You've heard of them. Possibly the people who are trying to keep your IT hardware functioning for your business have mentioned or possibly have charged you for "managed IT support". But what is this service really? And, should your organization be using it?
The author has had extensive experience of observing the good and the bad in the business offerings of managed IT services. This article intends to identify what the concepts and typically best practices are within this industry and to provide the reader with an accurate understanding of these services.
Wondering if you should engage a Managed IT service?
The real answer to this question is, “It depends.”
It depends on if you understand what this service consists of. And it depends on your circumstances. We will circle back to these two variables further in this article and try to provide you with any additional help you may need.
The Managed Services Industry
A Managed IT Service Provider (MSP) is a third-party service provider that helps manage a customer's hardware infrastructure, on-premises network, cybersecurity, and end-user systems. The MSP monitors and maintains these systems against a clearly defined Service Level Agreement (SLA).
Over the last 30 to 40 years as the computer has progressively infiltrated the business environment changes in the complexity of the various devices, software, support systems, data support, and many other systems have increased hundreds of times over. This is the foundation issue within the IT industry, and with very - very few exceptions businesses cannot function without IT infrastructure and having some type of support for it.
In the last 15 years, starting with very large business organizations, this complexity has driven businesses to redefine their methods of managing this IT infrastructure. The largest businesses hire their own IT staff and provide them with the necessary tools to keep their business functioning. Success with an internal IT support staff is not assured. As the size of a business environment gets smaller there is increased likelihood that an internal IT support staff method of will be successful. Why? Because the costs to keep that staff, keep them educated, and provide them with the tools they need to be successful become more cost prohibitive. Also because their support methods are usually not standardized which leaves holes in the support they should be offering.
Defining Managed Services and the Service Level Agreement
This is the defining separation between the Good and the Bad I mentioned in the beginning. The term Managed IT Service is not a defined word in the sense that it means the same to everyone that comes to use the term. The term is so variable that with around 40,000 different MSP providers in the United States alone, there are probably between 80,000 to 120,000 different definitions of the term Managed Services in use within those same companies!
The service level agreement (SLA) provides the definition for each service provided. In some circumstances, there is no SLA and as a result, it is possible for IT support companies to bill a company with the line item “Managed IT support” and never having identified specifically what service they are actually providing for the sum billed.
Speaking of billing for “managed services”? I have personally witnessed billings of $5/month for “managed services” to support a company of 8 or 9 employees in two disparate locations (yes that was the total monthly billed amount for the total employee count). At the other extreme, I have heard of billing as high as $400-$500 per employee with additions to support various other services.
It is obvious that the answer to What Is Managed IT Service is, “it depends.”
It depends on the Service Level Agreement.
I wish it were possible to avoid the terminology of the Information Technology field all together. Life for you and your IT support organization would be so much simpler if communications between users of the technology and the support personnel could be reduced to normal words. This, however, is not the case. I will try to avoid the use of tech speak as much as possible.
What services are typically offered by Managed IT Support companies?
Because of the growth in technology in recent years and due to the increasing complexity of hardware infrastructure and network management, IT support has been forced to expand as well. With the rise of cloud computing, mobility, and big data, enterprises are finding it difficult to keep up with the constantly changing IT landscape. Qualified MSPs provide the expertise and resources needed to keep pace with the latest technology trends.
A managed IT service is a vendor-provided solution that encompasses hardware infrastructure and on-premises software maintenance, as well as end-user support. The aim of such a solution is to provide a single point of contact, coordination for all IT-related issues faced by an organization, and the ability to provide all of the services needed to fulfill the service agreement completely and consistently.
The following is a list of services that are often available:
- Antivirus provisioning at the end-user and/or the server level
- Software licensing provisioning and/or monitoring
- End User device support
- End User operational support
- Data management, data storage and data backup
- Hardware preventive and corrective maintenance
- Network hardware management, maintenance, provisioning
- Configuration and maintenance of Network Servers
- Operational management of cloud-based systems
- Monitoring of infrastructure health
- Maintaining infrastructure health
- Intercommunications support within the company
- Communications support and/or communications equipment provisioning
- Technology training to business staff
- ….. (Technology is everywhere and in everything, so the list is almost unending).
When an MSP is hired, they will sign an SLA with the customer that defines the scope of services to be provided. This agreement will also specify the frequency and level of support to be expected, as well as any other relevant details. In most cases, an MSP will proactively monitor the customer's systems and address any issues that arise, rather than waiting for the customer to raise a ticket.
How is a Managed IT Service company Structured?
When an MSP company is created there are many business models that they can be formulated with to make that company successful. They often were outgrowths of small computer repair companies that decided to work alongside their business clients and by offering great support they experienced great recommendations from their relationships and grew.
Other business models include investors that purchased one or more of the smaller models to form larger companies. These companies are often syndicated and offer a variety of services to their clientele.
Finally, there are companies that offered other services as their primary resource offering that discovered they could outsource IT support as an adjunct service to their primary offerings.
None of these business models for building a managed service offering are particularly better than the others. The true value and benefit for your company, is getting your needs met when the Service Level Agreement properly addresses the your needs as the client.
How does an MSP provider accomplish their support?
There are several factors that create successful and professional service providers in the Information Technology field. The first is expertise in the form of staffing with the right mix of professional experts in the organization. Second is the structure within the company that supports keeping up with the technology changes that happen in the industry (changes that often can happen daily). Third is building a support package that delivers acceptable performance to meet SLA obligations. And fourth, because this is a service company, they must have the ability to interact with client members in an acceptable manner.
These factors may be a little vague to a prospective client, but they are vital to a successful relationship with a managed service provider. While they should seem obvious, they are not handled the same way in every model of within the industry and in fact are not handled the same way for providers in any one model.
So to really understand what managed IT services really are lets expand a bit on these factors.
IT support has been around since the beginning of the computer back in the 1950’s. There aren’t a lot of those fellas left that are still providing support (if you know one, write to me and let me know who he is). But because of the rapid changes that occur within the IT field, expertise in this field comes from hands on experience. College degrees or training programs for technical expertise provide entry level access into this field. Obviously having an understanding of basics that can come from formal education can be of benefit to someone getting into the field, but becoming an expert requires continuous development and the ability to remain current on changes occurring in this industry. Great MSPs create teams that can expand and share knowledge.
The professional experience within an MSP can be recognized by a client when they interact with the provider. Informed technicians seem to all know what is going on. When a tech doesn’t know something they explain they don’t know but can get the answer… and then they do. Keeping you in the loop of problem resolution indicates that they are communicating within their own organization. You aren’t given technical jargon without an explanation of what that means to you.
Provider Education and Knowledge
This one is a little more difficult to discern from a client’s perspective. But within the best MSPs there will be a culture of continuing education and cross communications within their company. You may get a sense of these things happen as you communicate with them. You could also ask the question directly. Do you require continuing education and research on current changes in the IT industry?
This is where the rubber meets the road when it comes to the ability to provide the best support in Service Level Agreements. MSPs have access to hundreds of tools to help them with their support. There are security software packages that they can implement for their client’s protection. There are Software applications and Licensing agreements that can be adapted to fit the needs of their clients. There is hardware devices that can be configured and set up to improve support. There are lessor or more costly solutions for every solution tool they utilize, meaning they can spend less to get fewer options, or they can spend more to provide better performance. There are opportunities to provide many different services depending on the needs or wants of the client.
The bottom line for this factor is “the bottom line”. These tools are not cost free. You will get charged more when an MSP has built their support around more robust tools to deliver the support. Inexpensive and less proactive tools typically mean there will be delays in the resolution of problems with the client. This doesn’t mean that if they use lower cost tools that a service cannot be provided, but problem resolution times usually become longer.
This factor is affected by the Support Package we just discussed, but it is also a stand-alone factor. The best service comes when you as the client get your needs met, and the interaction was both professional and friendly. When your satisfaction comes out to 4 or 5 stars after every interaction, you have found an MSP that you should probably stick with. The support package above can influence the service delivery because tools can bring faster resolution to issues that will arise with the IT equipment installed at your location.
IT support in the experience of many today has historically been fraught with IT staff that talk in “Tech-speak” and leave their client users feeling like they have been ‘talked down to’. This really is unacceptable behavior today and if this is occurring at your business, I would personally give you the advice to begin looking for another provider for your IT support needs.
Managed IT Support
The description provided necessarily covered different aspects of the industry, but I would like to clarify in summary what Managed IT Services are.
Managed IT services are contracted services provided by a company that will deliver a specified group of Information Technology services based upon a Service Level agreement.
The ability of a provider to satisfy that SLA and meet the client needs is not related to the size of the MSP company. The MSP that has structured themselves to satisfactorily fulfill their SLA can accomplish their agreements will be able to identify through a series of interviews with a prospective client whether they will be able to meet the needs of the client and should be able to portray their capabilities sufficiently to give the client confidence in their ability to be successful.
The cost of utilizing managed IT services will be dictated by the cost of the staffing and tooling that the MSP brings to the table. They are in business to make a profit, but they are also in the business of providing customer support. Good MSPs should be able to provide the references to show their ability to deliver on the client expectations and will usually offer exit clauses in the SLA for failure to meet the SLA terms.
Not every business is a good fit for a full-service managed IT support company. For more discussion about whether it is a good fit for you, see the articles Could Managed IT Solutions Be the Key to Your Business's Success and Does My Business Need Managed IT Services.
If you still have questions or need more specific information, reach out to CITE with your contact information Here and we will arrange a discussion on your needs.