Everybody knows, or should know, that investing in IT is not about bits and bytes, but the business solution that technology supports.
However, initial spend on hardware and software can often be wasted because firms lack the appropriate service and support infrastructure.
Technical specifications are important, but not as important as tailoring systems to the needs of customers, ensuring that they are reliable, highly available, and can be fixed quickly in the event of a problem.
Large organisations can afford armies of IT staff and will typically have multiple levels of fall-back capability, such as mirrored storage and servers, so that if a problem occurs it does not affect the functionality of the critical system.
Frequently, they make strategic agreements to offload some functions to IT outsourcing giants.
Most small businesses are not so lucky and will not have the finances or the desire to maintain a dedicated IT staff, or perhaps any IT staff at all, so the relationship with a third-party service provider will be key.
A good partner will let you focus on your core business and help you make intelligent technology decisions without losing focus or indulging in unnecessarily high spending.
Remote control versus hand-holding
For basic troubleshooting, remote support direct from the computer maker may be enough. Certainly, the advent of ubiquitous internet access has made it easier to have interactive online support with chat, remote access to systems and even video help.
But usually a more 'human' form of support will be necessary. While many large services contracts will involve a direct relationship between user organisation and a large computing vendor such as HP or IBM, smaller deals will usually involve a third-party solutions organisation.
These third-party companies are known by a huge variety of terms, such as systems integrator, reseller, channel partner or dealer. Often these terms will have the prefix 'value-added', to indicate that the company in question is doing more than just selling a 'box'.
Finding the right partner
What makes a good partner? First, as with any relationship, there must be a certain level of compatibility. Some firms like to deal with partners of a similar size because they believe their requirements will be well understood.
There is certainly no shortage of small partners to choose from within Europe, and small businesses should have no problem finding partners of a similar size.
For other firms, vertical industry knowledge will be key. A company that sells motorcycles might go to a specialist reseller that has a specific understanding of its business, either through inherent knowledge or through relationships with previous customers.
In many cases, geographical proximity will be important. Even if the partner company is unlikely to be needed on-site at short notice, many firms feel more comfortable using a regional partner, or at least a company that has staff in the local territory.
Proficiency in certain software packages may be required where a company has already standardised on a package or an environment that is not widely used.
Some companies will have a specific area they want their services provider to cover, and may elect to choose several different service providers to perform each function.
For example, some partners specialise in back-up services that offer a fall-back in the event of a disastrous loss of data or connectivity. These firms provide a specialist skill that may never be used but one that is an important form of insurance for firms that cannot afford downtime.
Other service providers offer online services - hosting websites or applications that companies use, for example. Website hosts, particularly ones that offer the ability to cut down on deployment costs, will obviously be attractive to companies such as online retailers.
Application service providers are an increasingly popular option for hosting specific applications such as sales systems or customer relationship management systems.
By using affordable internet connections they offer a relatively simple way to edit and access entries, especially where little software customisation is required.
The category of storage service provider is also emerging. These offer access to managed offsite storage for companies that cannot afford administrators to manage complex environments.
In all cases, the services company must be technically proficient, affordable and flexible. In an ideal service provider/customer relationship, the two organisations should blur into each other and the customer should feel as comfortable with the services firm as with its own full-time staff.
So, by now the advantages of service relationship should be plain. Here are the 10 most important things to remember in establishing and maintaining an IT services relationship:
1. Conduct an internal plan of what is required of your prospective partner.
Consider the basic needs of the business and provide information that will give the services firm guidance. How important is website performance? Do systems need to be permanently available, even at weekends and evenings? Is it likely that requirements will change in the near term, for instance through business combinations? Is the company distributed, as with a retailer or a firm that has sales staff on the road most of the time? By preparing answers for questions like these, your partner will be able to find the right technological 'fit'.
2. Create a request for proposal laying out these requirements.
A formal request will reduce the risk of problems occurring later and provide a platform for comparing providers and selecting partners. Most service providers will offer to analyse your infrastructure as part of the process.
3. Set service-level agreements.
Your specifications may not be the fixed, contractual specifications that blue-chips use, but you should have a good idea of what levels of service to expect. This could include whether same-day or next-day on-site visits can be made, or how much server downtime is permissible.
4. Decide whether some services can be handled online.
Fast, affordable internet access is making it possible for some service and support options to be conducted without onsite visits or even telephone calls. Remote technical support can provide a useful first line of defence, and the web is also emerging as a serious platform for applications and storage to be managed by third parties.
5. Look for appropriate skills.
Qualifications in key application areas that align with your needs will help sort the winning partners from the losers. Similarly, experience in vertical industry sectors could be useful in certain engagements.
6. Research your prospective partner.
Ask for financial reports, company histories and case studies.
7. Manage your service provider.
A service engagement is a two-way street so it's important to gauge the service you are receiving and supply feedback to your provider. Typical ways to measure progress include timeliness of fixes, user satisfaction, and the control of costs. Service deals will vary wildly but fixed tariffs that put a ceiling on service contracts will be useful for some categories of organisation.
8. Don't forget training.
Service doesn't exist in a vacuum. Educating staff will play a major role in the well-being of your IT set-up.
9. Free up existing staff.
If you have internal IT staff, liberating them from help desk and other humdrum projects to engage in challenging, creative projects will be positive all round.
10. Make organic service changes as time goes on.
If your business is growing quickly, changing direction or undergoing some other significant shift, it could be that your IT service changes will move accordingly.
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