7 Keys to Successful Outsourced IT

7 Keys to Successful Outsourced IT

There are a lot of reasons that businesses choose to outsource their IT support.  For many businesses it gives them access to an entire team of experts for a fraction of what it would cost to hire IT staff internally.  Many businesses also don’t have the team in place to effectively hire or manage IT staff.  Often, they provide an established helpdesk that’s structure, toolset, and ability to solve problems would be tough to replicate.

There are a lot of advantages.

Yet sometimes it fails.  Miserably.

Why?  The reasons are numerous and varied.  With 15 years’ experience working in the outsourced IT industry, I’ll try to answer that question.  I also have insight on how to make sure it works for you and your team.  Here are the 7 keys to successful outsourced IT.

Clear Expectations

A lot of problems start during the sales process.  Skilled IT salespeople are actually very rare, and when you’re taking on a new outsourced IT client there is a high level of complexity.  To effectively sell a deal you need to understand what problems you’re trying to solve.  To understand the problems, you need to have a high-level understanding of the client’s network.

This is complicated by the fact that many clients aren’t technical enough to tell you exactly what the problem is.  They’ll describe symptoms, or how it impacts their work.  The salesperson must have the right skillset to ask clarifying questions and engage engineers where needed to get to the root of things.  To do this discovery correctly sometimes there are a LOT of questions that need to be answered.  This can cause fatigue on the part of the buyer.  People grow tired quickly of answering questions about things they don’t consider to be in their wheelhouse. 

A Sad Tale of Misunderstanding

Clear communication is key.  Sometimes we can say the same words, but it’s not understood the same by both parties.  An example:

I was meeting with a potential new client several years ago.  We were discussing various aspects of support we offer and talked specifically about supporting their business line application NetSuite.  I told the customer that we do support NetSuite, but we expect them to have a current support contract with the software manufacturer so that we can reach out to them to help troubleshoot if needed.

This seemed to satisfy their requirements and we moved on and talked about other things.  The client hired us.

A couple of months later they came to us with a request.  They wanted to implement a new module within NetSuite that would require some custom setup and integration with their existing application.  This needed some customer software development and an expert that new NetSuite.

To us, this request is a project that would fall under custom software development.  It has nothing to do with the day-to-day support of that application.  This is building something new.

The client felt that when we said that we “support” that software, that it meant that we do everything they need with it from end to end.  That included add projects like this one.

They were upset, and so was I.  It was never my intention to mislead anybody, and I hate that they felt that way.  To me the definition of “support” was very clear.  I hadn’t asked the right questions to make sure we were on the same page.  Eventually we found some middle ground with this client, made things right, and got them the help they needed.  It was a painful and expensive lesson, and it caused me to refine my sales process, ask more questions, and seek confirmation of understanding in future deals.

The point is that even with the best of intentions it’s easy to not be on the same page with a client on one item or another.  Ask clarifying questions and pose scenarios to ensure you understand.  Ask about their processes.  Tour their facility if possible.  If you understand how that provider delivers service, it will help you know what to expect.  On their side, they should be asking a LOT of questions and striving to overcommunicate with you.  Clarity should be the goal.

Account Management

To deliver outstanding service a quality outsourced IT shop needs to recognize that there are gaps between departments.  They also need to own the fact that many engineers are not the worlds best communicators.  Furthermore, any given day a client could need help from the helpdesk, the project team, the billing team, and the sales team.  Having a separate point of contact in multiple departments can be cumbersome to clients.  That’s where an Account Manager comes in.

To bridge those gaps, the best IT service providers will give the client an Account Manager as their one neck to wring.  They assist with communicating business reasons for IT projects proposed by engineers.  When hardware is needed, they get you a quote.  If there are urgent service issues that need extra attention, they help round up the troops.  They work hard to fill any gaps in service and be a central point for communication for the client.

An account manger can also help provide some much-needed transparency in IT.  They meet with the client on a regular basis.  Reports are provided on all key metrics established at the beginning of the relationship.  Projects are discussed.  Proactive recommendations made.  You should leave that meeting feeling like you’re on the same team, and that your account manager has not only given you transparency on the work being done, but also strategic guidance for the future.

The challenge is that this role and the processes that accompany it don’t exist in many IT service companies.  While there may be outstanding individuals in every department of the IT provider, this leaves the customer with gaps.  Those gaps can create friction and leave a client frustrated.

To avoid this, take the time to ask about account management and how it’s handled.  If they don’t have anyone in that role, think hard about doing business with them.  It says a lot about their operational maturity as a provider and may leave you with unwanted friction.

Regular Feedback and Check-ins

Getting and implementing feedback from clients is part of the Account Managers job.  In their regular meetings with the client, they should be reviewing adherence to SLA, customer service surveys, and other metrics that can show the quality of service.  Those meetings are frequently called a quarterly business review.

There are a couple of key things that you should be looking for here.  First, the IT provider needs to have a system in place that allows them to receive feedback.  In most cases this is something simple like an automated satisfaction survey that goes out to each user after a ticket is closed.  They have a chance to give positive or negative review.

Not all IT providers have a system like this.  It matters because it gives you transparency to your users’ perception of their support experience.  Your provider should also have a system in place for what happens if a negative review is received.  The best providers will have a supervisor call your user back immediately and see if they can assist in resolving the concern.  This gives you some checks and balances to help ensure quality support and follow up if something is missed.

Secondly, there should be a system in place that allows them to ACTION on the data received.  The idea would be to have a process for continuous improvement.  At i.t.NOW we categorize support tickets as we receive them to best assist the client.  This also allows us to use that data to see trends over time.  We have your account manager review the reporting to see if there is an unusual number of tickets in any one category.  If there is, they dig in to see if they can determine root cause.  When root cause is identified we show the client the trend over time, and our recommendations on how to eliminate all those problems going forward.  A process for continuous improvement.

Ask about how a potential provider gets feedback, and what they do with that feedback.  The best providers will have a defined process and the ability to turn feedback and data into actionable solutions and insights that will make your support better over time.

We’re On the Same Team

When contemplating the decision to hire an outsourced IT firm, you should consider your relationship with vendors in general.  IT is a key function for most businesses, and critical to operations.  If you know that your business frequently has an adversarial relationship with vendors, you probably shouldn’t outsource IT.  It’s just too important. 

Instead, hire a team inhouse that you pay to work only for you.  It will cost significantly more, and you may still have gaps in your solution, but that employee can’t really say no to your demands.

Here are a couple of things that may help you know whether you’re capable of playing on a team for IT support or not.  Ask about response times.  The absolute best in class response times from an outsourced IT provider is around 2 hours or less for a non-critical issue.  If that sounds completely unreasonable to your team, outsourced IT may not be for you.  If your team enjoys blaming vendors instead of working with them toward a solution, outsourced IT isn’t for you.

Collaborative teams, that know how to communicate their needs, and are reasonable about their expectations, outsourced IT will likely be an amazing fit.  It will give you access to a complete solution, and entire group of IT professionals, and it will likely save you money along the way.

Write IT Down

Another indicator of a quality outsourced IT provider is their documentation.  This matters because outsourced providers frequently have a large team.  This has numerous advantages, but the one disadvantage is that its possible someone that hasn’t worked on your network before will get assigned a ticket when you call in for help.  If they don’t have any documentation to reference, they will either ask a LOT of questions to understand which slows the troubleshooting process, or they will take twice as long to solve a problem because they have to poke around and figure things out.

The best IT service providers will have a defined documentation process that is set up the same across all clients.  This allows every technician to easily reference the documentation for passwords, access, or questions, and saves time.

Ask your provider if they build out documentation for their clients, and what it contains.  Try to find out about their process for documentation and how they keep it current.  This may sound like a small thing, but it can have a significant impact on the support they give and speaks to their operational maturity as a company. 

Risk Management

Quality IT providers will have a discussion with you about risk.  There are a few different areas where we can help manage risk for a client.  Cyber security is an obvious one.  Your provider should work with you to determine your specific needs for security and compliance, and then design a security solution to protect your data.  Best in class providers will include some kind of end user security training as part of their security solution.  A layered security solution helps mitigate risk.

Another area where they can help mitigate risk is through redundancy in key network functionality.  Many businesses rely heavily on web-based applications.  These apps are dependent on an internet connection.  Best in class IT providers will discuss this with you and offer solutions for redundant internet and systems.

They will also seek to help you mitigate risk with other systems as well.  They will require you to have support from your software vendors, and phone vendors.  This allows them to ensure that if you have problems with any of these systems, they can reach out to the vendor on your behalf and pursue resolution in a timely manner.  Without vendor support your risk increases significantly.

Lastly, they will recommend that you look for quality cyber security insurance.  Even the very best cyber security plans cannot guarantee that a breach will never happen.  Cyber security insurance protects your business in case of an attack.

Ask your IT provider about these different areas.  The best providers will have your best interest in mind and will work hard to help you mitigate risk in your IT environment.  Again, when vetting providers this is another area that shows their operational maturity.

Organization Maturity

A big key to successfully selecting an outsource IT provider is to have clear expectations and a good understanding of their processes.  Most of the areas mentioned in this article really boil down to operational maturity.  By using some of these questions to vet your providers you’ll be able to discern which ones have the right processes, people, and technology to deliver the results that you’re after.

Years in business does not always equate to operational maturity.  Some firms have been in business a long time, but only recently started doing IT service.  Some have been in business for 20 years but have never built out the processes needed to deliver quality support.  Ask the right questions, and you’ll be able to tell the difference.