8 Questions to Ask Your IT Company
Choosing a new IT provider can be an important decision for a business owner or C-level. The problem is that frequently executives with little IT experience or knowledge are tasked with making this kind of decision. They don’t know where to start, or what questions to ask. This guide gives you 8 questions to ask your IT company, and some good ammunition you can use to benchmark your current services and evaluate potential providers offerings.
Here’s something you should know about IT support companies. They’re not all created equal. Frankly the industry is rife with amateurs pretending to know what they’re doing and small one-man shops just getting started. They continue to get work because they know just enough to fool the folks that hire them.
Also, years of experience are not always a good indicator of how competent an IT guy is. IT is such a fast-moving field that if professionals don’t actively educate themselves to keep their skills sharp they can quickly become obsolete. Old school IT guys put in old school solutions that cost businesses money. Experience is good, but current experience and training is paramount.
Now that we’ve gotten a little groundwork laid on the industry, here 8 questions to ask your IT company.
What is the structure of your help desk and what should we expect when we submit a ticket?
Any reputable provider should have an answer for this down pat. If they hesitate, or don’t know how to explain how requests are handled it should be a red flag. This likely indicates that they don’t have a defined process which can lead to a hot mess when providing support.
If they tell you that you should email or call an individual technician with your problems that should also be a red flag. If emailing is the only way to submit a support request that should be a red flag as well. The reason a single technician is a problem is that if that individual is sick, working with another client, out of town, switches jobs, or is otherwise occupied you will get no response. Email requests are notorious for getting lost in an inbox somewhere and not getting responded to. You need a system to ensure that all requests are logged and handled in a timely manner.
Ideally the provider should have a centralized ticketing system that all requests are funneled into. All calls, emails, and other support request submissions should be funneled into this system and assigned a ticket number. This allows users to easily track a request. In addition, the service provider can monitor that ticketing system to ensure that all requests are responded to in a timely manner.
The best providers will have their ticketing system set up so that if requests go without a response for any reason management is notified so they can ensure that appropriate resources are assigned to correct the issue. This kind of overview and tracking system ensures that no request is lost and that all are responded to in a timely manner. Without proper systems in place it is nearly impossible for a provider with any kind of volume to ensure excellent service.
This is one of the most customer facing and impactful elements of service delivery and should be a key consideration when selecting an IT service provider.
Do you have SLAs, and what is a typical response time?
An SLA is a Service Level Agreement. Its basically a commitment from your IT service provider on how fast they will respond to your support requests based on severity and impact. Severity is typically defined as the level of degradation or the urgency of a specific issue. Impact refers to the number of users impacted by an issue. Quality providers will have a matrix like the one below that they use to assign priority to issues as they come in so that resources can be properly assigned.
This is important because it gives you some transparency into how issues will be handled when they are reported to the help desk. Providers also have response time guarantees associated with each priority. Priority 1 issues that have the biggest impact on the most users are fixed the fastest, and so on until the lowest priority. Response time guarantees vary by provider, but if downtime effects your business and costs you money this is an important point to take into consideration when hiring an IT provider.
Its worth asking your IT service provider if they have an SLA. The majority don’t. They don’t assign priorities to support requests. There isn’t a way to track issues through to completion. They don’t guarantee their response times. Frequently they don’t even know what their average response time to a ticket is. If you a business owner that has costs associated with downtime this should scare you.
A quality provider should know how long it takes them to response to both high priority and low priority requests. They should guarantee those response times and have a system in place that allows them to track that as a key deliverable to their clients. They should give you transparency with reporting that allows you to see how they’re doing.
What network security solutions do you provide, and can you help with compliance?
Security is a HUGE part of IT. Any provider that doesn’t bring up network security in your discussion with them should be disqualified from your search. Not all businesses have equal security needs, but quality providers will discuss how sensitive your data set is and if there are any regulatory or compliance needs for protecting it. If you have specific compliance needs such as HIPAA, PCI, SOX, or others that should be an important part of your discussion. Often compliance needs like these will dictate to your provider the types of IT security solutions that your company needs.
At a bare minimum they should be asking about a proper business class firewall with perimeter defenses, providing a system to maintain security patches across the network, providing antivirus, and offering regular security checks as part of your service. If you have specific compliance needs solutions such as encryption, 2 factor authentication, secure email, penetration testing, and others may come into play.
A quality provider will have a plan in place to ensure that every client of theirs will have at least basic network security in place. They will work with you to understand your specific security and compliance needs and build a custom plan to ensure your data stays safe.
What backup and disaster recovery Solutions do you use?
Along with security, backups and a quality disaster recovery plan are an important part of selecting an IT provider. This can also be a great check if you have an existing provider to see what kind of job they are doing.
The basic guidelines you should be looking for is a provider that wants you to have at least a basic backup both locally and offsite. This backup should happen on a regular basis and be automated to ensure consistent success. An image-based backup that grabs a full copy of the operating system and application configurations is preferred because it offers a faster recovery time.
Beyond that backup solutions should be based on your business’s sensitivity to downtime and the costs involved. If you have a high cost of downtime it makes sense to invest in a backup solution that will allow you to recover quickly (10 min or less). If your business isn’t as sensitive to outages than perhaps a 24-hour recovery time is acceptable. Typically, the faster you’re able to recover the more expensive the solution is. Having this sized correctly to your business needs is important.
One of the key elements you should be looking for is how your provider approaches this. The best providers will ask you questions about your sensitivity to downtime and associated costs. They will ask what your goals are for RPO (recovery point objective – how long you need to retain backups) and RTO (recovery time objective – how quickly you need to be back up and running). They will use this info to design an appropriate solution that accomplishes your goals at the lowest cost.
The best providers will have a way to monitor these backups to ensure they complete successfully. They will also be able to give you reporting or transparency into the status of backups so that you can check them at any time. If backups do not complete as scheduled a ticket will be automatically generated and an engineer assigned to correct the error. In this manner you can have confidence that your backups are being completed and that your critical data is safe.
What type of network monitoring do you provide?
What type of network monitoring they provide is another great question to ask your IT provider. There are numerous solutions out there, and most providers don’t go into much detail if they mention anything about it. Some of those details are key however. Here’s what to ask about.
What do they monitor? Do they simply monitor online offline status of servers? Do they monitor drive space on servers? CPU? Memory? How about whether your applications are running? How granular can they get? Can they customize monitors to your business applications?
Its also worth asking what happens when something they monitor goes offline or exceeds the thresholds they’ve set. Does that trigger an alert? Where does that alert go? How is that alert responded to?
Many companies tout that they offer server and network monitoring, but only get notified if something goes offline. That’s too late. The point of proactive monitoring is to catch problems before they cause downtime and take corrective action. Knowing what they will be monitoring and how it allows them to be proactive is a key question.
It’s also important to know what happens to that alert. Is it an email that goes into a box that’s not monitored? Does it go to a single individual? Does it create a ticket?
The best network monitoring solutions will allow you to be granular in what you’re monitoring. They will allow customization so that they can tell you if there are problems with processes or services that impact your main business applications. They give predictive failure alerts that allow you to proactively tackle issues before they result in downtime. The best monitoring solutions will also create a ticket for all alerts and go to a board that is monitored by live humans. That way you can ensure that all critical alerts are responded to in a timely manner and don’t sit in a black hole.
Do you offer strategic IT planning assistance?
This is a part of a complete IT solution that many managed service providers really aren’t good at. They don’t meet with their clients regularly, and don’t communicate enough about their networks. A client with a good understanding of what’s going on is empowered to be able to make better decisions.
This type of open communication and strategic planning typically happens in meetings held on some regular basis. They can be called various names, but the idea is usually the same. Communicate with the client about all the proactive maintenance that has been done since the last meeting, so they have a good idea of the status of their network.
Then take the opportunity to discuss any upcoming projects or strategic initiatives. Planning together allows for a true partnership. This allows you to discuss the solutions in place, adjust the service where needed, give feedback, eliminate waste, and streamline upcoming projects. Working together you can make sure that your IT solution is continually getting better.
The best managed service providers will have an account manager or relationship manager assigned to each client. They will meet on some regular basis, perhaps quarterly. They will be your main point of contact for any non-technical questions or customer service concerns. This account manager will also help with strategic planning and help move projects from ideas to completion. This is an invaluable service and one that sets quality managed service partners apart from the pack.
How do you offer transparency and reporting to your clients?
Feedback is always necessary for improvement. A quality managed service provider will take a data driven approach. They will be able to present reporting on all parts of your network and be able to give you transparency into the work they do behind the scenes.
This allows you to hold them accountable; just like how you can also hold employees accountable by installing a work time tracker. It also allows you to plan budgets for hardware, make strategic adjustments to IT processes where needed, identify trouble areas on the network, and be continually improving.
A quality IT provider will provide reporting on the status of your backups, your patches and updates, a full hardware inventory, service metrics, customer service response surveys, and more. This allows you to see if they’re keeping their promises. It also allows you to plan and budget for hardware replacements and needed projects proactively so that you don’t have any surprises.
The best providers will give clients a dashboard where they can easily track a lot of these key metrics in real time. This allows for the highest levels of transparency and accountability.
How big is your company?
IT support companies vary enormously but as they grow, their ability to offer more solutions or products increases, as does their knowledge base. Conversely, the “one-man band” will struggle to provide a truly great service as there will always be times when they must deal with another customer or they’re ill or on holiday.
However, this doesn’t mean you should necessarily choose for the biggest company you can as extremely large companies can sometimes be faceless and lack the ability to understand you and your requirements.
Just be confident the company can meet all your needs with the number of staff they have. You should weigh up the pros and cons.
There are a lot of things to think about when considering a new IT provider. We hope this has been a helpful guide and given insight into some of the important questions to ask. If you’ve found that your current provider is lacking as you’ve read through this, i.t.NOW is here to help. We’ve been in the business for 20 years, have over 200 happy clients, and adhere to all the best practices for our industry. We work hard to be a true partner and provide the best possible level of support to small and medium businesses.