What Do SMB IT Departments Need from an MSP?


SMB IT groups who try and go it alone find they can never keep up, never mind effectively get ahead. SMBs that contract with an MSP to outsource their IT operations have a much easier time. Their systems get fixed quickly and perform well. And these SMB get to keep up with new technologies such as cloud services and applications. This can lead the go-it-alone crowd to contract a case of “MSP envy.”

The only answer is to join the parade and find your own MSP.

This is a big decision. Chances are you’ll want to work with a provider for a number of years as switching MSPs can be plenty disruptive.

You should not just be looking for an IT provider – but an IT partner. Do the MSPs you are evaluating have the ability to bring you into the future, create strategies to give you competitive advantage, and keep the lights on and your operations running? Can they do all this at an affordable price? After all, your IT infrastructure needs to be effective to support profits, not so lame it leads to losses.

Questions IT Should Ask

Everyone loves to talk about government transparency and visibility. You should hold your MSP to a far higher standard.  Part of this transparency concerns the technology your MSP uses. A good endpoint management solution, often called a Remote Monitoring and Management (RMM) solution, gives the MSP visibility into and access to your operations. With good reporting tools, you’ll know as much about the status of your infrastructure as your provider does.

There are two issues here. First, you need to be able to the overall health of your network and, through detailed reports, see what value your MSP is providing. Second, this information can also inform proper capital investment planning, particularly regarding your endpoints which may be slow, insecure due to older out-of-support operating systems, or have other issues. And by doing regular software audits, you can find out whether you are in violation of software contracts or even paying too much for licenses.

Reporting should have two levels. The MSP needs to know all the minutia. SMBs also need detail so they gain a full understanding of their systems, but they also need to have this information presented in an higher-level, easily digested view.

The importance of transparency is explored in more detail in our whitepaper, Choose and Choose Wisely the Right MSP for your SMB:

“Finally, transparency allows the MSP and the customer to develop and monitor mutually-agreeable service level agreements (SLAs) that map to shared goals. The SLAs need to be easily understandable and measurable, and the MSP needs to be held accountable with penalties and triggers built into the contract.  A plan also needs to be put into place that allows the MSP to automatically or manually bring the environment back to compliance quickly and efficiently.”

What Solutions Does Your MSP Use?

As I mentioned above, solutions such as an RMM give the MSP deep insight and management control over your network.

Without a proper RMM, an MSP can never be truly effective. The right RMM makes an MSP nimble, able to quickly spot and fix problems quickly – and often  completely automatically. This keeps your costs down and allows the MSP to give you a predictable and reasonable monthly price.

More from our whitepaper: “It’s all about the tools the MSP uses to deliver its services. Does the IT systems management solution enable a proactive strategy and streamline maintenance? Can administrators conduct work as quickly as possible and get systems up and running immediately? You better be sure that customers evaluating MSPs will ask these questions and expect effective, efficient services to be delivered. At the same time, service providers need to deliver effectively. Systems need to perform reliably and optimally. MSPs put policies and procedures in place to take care of day-to-day maintenance so they can engage with customers on a personal level and get into the trenches to truly understand how they can improve business operations.”

Industry Expertise

If you are in a specific vertical, such as healthcare where you need to deal with regulations including HIPAA, you need an MSP that can help you with compliance. And in fact MSPs, especially those with HIPAA or other regulatory expertise, are well equipped to meet compliance regulations. MSPs make your network secure through proper, standardized patching and installation of anti-malware/antivirus protections. MSP systems should also keep a record of all maintenance and changes made to any endpoints, whether on-site, remotely or automatically through the RMM solution.  Through real-time auditing and proper, often custom, reports, you can quickly prove to regulators that all the rules are met.

Given the high cost of fines for running afoul of HIPAA or PCI rules (for those handling credit cards), it pays to have the paid protection MSPs provide.

The Future and the Cloud

SMBs don’t tend to be expert in technology. They spend their time being expert in their business. That’s where MSPs come in. It is their business to be expert in technology. When it comes to keeping up-to-date on ever-changing technology requirements, some MSPs are more expert than others. You may not want to move major apps to the cloud right away, but you want your MSP to be an expert when you do. What does the MSP offer in terms of cloud services, and how many happy clients are using them? What services does the MSP plan to provide in the future?

Also find out how the MSP sets up and manages cloud service. Do they do a detailed analysis of whether your network is fast enough to support cloud applications, and can they do the upgrades that make it solid?

The Beauty of Bundles

Large enterprises often buy a bevy of applications and services from a single vendor such as Microsoft. This just makes things easier – the so-called “single neck to choke.” The same is true when an SMB looks for a service provider. They don’t want to hire five MSPs to get five services. Service bundles streamline support and should lower your costs.

Holistic services can mean that your MSP offers a service bundle, and at the same time enhances it for a vertical market and for the level and length (in terms of hours per day or 24×7) of support. An interesting service add-on is to provide cloud backup or disaster recovery to augment existing core services.

SMBs Prefer Strategic Providers

There are several terms that refer to the fact that leading MSPs are becoming more strategic in how they work with clients.  One of the earliest labels is ‘trusted advisor’ which means that you trust the MSP to drive IT strategy so it aligns with your business goals. Smart SMBs look for this kind of expertise and advice from their providers.

There are also virtual CIO services (vCIO). This a bit similar to trusted advisor, but it is a defined service where MSPs are paid to act as the top IT person for the SMB client. This can include driving technology choices, but also budgeting, high-level directing of whatever internal staff the SMB might have, and reporting up to top SMB management.

For SMBs, this can be far cheaper than hiring a full time CIO. And if you contract with a larger MSP, you may use the services of several specialized vCIOs, such as a vertical market expert, security expert, or cloud advisor.

Posted by Doug Barney
Doug Barney was the founding editor of Redmond Magazine, Redmond Channel Partner, Redmond Developer News and Virtualization Review. Doug also served as Executive Editor of Network World, Editor in Chief of AmigaWorld, and Editor in Chief of Network Computing.
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