The Complete Guide To Choosing An IT Services Provider

By on November 15, 2013

Many organizations of all sizes are facing the daily challenge of managing complex IT infrastructures and maintaining costly legacy systems. For this reason, more businesses are converting to more efficient IT services delivery.

In the current economy, many organizations are trying to stay afloat while dealing with costly IT overhead that occupies a significant percentage of an IT budget. This causes businesses to focus on trying to keep the business running as opposed to moving forward with important IT initiatives. At the same token, IT infrastructure availability is mission critical to daily business operations.

Outsourcing IT to a qualified IT support services provider represents the answer to this dilemma for many businesses. This is because an IT services provider can continually provide businesses with access to the latest technologies without the costly overhead associated with maintaining complex systems. IT solutions also improve an organization’s ability to quickly respond to current market demands and ever changing business environments.

So, if you are going to trust your daily business IT tasks to an external resource, what are some of the aspects you should consider to ensure improved IT budget management, risk reduction, and increased business value?

Defining IT Service Requirements.

Before you embark upon outsourcing IT services, it is important to establish a clear vision of what your organization plans to achieve when it comes to a partnership with an IT services provider. This is the first step towards investing in the right partnership which will guarantee minimal costs and reduced risk. Then you must compare your criteria against the actual services offered by the IT services provider.

Some of the factors to consider include but are not limited to:

  • Defining your outsourcing strategy
  • How an IT infrastructure meets specific business objectives
  • Identifying the core competencies of your IT department
  • Activities that are not mission critical to daily business operations
  • Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) for your current infrastructure
  • Cost benefits associated with using an IT services provider

There are a broad range of categories for IT support, many of which vary according to the IT services provider. It is important to invest the time to review the services for each provider you are considering and then compare them with your criteria. This guarantees you will find a provider which can appropriately meet your individual business requirements.

Once you have defined some of the criteria as discussed above, before you begin evaluating IT services providers, you should have a strategic plan in place as to how you plan to move forward. This includes evaluating your organization’s readiness for change and risk to help profile an appropriate IT services partner. The evaluation should include:

Staff:

Define the skills in your organization which currently exist, what skills are lacking, and the future skills which will be required to meet changing market and business needs. Then you should determine staff readiness for working with an external IT services provider.

Processes:

Invest the time to assess your current business processes and then decide if it is possible for the processes to operate efficiently using an IT services provider.

Evaluate how good your current processes are and determine whether or not they can operate in association with the IT services vendor.

Technology:

Determine whether or not the organization is a leader or follower when it comes to technology. Then identify current and future skills which will be required to efficiently use existing and new technologies.

What Services Should My IT Provider Offer?

The answer to this question requires you to first define the scope of your outsourcing requirements for an IT infrastructure. Does it encompass an entire data center? What are the mission critical infrastructures and applications? What are some of the new applications which will be necessary to remain competitive and meet growing consumer demands?

When you determine the answers to some of these questions, this will help you to identify what services should be offered by an IT services provider. Many organizations will only choose to outsource mission critical infrastructures and applications. These are important business processes which require minimal disruption for a business to remain productive and which demand a highly skilled IT services provider to avoid compromising revenue and brand reputation.

Identifying the processes which are mission critical and considered to be the core of business require IT services that focus on maintaining business capabilities which are dependent upon multiple business processes.

It is best to begin with an extensive list of IT service vendors to be certain you have a comprehensive picture of the IT services market. This is especially important if you are planning on implementing new technologies and services. Then you can use an approach which is considered to be industry standard. This involves Request for Information (RFI) and Request for Proposal (RFP).

Request for Information should be used initially to reduce the number of IT support companies on your list. This ensures you are researching the providers which meet your requirements based on the previous information we discussed and have the necessary skills and services.

It is also important to be definitive regarding the information you require, the level of detail, specific format, and a timeline. Additionally, you should request customised responses in terms of the scope of the project, IT service providers approach, pricing, and terms of the contract and Service Level Agreement (SLA). This avoids inadvertently receiving one-size-fits-all answers which can lead to misunderstandings later.

Once you have selected a few providers which meet your criteria and requirements, you can proceed to request a proposal (RFP). This will further define the essential parts of managed IT services which are mission critical to your business.

Service Level Agreements (SLA): What Are They? How Do They Work?  What Level Of Support Should I Expect From My IT Company?

Service Level Agreements are an essential part of guaranteeing the quality of service and support you receive from an IT services provider. While it is true that managed IT services can significantly reduce IT failure risks, it is very important to have a detailed Service Level Agreement which defines the contractual terms for service and support that you can expect from an IT service provider.

A Service Level Agreement ensures you will receive a high quality service levels from an IT service provider that are based on IT operations 24/7. This means he IT service provider offers built-in redundancy at all levels in the event of an outage which includes hardware, network infrastructure, business access levels, power supplies, and backup for the IT service provider’s data center in the event of a disaster.

The terms of an SLA will tell you exactly what level of support you can expect from your IT services provider. Most providers offer SLAs which are capable of offering availability at different levels to accommodate individual business needs and in most cases, with a money back guarantee.

Availability at different levels is especially important in order to meet different sets of business requirements which are dependent upon the organization size, business objectives, industry-specific requirements, and the current state of existing systems and processes. By using these metrics, it is beneficial in evaluating the value of the IT services as well as providing the opportunity to continually improve business processes.

One of the key metrics for a Service Level Agreement is uptime which is system availability expressed in terms of percentage of uptime. Most quality IT service providers guarantee an uptime of at least 99.9 percent which is critical for businesses which require multiple levels of redundancy. A conventional IT vendor which services smaller organizations with less requirements might guarantee an uptime of at least 99 percent. So, the bottom line is an SLA is just as important as the type of services you require from an IT services provider.

See Wikipedia for a definition of SLAs – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Service-level_agreement

Contracts: What is the Typical Length of an IT Supporty Services Contract?

A solid detailed contract with an IT services provider is just as important as a detailed Service Level Agreement. Both of these documents are critical to business continuity and productivity and guarantee the IT services provider will continually offer a high quality and reliable service.

An IT services contract is different than the Service Level Agreement since it outlines the terms of the services and applications you receive from the IT services vendor. Every contract should contain a set of specific performance metrics which guarantee the vendor is honoring the terms of the agreement. In some instances, SLAs are included with the contract to provide a clear understanding of the level of service and support you receive for the applications and services which are outlined in the contract.

Although an IT service contract should clarify every detail for the service, it should also not be so over the top that you cannot understand the fine print. So, in terms of length, this will vary according to the size of an organization as well as the extent of the requirements for applications and services. For example, if you are a small business, an IT contract may only be 8 or ten pages.  On the other hand, if you are a large corporation outsourcing a large volume of IT services, of course the contract is going to be quite lengthy.

That said, a few important rules of thumb when drawing up an IT services contract are as follows:

  • Never sign on the dotted line before a Service Level Agreement is in place.
  • Never agree to terms which mention TBD (To Be Determined) as this does not provide an accurate metric which ensures the IT service vendor will live up to the terms in the agreement.
  • Make sure there is mention of penalties if the IT service defaults on the agreement, as well as detailed terms of refunds if the service does not meet the requirements defined in the contract.
  • Do not sign the agreement if there is excessive fine print which can lead to a misunderstanding. If there are too many technicalities, this is a breeding ground for a long and difficult relationship with the IT services vendor.
  • Make sure there is detailed clarification of how things are going to work if the contract is not working.
  • Be careful with the term “flexibility” and make sure that there are clearly spelled out provisions if the IT service breaches the contract, clauses for changing business needs and possible early termination fees, and another clause for change of IT services to another provider in the event of consolidation or bankruptcy.
  • Check the financial solvency and track record for the IT services vendor.
  • Include detailed clauses as to the plans and procedures for regaining services following a disaster.
  • Never use the IT vendor’s template which provides a one-size-fits-all contract.

These are a few important rules to stick by when you establish a contract with an IT services vendor. The time you invest now will come back to you tenfold when costs are effectively minimized due to a solid agreement.

What about location?

There is much debate, which surrounds the location of an IT service provider. If you ask businesses that use managed IT services, some may tell you that local is better where others will say location doesn’t matter.

For the main part, most common IT problems can be resolved remotely from any location in the world, however, locality comes into the equation when onsite assistance is required for business critical issues such as hardware failure or other issues that can only be completed onsite such as new hardware installation or project work. Since meeting your business needs now and for the future is of utmost importance, this should take priority over the location of the IT service provider.

The major cities are crammed pack full of IT services organisations and finding them online is easy, Our IT Department for example have a very London orientated website, you cannot mistake what geographical location they serve! – http://www.ouritdept.co.uk/

Accreditation: What Accreditations Should Your IT Service Provider Hold?

Quality IT service vendors that have an established reputation hold a series of accreditations, which are both standard compliance certifications as well as industry-specific. For example, a standard compliance certification for IT service vendor data centers is known as SSAE 16.

SSAE 16 certification is required for data centers that offer IT services to a large number of businesses. SSAE 16 is a widely recognized third party verification for achieving a specific level of proficiency.  SSAE 16 certification is a requirement for data centers which offer colocation and have a client base that requires security and data protection.

With any type of data center accreditation, it is more about the IT service provider meeting a certain set of standards which in turn, provides the client with access to secure infrastructure while meeting specific compliance standards.

For example, if you are a business which is responsible for protecting customer financial data, there are specific compliance standards set forth by the Payment Card Industry (PCI) which must be in place for protecting your customers. In order to meet PCI standards, this can require significant upfront costs in terms of the IT infrastructure required to meet PCI compliance certification.  In this case, you would look for an IT services provider which is SSAE 16 certified in addition to being PCI compliant.

The primary certifications for an IT services provider are Type I and Type II SSAE 16. If the IT services vendor is applying for Type I, the auditor will generate a report which confirms the IT service vendor’s systems were described accurately in the service agreement. If the IT service is Type II SSAE 16 certified, the auditor will generate the same Type I report, in addition to auditing the IT service vendor’s infrastructure for operational efficiency over a minimum period of 6 months where the controls have proven to be consistently applied.

Type II SSAE 16 certification is valuable to an IT service vendor’s clients since it provides solid verification that the data center was required to prove the controls are consistent, exact, and complete. This provides organizations with concrete proof the IT services vendor is not being deceptive in terms of the quality of service they provide. Additionally, the six month verification process adds a second layer of reassurance for your business.

In terms of other accreditations, it is also wise to check the certifications and compliance requirements which are specific to your industry. Industry-specific certifications may vary according to the IT service provider and the types of industries they serve.

The information contained in this guide should provide you with a solid place to begin your search for a quality IT service provider that is capable of meeting each requirement for your business and accommodating your changing business needs.

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Claire is an IT professional with over 11 years extensive experience in the IT support services industry. Claire has written for numerous technology sites across the web, providing articles that relate to IT Support and complex IT projects.

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