The benefits to reading this guide
For those looking to take advantage of managed services in the wake of Covid-19 this guide serves as a template for MSP audit. We take a look at some of the pertinent questions you should be asking to ensure an optimal decision is reached as to who you're going to partner with to enable productive remote / home working within your organisation.
What is an MSP?
An MSP (or Managed Service Provider) is a company that manages IT infrastructure and/or business systems remotely for their customers, usually on a per-user per-month basis.
The Current Lay of the Land
About the MSP
What do they specialise in?
This may sound really basic but it’s an important question to ask right off the bat. There’s a multitude of MSPs out there. Some have their specialisms; some are more generalists. Remember you’re looking for an MSP that can supercharge your remote working capabilities. So ideally you’ll need to be looking for a provider that has proven expertise in virtualisation and is invested in creating solutions that enable work to be performed anywhere, on any device.
Depending on your current setup, sector-specific regulations, and application requirements you may require a choice of cloud options e.g. Public (Azure, AWS, Google), Private or even Hybrid. So it’s vital to check that prospective providers can facilitate and manage the infrastructure you’re likely to require.
Who do they currently work with?
You wouldn’t employ people without references so it goes without saying that it’s important to get references for potential service providers. You can ask for case studies or even speak to their current customers. If you find that the MSP is not keen for you to speak to existing customers, then this should raise a red flag. If they don’t have customers who are advocates of their service, then are they really any good?
Sometimes it can be beneficial to work with providers that already support similar businesses to yours. However, don’t overplay the importance of this. It’s more important that they have a proven history of implementing the kind of solutions you’re looking into. Most solutions can be applied across sectors with little variation i.e. what works well for a recruitment company will work equally as well for a law firm give or take a few subtle nuances.
How clued up are their people?
So you’ve checked your prospective provider’s credentials, but what about the people behind their solutions? It’s vital to have confidence that their engineers are capable of delivering what you need. Are they certified in relevant technologies and have they proven they can handle similar implementations?
Speaking of relevant technologies, if you consider yourself a Citrix house, for example, then there’s no point engaging with a provider who sees their bread and butter as being VMWare. Make sure that you’re technologically aligned as companies, otherwise you could be set up to fail from the start. If you’re not an advocate of any particular technology, then ask the question of your potential MSP as to why they choose to work with specific technology partners. You should get a good idea from their response if they are passionate about the solutions. Try to avoid providers who put their eggs in many baskets as they’re unlikely to be expert in all technologies. Remember what they say about a jack of all trades.
What certifications have they achieved?
As your MSP will be processing your potentially highly sensitive data, it’s vitally important that you check they’re ISO 27001 certified. If you’re a government organisation, then it goes without saying that they’ll need to be G-Cloud certified. Speaking of government-backed schemes, it’s also vital to check that they’re compliant with the Cyber Essentials framework, this way you can be confident that they’re committed to keeping data secure. Many organisations also have to prove their commitment to mitigating environmental impact, for such organisations (which should really be every company these days) it will be important that any outsourced providers hold ISO 14001 certification.
However, simply having these certifications isn’t where your checks should end. You need to check that your MSP is committed to obtaining the latest standards of each certification as they are introduced. If they’re proactive in this area, then you can have greater confidence in their ability and the security of their solutions. On top of this, if your MSP is strong on certifications it can actually help your organisation to achieve related certifications, in turn helping you to become compliant in specific areas and gain the confidence of your customers.
N.B. The best MSPs now offer greater flexibility in the delivery of their solutions. Therefore, it might not be necessary for your IT to be hosted at your MSPs data centres. We’ll discuss this in more detail further on in the article.
Where are their data centres located?
Assuming you’re looking into a private cloud solution, you’ll want your MSP to have UK data centres. This allows for easier maintenance and also ensures that data processing is kept within the EU. You’ll also want your MSP to have more than just one data centre in order to provide a level of redundancy. For instance, if there’s a problem in one data centre then your provider should be able to failover to a replicated site. This is vital for business continuity. You’ll also want to check, for GDPR compliance, that the data centres are ISO 27001 certified.
Where are they based in relation to their data centres?
Some companies get hung up on their MSPs data centres being close to their offices. This should only really be a consideration if you’re looking into co-locating, and even then it wouldn’t be important if your MSP was managing the infrastructure for you anyway. If you’re paying for a managed service, then the most important thing is that your MSPs engineers can access the data centres to rapidly fix any potential issue that may arise. If your MSP has data centres on the other side of the country then this should be a matter of concern
Are they open to a data centre visit?
Transparency is key here. If the Managed Service Provider is hesitant to allow you to visit their data centres, then alarm bells should start ringing. You need to be able to trust your MSP implicitly, and this is impossible without them being transparent.
Setup and Implementation
How long will they take to get you set up?
This has never been a more pertinent question than in recent times. With many companies struggling to work remotely in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic it could be that you want to get up and running ASAP. Or you may be happy for it to happen by a specific date. Historically this timeframe would be tied to things such as server end of life, budget periods, MSP renewal etc. Regardless, you need to be confident that your prospective MSP can deliver a solution by the date required.
Is their flexibility in how they deliver their services?
Flexibility is important in an MSP, especially when it comes to setting you up for 100% remote working capabilities. The best MSPs will work with you to design a solution that works best for your business rather than sell you their preferred solution. These days it’s completely possible to keep some services on-premise and boost their accessibility and availability by using cloud connectors. It’s even plausible to utilise your own data centre or co-locate your kit at your MSPs data centres.
Any MSP worth their salt should be able to handle hybrid cloud delivery. After all, not all services can be moved to the cloud, thinking specifically here about legacy applications with rigid hardware / setup requirements. Similarly, it may not be compliant to run certain applications or house specific data in public cloud environments. Or you may have recent hardware / infrastructure investments that you need to sweat while making progressive steps into the cloud.
Look for an MSP that provides a consultative approach over a prescriptive approach and make sure that they have a clear public cloud strategy as well as knowing their beans about private cloud. In this regard working closely with just one public cloud service (e.g. Azure) could be a sign that your MSP has all their ducks in a row rather than trying to blanket cover the market with and stretching themselves too thin.
Contracts and Costs
What will they be charging for set up?
You’ll find that the majority of MSPs will have set up fees, if they don’t then you’re probably paying for it in inflated monthly charges. Whatever the case may be, you’ll need to be comfortable with these fees and have confidence that they’re justified. IT services are no small undertaking so you shouldn’t be too surprised to find that initial implementation fees are several times what you’ll be paying per month. This depends entirely on the specific solution you opt for of course.
What would their labour charges be?
Once you’re all set up there may be occasions where you require your MSPs engineers to attend your offices, either to fix or install existing or new hardware respectively. Again, you’ll need to be happy with these potential additional costs from the outset and factor them into your budget where possible.
How do they structure contracts?
Generally speaking minimum contract lengths tend to be at least 1 year, more likely 2. Whatever the case, you’ll want to know how long you’ll be tied in with a provider. It’s common for MSPs to insist on longer terms for smaller user numbers so don’t be put off by that. Plus, you’ll likely receive better monthly pricing if you sign up for a longer term. You’ll doubtless want to avoid hopping from one provider to another, not only because you will have spent money on implementation but also because switching can cause great business upheaval.
Don’t forget to factor in what will happen if you add 5, 10, 25 users, or conversely if you need to reduce your numbers. For ease of budgeting and not having to pay for services you don’t require, it may be best to choose an MSP that will allow your company to scale up and down through a monthly subscription-style model. You never know what external circumstances may affect your business (pandemics, extreme weather events, a slump in the market) so having this kind of flexibility is vital.
It’s also worth asking your MSP if they can be flexible around your budget. This may mean offering to spread the costs out over a longer period, for instance absorbing initial setup fees into your monthly charges. The best MSPs will work with you to arrive at the optimal solution that your budget allows. Remember, this will be an important strategic partnership, so make sure your MSP is looking out for you. Also, don’t forget to ensure you receive a detailed Scope of Work and that your new provider delivers on what they promise.
What are their support hours?
Historically this will have been more important for some companies than others, but with increasing flexible working trends it’s now vital for most companies that more than just the historic 9 to 5 hours are covered. You may have early starters and late finishers so look for an MSP who can cover the more modern working hours of 7 to 6. If you require out of hours support you can expect to pay a premium for this, so consider just how important it is and how likely you are to use it.
What are their SLAs?
Unless you’re an incredibly laidback business you’ll doubtless want any issues fixed ASAP. So don’t forget to check on SLAs and how the MSP is performing against them. Some MSPs might not be too transparent about this but you should be able to get a sense of how they’re delivering on SLAs from their Net Promoter Score (NPS), more about that shortly. If they’re not signed up to NPS then can you be confident that they care about, track and continually improve customer service?
Is their support function efficient?
It’s no good taking an MSPs word for how effective their support function is, you’ll need hard evidence in order to be confident in handing over the management of some or all of your IT function. In the world of Managed Service Providers, the industry standard is Net Promoter Score. You’ll want any prospective MSP to be closely tracking this independently monitored customer rating and be transparent in providing the figures upon request, ideally without even being asked. To have confidence that their support function is achieving customer delight you should look for them to be achieving at least an ‘Excellent’ rating over a rolling 6-month period. If they are regularly hitting a ‘World Class’ rating, then you can be confident that you’ve found a good one.
It’s also crucial to check on the quality of first line support. Many MSPs run a call centre style operation where your first point of contact is simply with a call handler with limited to no technical knowledge. This inevitably leads to slower resolution of cases because your query will almost certainly need to be escalated. Strive to find an MSP that employs qualified engineers to answer their phones so that you can be confident that your query can be resolved at first point of contact. A support function that is quick of the blocks can save you hours in lost productivity.
How good are they at managing vendors?
This is something which is often overlooked when considering a new MSP but it can be equally vital as any of the above considerations. You'll want to look for a provider that has a strong and collaborative relationship with their partners where they are receiving premium support. This can help your implementations to run smoother and your queries to be answered more quickly and more satisfactorily. Check your prospective MSPs relationships with their technology partners. Some may have a managed account relationship where they can form a team with technical experts at their vendors to design an optimal solution for your requirements. Conversely, some MSPs might have limited contact with their vendors leading to sub-optimal implementations.
You'll also want to have confidence that your MSP can work together with and manage relationships with your vendors. For example, if issues arise that impact your service, is the MSP likely to take a pro-active approach to speaking with 3rd parties or do they expect you to be the middle man in any discussions? You need to find an MSP that is happy to take the initiative in talking to the providers of your mission critical services that they host (e.g. Accountancy or Case Management Systems, Computer Aided Design Software etc.).
Similarly, you’ll want to have confidence that they’re capable of managing relationships with your vendors. Are they proactive in speaking to your vendors when issue arise or do they expect you to act as the middle man in any engagement with 3rd parties? The best MSPs will take the initiative and be happy to work collaboratively those that provide your vital services (e.g. CRM, Accountancy Packages, Case Management Systems etc.).
A Mini Case Study:
Building a winning infrastructure
Ecus had outgrown their existing IT infrastructure and the IT assets that they were utilising were at the end of their life, resulting in Ecus facing a major capital investment; this led them to consider investigating the cloud opportunities that were available. The company engaged Atlas Cloud to perform a study and recommend a solution that was right for their current business, whilst also addressing their business development plans.
“This has been a natural move for us as we continue to expand and the transition period has been much less challenging than anticipated thanks to the strength, experience and availability of the Atlas Cloud team. Ecus has benefited from a 20% increase in productivity as a result of moving to the Atlas Cloud.”
Erica Kemp - Business Development Director, Ecus
Taking into consideration the points above will help you whittle down your MSP shortlist and make an informed decision on your future provider. Outsourcing your IT is no small decision as it can have a massive impact on not only your business but also your customers, particularly in these times where effective remote working is so important. Get it wrong and employee productivity could plummet, your customer service could suffer, and ultimately your profits could be negatively impacted. Conversely, if you get it right then productivity could be supercharged, your customer satisfaction levels could go through the roof, and your profits could soar.
When equipped with this trusty list you can be confident in making the right decision as to which MSP to work with. If you're currently looking for a competent and transparent MSP, consider adding award-winning Atlas Cloud to your shortlist, and discover why our customers never regret working with us.