Choosing an IT company to look after your Small Business IT Infrastructure can feel like a tough job. There’s no shortage of IT companies out there that will offer to help you, from the “one man band” all the way to high-street names. So how do you choose the right partner that is not only going to be able to keep your IT systems running, but that you can trust both with your sensitive business data and to give you advice that in your best interests?
Since the beginning of this year I’ve been asked to act as an independent advisor to a number of businesses who want impartial advice on their IT strategy, and guidance on the questions to ask when trying to choose an IT partner to work with. Whilst the questions you ask may vary from company to company, industry to industry, here are an overview of the five basic questions I think you should always be asking of a potential IT Support provider.
How do you charge for your services?
Traditionally IT Support companies worked from a model best known in the Plumber or Electricians world, the “Break/Fix” model. Something goes wrong with your IT systems, and you pay the IT company to resolve that problem.
This model “feels” comfortable for many small businesses who look upon IT as a necessary cost to their business, rather than looking on IT as something that can be leveraged to help their business grow. Many businesses also resent paying someone to fix something that in their eyes “should just work”.
The reality of IT is that just like a modern Motor Car, it needs maintenance to keep working. A lack of maintenance means things will go wrong.
The challenge with the traditional break/fix model is that really, there is no motivation for the IT company to fix the problem permanently. If they fix the problem permanently, they are no longer going to get called out and paid for their time.
Don’t misunderstand me here. I’m not suggesting for a moment that an IT company would purposely leave something to break again in the future, but if they are being pressured by the client to keep the cost of their visit down – that often means putting a sticking plaster over the problem rather than spending the time required to fix it properly.
A better approach is to agree a monthly flat-fee with an IT provider, who will then monitor and maintain your systems as a “Managed Service”, fixing any problems as and when they occur.
Think about this scenario. It’s in the IT companies best interests to seek out and fix problems properly so those problems don’t return – the less time they as an IT provider spend fixing things, the more profit they make from their agreement with you. It’s also in your best interests as a client, as you want your IT systems to run smoothly without any problems, but when (not if!) problems do occur – you don’t want to be worried about a large bill for time spent remedying that problem.
A flat fee arrangement allows you as a small business to financially budget for IT Support on an on-going basis, and just as importantly builds an on-going relationship and trusted partnership with an IT company. You’re then in it together – working towards the best relationship for both parties.
Can you show us an example of the Health-Check Report you send us?
So if a flat-fee “Managed Service” model is the way forward, and an IT Support company says they will both manage and monitor your infrastructure, pro-actively seeking out issues to help keep your business running smoothly – how do you know that your IT company is actually working away behind the scenes to keep things ticking over?
An IT company worth its salt will have no problem in sharing with you an example of the report they send to clients to demonstrate the checks they undertake on your systems to make sure they are running, and to highlight any underlying problems they’ve found and resolved.
This report should not be hugely technical in nature. It should be simple for you to read and understand as a business owner who is interested in one thing – are you looking after my business?
Many IT companies provide a Daily Health Check report to the Office Manager, and a Weekly or Monthly Summary Report to Decision Makers or Business Owners.
Either way, a regular, easy to read report demonstrates the effort the work the IT provider is putting in to monitoring and maintaining your systems.
What Qualifications do your engineers have?
Trying to gauge an IT Providers credentials and qualifications can be a challenge.
Ask an IT company if they are a Microsoft Partner, and you’ll find virtually none who say they aren’t. At its simplest level, becoming a Registered Microsoft Partner is not much harder than signing up to receive the regular Microsoft Partner newsletters.
There are Silver and Gold Microsoft Partners too. This means they’ve achieved certain levels of competency, and invested both time and money into their relationship with Microsoft.
Furthermore, there are Microsoft Small Business Specialists – individuals and companies who have passed an exam to demonstrate they understand the SMB market and in particular, the popular Microsoft Small Business Server product. If your business is running Small Business Server, then look for the Microsoft Small Business Specialist “blue badge”. Many engineers think they know SBS, but only those with the “blue badge” have proved they do.
But company wide qualifications aside, as a general rule of thumb, ask how many engineers are within the IT providers business, and the qualifications they each have individually.
If your IT infrastructure mostly consists of Windows XP and Windows 7 PC’s, then it would make sense that the engineers supporting them would have qualifications in Windows XP and Windows 7, that they have passed an exam and actively demonstrated they know what they are doing.
If you’re told an engineer is “working towards” a qualification – ask when they expect to have passed this qualification. IT is constantly changing and evolving, so an engineer who achieves the latest qualifications demonstrates that he is keeping up with change. The engineer who is still only qualified in Windows 2000 demonstrates he’s most likely too busy to keep up with the changing landscape.
And if an engineer says he doesn’t need a qualification to demonstrate his knowledge in a certain area, then consider what other standards the engineer might not feel he needs to adhere to within his industry.
Tell me about your relationships with other IT companies?
The best IT companies will focus on one or two core competencies. For the majority, this will be the maintenance and support of IT Infrastructures.
These IT companies will know what they are good at, and stick to it. To ensure you, the client, receive the best support – they will take time to forge professional and trusted relationships with other IT companies who also specialise in their fields. This might be a Data Cabling company, a Telecoms company, a Web Design company, a Software Development company. They aren’t afraid to sub-contract or refer you to a trusted 3rd party who can deliver the best in their field.
What’s more, most good IT companies will manage your relationship with your existing providers. This means you no longer need to telephone BT to spend time in a queue working out why your Broadband isn’t working – your IT provider should manage that job for you.
Question the experience of those IT companies who say they can do everything for you themselves without external help. IT is a specialised field, and in the same way you wouldn’t hire a Plumber to design, specify, build, wire and insulate your house – you will probably need more than one IT specialist to achieve all your business requirements.
How often do you perform Business Reviews?
IT isn’t just about fixing things. The days of the “IT Guy”, who comes in to fix stuff when they go wrong are dying out. In bringing on board an IT Provider, you also want to bring on board a Trusted Business Advisor.
As well as monitor and maintain your network, as well as fix problems as they arise, as well as manage your other IT suppliers for you, an IT Provider should be your go-to guys for advice or pointers on Technology trends, on Social Media, on how to use IT to grow your business.
It’s easy to forget this part due to the busy nature of business. Therefore most forward thinking IT Providers schedule regular appointments with their clients, perhaps on a Quarterly basis, where they sit down and talk about your business. Based on that conversation, they can make recommendations and suggestions over how Technology may help you achieve your business goals – and plan for how that might look.
IT has evolved, and the service that IT providers give to their clients has evolved too. Using IT within Small Business does have a cost involved – but whether this cost is seen as wasted money or an investment, and the amount of value you, as a small business owner, realise from it can heavily depend on the IT Provider you work with.
“IT Guy” or “Trusted Business Advisor” – make sure to ask the right questions to help you make the right choice for your business.
If you’re a Small Business who would like advice on choosing the right IT Provider, impartial guidance on deciding IT strategy, or understanding what you should be paying for your IT Support – do feel free to get in touch with me.
Richard Tubb is an IT Business Consultant who works with ambitious IT companies who want to grow their businesses in a scalable and sustainable way. He is also a Microsoft UK Small Business Specialist Partner Area Lead (PAL) and the elected chair of the CompTIA UK Channel Community. You can e-mail him firstname.lastname@example.org or connect with him via Twitter and LinkedIn.