What to ask when choosing a support company

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Interviewing potential suppliers is a crucial part of picking the right IT support company for your business. There are key questions you should ask. Andy Trish, director of NCI Technologies - a provider of managed IT services talks us through the key issues

1. How big is your company and what are your plans for growth?

IT support companies come in all sizes. As they grow, their ability to offer more solutions, support or products increases, as does their knowledge base.

However, this doesn't mean you should necessarily plump for the biggest company you can afford. Your main priority should be making sure you are confident the company can meet all your needs with the resources they have at their disposal.

Smaller companies and one-man bands can offer a personal service and can get to understand the workings of your company IT system intimately. Your business is also likely to be more valuable to them and so they should give your company a higher priority. However, a larger corporate support company can offer a wider spread of expertise. You should weigh up the pros and cons.

2. What geographical area do you cover?

If your own business plan involves you moving premises or expanding into different countries, you need to be sure your support company can cover all of those different regions.

3. Do you offer different levels of support?

Many IT support companies offer a choice of service levels to suit different budgets and requirements. These may include:

  • Pay-as-you-go support, where you pay an hourly rate or a fixed price – this is usually the more expensive option in the long run.
  • Online chat-only support, where you pay a lower fee purely to have access to online chat agents.
  • Break-fix support, which can be charged hourly, either paid in advance or afterwards. It can also be offered on a fixed-price contract, like an insurance policy.
  • Managed service support, where your support company actively manages your systems to reduce the chance of things going wrong. This usually involves signing an annual support contract.

4. Do you have guaranteed response times?

You should expect your support company to offer a guaranteed response time in the case of a problem with your IT network or website. This may vary depending on what level of support you are willing to pay for.

Be wary of companies guaranteeing to resolve problems within a certain period, because sometimes it can take much longer than expected to get to the root of problems.

5. Will we get a dedicated account manager?

It's good to build a long-term relationship with your support company. They will get to know your business plans and be able to ensure your IT accommodates these, while also helping you provision for the future. It’s reasonable to expect one or two permanent contacts that you can deal with.

6. Will I get a dedicated engineer?

It's unreasonable to expect you'll always deal with the same engineer, because most support companies allocate work to engineers best suited to each particular job. However, this is still a good question to ask – if they say 'yes', consider why this is. Do they only have a limited number of experienced staff?

7. What training policy do you have for your engineers?

Technology changes quickly so it is important your support company keeps their training up-to-date. Look for a support company which follows any certification programs offered by the companies that make the hardware and software used by your business.

8. How can we log support calls with you?

When you have an IT problem, it's really frustrating when you can't get hold of the person you employ to fix it. Make sure your support company either has a dedicated number with someone always available to answer, or another facility such as online chat or an email address that goes straight to the support team.

9. Do you offer discounts?

It's always worth asking, even if the answer is no! Many support companies will offer a cheaper price if you agree to a longer contract.

10. Do you supply hardware as well as support?

Even if you purchase all your computer equipment separately, it's still good to know that your support company can replace any faulty parts themselves, and quickly.

And when it is time to replace your hardware, you may feel better knowing the people who are supporting it have recommended, supplied and installed it – giving you one point of contact if something goes wrong.

11. How and when will I be charged?

Support company terms vary, but generally expect 30-day payment terms for pay-as-you-go or break-fix support. Contracted work depends on your support company's terms; these can be monthly, quarterly or annually and usually payable in advance.

12. What are the cancellation terms?

As with any contract, make sure you are happy with the terms and conditions – especially cancellation terms and notice periods. Be wary of excessive notice periods – a month is fine. If you are unhappy with the service you receive, you need to be sure you can get out of the contract quickly and easily.

13. What exactly do you support in your contract?

A support company that replies with "we cover it all" is not one I would recommend trusting. Most support companies will cover labour charges on any incident that relates to hardware or specified software. Some also include mileage and travel time to and from your premises. However, support for custom software that was built by another company is unlikely to be included.

An example reply may be: "we provide all labour - either onsite or remotely - for any hardware covered under your contract. We also include mileage and travel time and will support all Microsoft operating systems and Microsoft applications". See our sample IT support contract for an example of the kinds of terms and conditions you might expect.

14. What isn't covered in the support contract?

The list will probably be endless but you need to know examples of things that you may be billed for separately. For instance, if your server fails and needs replacing, will the installation of the replacement be covered by the contract, or will it cost extra? If it will cost extra, what are their one-off or hourly charges?

15. Do you provide remote management and monitoring?

IT support companies can monitor the state of your network, servers and computers without having to visit your premises. They can do many upgrades and fixes this way too.

This can be very useful: for instance, you may be able to spot that a disk drive is about to fail and then back up the data to the cloud before you lose it. Remote management can also reduce the time it takes to fix things and cut travel costs.

16. Do you work with specific hardware and software companies?

Variety can be good, but so can working with specific manufacturers. The answer to this should give you confidence that the support company has relationships with the people who make the hardware and software that your business uses.

These questions are by no means exhaustive, but they will provide you with a good footing when you interview the people who may end up being trusted IT advisers.

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