How can I find a suitable service provider?

Following October's SME Month, run in association with BT, we have assembled a panel of experts to answer questions sent in by...

Following October's SME Month, run in association with BT, we have assembled a panel of experts to answer questions sent in by small businesses. The SME strategy special will run throughout November I am considering approaching a managed service provider to support my desktop, network and IT maintenance. What issues do I need...

to address when negotiating with my shortlisted suppliers?

Find a firm with experience of your type of business

Mick Hegarty, IT general manager, BT Business

Standards and capabilities in the support industry differ widely and it is important to ensure that the firm you select has a depth of knowledge right across the spectrum. If a support firm's real skill is in supporting desktops and you have a networking problem, you want to be able to find a cure quickly without employing a third party.

It is important to look for a company that can offer guidance and advice on what may be needed in the future. Look for a firm that understands your business and has a good track record in supporting similar companies. Be very clear about the service levels you expect.

You should also be aware of what you want from a managed service in the long-term. How much will your firm grow, and can the supplier manage any future needs? You may want to build a growth contingency into the contract.

Finally, discuss the total cost and remember the old adage about the cheapest quote not necessarily offering the lowest cost in the long term.

Consider the infrastructure, helpdesk and maintenance

Trevor Lucas, managing director, SME reseller, TAL Computer Services

When employing another company to look after your IT, there are three main things you should consider:

lBespoke developed helpdesk applications are much harder to support, as they require in-depth knowledge of the product and your business.

lInfrastructure needs to be monitored and closely managed so that any problems can be detected early. A remote service provider can deliver this requirement securely.

lMost IT equipment comes with a standard three-year warranty, but make sure you have the correct level of cover, such as a four-hour response on important items such as file servers.

Preparation is key to selecting the right company. You must take care to define which services are most important and select a supplier with a proven track record and qualifications. The Microsoft certified partner programme has helped raise standards in the industry and this is a good starting point.

Make sure you get more than just emergency cover

John Coulthard, head of small business, Microsoft UK

Although managed service providers can offer cost-effective support, the need to negotiate the right terms is crucial.

Before signing, decide the level of support you require. Do you want the company to cover all applications, or can you handle some of the basic support yourself? Once you come to the negotiations, make sure you ask about the detail of the service. For example, is there a process for dealing with issues as they arise, or will the contract cover remote workers?

Your service provider should not just provide a reactive service when things go wrong. You should ask about routine healthchecks, such as assessing whether PCs have enough disc space, carrying out anti-virus updates and ensuring security patches are installed quickly.

Support timeframes should be spelt out in the service level agreement. If a problem cannot be resolved in a given time, will the company give you alternative equipment?

Remember, a contract that does not support the needs of your business in the longer term, or leaves you to fend for yourself, will do more harm than good.

Think about all your options and avoid hidden extra costs

Stephen Benson, Business Link Hertfordshire UK Online IT centre

Systematic and reliable maintenance of IT systems is key to your total business strategy, so look into the proposition in detail.

  • Do you do maintenance in-house? If so, when outsourcing there may be issues about the Transfer of Undertakings Protection of Employment legislation. You may be unhappy with the service your own staff provide, but you could end up using the same people, even if they work for an outside contractor.
  • What service levels do you need? Depending on how many machines/users are supported, you may find you need a contractor permanently on site.
  • What should be the response times for user queries or fixing equipment? Consider whether you need out-of-hours support. If the service provider has a helpdesk, name the people who can call it.
  • Will your out-of date equipment or software be upgraded? Find out who is responsible for bespoke applications.
  • What is the disaster recovery plan? Plan the level of safety you will need for data back-ups, virus protection and websites.
  • How long is the agreement period and are there cancellation costs? Make sure you find out about any hidden extras.

Investigate your supplier shortlist on the internet

Mike Lucas, regional technology manager, Compuware

You should do your own investigation into possible service providers. Look up your shortlisted companies on the internet and see if there is any news on their level of service.

Find out if the supplier will charge high ongoing maintenance costs, or if there are any hidden extras. You should ask for details of all payments that are not in the contract.

Ask the service provider for names of other customers who operate in the same business area as yourself for a reference. That way you can get an idea of the type of service it has provided.

You should get the service provider to benchmark your current service levels and get it to agree to either maintain these levels or increase them. At this point you should also check the service level agreement is measurable; this can be done by looking at end-user response times, for example.

Check that you can get out of the contract if you need to. Always set a review period and keep suppliers on their toes.

Read more on IT for small and medium-sized enterprises (SME)