Over the past few weeks we’ve talked to a few local law firms about the state of their IT, and these conversations got me thinking. Even with the amount of data these firms, and firms all over the country, have […]
This post is not going to answer the question “Who’s the best IT service provider in Austin?” There are many “top ten” lists elsewhere, including a previous blog about the top IT service providers in Austin. But tops in revenue doesn’t always mean best in service; more importantly, though, “best in Austin” is an oversimplification. There is no single notion of best that fits everyone. Best really depends on your unique needs.
Finding your ideal provider can be done by answering two questions:
- Fit: Does their core strategy fit your needs?
- Quality: How well do they deliver on their proclaimed strategy?
Let’s look at both of these in turn.
Fit can be hard to nail down, because strategy can be hard to define, but one way to do this is by means of two criteria: scope of service, and source of value. (I didn’t come up with this. See Harris & Lenox: The Strategist’s Toolkit.)
Scope of Services: Narrow or Broad?
Do you have a specific problem you’re trying to solve, or are you looking for a broad range of IT services? IT providers vary greatly in the scope of services they provide, as the graph below illustrates.
IT Freedom, as well as other managed service providers, provides a very broad range of managed IT services; we are essentially an outsourced IT department for your business. But if all you want is specific help to recover the data off the boss’s failed laptop, we’re going to refer you to Flashback Data (or, if you’re a customer of ours, we’ll take the laptop to them for you). Flashback’s focus is purely in data recovery. They’ve built their entire business and skill-set around data recovery (and forensics, which is closely related), and they’re freaking wizards at it. Call them. Just don’t ask them to manage your IT.
If your needs are a bit more general, but you’d still like to keep them primarily in house, an hourly provider like Geek Squad may be option. I’m not sure I’d call them an IT provider, because they tend to focus on desktop and laptop computer repair, not server or network management. But they can help with the occasional computer issue, and other services such as Google apps can be used for your other needs.
Even within our industry segment – managed IT services – you’ll find that the scope of services varies greatly. Some managed service providers, or MSPs, just manage your local office network, some focus on remote support only. Others, like IT Freedom, provide a full range of remote and on-site network, telephone, hosting, Internet, security, and cloud management services, and include email, antivirus, spam-filtering and other services in their package.
The point here is to find a provider whose scope of services most closely fits your anticipated needs. There is a lot of value in having a single provider who you can turn to for almost everything, but if you don’t plan to take advantage of those services, you’re going to be wasting money.
Source of Value: Cost or Intimacy?
Another factor to consider with regard to a provider’s strategy is the source of their value – their value proposition. Is it cost or intimacy? Do they try to be the low bidder all the time, or do they aim for a more premium service that has intimate knowledge of your infrastructure, works closely with you, and takes care of just about everything for you, so you don’t have to think about it?
Source of Value: Cost or Intimacy
You can’t get both low cost and intimacy at the same time, because a provider who’s trying to be a low-cost leader by necessity has to provide more commoditized, less differentiated services to all its customers to keep costs down.
Google Apps, for example, at about $5 per user per month is an incredible bargain as a general-purpose business IT platform, incorporating email, messaging, calendaring, cloud storage, conferencing, and other services. But you’ll never talk to them directly, because they leave deployment and support completely up to resellers or the customers themselves.
Likewise, Geek Squad is relatively inexpensive, but their hourly services are by necessity generic, you have to bring your broken laptop to them for repair, etc.
At the other end of this range are companies like Flashback and IT Freedom. Flashback isn’t cheap and doesn’t try to be, but they’ll handle just about any unique recovery or forensic need you bring to them.
Likewise, IT Freedom is rarely the low-cost bidder in competitive situations. We have to remain competitive, of course, but our entire focus is on customer intimacy: personalized support, custom solutions, everything included, and so on. It costs more for the people, processes, and systems we need to deliver on that. I’ll be covering that in part two of this blog post so look out for that!
You can overlay the two graphs above to create a strategy map that you can use to position various providers that you are considering:
Once you’ve plotted all your candidates and you’ve decided which quadrant you’re interested in, you’ll have a good sense of whom to focus on.
The map above presumes a very broad definition of “IT service” that includes not just managed services, but also computer repair, data recovery, and cloud services. If you have already decided that you need the services of an MSP, then just focus on them. Even within our industry segment, you’ll find a range of strategies.
The No-Man’s Land of Managed Service Providers
One thing I would warn you to beware of is the provider who tries to straddle multiple quadrants in the map above, or can’t decide where they want to be. This is a no-man’s land, because you can’t be everything to everyone. For example, many of our managed-services competitors try to be both inexpensive and intimate at the same time, by offering two services, an inexpensive hourly service as well as a premium, fee-based managed service. We once did this very thing, in fact, very early on in IT Freedom’s lifetime. But we quickly learned that our hourly customers were costing us more than we were getting from them in hourly revenue. They were taking advantage of the managed-services infrastructure we’d built, while distracting us from our managed-services customers. So we phased out our hourly services to focus exclusively on our managed services. Once again, you can’t be everything to everyone.
Core Values and Quality
I think it’s important to note that a company’s competitive strategy really derives from its core values, whether consciously or not. When I started IT Freedom sixteen years ago, I did not consciously choose our strategy of broad-based, personalized service. I wasn’t that smart. It just sort of appealed to me: I liked the close working relationships we developed with our customers, and loved providing as comprehensive a solution as possible.
Over the years, as we’ve grown, we’ve developed that subconscious inclination into our conscious strategy, and we try to align everything here at IT Freedom – our people, our processes, and our systems – with this strategy. This gets into the notion of quality – how well a provider delivers on their strategy – which I’ll get into in my next blog post, so check back later this week!
UPDATE: Keep reading with Part 2 of this series!