Posts Tagged 'Support'

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.

How do I choose a CRM Vendor to work with?

My last blog post, entitled “How do you move from being the “IT Guy” into a Trusted Business Advisor?” prompted a lot of responses. It seems that becoming the “Trusted Business Advisor” is the goal of the majority of IT Solution Providers (ITSP’s) and Managed Service Providers (MSP’s), but achieving that status is easier said than done.

One of the techniques I suggested for ITSP’s and MSP’s moving away from providing purely maintenance and support and towards being seen as a valued business partner for clients is to become adept in offering a Customer Relationship Management (CRM) solution that can be customised for a clients specific business needs. There’s no quicker way than to both learn about and demonstrate an understanding of a clients business than taking the deep dive required to deploy a CRM solution.

Two Businessmen shaking handsBut where to begin? There are a slew of CRM packages on the market from many different vendors. Many of the e-mails I received on the subject of CRM’s spoke about being “too complicated”, “poor support” and “too expensive for SMB’s”.

I’m going to say right now that this blog post isn’t a CRM product comparison. I’m not going to recommend this CRM over another. As with all these types of topics, I do have my own preferred suppliers and software, but that’s based on my own experiences. You should find your own solutions by exploring the options and speaking with your peers on what works and what doesn’t.

I’m also going to preface this list by stating the most important technique for offering CRM solutions that I believe you can adopt. My American friends use a phrase I love – “Eat your own Dog food”. What this means is don’t try to offer a solution to your clients that you don’t use yourself. In the world of IT, that perhaps doesn’t mean you have to use the same CRM package internally that you deploy to client sites – it’s likely that you use an IT industry specific product with CRM-like capabilities such as Autotask or ConnectWise – but it does mean you have processes that support your business internally, targeted and consistent marketing, strong customer management systems in place, and a generally good understanding of the benefits that using a CRM package can bring to a business.

Once you’ve got those things in place, and begin looking at your clients business through new eyes, starting conversations about a CRM solution becomes something that not only you want to do, but knowing the benefits it brings to your client – you can’t help but do.

Back to our list of questions I ask when choosing a CRM vendor. Does the CRM Vendor…

Offer both Hosted and En-Site Solutions

If you work with a vendor who provides purely Hosted based CRM solutions, then seemingly every client you speak to will express concerns about security and ask you for En-Site options.

If you work with a vendor who provides purely En-Site CRM solutions, then seemingly every client you speak to to will express concerns about cost, maintenance and support, and ask you for Cloud options.

Yes, regular readers of this blog will know I’m beating the drum on the Cloud topic again – but the answer remains the same whatever the solution you’re offering. Don’t try to dictate to your client what is best between Hosted and En-Site. Offer them both options and let them come to their own conclusions based on the honest pro’s and con’s.

Offer great levels of support

I define great support as:-

  • The Vendor offers support by telephone, e-mail and managed on-line forums that specifically covers your local hours of business
  • The Vendors Support team understands they are speaking with an IT company, and not an end-user. When needed we can skip the scripts and deep-dive straight into a techy problem.
  • The Vendors Support team offers dedicated implementation help, and doesn’t leave it to the Partner – especially during those first few implementations.
  • The Vendor offers training videos and materials allowing you to learn at your own pace, and regular training webinars and Conference calls which allow you to schedule time for your engineers to learn.
  • When required to and requested of, the Vendors Support team will speak directly with the end-user to swiftly resolve their issue.

Offers Integration with 3rd Party Products

… with popular accountancy packages. Not just exports and imports, but true integration wherein things such as invoices and credit notes are raised and synchronised back and forth between CRM and Accountancy.

If you’re working in the US, then integration with QuickBooks is essential.

If you’re working in the UK, then integration with Sage is essential.

Check with your existing clients on what Accountancy package they currently use. Then make sure the CRM product you’re looking at supports integration with that package.

Check the Integration has been tested as working with the local version of your Accountancy package. QuickBooks in North America is different to QuickBooks in the UK.

Imports and Exports are still important. Can end-users easily export data to an Excel spread sheet to work on, or are you as the IT company going to be fielding a regular stream of 1st Line Technical Support calls on how to do exports regularly?

Offers *Strong* Integration with Microsoft Outlook

Every CRM package integrates with Microsoft Outlook. But not every CRM-Outlook integration actually works. Outlook hanging. Outlook crashing. Add-ins that have to be deployed individually rather than centrally. One way integration rather than two way synchronisation. All these things can cause a head-ache.

If your client is like the majority and uses Outlook as their trusted source for keeping data, then trying to educate them to instead work solely within the CRM instead will be an up-hill struggle. Strong Outlook integration allows the client to dump data in either Outlook or the CRM, and know the data is then synchronised to both systems for future use.

Product is aimed at SMB’s

There are a lot of CRM products that profess to cover both the Enterprise and the Small and Medium (SMB) business space.

In my experience, choosing a CRM product that is aimed specifically at the SMB space alone pays dividends.

Many vendors definition of what SMB is are radically different. Microsoft defines SMB as 5-500 seats. The rest of us tend to speak about SMB as 5-75 seats.

The easiest way to find out where the CRM vendors product sits is to ask them to describe typically deployments.

Typically, SMB CRM products have a much shorter cycle to deploy, and as an IT company you can teach your staff and clients how to use the system at a basic level in a day or two, not a week.

Licensing costs will be talked about in hundreds instead of tens of thousands, and you’ll be able to buy licenses individually instead of in SMB unfriendly blocks of five or ten.

Offers a mutually beneficial Partnership

Before entering a Partnership with a CRM vendor, ask them what their perfect partner looks like.

If the answer is simply “They sell lots of licenses”, then tread carefully. If you’re taking your first steps into CRM deployment, then you might only do one or two small deals initially whilst you find your feet. You don’t want to sell a product and then not appear on the vendors radar because you’re small fry.

If the answer is “Work with us to grow both our businesses”, then we’re getting closer to a good match. The Vendor might offer Not-for-Resale (NFR) software for internal use, regular training, a steady stream of referrals in your local area and marketing development funds. In return you should offer to make up-front commitments to your vendor about training staff, targeted marketing campaigns you will run, case studies you will help them to develop, and sales targets you will strive to achieve.

My thoughts here are that your small business clients probably work with you because you’re an small business too, understanding the problems and challenges that small businesses face. With that logic in mind, you should probably be looking to work with a CRM vendor who values fewer good quality, deep relationships over larger volumes of relationships.

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So that’s my take! There are many, many CRM packages out there. But remember that you don’t just want to be selling another box of software here – you want to be offering your clients a real value added service that helps you become a Trusted Business Advisor. That means understanding their business and their business challenges, and working with a CRM partner who supports you in that goal.

 

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.


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