A friend of mine is the CEO of a midsize company. In the past, he worked with a traditional IT services company. When something broke, he called them and they came and fixed it. Sometimes, a co-worker, who "knew a little bit about computers," would also try to fix things. But inevitably, a call was eventually placed and they were billed for something.
Three months ago, however, he contracted with a managed services provider (MSP) and he couldn't be happier. I asked him what changed from before. What's so different about using an MSP instead of a traditional IT company? What changed, he told me, was that his company's IT planning had significantly improved. They had a realistic and manageable IT budget. IT expenses were down and IT performance was better.
"But the best part," he said, "is that before, I was constantly asked to make decisions about things I knew nothing about. Now, I have a trusted adviser who supplies the information I need to make better decisions."
My friend's situation is similar to that of many organizations. We all have different levels of technical knowledge and different comfort levels with technology. It can be mysterious and frustrating. A trusted technology partner is a good way to eliminate this frustration.
So, when and why should someone engage an MSP? More importantly, what exactly is managed services and what are the benefits of this IT approach? I'll answer those questions in this article and cover the necessary information to assess a managed services offering.
What are managed services?
In a nutshell, managed services is outsourced IT services and support designed to improve operations and cut expenses. Managed services is a departure from the traditional "break/fix" model of IT support. Historically, a company would coast along until an IT professional was needed to fix a major, sometimes catastrophic, failure. This model ignored the small performance issues that led up to the failure, and created unpredictable expenses that impacted cash reserves. Budgeting for IT was virtually impossible as it relied on industry estimates and educated guesses.
Managed services turns that model on its head by proactively monitoring and maintaining your IT systems and infrastructure for optimal performance. This means your software is kept up to date, your hardware functions properly and issues are dealt with before they impact your business. With a managed services agreement (MSA), you replace large, unforeseen expenses with a regular monthly fee. Additional services typically included in an MSA are managed security services (anti-virus, anti-spam, anti-malware and network security), a business-continuity solution (back-up, disaster recovery, risk analysis and a documented recovery plan), and line-of-business application support. Some MSPs also provide mobile device management, enterprise voice services, managed email services and other IT-related services.
What are the benefits?
There are several key benefits to an IT strategy that includes managed services. Chief among them is reduced risk. This result is a combination of proactive monitoring and maintenance, minimized exposure to security concerns, business-continuity planning and predictable budgeting. Costs are reduced and controlled in the same way. Your monthly payment covers almost all your IT expenses. Where it doesn't, monitoring and reporting helps you plan for necessary IT expenditures and control the timing of those expenses. Expenses are further reduced by less downtime due to disaster/data loss, or virus and malware intrusion.
A well-managed IT environment also allows you to adapt to changing business conditions, enabling your employees to focus on core business activities instead of troubleshooting IT issues. Finally, through your MSP, you gain access to enterprise class capabilities and specialized skills without a large investment in staff and training. Think of your MSP as hiring an "IT Superhero," equipped with all the skills you need for less than the cost of a full-time employee.
Why switch to an MSP?
I know what you're thinking. This all sounds great, but do I really need this? Why make this change and, if I decide to, when is the best time to make a move?
Truthfully, managed services is not right for everyone. They are best suited for small and midsize businesses that can't afford enterprise level IT resources, but still need enterprise quality IT infrastructure. In a business world increasingly reliant on technology, smaller businesses need a manageable and cost-effective solution to be competitive and operate efficiently.
Certain situations make managed services a more compelling option. Consider an MSP if your organization fits into any of the following categories:
- If you don't have a full-time IT technician on staff.
- If you're growing and looking to scale efficiently.
- If you need to reduce personnel or staffing costs, but don't want your systems to suffer.
- If your IT team is understaffed or doesn't have the skills you need.
- If your IT infrastructure is aging or near failure.
- If you're tired of short-term fixes and want to adopt a long-term IT strategy.
- If you're unhappy with your current IT status.
I'm interested. Now what?
At this point, you may have decided you need to engage with an MSP. Maybe you're already working with an MSP but don't know if you're getting good service. What makes an MSP good and what criteria can you use to compare options?
- The first and most important thing to consider is whether your provider's solution is tailored to your specific needs. Did the MSP ask about your business? Do they know your vertical market or key performance indicators? Did they thoroughly assess your network and systems? A quality MSP will provide a customized plan to improve your business with a clear timeline, milestones to mark progress and a defined measure of success.
- Top MSPs follow published best practices for the equipment and systems they manage and are certified to work on them. They use ITIL methodology, a set of practices focused on aligning IT services with business needs, and promise consistent service levels backed up by performance guarantees. All processes and procedures should be documented with a robust ticket management system in place for efficient handling of support tickets. In short, a good MSP knows what it's doing and can back it up with certifications, documentation and guarantees.
- Another way to differentiate between MSPs is to apply the Goldilocks Rule. If they are too small, can they support your needs? When a technician is on vacation, do service levels drop? If you're a growing company, or looking for consistent service levels, a small provider may not be able to deliver. If the MSP is too big, will your support tickets get lost among too many technicians? Will it take longer to resolve an issue because the technician doesn't know your system? Bigger isn't always better.
- By the same rationale, you should question pricing that is too low or too high. An MSP who charges too little can't provide top-notch service. If they do, they aren't making money and may not be in business a year from now. If the price is too high, you want to carefully question the services provided to make sure the value matches the elevated price.
- The last fundamental criteria is actually a caveat. When you contract with an MSP, who gets the keys? Anyone providing IT services needs access to your network and systems, but the client should have ultimate admin rights over their system. You own your network and should never be held hostage by your provider. Make sure you hold the keys. A good MSP will support this.
Find your peace of mind
Technology continues to change and evolve. The choices you make are going to affect your business for years to come. It's more important than ever to have a sound IT strategy that works with your sensible business strategy. Managed services gives you the tools and knowledge to maximize your technology investment, improve performance, reduce costs and change your frustration to peace of mind.