There’s no doubt about it, IT forms the backbone that keeps most modern businesses on their feet.
Sure, there are some core functions that could probably work without an internet connection or your most crucial apps – but preparing for a time without those things would be an almighty task, and it’s not a contingency plan that many businesses have in place.
Well, it’s generally because IT is so fundamental to the running of a business that a day or week without it would just mean sending people home and hoping that the problem can be solved quickly. Instead, we keep our fingers crossed and try not to imagine what would happen if we lost our systems.
The thing is, there are real people behind that ‘hoping for the best’ – and, increasingly, they don’t even work for you. Managed service providers are now generally the go-to solution for SMB IT, and they do a great job of keeping the world’s small and medium size businesses on their feet.
That said, not all managed service providers are created equal – and if you want to be absolutely sure you’re going to have a team on your side that’ll help you avoid disaster, you need to make sure you’re asking the right questions from the very first time you sit down to decide whether they’re going to be a good fit for your business.
So, what should those questions be?
“Are you familiar with businesses like ours?”
While all managed service providers are likely to be capable of keeping your IT systems up and running, not all of them are going to be familiar with your specific needs, processes, and workflows.
As such, it’s always a good idea to talk to any potential provider about whether or not they’ve worked with companies like yours before. Sure, they might not have nailed on experience with a company of exactly the same size in exactly the same industry – but it’s good to know they’ve worked with similar organisations.
Don’t be afraid to reach out to other companies they’ve worked with too. A good copywriter can put together compelling ‘testimonials’ that look absolutely legitimate – so there’s just no substitute for reaching out to the people directly and talking about the experience they’ve had with the company.
You might also want to ask to see some case studies. IT companies often keep records of the work they do – especially since it’s the kind of information that’s useful to have recorded in case they need to tackle a similar situation in the future. Again, they might be redacted to reflect data protection laws – but they will often be happy to share their experience with you.
“Are you likely to baffle us with jargon?”
The world of IT is chock full of people who sometimes forget that non-IT people exist. As such, if you’re not fully clued-up on the latest applications for an SD WAN system or up to speed with managed PaaS solutions – you could find yourself in deep water with the wrong provider.
This is where absolute honesty is key. It’s useful for a managed service provider to get a feel for how knowledgeable your team are in around IT and tech in general – and a good provider will allocate an account manager or point of contact that has the right level of communication skill.
Of course, there’s a bit of give and take – but again, a service provider can hopefully help with this. If there are new applications or ways of working that they plan to introduce, you might want to ask them to put together a training session for your team – especially if it’s going to make their communication easier going forward.
Often, this isn’t a question you can ask outright – although in some cases you might. Instead, you’ll probably get a feel for how they communicate with you when you first get in touch. If you’re not happy – keep moving.
“Can you keep ahead of problems?”
Perhaps the most crucial skill that an IT team brings to the business table is the ability to prevent issues that could potentially limit business function before they happen.
Now, there’s no managed service provider who can see the future – but since your network is a large system, there are plenty who have the ability to identify weak-points, potential future issues, and imminent breakdowns.
Keeping ahead of problems usually means two different things. There’s the detailed understanding of your system and any inherent issues with the system as-is; and there’s the monitoring of the system to ensure best possible reaction time should something unexpected happen.
Not all service providers offer round-the-clock monitoring of your systems – so if you’ve got mission critical platforms that you absolutely have to have access to if your business is going to keep running, the it’s well worth tracking down a company that offers this kind of monitoring. Ultimately, this could be the difference between starting the week with no IT – or starting the week with your systems up and running with an email telling you that a problem was averted on Saturday afternoon.
“Will we have a predictable monthly cost?”
Generally speaking, managed service providers operate with a defined ‘service level agreement’ – a contract that outlines what they’ll do for you – and what you’ll pay in return.
This is the standard way of working – and it’s important that something formal is in place – and that it suits you needs exactly. Some companies have off-the-shelf agreements that they’ll tailor to suit you, whereas others will sit down and put something together from scratch.
In business, cashflow is key – so it’s usually vital that you understand what you’ll be paying each month, and what represents an add-on service. Clarity from the very start of a working relationship will avoid any confusion going forward – and if the company can’t pinpoint an exact monthly payment or suggests a moving/changing agreement when it’s not required – move along until you’ve found a company that’ll set your agreement in stone.