Managed services and break-fix: any alternatives?

 In advice, technical

There are two popular ways that IT service providers manage and bill their services to their business customers, “break-fix” and “managed services.”  Traditionally, service providers and network repair engineers operated within what is commonly referred to as a “break-fix” model.  The name more or less explains how it works: something breaks (e.g.  Internet connection goes down, a PC gets a virus, etc), you call your service provider, and they dispatch a technician to resolve the issue.   In this way, a business owner or manager utilizes the IT service provider much like any other type of repair person, like a plumber or HVAC tech.  The break-fix model of support works adequately for some smaller businesses, where the IT infrastructure is not critical to their day-to-day work.  It can also be easier from a budgeting perspective, since you are only paying for service when you need it.

However, there are significant drawbacks to the “break-fix” model.  The primary weakness in this method of support is that it is reactive.  In other words, there aren’t any resources made available for planning or prevention.  Being reactive is generally not a good policy to follow in the IT world.  For instance, the time it takes to restore a crashed server when the backup software hasn’t been functioning correctly (leaving incomplete or unusable backups) can knock a network out of commission for hours or even days.  Also, companies lacking internal IT support often fail to keep up on security software subscriptions, making it easier for malware to infiltrate their PCs. Cleaning malicious software after it’s gotten its claws into a system may take a long time to repair, which may drastically reduce productivity.

Another option that is growing in popularity is managed services providers.  This model, also referred to as MSP, aims to respond to many issues in a preventative or proactive way.  For instance, an MSP will remotely manage your security software updates and system backups, so the customer doesn’t have to worry about changing the backup tape or dealing with expired software.  PCs and servers can be monitored for hardware and software errors using small software packages, and regularly scheduled onsite maintenance visits are common.  This style of service is a great fit for companies that demand 99.9% uptime or more from their IT systems, where their technology infrastructure is crucial to their day-to-day business functions.

In some cases, the barrier to entry on MSP solutions can be cost.  Fees are generally monthly, with a one year or longer contractual agreement.   This can be a burden for smaller companies on a tight budget.   Also, some MSPs can’t  adequately support a company who relies on an uncommon third-party software application or technology.  Many MSPs require you to “buy in” to a specific server configuration to make it more homogenous, making it easier for them to support multiple companies.  If the customer’s company doesn’t fit the mold, it may be harder to get good response time on issues arising from that custom app or system tool.

Fortunately, some IT support companies offer a “middle path,” utilizing methods from both the break-fix and MSP support models.  A good support company should be able to offer some proactive services, like 24/7 monitoring and scheduled onsite visits, while still allowing more flexible payment plans for smaller customers.  Another way that a good support company can build a relationship as a trusted advisor, while being cost-effective at the same time, is prepaid blocks of support time.  With a reduced rate block of hours, customers are only paying for what they use.  Most importantly, IT companies serve the customer best when they offer some a la carte options; this allows the service provider and the client  to build a custom solution together that is the best fit, for both the technology and the budget.
One final note for business owners and managers looking for IT service providers: make sure your provider has multiple ways with which you can get in touch.  There should be phone support available, not just emails or web forms.   A support rep should take ownership of your issue and see it through 100%.  IT support is not so much about addressing strictly technical problems; it’s about serving the human beings who use their IT resources to work more accurately and efficiently.

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