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How to Choose the Right IT Provider
I have written previously of how outsourcing IT to an outside firm can benefit many companies, even those with dedicated IT staff and upwards of 300 employees.
In addition to providing 24/7/365 coverage, an outside provider can keep up with the latest trends, threats, and tech innovations, something your in-house team of one or two dedicated IT folks can’t do as they work to keep things running smoothly day to day.
But knowing that outsourcing is a good idea is not the same as understanding how to select an appropriate provider for your company. IT Providers — also known as Managed IT Firms or Managed Service Providers — are far from uniform in the services they offer, the fees they charge, and the experience and expertise they bring to the table.
Add to this the fact that the services provided are highly technical and the firms themselves are not certified in any consistent way, and it’s easy to see why making a choice can feel daunting.
All that said, if you focus on finding a firm whose strengths and experience are a close match to your circumstances and budget, you can make a competent choice. And the place to start is by assessing your own particular needs…
What are your functional needs?
This refers to the types of things you need protected, managed, upgraded, or taken care of in the course of operating your business. As with the IT firms themselves, the variation here across companies is vast.
For example, if yours is a simple, mostly static environment, most IT service providers are probably fine. Friendly and available help desk support may be all you need (you don’t want to pay for an expensive network engineer to fix a problem with Outlook).
If, however, you have a complex environment — one with several servers, an extensive remote workforce, a presence in the Azure or AWS cloud, etc. — you want to look for an IT provider with specific expertise in those areas.
Or, maybe you plan to implement new systems or acquire another business in the near future in which IT integration will be necessary. Here as well, you want a provider with this specific and higher level of capability.
So begin by spending some time assessing and cataloguing where specifically you need or will need support.
What are your response time needs?
Is yours a business, such as financial services or a medical practice, in which having your systems down for even a short amount of time will cost you money? Or, instead, does your business not operate in real time and you could manage to be offline for several hours, even if it were temporarily inconvenient for staff?
There is a “continuum of urgency” baked into whatever level of support you buy. The faster the promised response time, the more costly it will be. Your objective is to purchase what you need and no more, so give some thought as to where you stand.
What are your availability needs?
Response time refers to how quickly your provider comes to your aide. Availability refers to the days and hours of support.
Does your company operate mostly 9-5, Monday through Friday? Or do you operate nights and weekends (e.g., restaurant, entertainment venue, retail store)?
The more coverage you need outside of “standard business hours,” the more expensive it will be.
Assess the IT Provider
Once you have a handle on your needs, now it’s time to sort among the available options. There are any number of things to consider, but I have a few recommendations:
#1. Don’t go with a one-person shop.
No matter how capable and responsive any individual may be, they can get sick, hurt, or become otherwise unavailable in countless ways. That’s too much risk for your company to take on. Find a firm with three or four engineers on staff so that you are always covered.
#2. Understand how their business runs.
You want to work with a company that relies on Professional Services Automation (PSA) tools (e.g., ConnectWise, Autotask, HaloMSP). These help service providers manage their business functions — accounting, resource scheduling, onboarding / offboarding, project management, etc. — in an organized and comprehensive way.
This gets to how efficiently the company can provide its services, which directly relates to your costs. You don’t want an IT provider whose back office is a cobbled together mix of email and homemade spreadsheets.
So don’t be afraid to ask — the technology may be over your head but the way they run their business isn’t.
#3. Make sure they have the tech tools to do the job.
Are they able to look at all aspects of your IT environment?
For example, are they using a Remote Management and Monitoring (RMM) tool? This allows them to look at all the computers connected to your network. (Speaking of which, do they employ separate tools for Apple Mac devices and PCs — recommended — or are they trying to use a one-size-fits-both approach?)
Further, can they monitor your network traffic, manage antivirus software and upgrades centrally, document your environment so that any engineer who comes on the scene can jump right in should a problem occur?
If you don’t think you can assess their tech capabilities, find a friend or colleague who can join you on the calls. It is enormously helpful to have somebody at your side who can press to verify the IT provider’s focus and capabilities.
#4. Get the real story.
Of course, you’ll ask for references. But, just as job applicants only provide references that have good things to say, companies do the same thing. See if you can identify some “back door” references — someone you know (or can be connected to) who has first-hand experience with the companies in question.
You may have noticed that I did not mention “How much do you like them?” in my list above. That matters, and it’s a good place to start. But don’t make the mistake that many companies make and stop there.
IT support is a critical aspect of your business. It is well worth your time to assess your needs and do the best you can to ensure a strong match between what you require and what’s being offered.