How to Choose a Managed Services Provider

As I wrote in previous blogs—7 Benefits of Subscribing to Managed IT Services and Transform IT from Tactical to Strategic—many small businesses are turning to managed services providers (MSPs) for the day-to-day management of all or part of their IT infrastructures. In fact, a full 40 percent of small businesses will depend on MSPs to manage at least some of their IT environments by the end of this year.
After deciding to explore managed services, the next step is finding the right MSP. With so many different types of providers offering such a wide range of services, making a decision can be challenging. Here are 12 qualities to look for when evaluating MSPs.

1. Technical expertise

As the person responsible for IT, your job is to take a strategic view of your IT environment and map technology investments to business goals. MSPs can be invaluable at helping you succeed in this role. On the one hand, they take the hassle of managing basic infrastructure off your plate. On the other hand, a leading MSP will have technical specialists on staff who can act as part of your team when you need advanced or specialized knowledge that your staff doesn’t possess. Collaborating with an MSP is a way to both easily and cost-effectively augment your team’s skills with deep expertise in security, networking, or communications, without increasing payroll.

2. The most advanced technology

The reason that MSPs can offer you such sophisticated services at such competitive rates is that they’ve leveraged their investment in advanced technologies—and in training for their staff—over a large number of customers. By taking advantage of this shared model, you get the latest technology and most sophisticated IT talent available without having to make those investments yourself. And when it’s time for an upgrade, you no longer bear the expense and the pain—all of that is handled behind the scenes by your MSP.

3. Flexibility and scalability

The MSP should understand your unique service needs rather than just offering cookie-cutter solutions. You should have your choice of data plans, telephony options, and business applications, as well as flexibility as to deciding on what hardware is installed in your office. And, as your requirements change, the MSP can scale either up or down as needed.

4. Business applications

Your MSP should provide more than basic infrastructure services. It should offer you the option of subscribing to business services that run on top of the network—services such as collaboration tools, email, and remote data backup. After all, these services are just as essential to running your business as infrastructure components—and can be easily managed remotely at a cost that is probably lower than if you tried to do it all yourself.

5. Proactive stance

Your MSP should make infrastructure management invisible to your users. Rather than reacting to them complaining when something breaks, a top-line MSP will automate IT management as much as possible to avoid problems from occurring in the first place. For example, your MSP should detect bottlenecks in your network long before users report slow system response times. And if an issue does occur, your MSP should have an automated response to resolve it as quickly as possible. Also, your MSP should make you aware of any issues that arise before they impact your users.

6. Visibility

You should have complete visibility into your IT environment through a web-based customer portal that provides a centralized management dashboard. You should know at a glance what has been done to your IT infrastructure, as well as what is currently being worked on, and what still needs to be accomplished. Additionally, you should also be able to both view your IT environment from a high level, and drill down into individual components to see how they are functioning. Not incidentally, you should also be able to run reports on your IT infrastructure to help you with long-term IT planning.

7. Round-the-clock support

The MSP should support and proactively monitor its data, voice, and security services on a 24/7/365 basis. Although this should primarily be done remotely—meaning you won’t have to wait for a technician to come to your office should something go wrong—the MSP should also offer prompt on-site servicing for those things that can’t be diagnosed and fixed from a distance.

8. A dedicated account team

A leading MSP will pull together a top-notch dedicated team to support and service your account. That team should include one (or more) of the following: sales engineers, systems designers, field engineers and project managers, all of whom should be intimately familiar with your IT environment so when you have questions, you get quick answers.

9. Robust financial health

As with any vendor, you should check out the financial strength of the MSP. The last thing you want is to have to go through the selection and provisioning process all over again. Choose an MSP that’s going to be around for the long term.

10. Business-class service level agreements (SLAs)

An MSP’s SLAs tell you how successful they are at maintaining system and network availability. These SLAs should be quantitatively measurable, and easy to understand. To make sure that SLAs have some teeth in them, leading MSPs will have triggers and penalties built into your contract so that you get customer credits if SLAs are missed. However, leading MSPs will rarely miss their SLAs.

11. Flexibility

Make sure that you have options to choose among private, public and hybrid cloud solutions for data, voice, infrastructure and applications. And you should be able to choose the level of service you want from your MSP: whether consultation-only services for planning purposes, management of existing onsite equipment you own, or fully hosted solutions that supplement or replace existing systems’ assets.

12. Security

Last but not least, ask the MSPs you are considering for their security certifications and their ability to meet HIPAA, PCI, or other qualifications that help you comply with regulatory and industry statutes.

It might sound contrary, but keeping IT infrastructure management in-house often prevents you from focusing on important IT issues. The right MSP can free you up to do what you’re best at: strategizing on what technology investments will best advance the business. You get a true partner in IT for the long haul as well. By considering all the above characteristics, and choosing wisely, you could achieve much, much more than if you go it alone.