What does a managed service provider (MSP) do? (Essential & Premium Services)
You’ve likely heard the term “managed service provider” or “MSP” before. Maybe you’re currently working with an IT firm and have heard MSP floated as an alternative. Perhaps you’re searching for IT and technology support or maybe you use an MSP now but frankly have no idea exactly what they do for you.
So, you’ve asked yourself, “what does a managed service provider or MSP actually do?”
This is a question we get every day, from our friends, relatives, and even potential clients.
Here’s the answer they usually expect – it’s complicated.
Here’s the truth – it doesn’t have to be.
Let me explain. Kelser has provided IT support for businesses since 1981 and we’ve evolved into a managed service provider over the past several years. I’ve answered this question for countless prospects and clients so know that I’ve got your answer covered.
After reading this article you’ll have a better understanding of what an engagement with an MSP does and doesn’t look like as well as the types of services that MSPs provide.
What is an MSP?
Before we dive into what an MSP does, it’s important to set a foundation for what an MSP is.
The technology trend over the last few years has been a gradual move towards managed services. Many IT firms began looking more holistically at the entirety of the IT environment. They felt that they could do more to help their clients by constantly managing parts of their environment proactively rather than project work alone.
The provider of such managed services is called a managed service provider or MSP.
What isn’t simple is that many IT firms offer similar services despite not being formal managed service providers. An IT provider who isn’t an MSP would usually support their clients on a time and materials basis, sometimes known as break/fix.
In a previous article, we extensively covered what break/fix and managed services are and who they are a good fit for.
For comparison - what a break/fix scenario looks like
You own a firm with 35 employees, and you have a break/fix type of arrangement with an IT provider.
You owe a client a quote on Monday morning, but your laptop doesn’t boot up. You call your IT provider. They might be an independent professional or a small IT company that primarily does reactive work.
No one picks up your call. It goes to voicemail. Time is ticking and you need to get this quote out.
You leave an urgent message hoping they’ll get it and call back quickly. And they may, depending on how often they check for messages, how many people they have available at any given time, how many calls they’re juggling, and a myriad of other factors.
Once you connect, there will be troubleshooting needed. The provider will either come to your office or you may have to bring your laptop to theirs. Many break/fix providers can remote into a device for troubleshooting certain issues. In this case, since your laptop isn’t booting, remote troubleshooting isn’t a possibility.
They may need to call an OEM or application provider depending on the nature of the problem. After an undetermined period, you may or may not be up and running.
If you are, great!
If not, where do you go from here? You’ll likely have reached out to a colleague to see if they can get the proposal out to your client, while you deal with your IT problem. Fortunately, it was only your laptop that was impacted and not a company-wide technology issue.
There are plenty of companies where this type of agreement works just fine. If your business doesn’t rely heavily on technology, you may be perfectly okay waiting for help.
What that scenario looks like with an MSP
We’ll use that same scenario to show the differences in how it would look if you were working with a managed service provider.
You own a firm with 35 employees, and you have a managed services plan with an MSP.
You owe a client a quote on Monday morning, but your laptop doesn’t boot up. You submit a ticket to your MSP’s helpdesk by calling the dispatcher (since your laptop won’t boot) or email the helpdesk from your smartphone.
There is a pool of resources that can troubleshoot your issue and your request is routed to the best available one. The engineer contacts you and begins the troubleshooting process. This is probably over the phone but the engineer may come to your location.
Since your MSP is managing all of your IT, they’ll have more troubleshooting options available.
You have a set timeframe of how long your ticket will take to resolve based on your service level agreement (SLA) with your MSP. That SLA has response and remediation times as well as expectations for the handling of tickets depending on their severity.
If your ticket is urgent, there’s a ticket prioritization process spelled out in your agreement. This would push you to the front of the line.
At this stage, your MSP is handling things and keeping you in the loop. Between their updates and your contract, you know whether you’ll have to reach out to that colleague ahead of time. As such, you’ll have that quote comfortably delivered on time. Your MSP may even have loaner hardware or a virtual machine option available for you.
Neither of these choices is the right one for everyone. Businesses are all different, they have unique needs, challenges, and budgets. But now you have a clear understanding of the differences.
How do MSPs support their clients?
MSPs generally have two ways of supporting their clients.
Alongside your internal IT team
One way is to augment your internal team if you already have in-house IT staff. Some ways that we usually see that arrangement work include:
- When you have specific expertise or a specialty need (like with compliance or cybersecurity) that isn’t covered by your in-house team.
- When you need a different level of support than you have on staff. For example, maybe you have level 1-2 technicians but need more advanced support.
- When you want to have your internal IT team focused on more strategic or larger scale IT initiatives.
Acting as your in-house IT team
Another way an MSP can help your business is by acting as your internal IT team if you don’t have one today.
An MSP manages your IT environment from soup to nuts. They’ll handle your technology needs from the day-to-day keeping the lights on activities, as well as provide strategic consulting with higher-ups.
What do MSPs do?
The tricky thing about managed service providers and managed services is that when they’re operating the way they should be, everything just works.
That can make it difficult to recognize what they’re doing to ensure that everything “just works.”
As we’ve been building and refining our own managed services practice over the last decade, we’ve found that there are some components of a managed services agreement that merit highlighting. This shows what’s being done behind the scenes to keep your business moving forward.
We’ll first explore some of the core, essential functions that almost every MSP should be offering in their managed services. Then we’ll cover some premium services that can be offered by MSPs with more focused specialties.
Essential managed services from an MSP
We believe that these must-have services are essential to any managed services offering.
Help desk/technical support
Help desk (sometimes called technical support) is a service that addresses any day-to-day technical issues that may occur. When done correctly by an MSP, it will feel as though you were being cared for by your in-house team.
An MSP will have a few easy ways for you to reach out for support and they should also have both automated and direct modes of communication with you about your ticket. You should never feel like your request simply vanished into some tech support black hole.
Each MSP may offer different levels of technical support. Some will offer a certain block of hours per timeframe; others will offer unlimited technical support.
You and your employees rely on your workstations to keep the business moving. Managed workstation services ensure that those workstations are secure, up-to-date, and working efficiently.
Some MSPs will handle the process of patching and updating manually. This can sometimes create some downtime while those patches are applied. Other MSPs will automate these updates and patching to minimize if not fully eliminate any potential downtime.
Since your workstations are being managed, an MSP can keep an eye on the health of those devices so they can help you plan for system upgrades or replacements before they fail.
Domain Name Services (DNS) are the addresses used by the internet to locate different websites. DNS-based protection ensures that the address you think you are going to is legitimate and has not been compromised before you get there.
This service is especially helpful at protecting against phishing attacks as well as other malicious activities.
This service is centrally managed by your MSP, so you and your employees won’t even know that it’s silently protecting you in the background. Some MSPs will also include a version of this service to also protect mobile users on and off your local network.
That way you and your employees are protected no matter what device they’re using wherever they’re working.
Employee cybersecurity awareness training
When it comes to cybersecurity, users can be the weakest link. Employee cybersecurity awareness training teaches your employees how to identify and recognize common threats, how to protect your company's information, and understand their role in the security of the business.
Studies show that this type of training can significantly reduce the possibility of your business being hit by a phishing attack or other cyber attack that relies on social engineering.
Typically, this service includes managed trainings and reporting on performance. Each MSP may handle this service differently between the type, frequency, and delivery of the trainings.
We’ve found that ongoing monthly learning modules that employees can watch online, custom simulated phishing attacks that apply to your business, and custom reporting make the best combination for getting the most out of your training.
Email and messaging support
Email and messaging applications keep your employees connected to each other and your clients wherever they are across the world.
Could you imagine your business without email or instant messaging applications today?
At the core of this service, an MSP will make sure that your email systems are efficient, available, and meeting the needs of your business. They'll handle day-to-day technical issues as well as big picture considerations such as if they identify the opportunity for your business to consolidate applications, features, functions, increase productivity, or reduce costs.
Spam filtering and protection
Building off email and messaging support is protecting your business from the spam and malicious messages that attempt to come through those services.
An MSP will set up, configure, and adjust your email spam controls to match your security and usability needs. The protection itself happens when emails pass through anti-spam filters that check them against industry-standard criteria as well as your specific defined criteria for spam and virus controls.
Items failing these checks are quarantined and not delivered, reducing dangerous and unnecessary email. The same process is applied to outbound email to prevent the distribution of malware, spam, and viruses to your contacts.
Managed servers including disaster recovery
For this service, an MSP keeps your servers continually patched, updated, and efficient. It sounds simple, but it is a task that shouldn’t be overlooked.
The managed disaster recovery aspect of this service will usually mean that your data is backed up properly, verified, and can be restored in a timeframe that fits your RTO and RPO needs. Your MSP will help you identify those recovery goals so you’re only experiencing as much downtime as your business can comfortably handle.
Some MSPs will also help you construct and regularly test your disaster recovery plan to ensure that everything acts the way it’s supposed to. If not, they can address any unexpected hiccups before a live drill is needed.
You may not have considered this, but your network is the most critical piece of IT infrastructure in your entire organization. Think about it - when it goes down, you’re not helping clients or generating profits.
That’s why an MSP will include network services that keep your network available, fast, secure, and up to the task of supporting your entire IT environment. That may sound vague, but a reliable network means one that is free of bottlenecks, congestion, performance issues, and failures including wireless networks.
Premium services from an MSP
Beyond the essential managed services above you should be getting or expecting by partnering with an MSP, some will offer additional premium features included with their service or available as an add-on.
Technical alignment manager (TAM)
A technical alignment manager or TAM is a dedicated resource that learns and maintains detailed knowledge of your specific IT environment. They perform regular proactive services to keep your IT environment secure and efficient as well as identify potential technical risks.
Virtual chief information officer (vCIO)
A virtual chief information officer or vCIO blends the findings of a TAM along with their industry knowledge to align your technology strategy with your business goals. They translate that information into actionable, strategic guidance and budgeting to keep your business heading in the right direction for future growth.
An MSP will use the information they have from the other managed services you receive to proactively address technical issues before they have a chance to cause downtime.
This service is notable because it’s not always included in some MSP’s managed services. Most will monitor and alert you about issues but may not include the actual remediation of certain issues in the service.
Some MSPs will charge an additional fee depending on the type of incident and the remediation needed. Others will take an all-inclusive approach to incident remediation and handle it regardless of the situation.
Many MSPs will include anti-virus or anti-malware protection in their managed services as it’s an important layer of any defense in depth strategy. However, this protection may not always be centralized and managed by every MSP so it’s worth checking when it’s mentioned.
Some MSPs will also handle the licensing of these products for you so it’s rolled into your single managed services subscription payment instead of a separate cost.
If you like what an MSP does, consider partnering with one
Were you nodding your head along while reading through what an MSP does?
Did you say to yourself, “that sounds great, we need that at our company!” Then you may be a good fit for managed services with a managed service provider.
In my experience talking with businesses, if they have those types of reactions when learning about MSPs, it’s because they’re seeing the gaps in their own IT support coverage today and how they could be remedied with a single subscription.
Before you sign the dotted line with the first MSP that comes up on Google, check out these best practices for choosing a managed service provider.
We’ve found in our over 40 years of providing IT support that these best practices can prevent companies from making some common mistakes including choosing an MSP that isn’t a good fit for them.
Regardless of which category your business falls into, I hope this helps to steer you into making the decision that’s right for you.