5 questions to ask an IT support services company - Business Works
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5 questions to ask an IT support services company

by Mark Walker, Development Director, Ubertas Choosing an IT services supplier is choosing a partner to help your business excel. Here's my guide to making the right choice says Mark Walker, Development Director at Ubertas.

Choosing an IT support services company for your business is a complicated, but vital decision. Your support provider has the potential to help your business excel, to maintain a mediocre existence, or in the worst case, actually reduce productivity and profits.

Here are five questions to ask a potential IT support services supplier to make sure you get the best partnership for your business.

1. What is covered by the service agreement?

When you enter a support service agreement, it is essential that you know exactly what you are getting for your money. There is nothing worse than encountering an IT problem, calling your support provider and then learning that the affected equipment or software falls outside the terms of your agreement. Resolving such issues then costs significantly more in terms of time and money as you negotiate a contract extension or one-off cost to cover the fix. Worse still, the longer those negotiations take, the longer the period of outage.

Always ensure that you are crystal clear about what is and is not covered under the terms of a support contract to avoid costly arguments later on.

"An SLA is a written agreement between a service provider and a customer, defining services to be provided in qualitative and quantitative terms."
A Guide to SLAs Barclay Rae, management consultant

2. What service levels can we expect?

When paying for support, your business needs to know it has partnered with a business that understands your IT priorities and can respond accordingly. Reputable IT support service companies provide service level guarantees as part of their contracts and agreements.

Service Level Agreements (SLAs) specify how long it will take for your IT support provider to respond to and fix problems that you report. You should check any proposed SLA for:

  • Response times how long it will take for your partner to acknowledge the problem.
  • Fix times the time frame in which your partner guarantees a fix.
  • How downtime is calculated this could make a significant difference in terms of value to you, the customer.

"Agreeing to an ANNUAL 99.5% uptime SLA means 7.2 minutes of downtime daily over a one-year period (525,600 minutes in one year x 0.005 = 2628 minutes a year / 365 days = 7.2 minutes a day). Pretend a provider has a three-hour outage during a given month and remains functional during the remaining months of the year. If the SLA is calculated annually, the provider is keeping their promise and no credits are due to the customer. However, if the SLA is calculated MONTHLY, then a three-hour outage would entitle the customer to a credit, as it exceeds the maximum allowed monthly downtime."
Verizon Enterprise Solutions

You should also carefully check whether breaches of the SLA entitle you to financial compensation. If not, you should seriously question the value of any such guarantees.

3. Can we negotiate the terms of the SLA?

The service agreement and accompanying SLA should be mutually beneficial for both your business and the services supplier. It is not in the interests of a provider to agree terms they can never fulfil, nor is it in your interests for response and fix times to be too lenient.

You need to be able to renegotiate the terms of any agreement to ensure that you are getting the service your business needs to succeed with IT. You should also look for, and discuss, any clauses within SLAs that involve additional charges for work falling outside the scope of the agreement.

"It is absolutely essential that all of the services described in the SLA have a customer orientation."
Want to derail your SLA? Make these five mistakes TechRepublic.com

4. Can we speak to your existing customers?

Glossy brochures, shiny PowerPoint presentations and a slick website are all tools for helping to establish business credibility, but nothing beats a genuine customer testimonial. As a result, the same brochures, presentations and web pages contain short quotes from satisfied customers chosen to reflect services and staff in the best light.

However, quotes and sentiments can quickly go out of date, no longer reflecting a customer's feelings about the service. Ask any potential support provider if you can speak to their existing customers to find out their experiences of the service. You should be very wary of any provider who refuses such a request as it suggests that customers may not be entirely happy.

"The vendor's customer sites that you visit will not be random selections. Vendors will only send you to happy customers. However, wouldn't you do the same? Keep this in mind when visiting these customer sites. Make sure you find out about both the positives and negatives of working with this vendor and its technology."
Allen Eskilin, IT Manager at Starbucks

5. What qualifications do your staff hold?

Technology is complex and continually evolving probably one of the many reasons you are looking for an IT support provider. As such you need to be confident that your supplier is fully competent with the computer software and hardware used by your business.

The best way to gauge such competence is to see whether technicians, consultants and account managers hold industry-standard certifications which prove they have the skills necessary to support your systems and staff properly. You should ask any prospective supplier:

  • Exactly which certifications do your staff hold?
  • Do you regularly renew qualifications as new technologies become available?
  • What sort of internal training programme do you have in place?

If a provider employs fully qualified staff and demonstrates a commitment to improving their skill levels, they are also better placed to help your business when you need IT support and advice.

"You'll want suppliers who can offer the latest, most advanced products and services. They'll need to have well-trained employees to sell and service their goods."
Growing Your Business Entrepreneur.com

To make sure you are partnering with an IT services supplier who has your business' best interests at heart, don't be afraid to ask the tough questions, particularly:

  • What is, and is not, included in your service agreements?
  • What are the specific terms of your SLAs?
  • Can we negotiate service terms that suit us both?
  • Can we speak to some of your customers?
  • Could you please demonstrate your commitment to ongoing staff development?

To learn more about how outsourcing your IT can be a boon for your business, download the Ubertas e-Guide: Why is IT such a pain in the neck?

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