Posts Tagged 'Consultancy'

Five Questions to ask when choosing an IT Support Provider

Computer Engineer with HammerChoosing 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?

Example of IT Health Check ReportAn 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.

Microsoft Small Business Specialist LogoFurthermore, 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.

 

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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 atrichard@tubblog.co.uk or connect with him via Twitter and LinkedIn.

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How do you move from being the “IT Guy” into a Trusted Business Advisor?

This time last year I wrote a blog post about a hot topic amongst IT Solution Providers. Entitled “Cloud Computing – Good for Clients, Bad for IT Companies? “ – I suggested that with the advent of Microsoft BPOS and other Cloud Solutions, IT Solution Providers would need to change their focus from fixing the “pipes and plumbing” of clients infrastructures to providing Business Consultancy – being perceived less as a necessary cost, and more as a value add to a business clients.

At that time it’s fair to say that I although I was not alone in this view, I was in the minority. Change is hard, and if you’re making a good living from the status quo of installing and maintaining servers then it’s tough to consider a world where you don’t do this.

Fast forward twelve months and I recently wrote an article for MSP Business Management entitled “Should IT Companies Fear the Cloud?” in which I restated that Managed Service Providers should be looking to expand their scope beyond support and maintenance to offering expertise in areas such as Sharepoint and CRM customisation – specialities where business owners will understand and value the help you can offer them.

To my mild surprise, the article was well received by Managed Service Providers (MSP’s) and the majority of e-mails I received supported that view.

GeekAlthough there are still a lot of IT Solution Providers who think the Cloud and services like Microsoft Office 365 are the worst thing ever to affect their business, I’ve been encouraged by the number of conversations I’ve had with IT Solution Providers who are not only open to the idea of changing their business models away from pure monitoring and maintenance contracts, but now really believe that they can be more than the “IT Guy” to their clients – that that they can grow into true “Trusted Business Advisors”.

For MSP’s and other IT Solution Providers, I think there are a number of  techniques you can begin to use to start the transition away from the “IT Guy” to “Trusted Business Advisor”.

Raise the bar of professionalism internally

Think about the type of company you’d like to do business with. Everything from how they answer the telephone, to how they dress and carry themselves, to how they keep the lines of communication open internally and externally. Set standards, create systems internally to support this vision, and start being that type of company. People (including your clients) will notice and you’ll be surprised to find your clients approach you for more than just Technical advice, but much more besides.

Quarterly Business Reviews

Meet with your clients to talk about their business. Not technology. Not licensing. Not projects. Simply a chat about their business and the challenges they face. You should be doing this a minimum of every quarter, but the best companies realise the value of regularly dropping by for a cup of tea and a chat. Doing so will surprisingly uncover a lot of opportunities for you, but more importantly helps your client understand that you’re interested in the success of their business and are therefore someone who can support their progress.

Use a PSA Tool

If you’re not already using a Professional Services Automation (PSA) tool such as Autotask or ConnectWise, start thinking about doing so tomorrow. Using such a tool, which is designed specifically for IT Solution Providers, forces you to clearly understand the necessary business processes required to support your own businesses growth. You’ll then begin to look at your clients businesses in a different light and understand how you can help them to become more efficient too. Which leads me on to…

Sell CRM

A PSA tool such as Autotask is designed specifically for IT Solution Providers. For most other industries, including those of your clients, such a dedicated tool doesn’t exist – but your clients have a need for such a tool anyway. This is where you come in. Simply selling your clients a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) software package is one thing, but offering them your expertise to configure that CRM package to support their specific business requirements is a real value add that enables you to deeply understand your clients business inside and out.

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This stuff works. I know because I’ve helped some of my clients focus on making these changes this year and I’ve seen the subtle difference in the way they now carry themselves with more confidence, the improved relationships they subsequently have with their clients, and the increase in the amount of money they earn as a result.

Start using any one of these techniques, and whilst you’ll notice changes, you’ll quickly begin to realise the other techniques go hand in hand. They all support one another in your goal to grow your business to cope with the changing market.

Start using all of the techniques, even at their most basic level, and your clients and prospective clients will begin to perceive you less as the “IT Guy” and more as their “Trusted Business Advisor”.

 

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 at richard@tubblog.co.uk or connect with him via Twitter and LinkedIn.

Stop Writing Sales Proposals!

Hand writing on paperOne of the conversations I regularly have with my peers is about the Sales Process, and converting Prospects into Clients. During that conversation, the topic that always comes up is that of how we tackle writing Sales Proposals for clients.

Here’s my quick thoughts on the subject as someone who has learnt the hard way.

Writing a proposal is expensive. It’s time consuming. For most, it’s tedious. Sure, you can use products such as QuoteWerks that will help reduce the time spent on this, but at the end of the day you want to avoid it wherever possible.

There are some occasions where writing a proposal is necessary – where you genuinely can’t meet with the decision makers (a Trustee Board for a Charity perhaps) but typically, there should be no need for the proposal if you’ve sat down with the Decision maker – and by that I mean whomever signs off on the purchase – and gathered all the necessary information and answered all of their questions. That means understanding the prospects true pain (not just what they tell you), being aware of their true budget (if they say they don’t have a budget, ask them how much they’d like NOT to spend…) and understanding their decision making process (i.e. who else needs to be involved in this conversation).

More often than not though, a request for a proposal from a prospect is simply an avoidance tactic – they probably want to say no to you, but don’t feel comfortable doing so, or they’ve decided this project isn’t so much a priority for them after all. Whatever, if you agree to write that proposal, you’re giving up your time and energy with a virtually zero chance of winning the business.

Worse – many prospects ask for a proposal so they can use it as specification for the project that they can then use to shop around with your competitors. If you write this proposal, you’re in effect providing free Consultancy.

I see many people avoid calling the prospect on these facts, and agreeing to do the proposal anyway, even though they have a gut feeling that they’ll not win the work. I call this “The Fear”. It’s a fear that if you don’t agree to do the proposal, you’ll offend the client, or you’ll lose the work. Therefore it’s better to just agree, invest the time in writing the proposal, and hope for the best – however slim that chance is.

If you want to continue writing proposals for work that you never win, then continue to do this. If you value your time, then let the prospect know that by uncovering the real reasons they’ve just asked for a proposal.

One Litmus Test as to whether you should really agree to write a proposal is to give the prospect an honest ball-park figure for your work, and do be honest, don’t undersell yourself. If the figure is way off the budget the prospect has in his head, no amount of proposal writing will win this work. More often than note though, the prospect will be more honest with you (“That’s a little higher than I’d hoped”) and you can then go back to working on the budget requirements instead of writing and revising a proposal.

The bottom line is, your time is valuable, so don’t waste it writing un-necessary sales proposals. Instead, work on overcoming “The Fear” and only write proposals where you’ve got a genuine chance of winning work.

 

Richard Tubb is an Independent Consultant who works with IT companies to help them feel in control and grow their businesses. He is also a Microsoft UK Small Business Specialist Partner Area Lead (PAL). You can e-mail him at richard@tubblog.co.uk or connect with him via Twitter and LinkedIn.


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