3 Keys to Strong Data and Analytics MSP Relationships: How to Pick a Partner, Not Just a Provider

Penguins MSP relationships concept

Thanks to the widespread availability of the cloud and the rampant growth of the remote options it enables, these days it feels like everyone is looking for a Managed Services Provider (MSP) to help manage different aspects of their environment. Whether they provide firewalls, antivirus solutions, or business analytics platforms, MSPs abound. There are many ways to assess what these providers bring the table, but what are the most important characteristics to look for? As a provider and consumer of these services, I know what I strive to offer and what I look for from my vendors. In this article, I’ll illuminate my thought process for you in the hopes that it can set you on the road to successful, rewarding MSP relationships.

The Effect of Bad MSP Relationships

First, let’s start with a brief cautionary tale about MSP relationships gone bad, just to set the stage and show you why making a careful choice is important. A little while ago I was talking to a friend who is a mid-level Windows administrator working at a medical office. This medical office is decent in size and has multiple locations. The administrator is responsible for site-to-site VPNs, a SAN, a virtualization environment, and a managed switch. As you can see, the business is set up as a one-person IT shop, as so many are now that available technologies let us do more with less. For this reason, the company had hired a local MSP to support their environment specifically for projects and any issues that the administrator couldn’t easily handle alone. Sounds good in principle, right?

The MSP had come in prior to my friend being hired as the administrator.  Shortly after she took the job, the issues started. She had a problem with her network and the MSP was slow to respond, so slow in fact that she ended up calling me two hours into the incident to ask what I thought could be causing the problem after not receiving a response from them. After that, her company was trying implement a new SAN and they approached the MSP to work with her on the implementation. Their response was that they wouldn’t work directly with the company’s administrator to do the implementation. Instead, they said they would do the implementation and document it without mentoring or collaborating with the local resource available. On top of that, the MSP told company leadership that my friend was not very good at her job to undermine her authority and advance their own agenda. In the end, the MSP lost the faith of my friend and her boss and they found another services organization to help them implement their SAN.

Obviously this is a worst case scenario. Most MSP relationships are not this acrid, but nobody wants any of their vendor relationships to reach this point. The analytics and information management space, which my company works in on a daily basis, is particularly complex to navigate and requires extra care when seeking out a compatible MSP. Luckily, there are three core characteristics we can look for when we hire an MSP in this industry to mitigate the risk of a bad relationship.

Your MSP Should Partner with You

At their heart, MSP relationships aren’t really about the technology. Instead, they’re almost entirely about the partnership that gets built around that technology. The MSP should be able to work well with the owner of the relationship and any other associates on the client side of the house. Sometimes in this role the MSP functions as a translator helping the business owner understand the technology and what stakeholders in it will be concerned about, and sometimes they act as an advocate for the business owner’s priorities to keep the technical team on track. A good MSP can strike the right balance between business priorities and technical realities to deliver a relevant and functional solution.

The real problem is how to accurately assess these aspects at the beginning of your relationship with an MSP. In analytics and information management, the questions you should be asking yourself and any potential providers include the following:

  • What is the onboarding process for my implementation?
    • There should be a defined process for this to help you understand how the MSP will install or assess and begin to support your environment.
  • What does the escalation process look like if I have an issue?
    • The escalation process should start with some sort of manager and allow you to leverage higher levels of management if necessary. Contact information for those escalation points should be provided up front. Obviously no one wants to have an issue that needs escalation, but if such an issue does arise, you want to get it resolved quickly.
  • Do they have any clients that are doing what I want to do in Analytics and Information Management?
    • If the answer is not yes, consider a different vendor. You are hiring an MSP to partner with you and augment your knowledge and experience. Make sure you buy a service that can do so in your particular areas of focus.
  • Can they provide references?
    • You can ask the reference questions about professionalism, support, integrity, and ability to deliver on time and as promised. Make sure to leverage this part of the evaluation process, as it can give you invaluable insight.
  • How do my interactions with this vendor make me feel?
    • The MSP’s answers to your questions should make you feel confident that they have done this before and can take care of your requirements and several if not all of your wants. Trust your gut on this one. If you start feeling unsure, investigate other options.

Your MSP Should Have the Technical Expertise You Need

This should go without saying, but especially when you’re just starting a relationship with a MSP, you should find one that knows the specific technology or technologies you are looking to support or implement backwards and forwards. The MSP can fill in technology gaps that your team has or free up your team to do what you actually hired them to do. For that to happen, though, you want a MSP that has supported the technology in question and has done it in a variety of circumstances beyond just those specific to you. You want the MSP to know the nuances of your application and be able to help you get the most out of it.

They may not always have every answer, but the MSP must have the expertise in house to support you in using the technology you select and to provide guidance in the complementary technologies around that solution. After all, that’s what you’re paying them for. This is especially important in complex technology areas like business analytics and information management. The technologies at play here are many and complex. Working with a company that has extensive expertise means that they will be able to see the potential risks and incompatibilities before they damage your credibility with your peers.

Evaluating technical expertise can be challenging, and there is little certainty of who will actually be providing your support behind the scenes. Because of this fact, you need to make sure you trust the company you partner with. When you are assessing this area, you can ask the questions below to get some clarity:

  • What is the MSP’s experience in data and analytics?
    • Age is not always a clear indicator, especially in fast moving technologies, but if a company has been around for several years they must be doing something right. If they have been around in the field you are looking for specifically, that’s even better.
  • Does the MSP have a tangible partnership with the technology provider whose products they claim to support, and what is their standing in the eyes of that provider?
    • In many cases you can get direct access to representatives from the technology vendors themselves who can help you out here. Those representatives will be able to provide insight about the MSP in question, and you should ask them directly about the reputation of the MSP. For example, at Ironside we work very closely with IBM technologies and have several certifications attesting to that. In fact, our partners at IBM aren’t afraid to tell people things like “these guys are good enough they can actually build out their own practice for big data and then we can use them .” Those are the kinds of powerful insights you can get into an MSP’s credibility from their technology providers.
  • What methods do they have for securing my data especially if it’s hosted in the cloud?
    • The answer here should result in more questions about your requirements. No matter what, the MSP should be able to secure their communication with your environment, your communication with your environment, your backups, and any usernames or passwords that are at play.
  • What are my disaster recovery options for the hosted/managed environment?
    • The answers to this question prior to actually purchasing a solution will be around proven practices. They should discuss what your Recovery Time Objectives and Recovery Point Objectives should be. They should also focus in on the specifics of your application like Content Databases, Audit Databases, Project data, ETL jobs and scripts, and configuration files.
  • Should I run my environment in the cloud?
    • This is a complex question with many possible answers and your MSP should be able to help you come to the best answer for you. The responses you get back will orbit around security requirements, internet bandwidth, data location, client location, and many other potential factors. Every vendor will come with an agenda, but that agenda should ultimately lead to making sure their clients are successful.

Your MSP Should Be Your Advisor

When you build a partnership with an MSP and they prove their technical proficiency to you, it allows you both to work together to reach the best solution your environment can offer. At this stage of the relationship, there is a free flow of information that allows your MSP to contribute to your decision making process. The MSP can and should be able to provide metrics around your current environment’s capacity and utilization. This allows you as the client to make informed decisions about purchasing additional resources for growth, whether that growth is organic or comes through additional projects or implementations. The MSP should also have the insight, due to their expertise and exposure to other clients, to provide guidance on complementary technologies or techniques. A good MSP will also know when to involve other parts of their practice, if they exist, or other external resources to help create new solutions or resolve existing issues.

No single company is an expert on everything and part of being a trusted advisor is recognizing the limit of what you know. A strong advisor should be honest with you about where the edges of their expertise are, and should readily introduce the right external resources when those situations arise. The MSP is successful when you are successful, and therefore they should do what’s in their power to guarantee that. If the MSP doesn’t have all the answers to one of your requirements, they should still maintain their value by brokering relationships for you with others who can help. As a client, it’s important to get this full picture of your MSP’s capabilities and have the right level of transparency between you and your advisor necessary for this kind of honest conversation.

As a quick example, at Ironside we have experience in and advise on many key business and technology areas in-house, but we also have a comprehensive network of our own partners that help us support our customers with hosted environments or niche technologies. Despite these many moving pieces, however, we always make sure that our clients have a single point of contact at Ironside that can give them all the answers they need. As part of serving as your advisor, your MSP should manage any secondary relationships required to deliver your solution, only exposing you to the final result without any of the behind-the-scenes hassle bleeding into your daily activities.

Bringing It All Together

In the end, picking the right MSP for your environment is a very important decision. Often, the MSP you select will be tied to you for the whole of whatever period of time was set in your contract. Your MSPs should be working as partners alongside their clients. If you find a good MSP, they will be as interested in your success as they are in theirs, because they know the two are linked.

Just to wrap things up on a pleasant note, I’ll give you a good example of what MSP relationships can accomplish based on my own experience to counteract the cautionary tale presented earlier. We have a client that had a local consulting group come in and do an installation of Cognos BI integrated with TM1. This group did the installation and left without providing sufficient documentation or guidance on how to use the system. The client had application administrators, but those resources had no in-house knowledge about administering these two applications and they were not functioning as advertised. They brought Ironside in as a stop gap while they figured out what they were going to do. We brought their environment back to stability, helped resolve their issues, and provided guidance and mentoring on how to leverage their environment according to proven practices. It was a huge success for them and got them through their fiscal planning cycle for the year.

I hope this article helps you find and select the right Managed Service Provider for you. If you’d like to learn more about Ironside Managed Services and how we can become your partner and trusted advisor, please visit our webpage and get a deeper view of what Managed Services can do for you. We’d be happy to help you along on your journey toward your ideal solution.