In this article I explain what to do if you outsource your IT support to a third party and things aren’t going as well as they should be.
I don’t know what to ask, let alone understand the answers!
I’ve got an admission to make – IT used to be my least favourite thing at work. It all started from the shock of being given responsibility for the IT function in a very large manufacturing plant. My politics degree hadn’t covered servers, firewalls and networks. I had managerial experience but felt very uncomfortable wearing my new hat. I didn’t know what questions to ask; I wouldn’t have understood the answers even if I did.
Necessity is the mother of invention; I had to reinvent myself pretty quickly. To cut a long story short, I learnt fast enough to survive. I realised how to use the considerable technical expertise of those around me. I now understand from experience that you don’t have to be a techie to be an important member your IT function. I’m now a huge advocate of the power of good systems.
These days, I spend a lot of time helping business people wearing the IT hat who feel as uncomfortable as I used to. I understand their pain, but also the positive difference we (as non-techies) can make with a bit of structured guidance.
Why am I unhappy?
A lot of the companies I now work with, especially SMEs, entrust support of their IT systems to a third party. And with good reason. It can be a very cost-effective way to look after essential services that underpin your businesses. If your IT stops working, how quickly do you feel the effects? Instantly, is the usual answer.
However, I get asked a lot of questions about how to make the most out of these relationships. Invariably, those questions all arise because of one thing – a degree of frustration or unhappiness.
So, what should you do if your IT support is not delivering what you need or what you expected? Better the devil you know or time for a change?
You know you are unhappy. But do you really know why you are unhappy, let alone what to do about it? Here are some tips based on my real life experiences of helping people work through their challenges and arrive in a happier place.
How broken is it really?
If something is broken, you have to start by working out what is wrong before you can fix it. Sounds obvious, but often I see people missing out this step and trying to jump straight to the solution.
Perhaps we have become too used to the idea that if something is broken, just replace it with another one. Your fridge breaks down, so rather than trying to diagnose what might be a minor problem but with big consequences [i.e. your food is going off], you just buy a new fridge.
The same goes with IT support. I have seen a lot of unhappy people start with the belief that they have to change suppliers in order to solve their problems. That can be costly, risky and not actually solve the root cause of the problem.
It’s a relationship. There’s always more than one person in a relationship. And it isn’t always the other person who is 100% to blame. As I will explain, it can save a lot of pain if you look at what you are doing, as well as what your IT support are doing. If you don’t solve the right problems you may take some drastic steps and still be unhappy.
What does my IT support actually do?
To work out why something isn’t functioning as it should, it helps if you have an instruction manual. Too often, unhappiness comes from a lack of understanding or a benchmark against which to measure it. Ask yourself these questions about your IT support:
- Do I understand what I am paying for?
- Have I got a written contract?
- Do I have a Service Level Agreement (SLA) which sets out minimum expectations about what I should be receiving?
- What evidence do I receive to reassure me that I’m getting what I’ve signed up for?
It may be that your IT support is giving you everything you asked for; you’re just unhappy because you need more. Or perhaps you are paying for a premium service you don’t really need. Ignorance is not bliss.
The key things your IT support should be doing for you is a substantial topic in its own right. We cover this in more detail here [PUT A LINK TO MARCUS’ ARTICLE ON “WHAT ARE THE 5 KEY THINGS THAT SHOULD BE INCLUDED IN IT SUPPORT”]. But typical things included in well-functioning relationships are:
- Remote support
- 24/7 monitoring of PCs and servers
- Server and PC maintenance and updates
- Patch management of Microsoft and 3rd party software
- Daily reporting of KPIs to your inbox
If you realise that things have moved on since your last agreement, then it might be time to sit down with your IT support. They need to understand your current needs and the opportunity to explain how they could provide the right service to meet those needs.
Proactive or reactive?
I often hear unhappy feedback such as: “They fix things when they go wrong, but they don’t tell me what I should be doing.”
Again, the starting point is understanding what the services are you are buying. It is true that some support packages, particularly very cheap ones, will just be for reactive, break-fix type arrangements.
Typically though, good IT support will be proactive. This is because it’s in their interests as well as yours. Much better to prevent problems from occurring than having to fix things that are broken under pressure. If your IT support is not talking to you about how you could be investing sensibly in your systems and working smarter, this could be an area for attention. A relationship which feels more like a partnership than simply a contract tends to lead to greater customer satisfaction.
Equally, it is important to look in the mirror. I have seen many examples of IT support giving clients sensible, practical, cost effective advice which is ignored. When that aged server you refused to replace finally breaks forever and leaves your business without IT for several days, it is easy to blame your IT support. But the best relationships require give and take and honesty on both sides.
Would it be cheaper to do it in house?
“IT support costs me a fortune; it would be cheaper to employ somebody full time”.
I’ve heard this statement dozens of times. It is a really important question to consider. It can be true that if you make a very simple comparison between what you currently pay for IT support, and the headline salary cost of an IT Support Technician, the arguments may look quite tempting.
There are times, often when businesses reach a certain size, that arguments to bring IT support in-house become very compelling and prove to be the right thing to do. I have also seen some very successful hybrid arrangements, where a business will have both in-house IT staff and some external support too, either for additional resource back-up, or to plug gaps in specialist knowledge areas.
However, here is a list of some key things to think about when making an evaluation which goes beyond the financial measures:
- Capability – could I really do everything in house that I currently buy-in?
- Cover – what do I do for the 5 weeks a year when my in-house support is on holiday, or days when they are sick? Do I actually need more than one person?
- Churn – IT skills are highly sought after and transferable. Will I be exposed if my in-house support leaves and I cannot replace them quickly?
- Knowledge gain – how will my in-house team continually enhance their knowledge of new systems and techniques in an ever changing IT environment? How much time and money will I have to spend on training them to keep their knowledge up-to-date?
- Management – do I have the in-house knowledge to develop the career of this person and keep them motivated? Will they be both technically competent and also able to communicate well with non-technical people in my business?
What is really driving you to consider bringing things in-house? Is it really a strategic decision because you’ve reaching a tipping point through business growth, or does it come back to unhappiness again?
The problem may actually be that you do not feel you are getting good value for money from your existing IT support. It can be tempting to solve the wrong problem, employ an in-house person prematurely and be left with a different type of risk, frustration and unhappiness.
|Symptom||Possible causes - supplier||Possible causes - customer||Treatment options|
|Supplier is slow to respond to your problems||• Lack or resource|
• Lack of understanding of your systems
• Poor administrative systems to manage your support calls
• Did not manage your expectations from the start
• Do not have appropriate technical tools to diagnose your issues
|• Unrealistic expectations|
• Unwillingness to clearly explain the problems
|• Set a clear understanding of what is expected of both parties from the start
• Measure and review performance regularly and agree actions to improve on both sides if necessary
• Have meetings with agendas and minutes
|The same problems happen repeatedly||• Fix the immediate problem but do not address the root causes|
• Do not try to anticipate problems and address them before they occur
|• Do not take advice on board to fix root causes e.g. staff training or investment in better technology||• Set expectations from the start of whether this is a “break-fix” or a “proactive” relationship
• Meet regularly to review the evidence
• Have a prioritised action plan to deal with root causes
|Hidden costs||• Do not plan properly and set realistic expectations about cost at the start of projects|
• Are not proactive and talk to you about predictable events e.g. end of support for key Microsoft systems
|• Do not take on board advice to continuously invest so things start to break|
• Unrealistic expectations about how much can be known at the start of a project
|• Have proper written project plans with budgets, timelines, tasks, ownership and accountability
• Meet regularly to talk about long term changes which must be planned for
|No strategic advice||• They are not proactive and customer driven|
• Their service is supposed to be reactive but they don’t make that clear
|• You don’t understand what you are actually paying for|
• You are given strategic advice which you choose not to act on
|• Meet regularly to ensure both parties understand the relationship and are working hard together to deliver the intended results|
|Don’t speak plain English||• They do not have a blend of in-house skills to both fix technology issues and explain what they are doing to non-techies||• Too embarrassed to explain that you don’t understand|
• You’re not really interested, so don’t try to understand
|• Be honest with one another. For the relationship to work, you both have to be able to talk a common language|
|Expensive||• They actually are expensive|
• They fail to provide evidence of the value they are really delivering
|• You don’t understand what you are actually paying for|
• You have no understanding of your options and the cost of changing suppliers or bringing support in house
|• Meet regularly
• Be clear about what you need
• Both parties should be honest if there are needs which cannot be met
• Have an awareness of your options, even if you choose not to act
Should I stay or should I go?
If you’re planning to stay, or at least give it a go in the short term, the relationship remains key. Whether it’s maintaining an already solid partnership, or devising and implementing an improvement plan, regular communication is essential. It is likely you will both have responsibilities in achieving the result you want. Written plans, regularly reviewed, will help both parties stay on track. Remember, it is more difficult to know whether you are improving unless you can measure it.
If you’re planning to leave, you need to plan the transition carefully. What can you do to help smooth the handover between the incumbent supplier and the competitor about to take over from them? It will be easier if your existing supplier acts professionally, although this cannot always be guaranteed.
Whilst any supplier is likely to be disappointed to lose business, the savvy ones understand this is still an opportunity to do a professional job and not damage their reputation; suppliers who make life difficult for former customers soon get a reputation which will not benefit them in the very competitive IT support market place.
I have also seen examples of companies returning to their previous supplier when experience has shown that the grass is not always greener. Good IT support understands that the door is always open.
A move away is not always confrontational. Sometimes your IT support will have helped you make that decision. If you are moving because you have grown and it makes sense to have an in-house team, you old IT support may still have a role to play alongside your new team. Relationships don’t stand still. Good suppliers adapt with you as your business changes, even if that means one day you need to go your separate ways.