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Pick a partner: What to avoid and what to look for in an IT vendor

MSP cloud technology
(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/everything possible)

With investment in IT services by UK businesses soaring to the tune of nearly 4 billion, it’s clear the allure of cost-effective IT resources and an emerging pay-as-you-use model is gripping companies during challenging times.

But, with contract terms and price points of vendors varying – and the market growing - there are important parameters to consider when entering the IT vendor market.

In this article, Vikki Durden, Head of Operations at UK IT Service, outlines the attributes businesses should look for – and steer clear of – when choosing an IT vendor.

Putting you first

It may sound obvious but identifying your IT priorities and partnering with a provider which puts your needs first will ensure you get the most from the service. This may mean not always choosing the vendor offering the cheapest service.

Although cost and convenience may influence your decision, they aren’t the be-all and end-all. Depending on the service your business provides or the commerce it sells, responsiveness and flexibility will be key, helping you respond to rapidly arising opportunities.

Be honest when approaching vendors to help them understand your business model and expectations. Suggest possible avenues for integrating alongside your in-house IT team and raise questions over areas you suspect their offering may be limited in helping you meet your needs.

For example, e-commerce businesses operating globally may require round-the-clock support to help fix problems – even outside of typical UK working hours. Even a few minutes of downtime can cost businesses thousands in lost conversions.

Often, vendors will be willing to negotiate on deliverables like working hours and contract terms in order to secure the retainer.

Some businesses will also prioritize harmony between their current team and an outsourced third-party to ensure speed and efficiency across projects. This may mean dividing projects between teams to avoid speedbumps in sign-off and should be agreed up-front.

When reviewing potential vendors, agreeing on SLAs and KPIs in advance not only provides clarity to the new working arrangement but acts as a reference point for ongoing work and evaluating performance.

Uncomplicating communication

Proximity to vendors also puts businesses in a stronger position to nurture relations with activities like team-building exercises, thank-you meals and even allowing your dedicated IT manager to work from your office when needed.

Opening up a clear dialogue from the outset is essential in building a long-lasting relationship – almost every breakdown in business relations can be traced back to weaknesses in communication – whether in confusion over KPIs or businesses failing to align their goals.

Strong communication skills and access to the right channels to facilitate immediate and professional contact goes a long way in helping firms stay on the same page going forward.

Those who communicate poorly or unprofessionally in the proposal stage – when they’re trying to secure business – are unlikely to meet your standards once they’ve secured the retainer.

Responsiveness is a trait that should be high on the list, too. Look for vendors with a demonstrable track record of delivering ‘above-and-beyond’ customer service by asking for case studies and testimonials from previous clients.

While securing flexibility and responsiveness may see businesses paying slightly over the odds, it is a minor cost compared with suffering extended periods of downtime due to slow service.

Proactivity is also a good indicator of how well a vendor will handle emergencies, as well as managing day-to-day tasks, so take note of those who go the extra mile to demonstrate a willingness to learn more about your business and show what they can do.

When it comes to maintaining a positive working relationship, some businesses value a local presence. The ability to schedule meetings and catch-ups to streamline communication is simpler if when the vendor is close by.

Compliance is key

As businesses continue to move more processes online, it opens up more points of attack on their sensitive data and systems. So, it’s essential, when evaluating suppliers, you factor in their security credentials, to give you the peace of mind of knowing you’re data is in safe hands.

On average, UK businesses lose almost £3 million per year as a result of data breaches – not to mention fines from the UK government of up to £17 million for non-compliance to data regulations – so, closing off any backdoor access points for criminals cannot be overlooked.

Many IT vendors specialize in cybersecurity and data protection – or at least employ dedicated professionals who make light work of these tasks. While businesses may have skilled IT staff in-house already, in most cases, it isn’t their job to stay on top of the latest cybersecurity threats, which can change by the day. By outsourcing these complex and time-consuming tasks to specialists, it frees up internal IT staff to focus on their man responsibilities.

Not only do IT vendors have the potential to keep your business’ confidential data secure but they can even work together with your in-house team to educate them on how to take a security-first approach to IT projects.

Evaluate the credentials of the providers on your shortlist, keeping note of their awards and accolades, individual qualifications, and business accreditations and don’t be afraid to ask the vendor for a rundown of their emergency procedures and steps for handling a potential breach.

A look to the future

Despite many common misconceptions about IT vendors – mainly that they should be used only for remedial bug fixes and troubleshooting errors – with the right fit, they represent a viable long-term business strategy.

The option of low-cost, scalable services means SMEs, who often have access to limited cash flow, can deliver services and viably compete with larger businesses.

This is something that SMEs traditionally wouldn’t have had access to, due to the rising costs of employee overheads including hiring, onboarding and training.

Emerging vendors provide businesses with the knowledge and resources to grow their IT environment – from infrastructure and cybersecurity to system upgrades and transformation projects.

It is important businesses are able to partner with a provider which shares their ambition. They don’t simply fix issues when called upon but proactively audit the IT environment and make suggestions to develop it, for example migrating to a new cloud system.

When assessing providers, businesses should choose one which specializes in the areas that makes sense for them in terms of growth and compliance.

To identify where they should be investing, it’s suggested to conduct an audit, covering security, infrastructure, and digitization, to identify any weak points and areas for improvement in the current environment.

These should then be aligned with general business targets to reveal which specialisms businesses should be looking at – for example, a vendor which specializes in digital transformation for those with an outdated environment or one which offers unbeatable cybersecurity services for those handling large amounts of data.

Vikki Durden, Head of Operations, UK IT Service

Vikki Durden, Head of Operations at UK IT Service.