SMEs – which IT support service is right for you?

Technology is essential for most SMEs, whether it’s for delivering emails, despatching orders or just chasing unpaid debts.

Support is most often handled in-house, either by a dedicated IT person or the most tech-savvy member of staff. But at some point, office technology becomes too important – or too complicated – just to muddle through.

And that’s when businesses look for an IT support service to provide some stability. But with so many choices available, how do you find something that’s right for you and your business?

Our simple guide will help you decide what you need, and what you can realistically get for your budget.

Small medium or large?

Typically IT support services can be grouped into three categories: break/fix, proactive and fully managed. The increasing level of service has a price tag to match, so it’s important that you understand what each level involves, and which is right for your organisation.

Break/Fix Support

A “break/fix” support service does what it says – if a computer or network breaks someone will fix it. Usually an IT engineer will try to diagnose and fix the problem remotely. This could be via the telephone (“Have you tried turning it off?”) or allowing the engineer to control the computer via the internet. An engineer will usually visit your office to tackle more stubborn problems. You’ll be charged for these onsite visits and for any parts provided.

Suitable for: any budget-conscious organisation that isn’t too IT-dependent and is happy to tackle problems as they crop up.

Pro: it’s a pay-as-you-go model, so it’s highly cost-effective and there’s no wastage.
Con: you don’t get as high a level of service or as quick a response time. It’s reactive, so it doesn’t look ahead and anticipate problems, optimise your IT or plan for the future.

Proactive Support

Pro-active support aims to prevent problems by monitoring the health of the computers and networks. If a computer starts to run out of disk space, for example, an alert is raised and the IT support company takes action before it poses a serious problem..

Suitable for: companies that rely heavily on IT systems and need to minimise outages. If you’re running business-critical apps or using cloud services, then you’ll want to look at proactive support to make sure everything continues running smoothly.

Pro: IT systems are regularly checked and maintained to maximise efficiency and minimise any issues. Business continuity is ensured and your IT is managed in a planned, predictable way. Response times and service levels are better, as you have an ongoing relationship with your IT support provider.

Cons: increased costs may not be justified by the level of support you receive. At this level, choosing the right IT support partner is critical.

Fully Managed Service

The top tier support is often referred to as a fully managed service. This is a much broader offering where the support company effectively acts as an outsourced IT department.

As the name suggests, there is an element of someone acting as your IT manager here. The support provider will invest time and effort into taking care of your IT, e.g. thinking about capacity, looking for recurring problems or progressively removing weak points.

If there’s a problem they’ll typically take care of it, replacing hardware and software as appropriate with the minimum of input and in the quickest way possible.

Suitable for: companies that don’t want to be involved in managing their IT, and are looking for minimum downtime and fastest response. Typically, these organisations are larger, heavily IT-dependent, and don’t want the costs and resource implications of a fully-staffed IT department.

Pro: this is a one-stop solution for all IT needs, with premium levels of support and quick response times. Outsourced providers have more in-depth knowledge, broader experience and are more aware of industry trends and technologies, so companies get a state-of-the-art solution that would far exceed anything they could expect from an internal team.

Con: as this is the premium level, it does require a significantly larger budget. It also involves a high degree of trust, as you’re handing your entire IT operation and strategy to a third party. So it’s not hands-free, as some strategic direction and involvement are required internally.

What doesn’t a support service cover?

As always, the devil is in the detail but a contract should, in general terms, provide support and maintenance to keep your existing computers and network running. Do bear the following points in mind, though:

  • It’s not unusual for new equipment and upgrades to be exempt.
  • It is possible that personal equipment, computers in the home and usage by freelancers are omitted from standard cover. This point is increasingly important as smartphones and home-working are more prevalent and BYOD (bring your own device) becomes the norm.

Response times and Service Level Agreement (SLAs)
The time it takes a support company to respond to issues is an important consideration. Are you happy to wait for a couple of hours for someone to call back, or do you want a response within ten minutes?

The SLA offers a guaranteed level of service and usually states that problems are responded to within a time window. Support providers may be able to demonstrate their typical response times, which gives a good idea as to the quality of service.

Other things you should consider

Hours of cover: The hours of cover should match those of your business. Does this need to include evenings and weekends?

Support for your applications: Support providers take different approaches to application support. Most will support mainstream applications (such as Microsoft Office or Sage) but less common programs may be unsupported. Some support companies will pass the problem to the software provider and liaise with them on their customers’ behalf.

Hardware warranties: A typical support service will only cover the labour part of maintaining the computer network. It’s possible to extend the support contract to include a hardware warranty so replacing broken parts and equipment will be free. Alternatively you can ensure that all equipment is kept under the manufacturer’s warranty and that the support company is aware of this.

Your responsibilities: Whatever level you opt for, you need to remember that you still have certain responsibilities: training your staff and keeping equipment reasonably current and in good working order. Running old equipment ultimately impacts the level of service regardless how good your support company is.

One size fits you

When it comes to IT support, there’s no ‘right’ solution. What you choose will ultimately come down to two factors: how IT-dependent you are and what budget you have. You’ll have to weigh up the relative merits of service level, response time and cost, and choose a solution that’s right for your organisation.

It’s worth remembering that downtime comes at a cost: unhappy customers, lost revenue and frustrated staff. So the basic level of break/fix support is probably just a stopgap solution until you can afford better – it’s certainly not a long-term solution in an increasingly IT-dependent world.
At the end of the day, there are three things you should do.

Recognise the increasing role and value of IT in your company. Decide on your budget and stick to it. And talk to more than one IT support company to get an idea of who’s out there and what’s available.
Then choose the best one.

Matt Kingswood, Head of Managed Services at ITS