Choosing the Best IT Service Model for Your Business
Let’s face it: for your average business owner or administrator, researching a new IT provider is about as much fun as pulling teeth. In my experience, people will put up with bad service for a while before they get exasperated enough to take on such a chore. But once the decision is made, the task becomes like any other where due diligence is required, and in choosing the right IT model and provider it is an absolute MUST.
There is no regulation in the IT industry. Anyone with a mind can hang out an IT shingle, so that old saying Caveat Emptor, “Let the Buyer Beware” rears its ugly head.
It is in this vein that we provide the following guidelines. Take the time to learn what you need to ask and look for in an IT provider. After all, you don’t want to have to take on this chore again anytime soon.
Types of Outsourced IT Services
In terms of outsourcing IT services, there are only two realistic options for IT support models: Time & Materials, known in the industry as Break & Fix (B&F), and a Managed Services Provider (MSP). A third, minor league option is support services offered by software providers. These offerings are typically limited to issues affecting only the software applications, so will not be considered here, as the clients’ need for full network IT is still necessary.
Also not considered here is the option that only larger companies typically consider: hiring an in-house IT person or department. The average annual salary in the US for a qualified in-house IT employee is $67.000. This generally buys you IT help from 9 to 5, weekdays only.
In most cases, it is not cost-effective for companies with under 60 employees to hire a full-time IT person because you can outsource this function of your business far cheaper and with a lot less work. A managed services provider (and in very rare cases, a Break & Fix provider) will be there for you 24/7/365, with no weekends or holidays off, no sick days, and no Benefits packages.
- Time and Materials, or “Break & Fix” (B&F) Services: Simply put, when something breaks, you call them and somebody comes out to fix it.
- Managed IT Services (MSP): This is a model where the IT managed services provider takes the role of your IT department and not only installs and supports all the devices and PCs that connect to your server(s), but also provides 24/7 remote help desk and on-site support, antivirus, security, backup and a host of other services to monitor and maintain the speed, performance, and security of your computer network.
By way of early elimination, a company with 5 or fewer users is typically NOT a good candidate for an MSP. Between 5 to 10, the need for an MSP is arguable. With a minimum of 10 users, an MSP becomes the better choice, not only in terms of the level of service, which the MSP model wins hands down over the B&F model but at 10 users, an MSP also provides a better return on investment (ROI).
Break & Fix (B&F) Services
Before the internet, break & fix was the ONLY option and its age and inadequacy are obvious. It is a waiting game:
First, something breaks, a workstation or the entire network is down. Now you wait. Wait for them to show up, wait for them to troubleshoot and identify the problem, and then wait while they fix it. The biggest problem is that this model places you in a constant emergency mode, with excessive downtime and loss of productivity.
Smaller businesses necessarily put up with B&F’s inadequacies because of limited or severely budgeted cash flow. With a simple setup, the issues that arise may be rare enough that this fingers-crossed arrangement is endurable. Perhaps several months go by in between service calls. Companies this small take this calculated risk rather than paying a monthly retainer or subscription to an MSP.
As a business grows larger and the network operations become more complex, the B&F model quickly becomes intolerable when compared to that of an MSP. A huge problem within the B&F industry is honesty and motivation. B&F providers survive by producing billable hours. What motivation do they have to fix issues quickly and completely?
Managed Services Provider (MSP)
An MSP saves money by setting up their clients’ systems for quick and thorough repairs. Speed and accuracy enhance their bottom line, the opposite of the B&F provider. The fewer hours an MSP spends on a client the better it is for everyone.
All MSPs are not the same. Many MSPs offer pre-packaged plans, for example, we’ll call them the Gold, Silver, or Bronze plans. The Bronze usually includes very little. These plans look nice on a website, and you may be lucky enough that one of them is a good fit for you, but usually, they aren’t. These packages do vary in the industry, but typically they include things you don’t need and exclude things you do need, which become expensive add-ons.
The Dangers of Add-Ons and Extras
Keep an eye on those add-ons! Typically, the lowest-priced plan, in this scenario, the Bronze, will include only the bare essentials and either NOT cover or place a limit on basic services. There are a few examples, but these are the two that you will pay the most dearly for:
- Remote Help Desk Services
- Onsite Technical Response
IT companies typically charge $100 to $175 per hour for remote or onsite assistance. Let’s say it’s $100. Let’s also say that your Bronze plan covers 7 computers for $500 per month, but you needed 5 hours of help desk and 2 hours of onsite support that month.
Your $500 Plan is now $1200. See how that works?
Those are just the two biggest money add-ons. Others are typically:
- Data Backups
- Data Restore Support
- Hardware and Software Support
- Support for User Management
- Access to Microsoft Top Tier Support
- Dedicated Technicians (rather than just any tech who’s handy
Let’s say your plan covers basic IT staples, like cybersecurity: anti-virus (AV) and firewalls, but spam filtering is not. Oops, there’s another add-on, usually a fixed price with an hourly rate for setup. The same goes for any specific software you use in your business. This type of service model is known in the industry as the Nickel and Dime method. These packaged plans cost an arm and a leg, and anything outside of the service level agreement (SLA) will be extra.
A truly top-notch MSP listens to the client, gains a thorough understanding of their business, how work flows, and what their unique requirements are. They then tailor a plan which includes everything the client does need while eliminating what they don’t.
No matter how the MSP collaborates with the client to arrive at the perfect service level agreement (SLA), the agreement should always include these basic services as a bare minimum:
- Unlimited Help Desk Monitoring, Repair & Maintenance
- Unlimited onsite visits
- Guaranteed Response Time
- IT Budgeting & Road Map
- Cybersecurity Strategy
- Vendor Management
Once you have crossed this fundamental threshold of included services, there are legitimate, separate additional offerings to be considered, such as Licensing, Cloud Services, including secure backups, Hardware as a Service (HaaS), and Software as a Service (SaaS), in which the MSP provides needed hardware and/or software upgrades at the outset and as an ongoing component of the agreement. An out of agreement projects, such as a company moves, or setting up satellite locations should be subject to a separate proposal and quoting process, with such expenditures agreed upon in advance.
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How Do You Identify a Top-Notch MSP?
Watch them and listen. The best MSPs will concentrate on you. Beware of the IT candidate who is pushing their version of the Gold, Silver, or Bronze plans on you based only on the number of users. Any MSP that treats your needs as fitting into one of their programs does not have your best interests in mind.
What the TOP MSPs do:
They Ask Smart Questions and Listen to You
They ask about your business, your goals, and how business flows through your workplace.
A litigation attorney is geared toward the steps between the initial client consultation and entering the courtroom with a winning case. A manufacturer is geared toward the steps between initial order and transporting the final product.
Same needs? On a fundamental basis, certainly: computers need to work. The best MSPs want to understand your workflow, any frustrations you have, and how that current model will support the company processes as the business grows. They will ask pertinent questions, not just questions that are geared toward closing the sale:
- How do you go about creating and handling increased production?
- What ‘new ground’ are you planning to break in terms of their products or services?
- How would you like to improve customer service?
- Where are your workflow ‘logjams’?
- What currently happens when your staff experiences network downtime?
Depending on your response, different questions will ensue, and they are listening. The best MSPs create a custom plan just for you based on what they’ve learned about you.
They Perform Truly Proactively
This goes well beyond exhibiting the proper experience, skills, and certifications necessary. THOSE attributes should be a given, but they must be a mere starting point.
Dig a little deeper. Do not just listen to a canned and rehearsed presentation. Ask about the availability of both onsite and help desk remote staff with specific skill sets that are pertinent to your business. Have them explain their proactive versus reactive methods of support.
Ask them about their internal policies and procedures and their mandate as to best practices. A top-notch MSP will have these in writing and will not be shy or hesitant about sharing them with you. If the IT guy sitting across from you looks bewildered and falls into basic selling talking points like “We promise a one-hour turnaround time”, then you are talking to the wrong guy. Get a pro in there.
The best MSPs do not have the same mentality as the Break & Fix (B&F) IT guys who overpopulate the industry. B&F doesn’t work for you, and if they were truly proactive, these IT guys would know it doesn’t work for them, either.
The MSP you want will share the vision they implement every day: the same forward-looking practices that keep you up and running, that solve an issue the first time, that prevent foreseeable issues within your network, and thus keep their hours on your network to a minimum. The MSP saves money, and you save money.
How can any IT Provider guarantee consistency if they cannot immediately spell out and show you their best practices and procedures? Consistency of quality is based on having a set of rules they live by, which are ingrained and come as second nature to the entire staff. A solid top-notch MSP never wings it.
They Act as Your Virtual CIO
Your MSP should be acting as your virtual Chief Information Officer. Proactiveness goes well beyond knowing the storage capacity in your server or the dates when hardware and software will become obsolete, it’s about how to recognize, test, and implement new technologies which can improve every aspect of your company, not just those areas dealing with IT. Your MSP should be almost an employee as if your IT department were just down the hall from your office.
You need to have both repair/maintenance-based communication, but casual as well. If you see an emerging technology on the news that looks like it could help your company, you need an easy conduit to toss the idea around with your virtual CIO. For the best MSPs, going above and beyond is nothing out of the ordinary; it is all part of being your technology partner.
It takes two to make this technology tango truly effective.
You must choose an MSP that you trust, and have faith in their abilities, work practices, and advice. This trust builds over time. As they say, “the proof of the pudding is in the eating.” If you are considering closing a deal with an MSP that you have a single reservation about, your work is not done.
Your MSP must be upfront, open and honest, with every fact at their fingertips: from their company culture to their policies, procedures, and best practices. They need to know where you are taking your company and be enthusiastic about being an integral component in helping you achieve your goals now, and in the future.
Once you truly understand the cost of your TIME and factor in employee productivity, the all-inclusive MSP model is considerably less expensive over time than either a full-time in-house employee or the Break & Fix model or a bare-bones MSP Bronze-type plan.
Time is money. Choose wisely.