Three Steps an SMB Should Take to Get The Most from Its MSP

Whenever a business works with an outside service provider, challenges inevitably arise. Vendor relationships don’t usually automatically just work as effectively as possible. Typically, planning and effort are required. This truth is particularly applicable to small and medium businesses (SMBs) working with outside information technology (IT) partners, including managed service providers (MSPs) that often fulfill a wide range of technology responsibilities—including user and desktop support, cloud services, hardware procurement, application support, network management, cybersecurity protections and server administration. 

Whether seeking to responsibly manage expenses, enhance productivity, enable new capabilities, better organize and coordinate operations, introduce efficiencies or improve specific results, here are three steps your SMB should take to ensure its receives the best results from its MSP. 

Set and Maintain Clear Expectations

Perhaps the most important step your business can take when working with a vendor is setting clear goals and expectations. There should be no confusion regarding the relationship’s objectives and purpose. 

When accommodating the myriad technology demands contemporary workplaces require, there’s almost always a need to prioritize initiatives and corresponding elements. A balance must be struck considering the many various tasks and responsibilities that must be managed at any given moment. While those burdens apply whether your SMB is working with an accounting group, bank, law firm or other professional services outfit, partnering with a technology services firm is an even more complex endeavor that places additional pressures on the relationship. 

Consider all the operational responsibilities technology providers fulfill and the impact each potentially has on your SMB’s daily operations, cash flow, production and profitability: 

  • Email and messaging administration 
  • Internet and network connectivity and performance management 
  • Telephony operations 
  • User administration and support 
  • Server and patch management 
  • Cybersecurity protections 
  • Website operations 
  • E-commerce capabilities 
  • Application development, maintenance and support 
  • Disaster planning and recovery 
  • Cloud services 
  • Procurement and provisioning 

Only by setting clear goals and assigning specific performance metrics can your organization ensure its service and performance expectations are effectively communicated to its technology service partner and properly understood. Objective metrics, often described as key performance indicators (KPIs), provide additional value in that they define specific performance objectives and are measurable. MSPs can provide analytic reports to definitively demonstrate, with no emotion or subjectivity, whether those goals are being met. 

Examples of KPIs SMBs commonly request and implement with MSPs to encourage proper operations, track performance and confirm the vendor relationship remains healthy include:  

  • Network uptime – A measurement of the time a network is up and operating properly. 
  • Mean time to respond, or response time – The average time the MSP requires to begin working a service request or problem. 
  • Mean time to repair, or resolution time – The average time required to resolve service requests and issues. 
  • First call resolution – The percentage of service requests resolved after the first service call. 
  • Patch management compliance – The percentage of devices compliant with the prescribed patch goal. 
  • Antivirus coverage – The percentage of systems and devices possessing current antimalware protection. 
  • Backup success – The rate at which data backups are succeeding versus failing. 
  • Security incidents – The overall number of reported cybersecurity incidents. 
  • Client satisfaction ratings – The rating the SMB’s users provide the services they receive from the technology provider. 
  • Technical staff utilization – The percentage of time the MSP’s technical staff members are utilized servicing client projects. 
  • Ticket volume – The number of newly created service tickets, the number of resolved tickets and the number of tickets overdue for resolution. 
  • Service Level Agreement (SLA) compliance – The rate at which the MSP is addressing and resolving tickets and maintaining network uptime compared to previously determined commitments. 

By setting hard and fast commitments, and by regularly reporting and reviewing the MSP’s continual performance, your SMB can help ensure its technology goals are being met and service remains within required parameters. Thanks to the employment of objective performance measurements, both MSPs and SMBs benefit by being able to discuss any potential issues and frustrations using unemotional and objective metrics, which can be further compared to industry standards to help ensure expectations remain reasonable on both sides. 

Prioritize Continual Communication

Another important step your business should adopt when working with any vendor is investing in healthy, continual communication. Due to the nuances and complexities associated with managing IT infrastructure, and the importance technologies fulfill powering daily production and operations, this is a particularly critical step for your SMB to prioritize when working with an MSP. 

Neither party should be left guessing as to whether expectations are being met, service is being provided as needed, products and services are operating as intended and capabilities match requirements. Neither should there be any confusion regarding projects proceeding as anticipated and according to predetermined budgets. 

Talking regularly, even informally over text or by instant message, can pay significant dividends managing expectations, resolving roadblocks and maintaining a constructive relationship. There’s still no substitute, though, for meeting in person or via virtual meetings, such as when key contacts are traveling or working from different locations. 

Conducting regular if even informal meetings to discuss roles, processes and results is important and assists maintaining forward momentum. Further, also performing formal quarterly reviews, holding routine operations consultations and dedicating time to coordinating project status meetings all go a long way helping prevent small problems from multiplying and morphing into larger, more intractable issues. Such meetings are also necessary to keep complex projects on track, confirm consensus when changes and adjustments are required and ensure discrepancies are promptly addressed and resolved. 

Such communication should be open and honest. Your organization will be best served when it does not delay delivering difficult news or information. The sooner problems are surfaced and resolved, the better. Avoiding conflict only delays the inevitable and enables difficulties to grow in size and scale. This is an especially potent problem when important and complex technologies are in play. Timely and constructive feedback is one of the single most important processes in determining a vendor’s success, including MSPs, so your organization should prioritize continual communication. 

Fortunately, not all meetings must be pressured-filled and intense. There’s nothing wrong with meeting for lunch and enjoying a meal together. If such conferences permit mutual brainstorming, provide an opportunity to gauge and confirm the relationship’s status, address important issues and answer questions, it’s time well spent. In fact, lunch meetings often introduce an informality that makes it easier for attendees to relax, speak freely and work cooperatively to build a stronger partnership. 

 Invest in a long-term relationship

Partnerships that build and grow over time tend to provide the most reward. Just as obtaining a new customer is more expensive than retaining an existing client, establishing a long-term vendor relationship is typically more constructive than repeatedly cycling through service providers, a process that can prove both expensive and disruptive. 

 Numerous advantages are commonly associated with building long-term vendor relationships. They include: 

  • Continual performance and productivity improvements as a vendor learns your organization’s unique needs. 
  • Constructive knowledge transfer that assists your vendor in better understanding and empowering your organization’s success more cost effectively. 
  • Increased trust that breads your vendor’s goodwill and willingness to compromise. 
  • Reduced switching costs resulting from your organization no longer needing to continually evaluate new vendors, services and products and establish new relationships. 

This is not new news. A 2020 Harvard Business Review article warns against abusing vendors, viewing service partners as easily replaceable and maintaining distance within such relationships.  While noting those approaches previously helped manage expenses, the article confirms vendors are now more likely to be individual contributors or small professional teams that can have outsized impact on your organization’s operations. Instead of beating up on partners, the piece recommends treating vendors like employees and viewing negotiations as win-win scenarios, sentiments supported by numerous other writings on the subject. 

Of course, it’s important your organization chooses the right MSP, too, one that’s invested in learning your SMB’s needs and requirements and developing and implementing solutions within a matching budget. It’s also important the MSP understands and respects your SMB’s culture and proves a good fit, not a painful and poorly grafted addition. 

In its own article on methods for getting the most out of your managed service provider, CIO Magazine recommends seeking a partner, not just a provider. The publication popular among business executives includes a quote from a technology management consulting firm founder stating businesses should “want an MSP that’s not just interested in standard break/fix approaches, but also strategic planning for your business to ensure that you stay competitive.” 

Subsequently, strive to establish a long-term partnership. Time and energy lost repeatedly bringing another technology partner up to speed robs efficiencies and jeopardizes productivity and morale. 

Organizations that frequently change vendors should ask hard questions regarding why multiple partners have proven unsuccessful. Is it possible the SMB’s needs, expectations and budget are experiencing a serious mismatch? 

As previously noted, set objective metrics that can be used to unemotionally measure the partner’s success, and schedule regular meetings and reviews to confirm service and support are working as both parties intend. These steps pay dividends by encouraging and building healthy and constructive long-term partnerships. 

Need Help Improving your Technology Services and Support?

If your SMB is struggling to build a constructive and productive relationship with a technology provider, let us know. You can reach Louisville Geek by calling 502-897-7577 or emailing [email protected]. We’re happy to review your organization’s goals and propose options for best addressing your needs.