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October 3, 2011

Top 11 Questions for Vetting Your Next IT Solution Provider

Filed under: All Blog Postings — Craig Pollack @ 11:33 am

“But these go to eleven!”  If anyone’s seen Spinal Tap, you’ll know what I’m referring to.  Everyone has a Top 10 list.  But, I couldn’t quite narrow things down to just 10.  So, here are our top 11 questions to help evaluate a prospective IT Solution Provider:

1. How long have they been in business?

This may not seem like that big of a differentiator, but it’s a great place to start.  And, it could be a big differentiator.  We’ve been around since 1991 and have seen it all.  We’ve lived through all the different flavors of Microsoft Windows and all the related upgrade challenges. While we're up on all the latest and greatest, we've also seen Novell and WordPerfect come and go.  We understand the purpose of technology and Get IT!  Business Before Technology!

2. How big are they?

In this case, size does matter.  We’re 22 strong and have over 15 dedicated technical staff ranging from remote desktop support staff to network engineers to senior project managers.  We staff our own help desk and Network Operations Center (NOC).  We don't outsource any of the day-to-day functions you'd be expecting from your IT Service Provider.

3. What is their background and expertise?

How did they get to where they are?  What is their background like?  Why are they doing what they’re doing?  Are they “techs” who started out playing with computers or are they computer professionals?  Do they carry industry standard vendor certifications?  And are they current?  While our staff certainly have the technical chops needed (if not more), our unique approach has always been our business first approach.  Our unique perspective was founded on our initial approach from being software developers and system implementers.  We've always approached things from the application side of things and how the system impacts the business.  We've always thought of the underlying technology as a tool, rather than the end-all be-all.  First and foremost - we're business consultants.

4. What is their business knowledge?

Beyond supporting technology, how well do they truly understand running a business?  As a small business ourselves and with the track record we have we truly understand all too well the day-to-day factors impacting the goal of running a profitable business:  planning, budgeting, managing, leading, hiring, training, retaining, spending, investing, managing growth -the list could go on and on.  Fortunately, because we view ourselves as our clients' trusted advisors, we believe that we offer more than simply technology services.  We're constantly framing everything we're involved in from the business perspective.  Our discussions with clients utilize business terms.  We're constantly looking at ways to help clients become more effective, more efficient, and ultimately more profitable.  Business Before Technology – We Get IT!

5. How accessible are they?

What are their hours?  Do you get voicemail or do you get a live person?  What about after hours?  How can you get in touch with them then?  Is there anyone on-call?  Our hours are 7:00am - 7:00pm.  We're open when you need us.  When you call us, you will get a live person.  After hours, our voicemail system will send an email to our on-call staff as soon as you leave a message.  Our on-call staff are the same people you talk to during business hours.  They're not outsourced!  And they're not a message service.  We're accessible.  If you need help, we're there.

6. What does their hiring process look like?

Do they even have a hiring “process”?  We’ve honed ours to provide only the best and brightest with the technical chops, business acumen, and innate character needed to excel at the highest levels.  In addition to the standard interviews and background and reference checks, our process includes an in-depth online and in person technical assessment, an online workplace assessment, a DISC assessment and multiple levels of interviews.  We call it “running the gauntlet”.  We do this to ensure that we're starting with only the strongest and most capable candidates out there.

7. What does their training process look like?

Do they have a formal process around how they get their staff "up to speed"?  And how do they measure what, exactly this means?  We have our own FPA University which in addition to technical classes also contains classes detailing our processes, systems, and methodologies as well as classes covering consulting techniques, business applications, vertical market specific concepts, and detailed ways to improve their individual work flow (ie: how to be more effective in Office apps, how to better multi-task, how to improve communications, etc.).  Then only after passing all of these classes, performing a minimum number of onsite shadowing visits, and developing required documentation, they must pass a technical and consulting Final Exam.  Then once onboard, every one of our staff has an individual training budget reinforcing the need for personal growth through continuing education.  Our staff rocks!

8. What does their staff retention look like?

How long do people stay with them?  If there's turnover - why?  While everyone who’s growing always has new staff, how long has a majority of their staff been there?  We have staff who’ve been with us 5, 10, 12, 17 years.  That’s right YEARS!  This is pretty well unheard of in the technology field.

9. Do they do the work themselves or do they outsource key parts (like HelpDesk or NOC)?

Everything we do, WE do.  I'm starting to see more and more so called "MSP's" outsourcing these key functions.  While it may make sense on paper, we feel that it's not in our clients' best interest to farm this out.  We OWN our networks.

10. What do their references say about them?

Everyone can (and will) say great things about themselves.  Ask for a list of references.  Then, ask the references the tough questions.  What happens when things don't go right?  How does the IT Solution Provider handle it?  What happens when one of their staff leave suddenly?  How do they transfer the knowledge to the new person?  Ask them the last time their Solution Provider didn't come through for them.  Ask them what they think their Solution Provider should do more of?  Or less of?  Or what they should be doing better or more of.  Find out why they went with them in the first place and then what keeps them with them.  I think you'll be surprised by the results.

11. Do they deliver?  Really deliver?  And if so, what do they deliver?

At FPA, Core Value #1 is “Take Care of the Client”.  Note the use of the word “Client” (not “Customer”).  This is a significant difference.  Most, if not all, of our competitors use the word "Customer".  We build meaningful relationships with our clients that stand the test of time.  We're not out to sell them anything.  We make sure we’re doing what we say we’re going to do.  We’re open and honest.  We provide our own proprietary Client WebPortal so that our clients can access every piece of information about their networks at any point in time.  They can see what we see.  We provide a dashboard so that clients can see metrics about their network and about our performance.  Beyond the behind the scenes maintenance, we provide network status and performance reports every month emailed to our clients’ inbox.  We make sure that we provide value in everything we do. Above and beyond all the platitudes, simply put - we come through.