” to “IT as an enabler of increased productivity”, and who are looking for increasing the reliability of their IT environment.

What are your technical specialties?

This question is a double-edged sword.  On the one hand, you need an IT partner who has sufficient depth of experience in the technologies you use.  On the other hand, your IT partner needs to have a sufficient breadth of knowledge to be able to steer you towards -or away from- key technologies and trends.  What good is a specialist provider if they stubbornly refuse to consider a technology that is gaining popularity, that your clients expect you to use, or that makes your staff feel more productive and collaborative?

Consider this example:  Many IT service providers will label themselves a Windows-only shop, or a Mac-only shop.  When faced with an environment where a mix of computers is in use, they may refuse to serve any technology other than the one that’s their “specialty”.  Meanwhile, half the client’s staff are left to fend for themselves, because their IT service provider won’t support them.  This approach exposes the client’s organization to a tremendous IT risk from machines that are not monitored, are not patched with security updates, and that may be infected with malware.

Here’s another example:  An IT service provider is certified on Google Apps, but his client wants to switch away from Google Apps.  The provider is incentivized to push Google Apps, even if -for example- Microsoft Office365 is a better platform for this particular client.

Hiring domain experts costs more money when their efforts are needed outside their domain expertise.  Therefore, hire an IT partner with a breadth of experience; they can, in turn, hire domain experts for those specific engagements where their expertise is needed.  Keep a constant dialogue with your IT partner about their expertise, and remind them to hire specialists when the task is outside their skillset.

What does the agreement cover?

Agreements are as varied as the color spectrum, but they all have at least the following parts:

  • What devices or users are covered: Make sure everything is listed

  • Length of the agreement? Some providers will offer incentives for a longer-term contract.

  • Any onboarding fees? The service provider will incur potentially significant expenses inventorying your IT infrastructure, installing their management tools, and getting ready to support you. That work is generally not done for free.

  • Service Level Agreements: How quickly will the provider respond to your initial inquiry? How frequently will they provide updates through the support ticket? How will a ticket be closed?

  • Examples of support covered by the contract, and examples of support that falls outside of the contract. Let’s face it, there will be some grey areas too, but the clearer you are about what is and is not covered, the more everyone can focus on service delivery and keeping you productive.

Do you provide services proactively?

If an IT service provider embraces the Break/Fix billing model (see above), they will generally only react to your support requests.  They will have way too many clients to be proactive, because they get less volume and less predictable work from each client, and because the clients are generally not inclined to pay for proactive screening of their IT infrastructure.

If an IT service provider embraces the Managed Services billing model, they had better be proactive.  This means contacting you when a machine’s hard drive begins failing, or when malware is discovered, or when a remote backup has not been completed in several days.  If you find your provider is not proactive, something is wrong: they either have too many clients; or they are transitioning from the Break/Fix model and haven’t fully made the mental switch; or they are simply disorganized.  In all of these cases, it is your responsibility -the client- to call out these shortcomings and take corrective action, including firing the provider.  Your productivity is too valuable to settle for less.

In conclusion...

Look for a technology partner who has a solid management background; whose team possesses a breadth of IT knowledge and isn’t too proud to know the limits of their knowledge, and when to hire specialists; whose billing model offers a predictable cost; whose agreements clearly outline the rules of engagement; and whose service delivery model is proactive.