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Choosing a Managed Service Provider

As technology becomes embedded into the nooks and crannies of practically every business operation, having impeccably functioning IT is a paramount priority. However, most small to mid-sized organizations are not equipped to organize, staff, train, retain, and drive a high-functioning IT organization internally – or at least not at the level that is required in this day and age of widespread technology dependence. Nor does it make sense to invest the required resources of money, time, and focus to get this function up and running at the highest level when an IT managed services provider (MSP) can run the IT operational function more efficiently. However, choosing the right managed service provider is a critical decision that will have a felt impact on your business and each of your employees.

Managed service providers are not one-size-fits-all. Obviously they must have the expertise to address your organization’s daily technology needs, but they also need to be a fit with your company’s culture and align with your business goals.

Entara, a Chicago-based IT managed services and IT service provider, has earned its place as a clear leader in information technology for mid-sized businesses. Ryan Ikeler, Entara’s current Vice President and former Sales Director, has worked directly with clients for years. From this experience, he understands what companies should look for when choosing a managed service provider.
Leveraging many stories he’s witnessed through the years, Ikeler outlines best practices for outsourcing your IT operations.

Ryan Ikeler | Entara Vice President

Understand These 4 Categories When Choosing an MSP

1. People

The first thing to understand about a potential MSP vendor is what Ikeler calls “the people component.”

You need to know the type of people you are hiring when outsourcing your IT. Some initial qualifying questions to ask are:

  • What is the percentage of level one engineers vs level two vs level three?
  • What certifications does each person hold?
  • Are there any engineers who are 100% focused on root cause resolutions and problem analysis and prevention, rather than response?  (More of an R&D function?)
  • What is the percentage of people who are full-time, local, W2 employees, vs contractors and off-shored resources?

Also ask to speak to a handful of people at each level.  Get a sense for who they are. You will be working with them regularly.

  • Do you like talking with them?
  • How smart are they?
  • How empathetic are they?
  • Are they respectful?
  • Meet them in person if possible.

This will allow you to better understand the MSP’s strengths and limitations so that you can make an educated decision based upon what your IT needs and company goals are.

An area this heavily applies to is security. There is confusion in the business community right now about what constitutes a managed service provider (MSP) versus a managed security service provider (MSSP). The two services have been historically separate, but the lines have been blurred in recent years.

Knowing who an MSP/MSSP hires and where their specialties lie will give you insight into whether that provider can accommodate your unique needs.

Currently, finding an MSP that also functions as an MSSP is encouraged. Entara, for example, addresses the security needs of clients in highly regulated industries, like financial services, legal, healthcare and insurance, by offering a service to clients called Managed Detection and Response (MDR). Entara’s MDR solution integrates the security operations center (SOC) of a third party company, eSentire, with Entara’s own network operations center (NOC) to provide 24×7 fully staffed threat protection, detection, and remediation services.

2. Process

High-functioning IT service levels are dependent on high-functioning processes. When prospecting a potential managed service provider, aim to fully understand both what their processes are, and then how well those processes are documented and enforced. Questions to ask include:

  • What type of internal processes do you have? [e.g.Ticket Process, Dispatch Process, Incident Management Process, Request Management Process, Security Incident Process, Problem Management Process, Change Management Process, etc.]
  • Can you show me examples of your workflow processes for common tasks? [e.g. New employee onboarding]
  • Can you show me examples of your checklists to enforce standards? [e.g. New workstation builds]

Ask the provider to show you their documentation for these processes, as well as their training materials on them.

In order to ensure your IT environment is as stable and secure as possible, MSPs should also have published standards, configurations, and best practices, as well as minimum infrastructure requirements (MIRs). They should have these documents published and regularly audit their clients against these standards. You’ll want to ask them:

  • What do you do in terms of minimum infrastructure requirements?
  • What do you do in terms of configuration standards and implementation of best practices?
  • Do you have an audit team?
  • Do you have a cadence for in-person site visits?
  • Can you show me an example meeting agenda from a recent quarterly client business review (QBR)?

Another great way to understand what an MSP’s internal processes are can be found in their sales process. The sales process you’re going through should be reflective of the service you can expect on the back end. For instance, if you’re looking for an IT company that documents everything, steer clear of a provider that doesn’t seem to be documenting anything during the sales process – that’s a bad sign. Similarly, if the sales process is mismanaged or sporadic, this is a good indication of how the MSP’s internal processes operate as well.

At the end of a good sales process, the MSP should be able to demonstrate a thorough understanding of your business operations and long and short-term goals. This is a sign that the MSP’s internal processes are streamlined, orderly, and designed for efficient use of time and resources.

3. Technology

It may seem obvious, but it’s imperative to evaluate each potential MSP’s technological capabilities, along with their appetite for future-facing research and skills-building.  During the sales process, it is common to tout the depth of skill sets across a number of technologies, but make sure to back up these claims by doing deep-dive reference checks.

Knowing whether they are a Microsoft and Azure partner or AWS partner, for example, will give you insight into the specific competencies each MSP possesses. But you’ll need to dive deeper into networking capabilities and security standards.

What you really want to find out is whether they are focused on the here and now, with just enough staff to cover their current needs, or whether they are investing in the future.

The primary questions to ask are:

  • Tell me your top 5 technology skill sets. How many people have these skill sets in your organization?
  • Tell me about how you learn future technologies?  Do you have staff dedicated to that?
  • How do you recommend technology changes for my business moving forward?

4. Platform

Similar to documented processes, it is impossible to have a high-functioning IT organization without a high-functioning IT platform.  Your MSP will be bringing their platform to you, so you have to make sure you like it and that it will support you into the future.

Entara, for example, leverages ServiceNow, an enterprise-grade, best-in-class platform that allows businesses to not just expertly track tickets and workflows without ever dropping a single request, but also take advantage of future-focused objectives and efficiencies, including robotics process automation.

Additionally, the type of platform utilized will tell you what kind of customization is available for operational dashboards and scorecards, a must-have when evaluating your goals and objectives you’re looking to achieve with your MSP.

People, Process, Technology, and Platform are the four main categories to prioritize when choosing a managed service provider, but all of these fall under the umbrella of one other factor to consider when choosing an MSP – Partnership.

Will Your MSP Be a Partner or a Vendor?

One of the best ways to identify an MSP that is well-suited to be a forward-thinking business partner is by considering, “Will this MSP be my partner or merely a vendor?”

You will want to select an MSP that is concerned about your business growth goals. The MSP should take time to understand the following:

  • How your company profits
  • How your company’s various departments communicate with each other
  • The applications and platforms used by each department

The goal is to align your business with an MSP that you consider to be a business peer; the MSP should bring a strategic voice regarding technology and its role in propelling your business forward.

As an example, if your company intends to expand “work from home” options, your MSP’s job is to use technology to make that happen in the most efficient, secure, and cost-effective way possible. At the end of the day, you want to avoid an MSP that subscribes to the “break-fix” model of service delivery. These entities are reactive in nature and often favor selling additional products over optimizing your existing suite of technology solutions and making strategic recommendations for growth and productivity. You do not need an MSP to be a vendor; you need a true partner. Reference checks can be a great starting point to understand the true character of an MSP.

Companies Switching From One MSP to Another 

While some companies are partnering with an MSP for the first time, often it is lack of satisfaction with their old MSP that prompts choosing a new IT service provider. Some of the most common factors leading to this situation include:

  • Lack of follow through with commitments made during the sales process to stay involved in the business conversations
  • Lack of forward-thinking technology recommendations
  • Lack of attention on security best practices
  • New hire onboardings or terminations that are not correct, complete, or timely
  • Workstation builds that are inconsistent or messy
  • Help desk service levels that are not responsive enough or not communicative
  • Major (or minor) security breaches that are not expertly handled

Properly vetting a prospective MSP to ensure its people, processes, technology, and platforms align with your goals and company culture will allow you to avoid many of these common pitfalls associated with lower quality MSP vendors.

Having an MSP as a business partner can be transformational not only in terms of business strategy and future roadmapping capabilities, but also to your day-to-day operations. Users have a single, reliable point of contact for all IT issues, and management no longer needs to worry about staffing on holidays or when an IT team member calls in sick or goes on vacation.

A high quality MSP will increase your company’s operational stability, efficiency, and productivity. You will be able to focus on growth and innovation knowing that you have a fully staffed team solely dedicated to your information technology management.