Working with an IT support company
By Lasa Information Systems Team
Several articles on the Knowledgebase strongly advise organisations to have ICT support from external companies, especially where the technology includes networks and servers. This article provides practical guidance on working with an IT support company.
Like insurance, knowing that you have a competent support contractor to call on in times of need gives a certain amount of peace of mind. But you have to carefully choose the company and the level of support required - and then take your responsibilities seriously - the support contract may not cover everything!
In this article we look at what research you need to undertake before approaching companies, how to recruit a contractor and what your responsibilities are once the contract is in place. This article should be read in conjunction with the Knowledgebase article What to expect from an IT support contract.
Research and requirements
Find out what you have
If you don't already have one, you'll need to draw up an inventory of your equipment and the software that's running on it. See our sample inventory template. If you aren't sure of the specification of the machines then running a small freeware application such as Belarc Advisor on each machine will provide you with a complete list of hardware and software.
Alternatively you can use the online automated inventory tool at Techsurveyor (free registration to use).
Don't forget to include your peripherals like printers and scanners and any network components such as hubs, switches, firewalls, uninterruptible power supplies, ADSL routers, wireless access points, etc.
Work out what your requirements are
Once you've audited your organisation (this will also be useful if you have an annual financial audit or are arranging contents insurance), you then need to decide what you want covered under a support agreement. This might be based on a number of factors including:
- The age of your equipment - older equipment may be more likely to fail and therefore might warrant being covered by a contract - but really old equipment might be worth less than the amount required (typically £80 - £120) to support it. If PCs are less than three years old and under manufacturers warranty, do you want to also cover them under a support contract or rely on the manufacturer to fix the hardware if it fails? Larger organisations with bigger budgets or perhaps remote workers who are dependant on their PC might consider this.
- Is there someone in-house who has certain IT skills which might negate some of the need for external support? If the contact person in the organisation can do basic Windows and peripherals troubleshooting, for example, maybe you can get away with only supporting the things they can't - although it is probably advisable to have an arrangement whereby anything they can't fix can be done by the support company either by buying support hours upfront or having a call-out pay-as-you-go arrangement.
- The software you are running - specialist software such as accounts and database packages may have its own support arrangements provided by the suppliers or developers, normally a phone helpline. It is usually better to rely on them than getting a third party involved.
- Complexity of your systems - if you have a client server network then you'll appreciate that without the server your organisation may well not be able to do anything!
Draft a requirements specification
This needn't be a mammoth document! Don't be overly concerned about being technical. Make sure that it includes:
- A brief overview of your organisation and IT
- The list of the equipment and software you want covered - the contractor may also want to know about the network infrastructure - is it category 5 cabling or wireless?
- What you expect the contract to cover - e.g. do you want a regular monthly visit to check the machines out or only when things go wrong?
- Specific response times i.e. the time you expect a contractor to respond by either returning your call or visiting site (these will vary between contractors and also for different items of equipment)
- Anything out of the ordinary (if you are on a number of sites, for example, you'll need to list them)
- Remote access - do you want the support contractor to be able to dial-in to your server to fix problems or possibly "shadow" users - many contractors now offer this service.
Use your networks and contacts to ask for recommendations
Whilst you could use the Yellow Pages to find certain services, in the same way that you might choose a builder or plumber, you'll probably be better off by basing your search on word-of-mouth or published sources. Try the Suppliers Directory, and ask other organisations in your area or within your network. Your local CVS may also be able to help. You might also want to look at IT For Charities Network Suppliers and Hardware suppor page.
Come up with a shortlist
Give the companies a call. See how they react - if you have to leave a message and they don't get back to you for three days then maybe that's not the company you want to support you! Select three or four to contact.
Send out your requirements
Depending on the size of your organisation, support companies will probably want to visit your site to see what your set-up is like. It also helps for you to see them face-to-face. Just like any interview if you don't get on then it's probably not good to get into what is essentially a business relationship. When they're on site, see if you can judge their attitude, perhaps mention a specific problem you're having and see how they react. Ask them for references of organisations they currently support.
If the contractor is to have access to your data, directly or remotely, then you might wish to consider drawing up a confidentiality agreement with them. The Data Protection Act, under which your organisation should be registered, requires that there must be a contract 'made or evidenced in writing' between the Data Controller (your organisation) and the Data Processor (your support company). See the website of The Information Commissioner's Office for more information on data protection issues.
It may possible that you could supervise the contractor so they can only gain access to your network for certain periods if, for example, fixing a problem. The access could then be disabled. From a data protection and confidentiality point of view this is preferable, but if you only have one person who knows how to activate the account and something goes wrong when they're not around then it could be counterproductive. Talk to the contractor about this.
Assess their quotes and contract conditions
Compare the quotations that they send back - again you can tell how keen a company is by how quickly they respond with a quote and how accurately it reflects your needs. Check carefully the conditions of the contract - see the knowledgebase article What to expect from an IT support contract.
Bear in mind that the cheapest might not be the best! Make sure you understand how the charging system works - different contractors have different schemes and you might need to do some calculations based on average use over a year to work out how they stack up. Follow up the references that the company has supplied.
Forewarned is forearmed!
Appoint your contractor!
You'll probably have to sign an agreement - it may also be called a Maintenance Contract or a Service Level Agreement. Make sure you keep a copy of it safely.
Just because you have a support contract doesn't mean you do not have to take care of the basic administrative tasks - indeed, most contractors will expect you to carry out a number of activities on a regular basis - these are detailed in What to expect from an IT support contract, however it is worth reiterating some of them here.
Appoint a contact person
Have one person who is the main contact with the support company. They will normally be the staff member who has responsibility for the IT in the organisation and is most familiar with the systems, hardware and software. In this way you build up a relationship with the support company - if they are constantly taking calls from different staff members then it will probably exacerbate the situation. Also, there might be one person appointed at the company to deal with you so once they start to work with you they will build up a knowledge of your systems.
Set up a support process
This needn't be complicated! It's worth having a policy that lets staff know what to do when they have a problem with their PC - usually that they contact the responsible staff member who assesses whether it's something they can sort out themselves, whether they can obtain phone support to resolve it, or if a visit by the support contractor is necessary. Possibly it will be a combination of all of these, depending on the severity.
Log all support issues
A simple fault logging system will help keep track of what problems the organisation is having. Main headings to include are:
- Support company called (time/date) - where necessary
- Who fixed it (staff member/support company rep.)
- What was done to resolve the problem
- How long did it take
This not only helps build up a picture of the IT issues and problems but also helps with resolving issues in the future. If you've managed to fix a tricky Windows driver issue and it reoccurs, a quick scan through the log will point you in the right direction and may result in not having to call out the support company. This, in turn, helps skill-up the staff and could have cost saving implications - if you're not having to call out your support company so often then you're perhaps not using up so many hours…
Your support company may also provide you with their own log sheet which they will ask you to sign - you should keep these safely for your records. It may help if there is a dispute…
No one can anticipate everything that might go wrong with your IT. But regular attention to your systems will help keep the problems to a minimum. Main things to do:
- Make sure your Antivirus is up to date (and don't rely on scheduled updates to always work - check the PCs) and run a full system scan occasionally
- carry out housekeeping (see Knowledgebase article on Good Housekeeping) such as disc clean up, defragmenting etc.
- patch operating systems and apply service packs as necessary
- install anti-adware/spyware applications
- check the event logs, especially on servers; subscribe to technical support lists which may alert you to potential virus issues, for example
- keep an eye on hard drives and how full they are getting, and encourage regular clean ups of out of date files.
Keep your inventory up to date
If you purchase new equipment, make sure that the support contract will cover it and that the contractor knows you have it - small additions may not make an impact on the contract but a full-scale PC replacement will!
However large or small your organisation is, and however much ICT equipment you have, at some time something is probably going to go wrong. Having a good support company at the end of the phone can make it considerably less stressful for the ICT administrator - and for the rest of the staff.
Published: 6th November 2003 Reviewed: 25th April 2006
Copyright © 2003 Lasa Information Systems Team