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Getting IT right – what to look for in a Managed Service Provider (MSP)

You're in business and have just decided to outsource your IT needs rather than trying to juggle it all in-house. So where exactly do you start in terms of choosing a Managed Service Provider (MSP)? FSB member Gary David Smith of Prism – IT at Work in Congleton explains.

With so much choice, the process of recruiting an IT company can be like finding a needle in a hay stack. For even the most seasoned procurers, the process can be somewhat overwhelming. What do you need to ask yourself to ensure you have the right selection of potential suppliers in front of you? 

Let’s start by taking this question back a few steps. When choosing any supplier, a basic amount of due diligence and care clearly needs to be considered, but I'd rather allow someone in risk management to pick up that thread.

That said, as we all look to procure services that help us start, run or scale a business, whether it’s a supplier to assist meet regulatory demands, productivity or another necessity such as IT, the deciding factor will so often default to being about cost savings or emotions.

If those are your fundamental drivers in the decision making process, the chances are that the choices you make could be wrong. Instead, you need to adopt a forensic approach to understanding the specific nuances of what various suppliers deliver in any particular space.

The MSP space that Prism occupies has seen a dramatic increase in demand of late. In the early days MSPs typically concentrated on remote monitoring and management of servers and networks. Over time, they have tended to diversify in order to distinguish themselves from each other. 

Many of the new MSPs remotely support client’s endpoint devices, creating offerings around mobile device management and a variety of customisations. According to Kaseya’s 2016 survey, both security and cloud services are now increasingly key areas of focus for MSPs. 

In terms of cloud-based solutions, an interesting ‘hybrid’ of old and new has emerged in the market. Today over 70% of MSP’s now offer Cloud services along with managing traditional IT infrastructure. Managing these new hybrid environments is one of the greatest challenges for any small business in terms of combining both traditional ‘on premise’ infrastructure and new cloud based alternatives.

On the cloud side of things, the focus is on determining how best to help customers with cloud migration, operations and management. Small businesses can essentially ‘transfer’ parts of their infrastructure to the cloud, such as enterprise applications or Web hosting.     

Cloud services in no way are replacing MSPs, in fact, quite the opposite. They are increasing the need for MSP services like Prism as businesses venture on somewhat of a 'juggling act'. There are currently significant new offerings in the space of cloud-based backup and disaster recovery. 

Moving to security, a proactive approach is critical for all small businesses wanting to both today-proof and future-proof themselves. Good, robust security will save MSPs money and significantly improve the productivity of engineering and technical staff. Security issues can create monumental disruption for businesses. 

Security breaches can be minimised by MSPs setting up regular scans, delivering policy-based automation and managing access with password management, multifactor authentication and single sign-on processes.
 
All MSPs that are out in front are developing simple user-friendly tools to embrace all of their technical abilities. Tools that reduce variability, automate routine tasks, speed up problem resolution and support an expanding managed services portfolio.
Growth in MSPs across Europe has been immense of the past few years. In fact it’s virtually exponential. Why is this?

As all businesses today are effectively becoming ‘tech businesses’, there is an increasingly complex IT environment to navigate. Managing the plethora of new technologies can be very difficult, and a more mobile workforce using laptops, tablets and smartphones brings new IT challenges. The age of digital disruption also means many companies are constantly looking for new ways to use technology to improve their business. 

Managed services let scaling-up businesses offload parts of their infrastructure including applications like email, customer relationship management (CRM), enterprise resource planning (ERP) and more. 

All of this has indeed brought a number of growing pains for our customers as a plethora of businesses now evolve from owner/manager local outfits that quickly scale to meet the needs and demand of more and more customers. IT suppliers for these scaling companies often provide them with bespoke solutions that aren't necessarily suited to any other business.

It’s not uncommon to meet IT providers who specialise in a vertical or regional market, most by accident and tenure. This can be a positive but also it can mean missing a trick. You don't want to unwittingly be stuck with all that baggage.

As a potential procurer of IT services, you first need to ask yourself: can the MSP meet your needs, not just today, but also tomorrow? What are its priorities? What are its specific services? What do they have in place in terms of back up should something go wrong? Who are its customers?

All savvy procurers need to understand the shape of their own business today but also that of their supplier and project that over the coming months and years.
Most procurement decisions in the IT space can last for many years based on knowledge transfer, perceived disruption and appetite to change.

Identifying the main reason why you are choosing a particular type of MSP can dramatically alter the type of businesses you engage with.

There can be quite a gap between the ability and deliverables between a consultative, managerial or a strategic IT supplier. Some are analytical but hands off. Other are very hands on. Some are a mixture of both. It’s important to note that sometimes this gets lost as the client brief evolves or changes, sometimes multiple times, during the procurement process.

You must be crystal clear about what it is precisely that you are choosing in terms of your IT supplier. As Shaun Morton, Head of New Business at Prism, says: “When engaging with new prospects I often ask early on, what’s the driver for change, it’s important your potential partner is on the same page as you.  Is it a cost cutting exercise, or to allow you to focus on your core business interests or to increase your companies productivity per head whilst keeping protected in the ever-changing tech world, if it is the latter two, we can help you on your procurement journey in choosing a trusted partner.”
 
The industry is moving at an absolutely break-neck speed and reinvents itself often. Five years ago telecoms and IT were completely separate. Today they are very intertwined with most MSP's being a hybrid of both telecoms and IT.

Choosing a MSP today that specialises in a break-fix regional service may find their model consumed by the next demand or exterminated through economics. Either way the service you procured today may no longer exist commercially tomorrow.
Finally, you need to be sure about who the team is behind the service description. People ultimately buy people. We are often told, if the teams don’t gel the relationship may not last anyway.