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12/22/2011
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4 Questions SMBs Should Ask Outsourcing Vendors

Small and midsize businesses that plan to outsource their IT operations need to ask these four questions before signing the dotted line.

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You wouldn't hire a new employee without asking them a few questions first. The same should hold true for small businesses that outsource most--or all--of their IT functions to a third party.

In fact, handling managed service providers (MSPs) and other outside IT firms as an extension of your internal staff--rather than "just a vendor"--is an approach that can produce better long-term results from the relationship. That approach starts with a thorough interview.

Vince Plaza, VP of IT at TeamLogic IT, a national service provider focusing on small and midsize businesses (SMBs), shared four critical questions you must ask--plus a handful of other important considerations--before choosing an external IT firm.

[ Check out more tips for hiring and working with an outsourcer. Read Manage Your Managed Service Provider. ]

1. "Why are you better?" Plaza said SMB owners and managers should not be at all bashful about asking prospective providers simply: "Why you?" Longer version: "What makes you better, smarter, and faster than my other choices?" Providers that chafe or stumble in response are sending out a warning sign.

"It gives that SMB a comfort level that this outfit is competent and confident in what they can do," Plaza said in an interview.

2. "How will you help me stay current?" IT is forever evolving; Plaza notes that any external provider should not only agree with that sentiment but be prepared to explain how they'll adapt as your company's needs change over time, whether that means keeping pace with dynamic trends, supporting new business strategies, or any other requirements.

Plaza posed it as interview question: "How will you help me stay current and ensure that I've got the proper solutions in place so that my needs are constantly met and our technology allows us to help meet our business goals?"

3. "How can you help us achieve ROI?" The best IT providers will go beyond a set-it-and-forget-it deployment. ("Here are your PCs, applications, and network. Best of luck!") In particular, they should be able to help you understand how you'll get a return on your technology investment that aligns with your big-picture business goals.

"I don't want to just buy hardware and software from you," Plaza said. "I want to know what it's going to do for the business, hopefully in the language of the business." Better yet for the ROI-obsessed owner: "How do I use this technology to help me make the money to pay the bills?"

4. "When I call you, who's going to answer the phone?" If you're going to trust your technology to an outside firm, you need to understand what their internal operations look like. Specifically, ask about their staff and who will be responsible for your company's day-to-day business if you sign on. If the prospective provider sends the big guns for the pitch, will it pass you off to the summer intern post-sale?

"Will I need to wait for a while for someone from your team to respond to my needs?" Plaza says to ask.

Those are the must-ask questions in Plaza's view, but that doesn't necessarily mean the interview should end there. You'll likely have some questions specific to your business and needs, for starters. You'll also want to tweak your questions depending on whether you're looking to outsource everything or keep some key responsibilities in-house. If you're looking for a one-stop shop, make sure to ask if there's anything they don't do.

Other considerations include location and vendor partnerships. In spite of the mobile, virtual workforce, Plaza still recommends going with an IT provider that has at least some physical presence in your local area. "There are more and more things that can be done in a remote fashion," Plaza said. "But we've found that most of the customers that we deal with [still] need or appreciate that personal touch, where somebody is local enough that they can visit with them on a regular basis or have somebody on-site fairly rapidly to address something that can't be done remotely."

Vendor alignment isn't as big of an issue today, according to Plaza--most MSPs will support the major players such as Microsoft, Google, and the like. That said, if you know you're looking for a specific system or application--for example, you only want to use Cisco gear for your voice-over-IP deployment--make sure the provider supports it. If you don't have any particular vendor loyalties, then the requirements become much more straightforward.

"The critical things are [whether] the service works, is cost-effective, and the support will be there," Plaza said.

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Bprince
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Bprince,
User Rank: Apprentice
12/26/2011 | 3:09:02 PM
re: 4 Questions SMBs Should Ask Outsourcing Vendors
Good additions by Zzz. I would also ask questions around the security of data where applicable to make sure it is being stored in line with any relevant compliance regulations.
Brian Prince, InformationWeek/Dark Reading Comment Moderator
Zzz2002
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Zzz2002,
User Rank: Apprentice
12/24/2011 | 4:46:28 AM
re: 4 Questions SMBs Should Ask Outsourcing Vendors
Even more important questions are
If I decide to bring IT in house can I get at my data (who owns my data)?
What legal regime applies to my data?
Are there any legal pot holes along the way, privacy laws, tax laws, etc?
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