Ten key questions to ask when selecting an IT service provider

When choosing an IT service provider, keep in mind pricing models, service-level agreements, business growth plans and more. Ben Gladstone, chief executive of service provider Conosco, offers these essential questions to ask prospective IT services companies.

Handing the reins over to a third party to supply, manage and maintain IT can be a daunting task. With a huge range of service providers throughout the U.K., having a checklist of key questions will help you sort the wheat from the chaff. Ben Gladstone, chief executive of service provider Conosco, identifies questions to consider when making your selection.

1. How and when will I be charged?

Ben Gladstone: There are various pricing models to consider, including fixed, variable and per incident. Fixed price is a better option -- other options look upside down to me. A fixed price has unlimited supported, and the benefit of this is that it aligns your interests with the supplier's. Variable pricing is based on the time it takes to fix your IT problems, which can lead to confusion and disputes with your supplier. For example, "You fixed this last month, why should I pay for you to fix it again?"

Variable pricing can also be made to look like a fixed-price agreement by selling a fixed amount of hours in advance. However, this may exclude things like work on-site or certain work hours only, thus charging you extra for these services.

TIP: If you opt for a fixed-pricing model, ask whether maintenance contracts and warranties are included, as well as management of contracts and interactions with equipment suppliers. Check that your pricing is transparent and watch out for any hidden extras.

2. Which factors should I take into account when choosing the right IT supplier?

Gladstone: This depends on the size and growth plans of your business, budget, and your internal IT expertise. You should identify exactly what it is that you are looking for. Do you want to outsource all or parts of your IT? If so, what parts? Or are you looking for a company that fixes problems?

TIP: Go for a one-stop shop that offers hardware, software, networking and support. This will avoid the need for multiple suppliers and finger pointing.

3. Does bigger mean better? 

Gladstone: A one-man band is unlikely to do it, but with larger companies, sometimes customer care can be lost. Think about your needs for the business now and your needs for the future.

TIP: Go for a medium-sized supplier that offers breadth and depth of skills.

4. Does the provider work with other companies within my market sector? 

Gladstone: Question if they have relevant experience in your market sector -- this is especially important if you operate in a niche marketplace. Do your homework first to see whether they offer a true partnership approach.

TIP: Ask to speak with a similar-sized business the provider works with to get a feel for the way they do things. Make sure they tick all the boxes for a similar company before you sign.

5. Is a service-level agreement (SLA) important? 

Gladstone: There should really be an SLA in your contract, and should be linked to what you want from the service that directly contributes to the business, not the technology itself; for example, response times for problem management and resolution. However, watch out for big companies that tend to hide behind their SLAs. For example, a supplier may not react to a problem as quickly as they could because their SLA states they have three hours to do it.

TIP: Regular reviews will show if SLAs are being met, but build in flexibility for any changes. Make sure you have clear and realistic expectations at the start.

6. What contract length should I go for? 

Gladstone: There is no reason at all why you should get pushed into a long-term contract, as the company should live or die by the quality of its service, no matter what length you chose. However, if you prefer a longer timeframe, ask what benefits will come from signing a longer contract, such as a price reduction.

TIP: Do not get pushed in to a long-term lockdown if it is not right for your business needs. Go for a service provider that is looking to build long-term relationships, not long-term contracts. If the supplier insists on a long-term contract, ask why.

7. What about a dedicated account managers? 

Gladstone: These are important, as you need someone that understands your business and knows what you are aiming for in terms of growth plans and company direction. It will be in this direct contact's interest to build a long-term relationship with you.

TIP: Having an account manager inside your chosen supplier will avoid the confusion and stress of having to speak to a different person every time you ring up.

8. Is the service provider proactive? 

Gladstone: The core to good IT support is preventing problems before they happen. This reduces downtime and is good for business. However, the supplier is not just there to stop problems from happening; they are also there to map IT changes ahead of time. A good service provider will regularly visit its customers to help identify how they currently utilize their IT and what changes can be made to better manage it in future.

TIP: Avoid the "fixer." These types of companies will only offer problem fixing, rather than trying to avoid them in the first place.

9. Does the provider offer remote management and monitoring? 

Gladstone: This should be a fundamental part of the model you choose. With today's remote management tools, suppliers should be monitoring all of your PCs and servers, and installing upgrades and packages remotely. If a server is running out of space, the supplier can be proactive about it remotely, before it is too late and the server crashes.

TIP: Remote management and monitoring will offer you support without impacting your productivity or disrupting the business.

10. What happens when my business grows? 

Gladstone: It is important the supplier works with you to plan for growth. Consider longer-term hardware needs at the outset to save time and expense later. Many businesses forget that extra staff means more demand on their server and storage requirements. Be sure to build your IT in a highly scalable way. If business growth takes off, you won't have the time to build an efficient IT strategy as a quick reaction to expansion.

TIP: Look at Software-as-a-Service or hosted solutions that are pay-as-you-go. This will allow you to simply add a new user as you take on additional staff.


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