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Choosing an IT Partner is like buying a dog…..

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Apologies, this is a longer read than usual, so I have split it into 2 parts!


Part 1: Before you look at the potentials

Part 2: What to look for in an IT Partner


Part1: Before you look at the potentials


Recently my wife and I introduced a Lola, a super energetic and somewhat demanding new puppy to our household. Lola is sleeping under my desk and I have found myself drawing comparisons between the processes of selecting a puppy with those of an IT partner.


When Lola arrived, like any change, it certainly put new pressures on our relationship which we have taken time to adjust to. The same can be seen within the partnerships between organisations and their IT Partners. However, many organisations fail to put the effort into finding the right breed of IT partner, or recognising the changes until it is too late, and the relationship has soured.


So – If I were to ask any dog owner how much time they spent picking the right breed, I am confident it would be a lot more hours than most companies spend picking the right IT partner. However, unlike my dog, the changes to organisations and their IT partners that occur over time are massive. It is not only important to make the right choice on day one, but also to continually review the relationship, to ensure it remains healthy. After years of working in this space, I am still surprised at just how many buyer/supplier relationships meander into the position where they no longer work. During which time neither party pro-actively takes steps to review the relationship and address issues before it becomes terminal.


Before choosing Lola, we spend a lot of time reflecting on what my family needs from a dog and assessing how each breed we are considering will give us what we are looking for. Organisations should do the same, so I thought I’d write down the steps not only when looking at IT partners for the first time, but also periodically throughout the relationship.


  1. Understand your needs – to do this, create a project team of key stakeholders who will be involved in the selection and review of your IT Partner. Typically, representatives from the following groups:
    1. IT (if you have your own IT staff)
    2. Users (Can give a great insight to the current service)
    3. Management (understand the longer-term goals, and the risks of failure)
    4. Finance (because without them you’re on your own!)


  1. Define success (What) – often finance and IT have very different views of success. If this is the case, how can the IT company succeed?
    1. Organise a meeting and write a list of each stakeholder’s top 3 high-level requirements for success. Then address any conflict.
    2. Drill down into the list in more details, so everyone understands what is meant by each item
    3. Prioritise the list.


  1. List known Projects, and apply a basic timeline – It is useful to ensure all stakeholders, and potential IT partners understand your IT goals/projects that you have already planned for the next 1-3 years. If you are planning a Cloud migration, better for everybody to be aware, and thinking about what is required to support this activity. If you’re not too sure about the IT project, think about the goals of the business over the same timeframe and then how your IT systems and services may need to change in order to support the business.


  1. List the deliverables you expect from your IT Partner – (How) These will be more tactical, but again will force the working team into agreeing on the requirements. FOR EXAMPLE:
    1. UK based business hours helpdesk
    2. 1 day onsite per month
    3. Ability to deliver the ‘x’ major projects planned
    4. Direct contact with the supplier’s management team


  1. Create your IT Strategy – With these lists created you have also completed the majority of work needed to create an IT strategy. You have the company priorities, and how your IT partner fits in with these – which can be more broadly shared within the business. If you can then apply a cost plan to this, your organisation will have a good understanding of what to expect and the associated costs. However, you may need to re-work the cost plan with your chosen IT Partner at a later stage.


Back to my dog….  Once I know what the family needs are, I can grab a book about dogs and identify which breed will tick most boxes – as any dog owner knows, there is always some degree of compromise!


At work – with your criteria in hand, you are in a much better position to review IT Partners, as you have something to measure them against. Though you have not yet considered which Partner, the organisation and all stakeholders have an agreed understanding of what the organisation is looking to achieve and what they expect. Doing this will make the selection of an IT Partner much simpler and similar to the procurement of any other service. In simple terms, you want to shortlist suppliers that you think meet your requirements, then meet them to challenge them on the points you have identified.


Part2: What to look for in an IT Partner


If you have read Part 1 you will remember Lola. Well, our decision criteria looked like this:


  1. Must be good with Kids – this was a deal breaker.
  2. Must not be too big or too small (My wife did not want a big dog, I did not want a small dog, so we had to find a breed that we were both happy with.
  3. Must have character (I know this is subjective)
  4. Must not require too much maintenance


All straight forward, but this still left a list of many breeds, so we had to break it down further to explore the character of the breeds to make our final decision.


So, what would that list look like for IT partners?


  1. Does Size matter?
  2. What happens when they do not have the skills I need in-house?
  3. What is their approach to Professional Services, Project and account management?
  4. What is their approach to sales?
  5. What about their helpdesk?
  6. Does geography matter?
  7. How do they behave!?


  1. Does Size matter?
    1. Too big, and you may not be important to them
    2. Too small, and do they have the resource to service you


A quick note on this. Over the past 10 years, IT has seen a considerable change. 10 years ago, most SMB’s all had a similar IT Architecture. A couple of onsite servers, Active Directory, on-site backup, on-site DB, a VPN, local apps (Office), a PBX phone system etc. Roughly 10 areas that the IT Partner had to have a general knowledge of. Today however, we have local legacy hardware and Software, SaaS services (O365, Sage etc), IaaS & PaaS (for the larger sites), SW & HW VPN’s, VOIP (Which requires more complex VLAN architecture), full Wi-Fi, AD/SharePoint/OneDrive set ups, VMWare (and other similar technologies), all of which require HA, DR and continuity planning, then you add mobility for users (BYOD) and the support needs are wide. What this means, is the skills required go way beyond the capability of 1 person. So the IT company that has all of this in house is big. However, due to their overheads (and the inevitable bench time of their engineers) they cost a lot more, are inflexible, and you are not important to them.


To address this, we have seen an explosion in the Associate model. Where an IT company will have their own specialist areas, but have a network of associates, either Freelance, or other IT companies to provide specialist skills. Customers may not always realise this is the case, but anyone on the inside understands, this is how IT companies work today.


What this means to an organisation selecting an IT partner, is that they pick a partner who manages this the best. So it is important to consider exactly who will PM their projects or manage their operations, who are the points of contact, and most importantly, who owns the Risk or Issue when things go wrong…..


  1. What happens when they do not have the skills I need in house?


As per my previous comment, customer requirements are becoming more diverse. So it is likely that at some point, you will have a requirement for which your IT provider does not have the skills in-house – so how do they manage this?


  1. What is their approach to Professional Services, Project and account management?


How are projects managed? Does the IT company automatically assign a Project Manager, or is this chargeable? Are Professional Service staff sold on a Time and Materials basis (you pay per day for as long as the job takes), or on a project basis, where the IT company carries the risk of the job overrunning. What is the level of experience of these staff in working with other organisations of your size and complexity?


  1. What is their approach to sales?


Many of the larger IT providers use young sales staff, who are under a lot of pressure to deliver results and profits over short time-frames. This can in some cases mean that their desire to make margin overrides the need to ensure the customers get the right solutions for their particular needs.


The opposite of this can be seen when IT companies try to sell their clients the solution they are most comfortable in supporting, which can stifle the clients desire to utilise the most appropriate technologies for their needs.


  1. What about their helpdesk?


The helpdesk is usually the most frequently used point of contact between you and your IT provider. So yes – it matters. But how do you know which will be best for you until you start trying them?


This is an interesting challenge. Two of our 3 co-founders have previously managed IT Helpdesks, and from experience have learned a lot about delivering this service. What they have learnt is that to run an efficient helpdesk, you need volume. If the helpdesk only received 1 call a month on VMWare, then it will not be an expert. However, big helpdesks struggle to provide the service levels and flexibility required by SMB’s. To address this, 5u have cherry picked the best bits from a larger helpdesk and combined them with the management overlay plus field based resources required by SMB’s, providing the optimum balance.


  1. Does Geography matter?


The answer to this will depend on who you ask. The clients of most IT companies will say “Yes”, while the IT Company will say “No” (Unless they happen to be local). So let’s take a look at this.


A few years back the proportion of services running on a client’s site was high, and the cost and reliability of remote access meant that it was not optimal.


However, that has changed.


So why do IT companies prefer to work remotely? To get it out of the way, it costs more to send an engineer to site. Ultimately, that cost is passed on, so for the IT company to submit a proposal that is competitive, it is looking to keep costs to a minimum. Then let’s look at a day’s work. If an engineer leaves home at 8, arrives on site at 9, they will actually get started at about 9:15. Same goes at the end of the day, so time is lost. Furthermore, engineers onsite get distracted by clients asking them to ‘just take a look at this or that’, meaning that if we add travel and lost time, a remote day is much more efficient. Then the technologies are changing. If we take o365 as an example, other than local mail and synchronised file issues, all O365 work is cloud based, and so can be completed from anywhere. This is repeated across CRM, payroll and many other modern IT solutions. So the IT Company does not need to be onsite most of the time. An engineer starting at 8:30, and finishing at 5:30 is doing 1hr more for the client, and has a shorter working day for themselves. There are exceptions, and some physical time on site is a necessity, either for certain technical works, or just for client care – however, the majority of support time can now be spent remotely, that’s just fact.


From the IT companies perspective, and engineer is much more likely to put in extra hours to get a difficult job complete when they are working from home or the office. Our own advice to our engineers is for them to just get the job finished, meaning that on occasions they will work unsociable hours. It is then our problem to make up for this and does not burden the client that a job was not competed on time.


From the clients’ perspective – location does often matter, but this is usually based on a perceived level of service. They fear that people will not be available when needed if the IT company is not local. But this is really down to the approach of the IT Company. So let’s put this out there. If a client of mine feels they need to see me at 7am on a Monday morning, 200 miles from my home, then so be it.


Clients often want the security of knowing an Engineer is not far away. However, back to the earlier point. There is no point in an IT company sending the wrong engineer. So I believe that it is far better to have a process in place whereby if a customer has a problem, we can get the right person on the phone or via a remote control session quickly, to assess the problem, and determine the best next course of action and agree it with the customer. That may be a visit from the first available engineer, a call from the subject matter expert, or even escalate to an IT Vendor, to get their team “dialled in”.


I genuinely believe that the locality does not matter as much as the approach, attitude and culture of the IT Company itself.


So – I bring this back to the start….    As well as defining your list of requirements, shortlisting providers and assessing, there is no way to get under the skin, and assess the ‘culture’ of an IT company, other to meet them, face to face, and talk openly. This helps both sides assess the fit and enables you to be confident that you have discussed and shared what is important, heard the answers, and agreed with the proposals – for us, we are delighted with Lola, she’s a perfect addition to our family…


Thank you for persevering, we promise our next blog will not be so lengthy!



If you are interested in learning more about the culture at 5u, call us on 03300 53 59 55, as we would love to hear more about what you are looking for in your IT partner.





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