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Choosing an MSP? Think “partner”, not “supplier”

Posted by Alfie McDonald on June 1st 2022

As someone who’s been in the IT services business for a good 20 years, I’ve seen up close most, if not all, of the challenges organisations face. It could be growing pains or product or service issues. It could be business intelligence, inventory management, or supply-chain related. Or it could be about culture, compliance or competitors or 100 other issues. But one thing I have noticed is how steeped and invested many organisations become in particular technologies and services.

However, because of the pace of technological change, in just a few years they unwittingly become blind to what else is available in the market, or indeed, what’s possible. Inevitably, they lose sight of what “good” looks like. A type of technological inertia sets in where it becomes easier to just maintain, fix or patch what they have in the here and now than it does to step back and look at the bigger picture or future roadmap.

But that’s only half the story, because the managed service providers (MSPs) selling them technology are often guilty of short-sightedness by only focusing on solving the immediate problem. They go in, sell a bit of technology, some managed services, a few licenses, and a support contract perhaps, without thinking about what’s best for the customer in the long-term. Yes, they might solve the immediate problem, but what will be the impact of their solution in say three, five, or 10 years’ time? Put another way, where’s the long-term IT strategy?


Partner Politics


As a business leader myself, I know first-hand that for an IT strategy to succeed, it has to align with an organisation’s medium and long-term business objectives. I also know an IT strategy takes a good deal of specialist knowledge, experience, and expertise to develop. Which is why it’s critical to work with an IT “partner” rather than a “supplier” that you can develop a deeper and more meaningful relationship with. A partner who can help you look to the future, focus on the bigger picture, take advantage of opportunities to innovate and, ultimately, ensure you have the right IT to achieve you’re short, near, and long-term objectives.

But how do you go about choosing the right managed service provider (MSP) to partner with? Especially in a market where most of them can tell a very similar story about what they offer? Well, I think there are three key things you need to pay special attention to.


1) Competence: how core is it?


The First thing I’d advise is to look beyond an MSP’s list of kitemarks, accreditations and certifications. Don’t get me wrong, these are fundamental factors, but equally important is whether they have a core competence in the wider context of what you’re trying to achieve as a business. After all, you’re looking to invest in an outcome, not just a technology or service.

For example, you might be a new business launching in a hyper-competitive market such as retail. You might be divesting from a public sector organisation to become a private company, or you might be a private wealth management company merging with a larger organisation.

The key thing you need to know is how capable an MSP is at understanding your business objectives and how you can use IT to reach them. What opportunities, benefits, risks, and challenges do they see for your business? What expertise, and experience do they have helping organisations, for example, to restructure, to grow, or to be more competitive, to operate more efficiently? At this early stage, these kinds of questions are far more important than how many in-house Azure specialists they have, or how big their support desk is.

Do they have experience innovating between sectors or size of organisation? If you’re an SME could they repurpose enterprise-grade technology to work on a smaller scale for you? A case in point: at BCN, we’ve taken complex solutions for large corporates and simplified, trimmed, and automated them for smaller organisations with great success.

Of course, bespoke is typically the best path, but don’t be afraid to ask prospective MSP partners if they have repeatable IP they’ve developed for one organisation that your business could take advantage of. In fact, when you’ve cut your teeth developing applications for 15 years as we have at BCN, it’s amazing how often you can reuse IP to innovate across different sectors, industries and verticals.


2) Process: it’s where progress happens


The second thing I’d advise is to look closely at a potential partner’s process – especially in the context of capturing your business needs. Many MSPs start by sending in the technical team to evaluate your technological requirements. But, as I alluded to earlier, how can you evaluate what’s required technically if you don’t have a firm grasp of the underlying business, its issues, its challenges, or its strategic direction. You can’t.

At the risk of blowing BCN’s own trumpet, we’ve invested heavily in both Business Analysis  and Technical Architect teams. It’s their job to get under the skin of a business, to understand how it works, it’s processes and workflows, and to map these out before we even start thinking about the technology. It still amazes me how few MSPs do this as a matter of course, but if you don’t how can you possibly hope to understand where the business wants to go, what an MVP might look like, or how long it will take to get there? Again, you can’t.

When we send our experts in they’ll typically develop a comprehensive report based on their own observations, but also on the understanding they’ve gained at all levels of the business – from Heads of Departments to new joiners.

It’s this report we use to identify key issues and challenges and it’s this report that informs the laser-focused IT strategy we develop to help the business identify its priorities, highlight quick wins, and implement the specific technology outcomes it needs to achieve its wider business objectives. If your “partner” isn’t doing this, it’s time to ask them why not?


3) People: technically astute, commercially aware


There’s an an adage that technical people aren’t always the best at communicating or talking about complex ideas in a way that’s simple for laypeople to digest or understand. But there’s real magic in having people who can do both. And at the risk of plugging BCN again, we’ve invested a lot of time and effort into recruiting, training and upskilling our people through our “Teach a Techie” initiative and our recently launched BCN Academy.

In fact, we’re now at the point where we’ve built a senior team of business analysts, technical architects, project managers, and developers with the right mix of commercial and technical skills. So they understand the business outcomes you’re aiming for as much as the technology solutions required to achieve them.

So how do you get a feel for the people you might be working with? Well, in my experience you can tell an awful lot about a company just by calling their sales line. Why? Because it’s a good indicator of a company’s culture, its processes, how its managed, and, therefore, how you can expect to be treated as a customer. Do they ask the right questions, do they take the right information, do they call back when they say they will?

We know this is important because some of the customers we partner with have told us they chose us because of the experience they had from that very first call. As the cliché goes, “you don’t get a second chance to make a first impression”, which is why we place great stock in recruiting and training the right people for the right roles. So, my advice is don’t trust referrals alone, pick up the phone and follow an MSP’s process and you’ll have a good glimpse into what life will be like as a customer.


Last word


So there you have it, three pieces of advice I’d give any organisation looking to work with an MSP. At the end of the day, investing in an open, honest partnership always leads to a deeper relationship, more innovative long-term solutions (built on a strong IT strategy) and, ultimately, better business outcomes.

To find out more who we are, what we do, and who for, head over to BCN Group

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