How to Find, Vet and Hire an IT Managed Services Provider

As a knowledge management devotee, I’ve always felt like if I’m asked to solve a problem more than twice, I should probably write down how I did it, as there’s a good chance I’ll be asked again. We at Sympraxis frequently get asked by our small and mid-market clients if we can recommend a good managed services provider.

“Managed Services Provider” is defined by TechTarget as:

“a company that remotely manages a customer’s IT infrastructure and/or end-user systems, typically on a proactive basis and under a subscription model.”

While Sympraxis is not a managed services provider, we have learned many lessons in our experiences as consultants, IT Pros, clients, and advisors. This post, although primarily authored by me, reflects several of my colleagues’ quality thinking, critical eye, and polish. (If it’s particularly profound, it’s probably my colleagues’ idea. If there’s a typo or an inanity, that’s all me.)

We’ll share some of our experiences in a series of three posts:

  1. How to Find, Vet and Hire a Managed Services Provider
  2. How to Manage Your Managed Services Provider
  3. How to Fire Your Managed Services Provider

Sympraxis has done work for companies that have thousands of in-house IT employees, and for start-ups that have zero IT employees (and no desire to have any). This post is definitely written primarily for small to mid-sized businesses, but there are takeaways for everyone somewhere in here.

Managed IT Services can help your business grow by:

  • Taking day-to-day technical chores off the plate of people who have other jobs to do
  • Ensuring consistency in account setup, machine configuration, software installation, and much more
  • Giving your employees on-demand access to skilled IT resources to prevent downtime
  • Providing an insurance policy against disasters
  • Providing guidance about how to improve your IT function and scale it up as you grow
  • Expanding IT support outside typical 9am-5pm office hours

When assessing managed services providers (MSPs), here are twelve key things to look for:

  1. Type of Experience: You may decide you want an MSP who has a lot of experience in your particular industry — especially if you want them to support equipment or processes which are arcane or unusual — or an MSP who has more broad industry knowledge.
  2. References: Based on what you decide above, can your MSP easily provide references for you to talk to? Keep in mind a few things about references, though:
  • No one will give you a reference where they have had friction or have not lived up to expectations. If you think it will be valuable, ask for a reference who no longer works with the MSP.
  • Few references tell the real story. We humans like to avoid confrontation. You’ll need to probe a bit to get the real stories. Ask about challenges they experienced in the partnership and how they resolved them.

3. Availability: Few businesses run 8x5 anymore, and even small “virtual” start-ups can be global and require 24x7x365 service. Do you prefer local resources who can be on-site as needed, or do remote support services work for you?

4. Responsiveness: Responsiveness can be measured by assessing staffing levels that ensure both technical depth/redundancy, adeptness at remote access, effective use of service management tools, and processes that ensure high levels of responsiveness.

5. Service Level Agreement (SLA): Any managed services provider worth their salt will ask what you need the SLA to be in the very first meeting. How quickly do you expect help desk type responses? How fast do you want new employees to be set up? How much down time can your business tolerate? (Hint: “None” is not the answer unless you have unlimited funds.) Think about what each “9” in uptime (99%? 99.9%? 99.99%? is worth to you.

6. Partner Relationships: Can your MSP manage vendor relationships on your behalf? What type of power or relationship do you want them to have with those vendors? And: (setting the hook for the future “How to Fire Your MSP” blog post) what happens to those vendor relationships when you and your MSP break up?

7. Strategy Capability: Can your MSP go “up a level” and help guide your strategy as you grow? Can they help you develop an annual budget? A future staffing model? Expect and look for a quarterly review of your IT function with your MSP. Metrics such as ticket volume, mean time to resolution, etc. are useful but not sufficient. A top-notch MSP will help you think about not only the future of technology (e.g., end-of-life of Windows 7 planning), but also how technology changes will affect your business.

8. Growth: You may be small today, but what does your growth trajectory look like? Relationships with MSPs tend to last years. Can they handle your growth path and grow the relationship with you as needed? (Hint: A very small shop is unlikely to be able to do this. On the other hand, they may be more hungry and nimble.)

9. Services: What are the technical areas you need them to support? Do they have the specific experience you need? For example, many of the MSPs we’ve interacted with are great at managing the physical machines and network, but if you’re using Microsoft 365, do they have that experience? Do they understand the software you use — or can they commit to learn? Device Management, Backup, Storage, Security, and Disaster Recovery Planning are also key areas to assess.

10. Managed Services Infrastructure: How will they manage your workloads? Do they have systems you’ll need to interact with or will it be interactions with an on-site person. Often people grow to loathe bad systems — they provide a poor user experience with the company in general. Monitoring and ticketing systems need to work for both the MSP and for you.

11. Staffing — how much leverage is in their staffing model (ie, the ratio of senior to junior staff)? Are they mostly senior people, at high rates, highly utilized? Mostly junior people, at lower rates? A good mix helps ensure resource availability and affordability. Beware the MSP who has one expert in an important area to you — experts take vacations too, and any provider with only one expert is always one bad day away from having none.

12. Trust — every other factor in assessing an MSP hinges off of this one. If you can’t trust your MSP, it will be very difficult to create a valuable relationship. They will likely have access to most, if not all, of your corporate records, trade secrets, passwords, confidential documents, etc., and you need to be able to trust them with confidential information and not think twice about it. To measure trust, I use a formula from David Maister, author of The Trusted Advisor:

Trustworthiness = Credibility + Reliability + Intimacy/Self-Orientation

This “trust equation” merits a whole series of blog posts on its own, and the book is brilliant, but the link above provides a good start.

How to Vet MSP Candidates

References, references, references — talk to them about elements of their experience that are similar to what you think you need. Ask them about when things go wrong, specific instances, and how they get made right.

Personal referrals — Ask people in your professional network. Many industries are like small towns, and people use the same vendors.

Service Level Agreement (SLA) Expectations — Be clear on the SLA you need and ask how well it is attained for other clients (ask the reference clients)

Deliverables — Ask for examples (what does a monthly report look like? Can you show us the portal where you manage our queue?)

First-hand observation — Observe how they interact with you during the sales process. Do they follow up quickly? Are they friendly to your staff? Do they show up on time? Do they make excuses? Have they done their homework? All of these things happening during a sales process are no guarantee that they will be sustained during delivery, but red flags in the sales process will not magically fix themselves once you’re under contract.

Use your publisher partners — if you have a relationship with (for example) a local Microsoft rep, or a reseller like SoftwareOne, CDW, SHI, Insight, etc., ask them — they have a good sense of local partners, but the winds change direction quickly, so it’s no substitute for other vetting.

How to Hire an MSP

Contract review — This is one place in the process where it might be worth your while to pay to have a pro do it (objective, arm’s length — yes, it’s that important) to make sure all of your criteria above are met. Having an IT pro review the contract AND having an attorney review it is optimal. This can be expensive, but it’s never more expensive than a bad contract.

Pricing — Assess the pricing model and make sure it aligns with your operational approach, growth plans, and needs. by employee, by device, inclusions/exclusions, extra charges for on-site work, what constitutes T&M project vs included managed services? Can they do both?

Understand your MSP’s account team — Who will be assigned to you, in what roles? Assess both org structure and people. Comfort with specific people is great, but individual team members will change. The organization, its leadership, and its processes are paramount to success.

Trial Period — Consider a shorter contract (e.g., 90 days) with loose terms to test if you’re a good fit for each other.

Summary (TL;DR)

Understand and think about your business’s needs as you grow. Gauge what you know and what you know you don’t know, and learn from prospective MSPs what you don’t know you don’t know.

Trust is critical. From referrals from trusted sources, to references, to establishing trust with your MSP, you can’t be successful without trust.

Try a little at first, if possible. Getting locked into long-term contracts can be challenging. We’ll cover some of those challenges, and best practices to mitigate them, in our next post.

So…if you’re still reading: thanks for staying with us. Sympraxis builds great solutions: elegant, secure, robust, etc., but we’re not a managed services provider. We work with several, and each has their own strengths and weaknesses.

If you are an MSP, or you hire MSPs, or you advise clients about MSPs, join the conversation: what did we miss? What do you do to assess capabilities and fit for an MSP? What mistakes have you made that others can learn from? Why do you stay with yours? What caused you to leave an MSP? Join the conversation, and thanks for reading! _

Project management, financial management, and knowledge management. Microsoft 365 aficionado, proud Sympraxian. Opinions and Philly attytood are my own.