service level agreements Tag

Selecting a Cloud Services Provider

The choice of a cloud provider can determine the success or failure of your project. When researching potential cloud providers it is critical to look behind brand and market share to be sure the services they deliver fit you needs for the time frame you need them. A great company may provide a great service, but it may not fit you needs today or it may not be able to adapt to your needs as they change. Here are a few thoughts to aid when evaluating cloud providers:

  1. Demonstrated expertise in the specific services you need – Look for a provider with deep knowledge and experience delivering the specific service you need. Some cloud providers are generalists and that may be OK if your needs are not specific, but if you are primarily looking to the cloud to deploy a specific application, them look for a provider with experience deploying and hosting that application. If you need a specific service like storage or disaster recovery, then look for a provider that specializes in those services. Ask prospective service providers for a list of engagements with your proposed project. Follow up by asking what worked well in each engagement and what needed improvement and find out what corrective actions were taken to improve for the future.
  2. Vendors need a vision that matches your needs and timeframe – Seek service providers with clear vision of where their service offerings are going. Do this by understanding their roadmap. Analyse how this roadmap matches your requirements and timeframes. Will the provider have the scale you need as your requirements grow? Will their features be competitive with those of other providers over time? Do they have the administrative features you need to scale, document and manager your cloud deployment? If you a looking for a long term partner, be sure they have a roadmap that not only meets you needs, but gives them the staying power for the future.
  3. Infrastructure Capabilities – Ask your prospective service providers about their infrastructure. Understand the SLA they provide and what they do to ensure they meet or exceed it. What do they do if they have a failure? Do they have multiple data centers? If your prpject will run 24/7, do the prospective vendors have the abilities to support your team 24/7? This information will allow you to determine if they can provide you the uptime your business needs.
  4. Global expertise. Cloud services go global quickly and easily. If you plan to need a global deployment, be sure to select a partner with international experience and presence. Can they support content distribution in Europe? Do they have infrastructure in the regions important to your business? Do they have people that can communicate effectively with your international offices?
  5. Cloud integration experience – Most cloud deployments need to integrate to other cloud based services. Be sure your potential vendor has experience doing web services integration with the various services you are planning to use. Do they have other customers leveraging those services now? Can they support your efforts to integrate your project with other services?
  6. Hire a company you trust and that is staffed with people you like – You are forging a long-term relationship with the provider and they will be responsible for a big part of your business. Be sure your team’s culture matches the culture at the provider. In the end, experience and reputation only go so far. Your project will not succeed unless you trust the team sitting across the table. Be sure to do business with companies that place your company’s success at the top of their list each day.

The importance of cloud services vendor selection is possibly the most critical choice you make in a a cloud deployment. The right choice will keep your service running to meet your needs today and in the future, but a poor choice will almost guarantee failure. We often think that cloud makes everything simple and easy, any business transformation effort requires the right experience and capabilities. Be sure your prospective vendor has the right ingredients and fit for your company’s needs.

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Questions Organizations Ask Prospective MSPs

In talking to a number of IT departments and MSPs over years, I hear the same few questions come up over and over when the SMB is evaluating a perspective service provider. Here is a list of what I hear most often and some thoughts about how to respond:

Do you have proven experience?
The last thing an enterprise account wants is a service provider that is learning as they go. They need an MSP that has direct, long-standing experience delivering the services they need. That’s why it’s no surprise that in a recent survey, Enterprise Management Associates found “proven experience/depth of expertise” as the top factor organizations use to evaluate prospective MSPs.
Expect the prospect to ask you detailed, targeted questions. Ensure your answers speak to your deep technical and operational expertise. Be sure to provide specific examples of similar things you do for other clients. Additionally your prospects will consider whether you can meet their longer term needs. They may ask you about your capabilities within their emerging requirements, both technology expertise and operational scalability to ensure your team can handle their foreseeable expanded requirements.  While it is most important to find a fit that works now, the better an MSP can grow and adapt along with the organization’s business, the more value the customer will realize from the relationship in the long-term.

Your takeaway: In sales situations, sell your experience honestly, give specific examples. Oversell, and you may raise flags for the person sitting across the table.

Can I see your service datasheet?
Your service datasheet says a lot about your business, and it’s a great first step in assessing whether a you are the best match for your prospect. First, and most obviously, decision makers need to make sure the services outlined map to their needs. Next, the service datasheet provides insights into how organized and packaged your service offerings are. For example, the datasheet should provide clear definitions about what services and capabilities you provide, and, if different tiers are offered, it should be clear what is added as you move up each tier. This organization in your datasheet will provide confidence to your prospect that you have thought through your offerings and are delivering them consistently. Decision makers often attempt to spot service providers that are trying to do too much too fast. This can be seen as  a sign of organizational immaturity and can signal future delivery problems. By presenting a focused set of services specific to your market, you will convey that your team is equipped to deliver on their commitments.

Your takeaway: If you do not have a service datasheet, create one.  Be sure datasheet positions your capabilities with creditably.

Who will serve as our day-to-day contacts?
We’ve all had this experience: Vendor representatives come in during the sales process and amaze everyone with their savvy and expertise. After the contract’s signed, those people are never seen again, and you’re left with the junior team to manage your service.  I refer this to the bait and switch method of service sales. For an IT service provider, success is all about the people and customers are particularly disappointed when they are greeted by the “B” team as soon as they sign on. It is important to actually have your prospective customers meet and interview the actual members of your staff who will serve as their day-to-day contacts for account management, delivery management and technical support. Expect them to treat it as a job interview, your ensure your staff is prepared to help the customer gain an understanding of how they will work together. This process will go a long way to eliminate the buyer’s remorse caused by the bait and switch sales process.

Your takeaway: Be ready to have your operational staff participate in prospect discussions. Train them to help in the sales process. Nothing is more powerful in a presentation than a confident delivery expert talking about how they will be working to meet the customer’s needs.

What is the On Boarding Process?
This will be of critical importance to most customers. Depending on the type of service being delivered, migrating from their internal team to an external service can require a significant effort. For both the MSP and the customer, it’s critical to define respective roles and responsibilities. You should attack this issue upfront in the sales process. Highlight your on boarding process as a strength in your sales presentation. Present the prospect with a plan. Be sure the plan details time frame, responsibilities, cost and the SLA provided in the transition period. This will go a long way to setting a realistic expectation from the beginning and will truly aid your sales effort. Decision makers will look for vendors that approach this upfront process as part of building a long-term relationship, rather than a one-time transaction.

Your takeaway: Make the on boarding process a repeatable process that is one of your strengths. It as an investment in a long-term relationship.

How Strong is Your Business?
The act of researching and migrating to a service provider represents a significant investment, and the beginning of a partnership. Potential customers want a long term relationship so they can maximize their ROI. Decision makers will attempt to gauge, in as rigorous and objective a way as possible, your company’s long-term viability. They will probably want to see your financials to assess profits, operating cash flow, resource utilization, cash flow, and long-term debt. Another key indicator to viability is how long you have been in business and how many happy customers you have.  A long track record with lots of happy customers is not a  guarantee you will be able to serve them in the long term, but it is also very hard to beat.

Your takeaway: You can’t make this part up. Over time, you will have a good story to tell.

What do your internal processes look like?
Depending on the nature of the IT service required, these area will vary significantly for a given prospect. At a high level, it’s important a prospect is able to gauge your operational sophistication. For example, are all your processes documented? Do you leverage ITIL? What control mechanisms are in place? How much is automated? These are all areas where you should be prepared to discuss in detail as part of the sales process.

Your takeaway: Investments in developing good processes will payoff not only in operational efficiency and predictably, but sales as well.

Can we see the reports we will receive?

Reporting is what customers use to measure the work you perform for them. Reporting is also typically the only way you can show a customer all the detailed work you do for them day in, day out. Because of this importance, prospects will want to see your reporting capability and you should want to showcase it to them. Show them how to navigate the reports to find the information they are looking for, explain how reports generated as well as when and how they will receive them.

 Your takeaway: Reporting is the primary vehicle for demonstrating your value add to your customer on a regular basis, treating it as an important element of your overall service will lead to better customer satisfaction.

Can I Tour Your Facilities?

If the answer to this question is “no”, prospects will start looking elsewhere. By refusing this request, you are raising the possibility that you have something to hide. A prospect can learn a good deal from a tour of your facility, they can get a good reading for the people and the setup of the facility will help them gauge the efficiency of the organization.

Your takeaway: Here again, good organization can help sell and will project a sense of maturity and stability. Be prepared to show off your facility and be proud of it.

Can I Speak with Customer References?

Talking to an MSP’s customers is probably the most vital step of all. It’s a critical way to verify that the service provider’s answers are accurate and forthcoming. Does the customer attest to the MSP’s claims of being responsive to inquiries? Do the promised SLA correspond with the customer’s experience? Prospects will also examine length of the customer engagements. Here again, long track records are good to show.

Your takeaway: No surprises here. Happy customers are key to survival. Happy, referenceable customers are key to growth.

Do you outsource any parts of your service to other IT service providers?
In today’s global economy and given the powerful remote monitoring and managements available, it makes good business sense for an MSP to outsource part of their operations to an external provider. However, it is important for your prospect to understand this up front. What they don’t want is to encounter an issue and start seeing finger-pointing among various IT service providers. If you use external IT service providers be sure your prospects know you are solely accountable for their satisfaction.

Your takeaway: If you use other service providers, make sure you tell a clear story to prospects.

Can I see your contracts and service level agreements?
Early on, try to get decision makers to assess the agreements that are part of your service. They need to get clarification on what their obligations are. Items like, What if the client wants to terminate early? What are acceptable grounds for termination? Will a refund be provided? Also, decision makers need to review Service Level Agreements (SLA). It is important for them to understand what specific SLA commitments you are making, and what happens if service levels are missed? Here, beyond the specifics of the agreements, prospects can also infer a lot about how the service provider stands behind their people and obligations.

Your takeaway: Make sure your agreements are current, and accurately reflect the commitments you can deliver.

Summary
If you’re a seasoned MSP, you know better than anyone the common pitfalls organizations run into when they’re looking for vendors, and how they attempt to avoid a poorly prepared MSP.  Always think about the problem from the other side. How would you evaluate MSPs if you were the customer?

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10 Tips for Cloud Partner Selection

Cloud computing is evolving rapidly with new options and providers and services appearing on the scene daily. Many are also disappearing. VARs and MSPs choosing to leverage a cloud provider to deliver a service to your customer, you need a consistent process and criteria to select the right cloud provider and evaluate them going forward.

Here are a few things to consider as you create your selection criteria:

Reputation: Look into the provider’s history, who are their customers? What problems have they had in the past and most importantly, how do they react when they have a problem? Do they list a number of  testimonials on their site? If so, perhaps you can actually interview one of those clients without a formal introduction from the provider.

Longevity: The industry is experiencing a major consolidation. OpSource, NaviSite and TerraMark were all recently acquired. Additionally, business models are rapidly changing. None of this is necessarily a bad thing and could even be a good thing for you and your customers.  The point to understand is, if you build a service around this provider and sell that service to your customers will this provider’s service be available to you on an on going basis. Be sure the provider has the staying power and the contract terms ensure you will have access to the service you need even if their business model changes.

Security: Your customers will always have questions about security. Be sure you understand the security policies and practices of the perspective service providers and make sure they meet any special requirements your customers may need. In general, the provider should be a member of the Cloud Security Alliance, be SAS70 Level II audited and ISO 27000 certified. Beyond that, look for specific certifications to meet the specialized needs of your customers.

Flexibility: Flexibility comes in two parts: technical/operational and contractual. On the technical side, does the provider’s environment provide you with sufficient flexibility to create and support the services you want to sell. Are they making use of the tool sets that your team understands and do they integrate with your internal systems? Contractually, you need to be sure you can consume the service as you need it and scale up and scale down as needed without financial penalties.

Pricing: Be sure to understand their pricing model and how it will effect your ability to offer a competitive service to your customers. It is also important how the perspective vendor changes the price. Consider how often and with what notice. Realize that if they can change your cost with little or no notice, you may not be able to do the same to your customers.

Data Recovery: Be sure to understand the vendor’s disaster recovery and business continuity plan. Ask how long your customers will be without their service if they vendor suffers a major disaster.

Data Export: Understand how you can export any of your customers’ data and move it to another vendor in case you decide to switch vendors or if the vendor goes out of business. Be sure to ask how long it will take to export your data and the format in which it will be provided. Understand any costs related to the data export.

Failover: Well designed cloud platforms have built-in failover. Question a perspective cloud vendor about how their system works and ask to see a demo. Be sure to understand how the provider deals with local and wide-area failures and make sure their capabilities meet the needs of your customers.

Green Tech: Everyone in interested to  know how their business impacts the environment.  You should know that just because your perspective vendor is a cloud provider does not mean they are green. Ask the vendor if they are a member of The Green Grid. Find out about their energy planning process and find out if they participate in a carbon offset program. This is all good to understand so you can answer questions from your customers and use the information in your marketing.

Test it: Create a test with some internal resources. See how the service works. Was the implementation as easy as advertised? Test the vendor’s support and service organizations. Once you are satisfied with the results, then begin moving customers onto the new service.  Proceed slowly, moving a small number of customers and ensuring everything is working before moving more. This will give your new vendor an opportunity to learn how to best work with you and for your team to learn how to best work with the new vendor.

Hopefully these tips will help you develop a successful relationship with a new cloud vendor and avoid potential problem vendors.

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The Importance of SLAs

In reading a post over on one of my favorite blogs, Talkin’ Cloud, I saw a discussion that caught my attention. The post itself is titled, Top 11 Questions MSPs Ask About Cloud Partner Programs, but the discussion touched on Service Level Agreements (SLA). In particular the seeming lack of importance customers give the actual SLA service provides give them.

In my experience at NetEnrich and at OpSource prior to that, our customers would spend a lot of time on the Master Service Agreement (MSA) with many conversations between their legal team and our legal team and give and take on a number of points. Naturally, these are important conversations to have, but in this negotiation process the SLA was typically given a cursory read and accepted.

As a commenter pointed out, one can argue that the ultimate SLA is customer satisfaction and a vendor with low customer satisfaction will loose their customers. While I agree with this premise, I believe customers who do not question the SLA, miss a great opportunity to get a better idea of how the service vendor will deliver on customer satisfaction. I recommend not only reading and fully understanding of a perspective vendor’s SLA to insure it meets your needs, but also to always ask the vendor a number of pointed questions about their SLA and how they operate in a number of possible incidents and then carefully gauge their responses. This is the best way for a customer to set their expectations of how the vendor will respond to incident prior to engaging. It will also help to expose areas to negotiate on the SLA along with possible areas where you may need to augment the service to maintain that ultimate SLA with your internal or external customers.

A few things to consider in an SLA:

 

  • Evaluate the promised response time based on the severity of the incident. Does this response time fit your needs, if not is there a way you can work with internal resources to deal with it?
  • Look at the teeth in the SLA. This is what happens if the vendor does not meet their commitment under the SLA. Many vendors have great standards in their SLA, but have little or no teeth in the event they fall short.
  • Understand how breaches need to be reported. Here you need to understand how long you have to report the breach and what process needs to be followed.
  • Look for  what we call the No Harm, No Foul SLA. In this SLA, if your team does not report the breach, it did not happen. In many cases this type of SLA works fine, however, if you are relying on the service to support a series customers, then this may not work as well because some of your customers may see problems you did not see and they may be too busy or frustrated to report it to you. In this setting, you may want an SLA where the vendor is required to report to you any and all breaches.
  • Lastly, be sure you can live with the performance level defined in the SLA. If you can, then you will probably be happy when your vendor out performs it.

Let us know you thoughts and please ask questions.

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