Finding the IT factor in a vendor

Vikki Durden, Head of Operations at UK IT Service, discusses the traits businesses should search for in a potential IT vendor - and the ones they should seek to avoid

During a challenging economic period for UK business, it seems the attraction of external, low-cost IT providers, and new pay-as-you-use models may be too much for companies to resist. So much so that investment has skyrocketed in this sector, with nearly £4 billion in investments made annually by UK firms. However, to reap the rewards of cost-effective and efficient IT, businesses must understand how to get the most out of their partnership with a vendor.

Typically, IT vendors are brought in to supplement an existing IT infrastructure. To identify the right supplier to complement the work you're doing, you need to put your own needs first.

While cost-of-service will no doubt play a role in any decision during these financially taxing times, it shouldn't be the be-all and end-all. For example, paying slightly more up-front to partner with a vendor which offers unmatched responsiveness and flexible hours, often saves businesses money long-term in minimised downtime and disruption.

Depending on the company's priorities, you may require a vendor who has a proven track record in delivering a specific specialism, or one which is agile enough to help your business close in on an opportunity.

To ensure that a potential vendor is a right fit for you, you should first establish a detailed list of goals and key performance indicators for your chosen vendor. This may include improving cybersecurity or navigating a complex cloud migration project. Agreeing to SLAs and KPIs in advance allows you to cross-reference the needs of your business with the capabilities of the vendors. It also lays the foundations for clarity in the relationship.

These metrics also serve as a framework to help businesses track the value of their investments, keep both parties focused on a set of core objectives, and acts as a tangible target when reviewing performance at the end of each quarter or year.

Clear dialogue from the outset is crucial in building a long-lasting business relationship with a vendor, in setting mutual expectations and addressing any issues. Poor communication is the underlying cause of most relationship breakdowns between business and vendor. It's important then to look for vendors with a diverse range of tools to facilitate clear communication. Do they have sociable working hours? Are they available via both telephone and email?

However, if their response time is sub-standard it won't matter how many channels are open, as you won't be able to act with the agility needed to succeed.

Responsiveness is a must-have characteristic for most businesses, so you should be looking at vendors with a proven track record of high-end customer service. If a vendor has these traits, it can be well worth any additional investment as it shows a commitment to quality you may not find elsewhere.

Search for the business on reputable review sites, like Trustpilot and, where possible, request case studies. These will help you gauge whether the provider is willing to go above and beyond to deliver the project or will simply produce the minimum level of work expected.

Data security is a huge problem for UK businesses, who amass over £3 million per year in losses, as a result of data breaches. With the UK government clamping down on non-compliance with fines of up to £18 million, businesses can't afford to chance their luck running insecure operations.

Many businesses are simply unequipped to handle extra security tasks, especially in understaffed SMEs. This is where IT vendors prove their worth - not only do they make light work of cybersecurity threats and compliance tasks but they can also help educate employees as they build the necessary infrastructure to stay secure.

Review each vendor's credentials, including requesting relevant cybersecurity and certifications and viewing online testimonials, keeping note of any complaints or problems from people using the service. You're also entitled to ask a vendor for evidence of an emergency contingency plan - in case of a crisis - so, don't shy away from requesting one.

This gives businesses the peace of mind that the vendor is equipped to meet their needs in terms of data storage and online threats. It also opens a dialogue and demonstrates transparency and trust, which are vital to any mutual relationship.

There's a common perception around IT vendors - that they're only to be used for one-off projects, troubleshooting small errors and fixing bugs - which is proving increasingly untrue.

With the rapid growth in the capabilities of vendors, they can form a reliable foundation upon which SMEs can enjoy long-term success and build their entire IT infrastructure. Access to a whole team of IT directors allows small businesses to compete with corporate giants while avoiding the overhead costs of employing an in-house team.

To make sure you have a relationship built for longevity, it's important to partner with a proactive and forward-thinking vendor, rather than one which simply carries out instructions when asked. Quiz potential providers on what they see as the business' IT weak points and how they would address and innovate them.

The answer to these should reveal whether the vendor has the potential to implement transformative projects like IT audits, cloud migration and designing comprehensive IT roadmaps, or whether they are likely to take a more passive approach to the relationship. NC