As an IT Managed Service Provider (MSP) we regularly receive calls and referrals from businesses actively looking for a new IT support provider. Whilst every situation is different the reasons largely revolve around a desire for better service, more proactivity and trusted advice and strategy with future purchasing decisions.
Understandably prospects often try to control the process; fearing that they may be duped by a clever sales pitch, weary that their lack of IT knowledge could leave them severely vulnerable and out-matched. Generally speaking this manifests itself into a series of questions, designed to control the conversation, compare 'apples with apples' and to keep it focussed on just a few known quantities.
These questions often make sense on paper, but are terrible in the context of helping them truly differentiate one MSP from another. Consequently, their chances of obtaining high quality, proactive services that removes headaches and drives their business forward is reduced to pot luck.
The 'terrible' questions most commonly asked of MSPs
There are a series of questions commonly asked in the first interaction. Whilst these questions may seem logical, they commonly don't help prospects at all, often making decisions harder and more complex than they need to be.
How many people in your organisation? - This is asked in an effort to try and measure the businesses capabilities and relative maturity. As with any industry, size can somewhat indicate maturity, but it does not determine the providers capabilities or quality of service.
Where is your office located? - Often tied to concerns around response times. With over 98% of IT work done remotely, response has almost nothing to do with location and everything to do with capacity. This question doesn't touch on the companies resourcing capacity.
How much would it cost to install a new computer? - Considered to be the easiest way to evaluate pricing using a common denominator. Unfortunately, a PC install can cost anywhere from $50 to $800 depending on requirements, scope & quality of engineer completing the work.
What software do you use as Anti-Virus? - Despite the obvious issue of the person asking the question likely being ill informed about AV products, security is not achieved by software alone. Having the worlds greatest paint brushes doesn't make you Leonardo D 'Vinci.
In summary, questions that don't lead you any closer to making a confident decision simply add complexity and uncertainty. If even the perfect answer doesn't give you 100% clarity on the matter, it's a bad question.
Focus on the cake, not the ingredients
Starting the engagement with questions like the above is similar to going to a bakery and asking about their eggs, types of flour, etc. With that information, trying to determine what the cake will look and taste like is near impossible. When determining an IT providers capabilities, asking 'ingredient' questions yields an identical result.
In this instance, your cake is the results you desire. What should a fruitful partnership with an IT provider look like (outcomes), and how should it taste (experience). These definitions should not be technical in nature, rather they should be clear descriptions of what is expected in plain English, as it would be written on a PD. As an example:
- Our systems should be running smooth and without constant issues (outcome).
- The IT provider shouldn't have to continually ask us how our network is setup (experience).
- We should have clear understanding of all our risks and upcoming expenses (outcome).
- We shouldn't feel the need to have to investigate issues further ourselves (experience).
- Our time investment dealing with IT should be limited to key decision making only (both outcome and experience).
Regardless of your goals, writing down the desired results you expect to gain from a new provider is key. Not only will it help eliminate a poor fit MSP upfront, it will also assist in forming far more direct and meaningful questions later in the evaluation.
Starting the engagement
First of all, without giving away your objectives immediately a simple "what does your business do best" is going to quickly identify a poor fit MSP so you can eliminate them from consideration early.
As an example, an MSP that immediately talks about the quality of their helpdesk, fast response times and technical expertise is clearly focussed on operational goals. If your goals match those in the above section, this would be an example of a business that is likely a poor fit. For better or worse, their focus is not aligned to your goals. Regardless of any claims they are inherently reactive in nature, not proactive.
Alternatively a business that talks of helping clients achieve lower disruptions, more stability, clear strategy & compliance is far more aligned to deliver on your key objectives.
Don't try to eat the elephant whole
Once you've determined you're on the same page, it's generally best to park the tough questions temporarily. Focus on evaluating the level of potential value that the MSP could bring to your business. At this stage, you should assume everything they say is true. Simply compare the potential value they can offer your business versus the cost differential of what you spend today.
As an example, suppose the MSP you're talking to is $1000 more p/month, however their potential value you deem to be worth over $5000 p/month to your business. Undoubtedly this is commercially speaking a "no brainer" on the assumption that they can deliver on their promise.
Separating the commercial decision in this way eliminates the need for your questions to do more than they can. It also allows you to walk away early if even in the perfect scenario, the numbers don't line up. Assuming the commercials are good, further questions need only uncover whether or not the IT provider can deliver on their promises.
Final steps: Asking good questions
There's an important note when dealing with an MSP with more than 5-10 staff. Like any business, at that size or larger results become determined by roles and process. As such, questions should be focussed on how they do things. Focus on identifying the existence of a clear, logical and repeatable process that delivers the results they claim. As the saying goes, "Even a broken clock is right twice a day". Make sure their achievements are repeatable, rather than relying on select references.
You don't have to be a top pastry chef to know a good cake when you see one. Similarly, a business leader with no IT knowledge can still identify a good operation when they see it. Ask questions such as:
- Explain how you would keep our systems secure?
- What would be your plan for us over the next 3, 6, 12 months?
- What should we expect in the transition to your support model?
This will generally give a good indication as to how organised and confident they are as an organisation. If the explanation isn't clear and direct, there likely is not a clear process behind it. Lack of process means services are best effort. Best effort doesn't often translate to consistent results. As with interviewing candidates for a job, you want to gain confidence in their ability and aptitude to deliver consistently.
Summary of selecting an MSP
In summary, the process of selecting an MSP successfully should be broken into 4 key steps:
- Identify your goals in clear, measurable statements.
- Screen MSPs for cultural fit against your goals.
- Evaluate the offering commercially with broad assumptions
- Test those assumptions with direct and specific questions aimed to demonstrate competence and certainty in their claims.
This process saves time by eliminating poor choices early. In doing so, it also greatly reduces the complexity of decision making as the most detailed step (final questions & presentations) is likely to only involve 1 or 2 MSPs. Reducing complexity and separating the various selection criteria enables even the most IT illiterate business leaders make strong, informed decisions.
The key to all of this is understanding how to set realistic goals and measures to hold an MSP accountable. Want to talk with us about creating goals to help IT move your business forward? Please get in touch and we'd be happy to share more insights!