By Mike Herrington

Small and medium-sized businesses can gain huge organizational benefits from strategically outsourcing their IT. Many small-business owners find themselves spending a lot of hours managing the technology that makes their business run. It can be a burdensome task that keeps them from growing the business and doing what they really love.

Business owners have a few options on how to manage IT. They can tackle it themselves. This takes them away from other important strategic and revenue-generating tasks.

Businesses can hire an “IT guy” hourly to fix things when they break. This is superior to doing it themselves, because presumable the professional has more knowledge and the business owners can be focused on their business. This is called a “break/fix” model for IT.

There are several potential disadvantages to this type of break/fix model. Hourly IT guys aren’t always motivated to work in the business owner’s best interest. They get paid every time something breaks and according to Pavlov that means they’ll be conditioned to let things break. They also don’t typically do much proactive maintenance on the network, which can sometimes lead to bigger problems.

Managed services is an IT support model that offers significant advantages over both of the methods mentioned above. Wikipedia defines managed services as “the practice of outsourcing on a proactive basis, management responsibilities and functions and a strategic method for improving operations and cutting expenses. It appears as an alternative to the break/fix or on-demand outsourcing model where the service provider performs on-demand services and bills the customer only for the work done.”

The idea that managed service providers sell is that they become a true partner to your business. They take the daily management of technology off of your shoulders. They can take over the roles that are typically held by CTO (chief technology officer), system administrators and helpdesk technicians. The benefits can be far reaching. Here are just a few:

• Cost. Money talks. Most businesses that have less than 100 employees can save significant costs outsourcing their IT versus hiring an in-house technician. A Level 1 system administrator in Salt Lake City makes on average $58,425 per year, according to Salary.com. For many businesses, even those with substantial technology needs, paying that salary is just not an option. The cost of owners managing their own IT can be equally high, and while a break/fix model might be a lower cost, the inherent problems can be troublesome.

Managed service providers can typically provide the entire range of IT services — proactive network maintenance, backups and more for a fraction of what a business would pay a full-time employee. According to a ComTIA study, “Forty-six percent of managed IT service users have cut their annual IT costs by 25 percent or more, and 50 percent of managed IT service users have cut their annual IT costs between 1 percent and 24 percent.”

• Experience. In addition to potential costs savings, managed service providers have access to a larger pool of technicians with diverse experience. IT is a very broad field, so the broader knowledge base can be hugely beneficial to businesses in delivering quality service.

• Planning. Strategic planning is another function that managed services firms provide. They can help you to plan hardware life cycles and upcoming projects to eliminate unexpected expenses. They can give you extensive IT reporting that can help eliminate pain points and can even use technology to improve business processes over time.

• Efficiency. Many MSPs have typically invested in extensive IT toolsets, such as remote monitoring and management and patch management tools. These tools help identify, resolve and report on issues quickly and reduce the number of “fires” that arise. This results in less downtime and a better user experience with fewer disruptions.

• Security. Many businesses have security requirements such as HIPAA or SAS70. The security technologies behind these solutions can be a full-time job to manage and compliance can be complicated. MSPs can monitor firewalls and antivirus and ensure that you have the latest patches and updates. With these and other security measures they can ensure that your business is compliant.

• Automation. Most business networks require regular patches and updates from Microsoft. They also have many other types of regular maintenance, such as security updates and backups. Many MSPs have tools that allow them to completely automate these and other routine IT functions. This allows them to be efficient in their labor and offer competitively priced solutions to their clients.

Robert Jensen of HJ and Associates commented on his experience with a local managed service provider. “Many CPA firms our size would rely on a dedicated IT support services staff to provide them with support,” he said. “With our managed-service provider, we have an entire IT team at our disposal. Financially, we would only be able to justify the cost of one full-time technician. However, with an MSP, we have a team that is always available, doesn’t require training and doesn’t take time off. When there is an emergency, we know we have an entire team working to resolve our issues.”

Not all managed services providers are created equal. Business owners should vet them carefully and ensure that they have the necessary expertise, tools, staff and structure to be able to provide quality support. They should look for a provider that is invested in their success and looking to be a real partner.

Mike Herrington is vice president of sales for i.t.NOW, where he consults with business owners on IT solutions and strategy.

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