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Mar 1, 2018 | IN Service Level Agreements | BY Reza Koranki
5 Questions to Ask Before Signing Your Next SLA

Many organizations trade complete IT maintenance support for cost savings. However, it does not have to be an either/or question. High-quality, independent support firms provide IT network maintenance that can be equivalent to, or better than, OEM support at a fraction of the cost. Properly vetting your independent provider before signing an agreement is critical, so before you sign your next independent service level agreement, ask these questions.

SLAs cannot be an afterthought. - Gartner

Question #1: What Does "Tier 3" Mean to You?

IT maintenance support is provided in tiers, based on severity and complexity. The most severe issues receive the greatest priority and streamlined access to the highest levels of support. However, not all tiered support is created equal.

Low-quality support providers leverage existing sales engineers or lab techs to deliver Tier 1 support. These engineers are not trained or certified to support your network equipment. Their skillset is typically limited to defaulting equipment and determining total failure, their only other option is to read through a scripted, on-screen troubleshooting questionnaire, forcing you to stay on the phone answering questions that may or may not drive resolution. 

When support starts with unqualified resources, there is little opportunity to escalate cases to an "OEM-equivalent" or better Tier 3 support resource. Often, these providers do not have access to the highest levels of OEM certified support and can only perform basic hardware configurations, restore the equipment to like-new state, erasing any settings or data that may have been stored, or offer hardware replacement.

High-quality independent IT network maintenance support providers resolve 60 to 70% of cases in their technical assistance center (TAC). They accomplish this by relying on engineers that are highly qualified and experienced. Qualified support engineers spend more time getting certifications than many doctors spend in medical school. These engineers are not reading through a script. They are listening, evaluating, and diagnosing issues in real time. 

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The breadth and depth of an experienced, certified IT support engineer directly contributes to their ability to quickly and efficiently resolve tickets. High-quality providers understand this and place quality of support over revenue. They allow support engineers the time and space to answer questions and handle issues by not imposing unreasonable ticket load requirements.

Look for independent support providers that utilize experienced (5+ years) CCIE certified engineers in Tier 3 support. If any aspect of their TAC is outsourced, be sure that your provider is troubleshooting, running applications, or adding value in some way and not just increasing response times and costs by being the middle layer.

Equipment base price represents only 20% of its total cost of ownership with maintenance and labor costs accounting for the remaining 80%. – Network Alliance

Question #2: Will Inventory Be There When I Need It?

Since low-quality support providers do not have access to highly certified IT maintenance experts, they often try to resolve issues by sending replacement hardware. However, to keep costs as low as possible, these firms do not maintain dedicated spares for contracts. Instead, replacement hardware is pulled from an inventory of salable products, or worse, is being purchased on the fly when needed. This means that there is always a risk that the equipment you need will not be available when you need it.

You want an SLA provider that maintains spares for every contract. Expert IT maintenance support providers monitor failure rates and ensure that hardware replacement inventory always contains enough spares plus a margin. Inventory is tested annually, and dead-on-arrival (DOA) rates are extremely low (less than .5%). 

Look for a provider that maintains a dedicated inventory, has low hardware replacement instances with a track record of solving every case (which indicates that most issues are resolved in TAC), and one who begins the replacement process at the first indication of equipment failure as a failsafe. While many support providers wait to start the shipment process until equipment failure is verified, the best providers issue a replacement immediately and then continue to work to resolve the problem in TAC, dramatically shortening client downtime.

Question #3: Who is in the Field?

When keeping costs low is the highest priority, resources are required to perform double-duty. Sales engineers double as technical support and cable runners and maintenance operators double as field engineers. Typically, these resources do not receive additional training for network-down scenarios and operate without a sense of urgency. As a result, these field engineers do not understand the severity of the problem and often extend downtime for clients by arriving later than necessary and taking longer to resolve the issue.

High-quality independent IT network maintenance support providers require certified field engineers to undergo specialized training to address the unique situations involved in maintaining and restoring complex networks. Field engineers are also trained by the highest levels of TAC engineers to learn how the TAC team handles issues before being routed to field engineering support. As a result, these engineers are prepared to resolve issues, restore service on-site, and operate with a sense of urgency.

Question #4: Is It a Portal or a Gatekeeper?

A common tactic of low-cost providers is to impress clients with a shiny ticketing portal that appears to offer many functions. However, in a time of crisis, the portal may act as more of a gatekeeper than a tool to get your service restored. Ask your potential provider who is behind the portal. Are there dedicated resources or is it a limited pool of resources who answer the phones for a variety of situations?

The primary job of a portal is to be efficient and effective. Most importantly, it cannot hamper clients' efforts to reach support by requiring an inordinate amount of qualifying information. When an IT network issue arises, it creates a moment of crisis. High-quality support providers understand this and want to decrease stress for their clients, not increase it by making it difficult to access support or require near to impossible to gather information.

Manual configuration errors cost companies up to $72,000 per hour in web application downtime. - NetworkWorld

Question #5: Is The Support Provider Dedicated to Support?

Perhaps the easiest way to check-up on a support provider is to look at their past. Many low-quality providers started life in the used equipment market and began to offer support to their own buyers as means of providing peace of mind to purchasers of non-OEM certified used equipment.

Others began as authorized resellers of simple, non-network equipment. While these organizations may employ a team of in-house support engineers, they do not have the expertise to support complex networking equipment. Instead, their experience lies in supporting low-tech equipment with low-tech problems where replacement is often the solution. 

Inexperienced support providers do not know how to support the needs of a complex network and likely do not maintain a wide variety of spares or consider the differences of hardware versions or the nuances within model numbers.

Dedicated, experience independent support providers operate on economies of scale. They support both partners and direct clients and can afford to maintain a staff of the highest quality engineers and replacement hardware. As a result, support is efficient and precise and not used to bolster the revenues of other areas of the business. 

In these firms, the largest capital investments are made in the staff, not in hardware replacements. They understand that resolving an issue without hardware replacement saves both the firm and the client time and money. Investing in engineering resources over hardware centers goals around up-time for both the client and the support provider. It allows the provider to price support more competitively than firms that rely on hardware replacement based resolution. There also must be a balance to maintaining sufficient inventory for the covered devices that does not discourage the provider from deploying a replacement at a moment’s notice if it is determined to be even remotely necessary to resolve the problem.

Understanding the difference between a high-quality IT maintenance provider and one that fails to support the true needs of your business can be difficult. Many independent IT maintenance providers compete against OEM service level agreements solely on price. However, the services provided by low quality IT maintenance groups are significantly less than those offered by the OEM. When evaluating an independent provider, look to gain at least 80 to 90% of the same support deliverables supplied by an OEM and ensure that full definitions of support terms are available for you to compare.

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