What to expect from an IT support contract
By Sian Basker, Herefordshire in Touch
Hopefully if you're reading this you're convinced by the arguments for why your organisation needs an IT support contract. This article explains what to look for in a contract with and IT support company.
Different IT support companies offer different models of support - no two IT support contracts will be exactly the same. However there are certain things you should look out for and expect to find. Contracts should normally set out the support company's expectations of the organisation as well as the support company's responsibilities. The contract should provide a clear indication of:
The period of the contract
It should be clear when the contract starts and ends, payment frequency and what happens in the event either party wishes to terminate the contract (for example can you terminate at any time? Will you get a pro rata refund on the un-expired part of the contract?).
What is required to keep the contract in force
The support provider may stipulate certain conditions the client must fulfil in order to keep the contract in force. For example:
- Payment for contract / other bills to be made in full within a specified period
- Resolution of pre-existing faults
- Client must not make changes systems without prior consent of support company
Other common examples of client responsibilities include:
- Appointing a designated contact and deputy within the organisation (e.g. IT Manager, IT coordinator or someone else with main responsibility for IT in the organisation)
- Housekeeping tasks (e.g. performing daily backups and test them, deleting temporary files, de-fragmenting hard disks etc., downing and restarting servers periodically)
- Providing adequate protection for systems (e.g. protecting servers with an Uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS), installing and using Antivirus Software updated weekly, using a firewall)
- Basic fault identification / troubleshooting to be carried out by the designated contact who will be the first point of contact for staff in the organisation - if the problem cannot be resolved then named staff only to contact the support company (unless prearranged)
- Giving the support company advance warning of any issues prior to site visits
- Designated person / deputy to be available during site visits
Charges and number of support hours the contract covers
Many support companies offer a standard number of hours' support paid for up front by the organisation. The organisation can then pay for extra work needed that exceeds this fixed number of hours, or is outside the scope of support covered by the contract. If you are paying for a fixed number of hours up front, check whether you will be able to carry over any unused hours to the next month, quarter or year. Whatever the pricing structure it should be very clear how much and what you are paying for.
What will be supported?
What equipment is covered?
This can be a written inventory of items of equipment such as PCs, laptops, printers etc. that will be covered under the support contract. The supplier should state clearly whether they will only support equipment that they have provided, or whether / which other equipment will be covered. If there is a limit to the age of equipment that will be supported this should be clearly stated. For example, some companies may not support some equipment such as keyboards, mice etc. that is over 4 years old.Often the cost of providing hardware support for every computer as part of the contract can be prohibitive for smaller organisations - especially as PCs seldom have faults with the actual hardware. You may just want the contract to cover things like servers and printers, and pay on an ad hoc basis as and when PCs develop hardware faults.
What software is covered?
If you have a client server network, you will want to make sure that the support company will support commonly used server software such as Linux, Microsoft Exchange Server 2000, Internet Security and Acceleration Server, Microsoft Back Office Small Business Edition, Antivirus software installed on the server e.g. McAfee Groupshield and Netshield etc.Whether or not you have a client server network, you may also want some support for commonly used desktop software e.g., operating system software (e.g. Windows 98/2000/XP), Microsoft Office, Open Office, Antivirus software etc.
What tasks are covered?
The support contract should set out clearly what tasks will be covered. For example monthly site visits for network configuration and maintenance, telephone support, remote support, software installation, replacement of hardware or components due to failure, disaster recovery etc.
Are home / remote users supported?
As more and more people take up the opportunities for flexible working, this is likely to become increasingly important. If you need to support home users, make sure your prospective IT support provider can do this at a price you can afford.
Many support companies offer different response times depending on the problem. For example they may offer 4-hour response times for problems with the server and longer response times for problems with workstations. Generally speaking, the shorter the response time the more it is likely to cost. Your organisation will need to make a judgement on what would be an acceptable maximum. You will probably want a response time within 4 hours for any failures that affect your core business (e.g. server or email going down). It is important to remember that these are response times and not a guarantee of the time it will take to resolve the problem. Some support companies will also offer a guaranteed "fix time" e.g. 8 hours after the initial response period.
The process for logging support requests
For example there may be a specific number you need to ring during specific hours and you may be required to provide standard information such as: a precise description of the problem, any error messages etc. Requests for support may need to be made only by a designated person or their deputy.
The process for responding to support requests
For example the support company may go through the following steps:
- Attempt to resolve the problem over the phone - they may place a time limit on this for example if the problem is not resolved within 15 minutes, support may be escalated to the next stage
- Attempt to resolve the problem by remote access - it may be a requirement that you allow the support company remote access to your server and PCs. And if this doesn't work:
- A site visit
The contract should also set out the process for escalating faults or dealing with emergencies.
A problem for lots of people who are dealing with IT support companies is getting them to ‘escalate’ the support on offer from a telephone support call to the next stage - remote access or even a site visit. They will generally expect you to do more than you might want to do, or are able to do to solve the issue, as the difference in the their costs of someone on the end of a phone and visiting your site is huge.
To reduce this point of contention:
- Make one person in your organisation the point of contact with the IT support company. This ensures better consistency of communication and generally leads to quicker resolution of the IT problem.
- Ensure that the Service Level Agreement (SLA) includes the process and circumstances that lead to the escalation and who can escalate the support request.
- Ensure you have a copy of the SLA to quote the agreed process to argue the case to escalate.
- Ensure you have carried out your part of the IT support requirements outlined in the SLA.
- Monitor and log what the IT support company does to support your IT over the period of the contract, this will provide evidence on which to base a review when the contract is renewed.
There will always be things that the support contract does not cover. For example many support companies will not clean up after a virus infection as part of the normal contract. You will have to pay for this as an extra. Other things that would often be excluded from standard support contracts include:
- Changes requiring a site visit e.g. setting up new printers, computers, adding new users to the network
- Support for specialist software e.g. accounts, web authoring, desktop publishing, payroll, etc.
- Some older equipment e.g. anything over 5 years old when the contract starts
- Pre-existing faults
- Routine basic maintenance tasks such as de-fragmenting hard disks, cleaning tape heads etc.
- Replacement of failed components on equipment not supplied by the support company
- System upgrades
- Accidental damage / misuse of equipment
- Problems arising because of "alterations" made by the client
Support contracts may also specify other actions that will invalidate the contract for example making changes to hardware or software without the prior agreement of the support company. This is because some changes can have knock on detrimental effects on the system as a whole.
Procedure for resolving complaints and disputes
It is inevitable that from time to time complaints may arise against the support company. The contract should set out clearly what the procedure is for making and resolving complaints against company. In (the hopefully rare) cases where issues cannot be resolved, ideally there should be provision for using independent arbitration if all else fails.
Other things to check
Support contractors should also of course have public liability insurance. You should also check how the quality of work will be monitored. There will also generally be a statement to the effect that the contract will be covered by English (and / or other relevant Law). If you are unclear about any elements of the contract it is worth asking the contractor for clarification in writing.
Thanks to Ethical IT for this Example Support Contract (128kb PDF - requires Adobe Reader available free from the Adobe Website) and Helpdesk Charter (48kb PDF).
Thanks to Sian Basker for contributing to this article. Sian is the ICT Development Manager for Voluntary and Community Sector Herefordshire in Touch Herefordshire Partnership.
For more on IT support see the knowledgebase article "Working with an IT support company".
Published: 30th October 2003 Reviewed: 12th November 2008
Copyright © 2003 Sian Basker, Herefordshire in Touch
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