One of the realities of using computing technology in business is that it requires a commitment on the part of the business to establish an effective support and maintenance programme. Such a programme is vital if the operational benefits afforded by technology are to be truly realised.
The single point of contact
An important point to bear in mind when developing a support and maintenance programme for your servers, client devices, peripherals (printers, scanners, etc) and software is to minimise wherever possible the number of support providers. In partnering with a provider who can deliver acceptable levels of support for multiple technologies in use throughout your business, it’s possible to gain a number of distinct benefits.
Primary among those benefits are reduced costs and a single point of contact for support. When technology problems occur, the last thing you need is to be faced with support providers fobbing you off by stating the problem lies outside their area(s) of responsibility. With a single provider supporting your hardware and software, it’s one call regardless of what’s causing the problem.
The single point of contact, though, brings with it an important point to bear in mind – ensuring the provider has the skillsets and/or certifications required to support the various components of your technology infrastructure.
While the Web and telephone are ideal tools with which to start researching and paring down your list of possible support providers, initial shopping around by telephone is a fairly good method of paring down the list of possible support providers, it’s absolutely essential that representatives from the final list actually visit your site. These are the ones who will generally take the time to do a quick audit of your systems, creating a detailed list of hardware and software that is likely to be covered by any support agreement.
A definite benefit arising from the on-site audit is that the support provider gains a better understanding of specific software support requirements. Aside from the fact that this will dramatically shorten problem resolution times, it can easily result in valuable and timely advice from the provider on important upgrades and complementary technologies.
To be frank, a support provider who simply takes down details over the phone and commits to support your infrastructure without checking first-hand what’s required is demonstrating a fairly low level of commitment right from the start.
In your language
When browsing the market to select a suitable support provider, ensure you locate one who’s able to communicate with you at your level. The last thing you need is for a support engineer who is unwilling – or unable – to tell you succinctly what’s wrong and what’s needed to fix it.
Flashback: I remember as a young soldier being told by a Sergeant that: “Bull**** baffles brains. It doesn’t matter how lousy a soldier you are, gleaming boots and razor-sharp creases in the uniform will convince anyone that you’re definitely the next one in line for promotion.”
The fact is that there are IT support providers who will apply that same philosophy in order to gain your business. It’s up to you to cut through the veneer and discover for yourself just how effective the relationship between any supplier and your business is likely to be. Here’s an important tip: If you feel that the supplier is trying to baffle your brains with bovine droppings, look elsewhere. What you’re after is a support provider who can:
1. provide you with a list of client references
2. explain their services to you in easily understood language
3. demonstrate a firm commitment to working with your business
4. show accreditations relating directly to support offerings
5. offer a support team with experience in supporting the technologies used in your business.
Here’s something that a lot of small businesses overlook when selecting an IT support provider – support hours. If your business operates shifts that fall outside of normal business hours, then it’s crucial your support provider can deliver support covering your operational times.
In some cases, providers afford their customers telephone-based support out-of-hours and have emergency service engineers on standby. Just bear in mind, though, that this easily be considered as being beyond agreed support terms and end up costing you a substantial amount of money. This is another case where it pays to check the fine print.
Depending of the support provider, you may well be presented with a number or combination of support options from which to choose. These might include:
On-site Server Maintenance: This would typically involve a server engineer periodically attending to your server(s) on-site, ensuring security and application fixes/patches are up-to-date, security log items are addressed, e-mail folders are within acceptable size limits, etc.
Helpdesk Support: Many hardware and software faults can be fixed quickly and easily over the phone. A number of support providers have their own call centres where personnel work with customers on problem resolution by “talking through” issues and solutions.
Remote Monitoring: Proactive support and maintenance is one of the most valuable support strategies – identifying problems before they occur. With remote monitoring tools, providers use the Internet to establish and maintain an around-the-clock watch on the performance and health of various systems. This can also include remote management, where the support personnel log on remotely to your servers and/or client computers to fix problems, upload and apply patches, etc.
An extremely important caveat to everything discussed in this document are vendor-imposed restrictions to the use of third-party support. In the majority of cases, computers and peripherals such as printers, scanners and even mice are sold with warrantees that are void in situations where unauthorised repairs have been carried out.
What you should be doing, though, is maintaining a record of warranty expiry dates and make an early decision as to whether you intend to purchase ongoing support plans from the vendor or opt for a reputable third-party alternative.