Getting IT support from an IT support provider

Need some help with your IT? Many practices use an external IT support provider to fill the in-house skills gap.

Here are three key steps you can take to find and work with a good provider.

Step 1: Make a list of your technology and support needs

The more information the provider has, the better they can understand your needs. Here’s what you should include.

A list of the technology used in your practice

First, it’s important to know what technology you already have. This includes all of your equipment, programs, and systems you may use.

If you don’t already have a detailed list, the options are to:

  • develop your own list (in detail)
  • get help from an IT-savvy staff member, or from an external organisation, or
  • develop a rough list and ask your provider to build a detailed list as one of their first tasks.

A review of your requirements

Next, take a look at your asset list. You can review what you have and what sort of help you may need, based on the type of technology and the number of staff you have. Here are some starter questions:

  • How old is our equipment? Older equipment is more likely to fail and need attention, so if it is cheaper than extending the warranty or replacing the computer, you may choose to pay for support. For equipment still under warranty, you may choose not to pay for support
  • Do you have remote or mobile workers? In this case, you might consider paying for PC and laptop support. It is likely you will need support for the methods of remote access to ensure they keep working and are secure
  • Do we have anyone in-house with IT skills? Someone with skills in-house may be able to do some of the basic IT support tasks, meaning you will only need an external contractor for more complex issues
  • What programs do we use? You will have specialist software (such as clinical and payroll systems) and they will have their own support agreement in place through their licence, which is best to keep in place.
  • Do you have a server network? If you do, it needs support: without it your organisation will grind to a halt.

If you’re still unsure, a good provider will be able to help you work through these and other questions to make sure you get the right level of support for your practice.

A Service Level Agreement (SLA)

Finally, it's time to look at the level of service you would expect from an IT support provider. This needn't be a huge document, nor particularly technical. The guide "What to look for in an IT contract" will give you some ideas about what a support contract will cover. Make sure your requirements include:

  • a brief overview of your practice and its ICT – enough to give a high level understanding of what your practice exists to “do”, its scale, its complexity, and how critical ICT is for day-to-day operations. Include the number of sites you operate from
  • the privacy and security protections – training and support is needed to help secure the systems. There needs to be a process for monitoring security. The agreement should also specify compliance with the Australian Privacy Principles
  • the list of the equipment and software you want covered. This may also include your network infrastructure
  • the cover you want for each type of equipment, software and service. This may vary from break/fix service for faulty PCs, to managing server backups, adding new users, ensuring software is kept up to date, and a whole range of other support
  • the time it should take the supplier to respond when you have a request. Include acknowledging your request, attending (either in person or remotely) to the issue, and resolving the request. The times will vary for different items of equipment, systems and services. Costs vary dramatically between very short and longer timeframes and whether you need service just during office hours or at any time (24x7). It is worth being flexible and discussing the options with potential suppliers
  • remote access - do you want the support organisation to be able to remotely access your server(s) and computers to fix problems
  • a formal help desk process - if you want one - for logging calls, tracking progress and providing regular reporting including the status of systems such as servers and backups
  • a regular meeting to review the previous period, discuss the next period, and keep the provider up to date with your plans. Meetings could be anything between monthly to annually and will depend on the size and complexity of your ICT environment
  • a request for references. Try to get references from practices like your own, with similar number of employees, budget and security requirements.

Step 2: Finding and recruiting an IT support provider

Once you know what your IT support needs are, the next step is to find potential IT support providers, discuss how they can support you and then recruit them.

Identify potential suppliers

Word of mouth is one of the best ways to find a good IT provider, so ask other practices who they’ve used. You can always try traditional directories or search engines too. Remember, you don’t always have to find someone local – these days, a lot of support can be provided remotely and over the phone.

Shortlist your suppliers

Contracting an IT support provider is like hiring a staff member: as well as looking good on paper they need to be a good match for your culture. Ask each provider to come into your practice and take a look at your setup. Talk to them about your priorities and any problems you’re having. Do they listen and do they really get what you’re saying? Do they offer suggested improvements that are helpful and demonstrate they really understand? Have they been responsive and easy to contact, because if not, this is unlikely to improve once you start working with them. You may be working with this organisation for years so make sure it’s going to be a good relationship.

Consider the proposals and check referees

Ask each of your shortlist – provided you’re happy with them in person – to provide a quotation for meeting your support requirements. Carefully check the proposals, quotes and any draft contracts you’re sent: see What to look for in an ICT support contract for more detail.

Don’t necessarily go for the cheapest option. Make sure you understand how the charging system works - different suppliers 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. Factor in extra charges such as travel, after hours and so on. 

Before making the final decision, contact at least two referees for each supplier (it might also be worth searching online for reviews, as most companies will only provide referees they know will say positive things).

Step 3: Working with your IT support organisation

Unfortunately, just because you have a support contract doesn't mean you can wash your hands of all IT work. Your contract should be clear about the tasks which remain your responsibility. It may include all or none of the below: 

  • Decide on a contact person – choose someone with an understanding of IT, and make them the sole contact for the provider so you and they have consistent information.
  • Set up a support process – make sure staff know who to contact when they have questions, need something done, or when something goes wrong.
  • Keep track of when you’ve requested support – have a standard format (your support provider may provide a log sheet, web portal etc) for recording issues and requests. At a minimum this will include a description of the issue, when the request was logged and the time and date it was solved. The log will give you insight both into your recurring problems and how well your support organisation is performing.
  • Do simple tasks yourselves – if the provider has left you with responsibility for some issues, such as keeping anti-virus software up-to-date, make sure these tasks are carried out.
  • Update your inventory – let the support company know if you plan to buy new equipment or install new software to make sure it is compatible with your environment and they can support it effectively.

Build and maintain the relationship

Meet regularly (every three, six or 12 months depending on the complexity and rate of change in your practice) with your IT support provider to discuss the current situation and your plans. These meetings will be well worth the investment even if you have to pay your support company’s hourly rate.

You will get the most out of your provider if they understand your practice and know about your plans. Don’t keep them at arm’s length. It is important to keep them informed about your plans, especially if your requirements are changing. That way their support and advice is provided within the context of that understanding and should be far more relevant and helpful. This does take time and a commitment from both parties, but it is time well spent.

What's next?

Ready to engage an external IT contractor? Have a look at the article "What to look for in an IT contract" as a starting point for making sure your contract with your IT provider covers your needs.