IT is the engine that keeps small companies running smoothly. Everything from basic Internet connectivity through to email, customer management systems, sales and invoicing relies on it. It must all work reliably, and someone must keep it secure.
That someone probably shouldn’t be you—at least, not if you want it done well. Small business executives wear many hats, but ‘IT support technician’ isn’t normally one. Instead, you need an IT service provider to manage this important part of your operation properly. But how do you choose a good one?
What are you like?
No two IT providers are the same, and neither are any two clients. Before choosing a provider, understand your own goals and operating profile.
For example, what are your growth plans, and how will this affect your IT goals? This will affect how much your IT service provider will need to scale.
Do you want an ongoing service that rarely changes, or do you need a project-focused IT provider who can help you develop specific systems to further your business?
Are you looking for an innovator that can use technology to transform the way you do things, or a process-focused company that can manage routine IT tasks?
Breadth of service
Another thing to understand about yourself is how much of your IT you’re hoping to outsource, not just now, but in the future. This will affect a key criteria in your choice of IT service provider: its breadth of service. If you’re looking for a lot of IT services, then consider either a one-stop-shop operation, or one that brings together several best-in-breed services from different providers under one roof.
The important thing for you is how well your IT service provider manages others. You only want a single point of contact. Avoid piecing together solutions from different providers who then point the finger at others when things go wrong. Choose a provider willing to take ownership of a problem and get it fixed, even if they are working with a third party themselves.
How will the provider charge for their services? Will they charge on a per-incident basis, or do they offer a regular periodic fee that takes care of all service calls? Do they sell you a certain number of hours up front, and if so, what happens if you don’t use them all in each billing period?
Ask the IT service provider about the process before signing any contracts. Evaluate processes in two categories:
Reactive. This is the most common and visible kind of interaction for a client. These are the service calls when a software issue arises or a device goes wrong. How does the provider handle these? What are its guaranteed response times? How organized is its help desk ticketing system? Does it use barcodes to identify specific devices for easy reference? Does it provide remote control options to fix software issues? Does it follow up to ensure that it resolved problems properly?
Proactive. These are the processes the client probably never sees, but which protect the client from unplanned problems. For example, the IT service provider should offer regular backups (and backup testing), email archiving, software patching, antivirus updates, and system maintenance. It should also monitor networks and devices to identify emerging problems behind the scenes, which it then hopefully fixes before the client is aware of them.
Get these things right, and you can look forward to a long and happy relationship. Still, it pays to plan for the worst. What happens if the service goes sideways, or your service provider itself goes south?
Ask about service-level agreements, and escalation procedures in situations where you are not happy with the service provider’s performance.
Check the health of the service provider’s business. How long has it been operating? Are there any red flags from its past that give you pause, such as unexplained rebranding or negative stories? What plans does it have in place to transition your account if it runs into trouble, and how much will it tell you about any third party contracts it uses to service your business?
Finally, how flexible is its contract? You may need to get out of the relationship quickly, so look for reasonable exit clauses and notice periods.
Signing with an IT service provider is like getting into any long-term relationship. It’s far easier to check that you’re compatible early on than to move in with someone and discover hidden problems later on. A little due diligence goes a long way, and these questions will help give you peace of mind before signing on the dotted line.