As a SaaS provider, we rely on outside vendors for our infrastructure. Whether it be a cloud, co-lo, CDN or in-house platforms we’ve tried many with varying degrees of success and had to replace major components from time to time. Here are our top 5 tips based on what we’ve learned:
1. Great Customer Service Doesn’t Guarantee a Great Experience.
Having an account manager, an integration team and dedicated resources for a large scale IT service or deployment is a must and definitely a selling point when selecting a service provider; however, if the technology isn’t there to back it up–it can all just be lip service. When something does go wrong, having someone on the other end of the phone is great; but when they can’t provide meaningful answers and a solution to the problem, it’s frustrating to say the least.
When we initially launched, we used dedicated co-location servers and managed all of them ourselves. This was time consuming and slow; so when a major vendor started offering cloud servers with essentially one click provisioning and deployment, we were all in. After migrating our entire platform to the service we had nothing but technical issues. Not one here and there, but several on a daily basis. After several calls with our provider we escalated to C-level staff, where we were assured this was a top priority issue and that we were an extremely valuable customer. In the end, the technical issues were not solved and it was all talk in an attempt to keep us as a client. We ended up migrating off of the platform.
TIP: Make sure there are others using the service in a similar manner and ask for stats and references.
2. Great Technology and Tools Don’t Mean Much if No One Picks Up the Phone.
Having the most automated, developer friendly, scalable solution is awesome, however, if it’s all self-service it can be down right detrimental to critical business needs. When everything works as advertised, woo-hoo smooth sailing… but when something goes down or breaks, customers with critical business applications NEED ANSWERS and ETAs for resolutions. Automated administration and self-service leave little for customers to do except hope that it all gets resolved.
TIP: Make sure you choose a vendor that has live people that you can talk to and have direct technical contacts that can explain issues, answer questions and get things resolved.
3. Scalability and References Matter.
When selecting a vendor, always ask who their biggest clients are. Knowing who is using it and how they are using it can shed a great deal of light on the service. The last thing you want is to be a beta tester for un-vetted technologies that “should” work as your business and needs scale up. Most importantly, for any significant IT spend always ask for customer references. Talk to an existing customer and see what their challenges and successes are.
Early on, we chose an email delivery service that had all the features we needed and what seemed like a perfect fit for our application. After several months and as our client base grew, we found many issues as we scaled up. After repeated calls with support and management, we learned that we were the first high-capacity user they had and there were no benchmarks for the level at which we were using the system. Again, we migrated off of this service.
TIP: Ask for a client list, benchmarks and what the highest capacity the system has been used at. Most importantly, read client testimonials–and not just the ones on the vendor site. Seek them elsewhere in forums...you may get a different perspective.
4. Murphy’s Law: If Something Can Go Wrong It Will. Pick A Company That Is Responsive.
Inevitably, all companies will encounter a crisis. There is no such thing as an infallible system or ZERO downtime. It happens to everyone. The key is finding a company that has the same sense of urgency and priority that you have. Having a critical meltdown–whether it is data loss, hardware failure or network connectivity–and hearing “yeah we got an issue and are working on it” is of little consolation. Getting a full run down of the issue and an ETA of when it will be resolved puts you in a much better place to react accordingly. A great vendor will give you a post issue report and a plan on how they will mitigate or prevent this issue in the future. This is KEY.
We are no strangers to Murphy’s Law. Several years ago we experienced a catastrophic data loss on one client's account. Our vendor was completely unable to explain (1) Why it happened and (2) Why our backup and redundancy failed 100% down the line. After doing our own research and investigation, we determined how it happened and immediately made changes to our infrastructure so this couldn’t happen again–short of an asteroid taking out the majority of the planet. What we learned is using one vendor for all our primary data storage and backup/redundancy was a mistake. Now we have three copies of all data spread over different systems with progressive syncing, so all of our eggs are no longer in just one basket. This event was not pleasant; but in the end resulted in making our service more robust and a better solution for all our clients.
TIP: Make sure you have a responsive vendor that can and will work with you and always, always have a Plan B.
5. It’s Not Always About the Money.
Often times, the most cost effective service is not what you want, especially if your needs are truly business critical. There are a lot of lost cost leaders in just about every IT niche out there. There are literally thousands of companies competing for IT dollars and they will try to lure you in with big promises and low costs. There are a few risks here and a few things to consider. In addition to the 4 tips above, ask them how long they’ve been in business and find out if they are a funded start-up or a private company. This may seem irrelevant, however, a VC funded company can be a higher risk. Often times they aren’t profitable and many fail or fold with little or no notice to their users (think of the 2000 tech bubble). A private company typically means they are profitable and aren’t relying on a fire hose of money to keep the lights on. Make sure you know the stability of the company you are selecting, and sometimes paying more for piece of mind and a track record is well worth it.
Price shouldn’t be the only determining factor when selecting a vendor. Yes, price is important and you have to work within budget, however, the lowest cost service is typically that way for a reason. Whether it’s a small support staff, outsourced support, weak technology infrastructure or just wishful thinking, the price you pay may be a good indicator of what you can expect.
TIP: You get what you pay for.