A new breed of network support companies have been cropping up over the last several years. These companies provide what’s known as “managed services” for your network. Most companies wait for you to call with problems; instead, these companies provide proactive services intended to minimize and prevent computer problems. Services are provided on a fixed-price basis, so you can budget your IT without worry about cost fluctuations from month to month.
If you choose one of these companies, it’s likely you’ll spend more out of pocket for your IT support than you would with a traditional IT company, but the benefit is that your staff will be more productive so they can do more with their time. Even a few minutes a day of added productivity can add up to big money, so this is a real, quantifiable value.
As this business model becomes more common, companies are more prone to compete on price. This means you may find two vendors with radically different prices that seem to deliver matching services. Depending on what’s included, this could be a good deal, or you could find yourself nickeled and dimed after choosing a plan that’s not really all-inclusive. You’ll have to read the fine print carefully to be sure what you are getting.
Comparing Apples to Apples
Since proposals can look almost identical on the surface, here are standard services and how they may vary from vendor to vendor.
- 24/7 monitoring of your computers and servers – this is a core offering, and the primary means of being proactive – your vendor is alerted to problems before they become serious. Monitoring may be outsourced. The biggest variables are the differences in what’s monitored and whether a company will do any special alerts custom-tailored to your needs. Unfortunately, this item is so technical that it will be almost impossible for laypeople to compare.
- Help desk – ask what the hours are and whether you are calling the company or a third party. Find out how issues are escalated, especially in the event of after-hours emergencies.
- Remote support – usually unlimited. Most support can be delivered remotely if you have the right tools, so this gets you faster solutions at a lower cost.
- Onsite support – some companies include this, either a set number of hours or unlimited. Others leave it out and bill hourly if you need it. The reality is that you will need it, so leaving this out makes the costs look lower than they really will be.
- Software – many providers have use standard software tools and include these as part of their service. You might see antivirus, spam filtering, and even backup software.
- Hardware – equipment is also included in some vendor plans: backup devices, security hardware, even your entire computer and server infrastructure (an offering known as HAAS, or hardware as a service). Others include replacement parts, another cost savings.
- Offsite backup storage – ask how much is being provided and how you can get it if it’s needed. Full offsite server backups can take days to download, so you should expect vendors to have a way to ship backup data in the event of an emergency, for fast recovery.
- Support for peripheral devices – does the vendor support other equipment on your network, like printers, scanners, firewalls, and smart phones?
- Support for specialty software – how does the vendor handle issues with your software systems? Some exclude it, some work in coordination with vendors, and some do whatever it takes. This is a huge difference in the level of support provided.
- Upgrades – does the vendor include computer upgrades, server upgrades, peripheral upgrades, and software upgrades? There is huge variation here, too, and what a salesperson will say may be different from what’s in the fine print.
- Strategic planning – a common offering is quarterly business reviews. The quality of these varies widely, as these require experienced, senior resources with business savvy to provide real value. Find out who will handle these and what their background is. Ask for a sample agenda to find out whether it’s just a status meeting or whether your vendor is truly helping map IT to your business objectives.
Because this business model is the latest industry trend, there are lots of “how-to” guides and third party services intended to help small IT shops switch to the managed services model almost overnight. These companies use cookie-cutter services and often outsource most of the work. Prices are cheap, but this is a radically different way to run an IT business, and without experience, they will run into unexpected surprises that can impact your service.
Even with experienced companies, some services are likely outsourced. Ask what services are outsourced and how long those relationships have been in existence. Also confirm how many technicians the company has available for onsite visits – there are a number of one or two person companies that outsource nearly everything. They can’t possibly accommodate a large number of onsite requests simultaneously, which could leave you hanging in a time of crisis.
Understand the background of the principals of the companies you are considering, as well as the people you’ll see most often. Managed services is about taking IT to the next level, and this can’t be done without true coordination of IT strategies and business objectives. Most server techs lack the business expertise to marry these two areas.
Making Your Final Decision
Once you’ve done a full comparison of plans, you’ll likely find one vendor with a more comprehensive offering than the rest. In theory, a full service plan will help your business use technology better, which should enable better efficiency, higher quality, and greater productivity, and you’ll be able to justify the cost. However, cash flow is a huge driver in business, so in some cases a more basic offering – where you take on more risk yourself – may have to suffice.
Be sure to call references to make sure vendors are delivering on their promises. Then make your selection and look forward to smooth-running IT systems.