As certain as death and taxes, small to medium-sized businesses (SMBs) have to look for ways to maximize value. In IT, SMBs are used to cutting costs by outsourcing. Certainly, this is still applicable. As hardware and software lifecycles shorten and the cost of ownership grows, your technology infrastructure feels more like a sentence to serve, not an opportunity for improvement.
The good news is outsourcing is growing up. As hype cycles turn to adoption, Managed Service Providers (MSPs) are adding more value with cloud management and business process improvement, not just getting clients' feet wet in "advanced services."
At the same time, the cloud is promoting multi-tenancy, flexibility, and efficiency. SMBs can take advantage of today's offerings without being exposed to the risk with all the uncertainty in technology today.
In general, most companies are more than happy to "get out of the technology business" and leave IT support and technology worries to a skilled, trustworthy partner.
What to Look For When Choosing an MSP
Not all MSPs are created equal. How do you know if you're choosing a good company full of IT professionals or a hodge-podge of solutions and lower-skilled talent? Failure to avoid the latter will leave your employees complaining and questioning your judgment as productivity slows.
And that's not the only thing that can make an MSP wrong. They could just be wrong for you. If can find "the one," the right MSP will actively improve your business.
MSPs That Promise the World
It makes sense that offerings now avoid silos by including modules of individual services. DevOps and widespread cloud usage have made infrastructure flexible and data applicable across the business.
"In the past, companies may have sources app service from one provider and security from another," Ollie O'Donoghue, a senior research analyst at HfS Research, tells CIO Magazine. "Service providers and clients are much more likely to procure a blend of IT services to deliver business outcomes from a single vendor [rather than] contracting segments of IT out to a range of suppliers."
But the problem is many MSPs have quickly expanded to a wider range of services without having real expertise. They can "hack it" or "hire a security guy" or "white label a cloud offering," not always with the best results.
Instead, look for an MSP who knows the strength of their offering. No salesman wants to say, "we can't do that," but they should be honest and up-front about what their sweet-spot is. Then you can pick the one who matches your requirements, needs, and priorities best.
It's a red flag if they say they "Yeah, we can do that." The real question is "Have they done it?" Talk to their current clients or review their case studies to see what real-life solutions they provide.
Experience in your industry or niche is a major plus too, of course. They already know your pain and your end goals. "Look for MSPs that understand your business and speak less about technology." says Carolyn April, senior director of industry analysis at CompTIA,, "You want a partner that an talk about business outcomes and how their services are going to help further your goals from a business perspective, not a technology perspective."
In the end, you're really choosing a business function, not cutting-edge technology.
What Will They Enable Your IT to Do
Another way to envision your partnership is to picture your IT's position. Many companies don't replace in-house IT with an MSP. They augment their current staff and solve specific infrastructure needs, whether that's taking care of network monitoring or service desk responsibilities.
"It elevates the IT staff and brings them out of the shadows within an organization," April says. With an MSP offering that fits, IT can shift into strategic, proactive projects while staying flexible.
The Service Level Agreement (SLA) should clarify exactly what you can expect from an MSP. The SLA should have a set of metrics to define areas such as service availability, defect rates, technical quality, security, and business results.
You should be wary of any standardized SLAs. April warns, "it should be a red flag if an MSP offers you a cookie-cutter service-level agreement."
Every business is unique and your needs and priorities are different than others. The MSP should customize the SLA to match your technology realities and business goals. If they don't, it's a sign they are more interested in your money than helping you be successful.
Scope and Vision
Can the MSP define the scope ahead of time? This can be a major indicator of their expertise as well as their attitude. The best MSPs are able to define and schedule initiatives, projects, and change events by the hour and actively look for risks that cause delays or failure.
The red-flag for this one? "We'll have to get in there and find out." That means they either aren't familiar or they see you as a cash cow. Look for an MSP who can clearly delineate scope and timetables instead.
Ultimately, they should be able to create a roadmap to improve IT and meet business goals. Their Subject Matter Experts should know their stuff and provide insight on the direction of their discipline.
Additionally, an MSP can be there for you as industries pivot, the economy changes, or technology wrinkles, like a new cybersecurity threat, come up. Some MSPs provide a virtual CIO (vCIO) who guides infrastructure choices, performance, and strategy and overcomes technology or business obstacles.
This is especially important for SMBs without a technology leader in the C-suite. Small Business Trends' Angela Nadeau highlights the benefit of a vCIO, "An SMB may find not only an exceptional IT authority but also a technology partner and trusted advisor."
What do you look for in an IT support company?