It is critical for organizations to maintain their operating systems’ functionality to ensure they continue to meet their business needs. Many companies look to external vendor partners to support and maintain these systems. These vendors are often referred to as Managed Service Providers, or MSPs. They offer a wide range of services, and expertise at various costs.
Warren Whitney’s Fractional CIO, David Nelms, works closely with mid-sized companies to select appropriate systems and partners or to assist them with managing existing partnerships. He works with companies and their partners to define strategic technology plans and key projects. Organizations need guidance for many reasons:
- They aren’t comfortable with current spending levels or services.
- They are growing and expect to have additional needs.
- They simply don’t feel they have the appropriate background and knowledge to make key decisions.
Based on a variety of factors, it is often complicated for organizations to know how to select and/or manage their MSPs. Warren Whitney has worked with many of the major local MSP providers, though we do not have defined partnerships with them, allowing us to remain objective as we act on a client’s behalf.
Here are the 6 key questions we ask when assessing our clients’ MSP relationships or when we evaluate new ones:
1) Do the MSP’s technical skills and the technologies they support align with the needs of the organization?
Some hardware, software, and networking technologies are better suited for the complex needs of large enterprise organizations, while others may be a better fit for small to mid-sized companies. Some MSPs may focus on selling and supporting technologies from a limited number of vendor organizations, while others may consider themselves technology and vendor agnostic. In some cases, this creates a tradeoff between depth of knowledge and scope of what the MSP can effectively support. Companies need to have a general understanding of the type and complexity of their technological needs, so they can assess the potential fit.
2) Is the partner/potential partner a good cultural fit, and is it easy to communicate with key people in the organization?
We often find people think their MSP partners are “probably technically sound,” but they feel challenged when they try to communicate with management or the teams that work on projects or provide day-to-day support. The technical jargon used can often differ between the teams so it feels like they are speaking different languages. While sometimes difficult to do up front, it is very important to have a sense of how well the organization and the MSP will be able to work together and communicate.
3) Does the provider have well defined processes in place to make sure issues are quickly resolved and that evolving trends are proactively identified?
One of the realities in the MSP world is that most support providers either use the same tools to provide support and monitoring for systems, or they use ones that are very similar in their capabilities. The key difference is: 1) How well the provider configures these tools, 2) How frequently and thoroughly they look at the information the tools produce, 3) How quickly they respond to any issues that arise, and 4) How effectively they analyze data to differentiate root causes from symptoms. These are definitely some of the main areas to explore with any potential MSP partner.
4) Does the MSP have knowledge of any industry specific requirements and an appropriate focus on security?
Different organizations may have a variety of industry specific requirements that their technologies have to adhere to (e.g. HIPAA, PCI, etc.). All organizations need to make sure their servers, networks, PCs, and software are appropriately equipped and configured to protect against a constantly evolving set of security threats. It is absolutely critical to understand whether any potential MSP partner is equipped to both address current needs and continue to stay ahead of the game in these key areas.
5) Does the MSP contractually commit to service levels that meet the needs of the organization, and are all agreements constructed in a mutually beneficial manner?
To make sure expectations are clear for everyone involved, it is critical to have defined service levels for all key areas and to understand what the service levels mean. As an example, many people are surprised when they find that a service level stating that “systems will be available 99.9% of the time” could actually mean that the specified systems can be down for well over 8 hours over the course of a year and still be considered within the defined availability level. What if this down time was all to occur during the day on a busy day? Would this be acceptable? Companies should make sure appropriate service levels are defined and know exactly what they mean.
6) Is the relationship actively managed and trust based?
All too often, companies tell us that they are frustrated with their existing relationships, but we then find that they don’t meet regularly with the vendor partner and they feel they don’t understand what they do or how to ask them the “right questions”. As with any partnership, both parties need to be committed to set clear expectations as much as possible, communicate effectively, and actively manage the relationship. There will invariably be issues related to technology and technology support, but the key question relates to how effectively any issues get resolved. As soon as trust in a partner erodes significantly, this is usually an indication of a larger issue.
While some of these questions may seem basic, the challenging part is asking the questions correctly and assessing the information provided, especially for organizations that don’t have experienced technology leadership. Defining and managing relationships with technology partners is especially challenging for complex organizations, especially ones that are growing rapidly, undergoing a wide variety of changes, or heavily dependent on internal process efficiency. Warren Whitney’s Technology and Operations expert, David Nelms, has deep experience in these areas and is prepared to help clients address these concerns.
Helping define and manage technology partners is just one of the many Fractional and Advisory services provided by our Technology and Operations team. If you have questions or would like to discuss any challenges you may be having, please contact David Nelms at firstname.lastname@example.org or 804.977.6695.