4 Additional Criteria for Evaluating QuickBooks Hosting Providers: Going Beyond Pricing
When a small business elects to run their QuickBooks desktop edition software in the “cloud”, their best bet is to select a provider from among the Intuit Authorized Commercial Hosts for QuickBooks. These companies have executed agreements with Intuit which allow them to lawfully provide hosting and management of QuickBooks desktop software editions on their servers, and to provide remote access to hosted QuickBooks applications (and management of associated QuickBooks company data files) on the host servers. Unless the business has its own skilled IT personnel, it may make sense to outsource the hosting to an experienced provider, as the service provider likely has the people and the experience to keep the system working properly and securely. The keys to selecting the best provider for the business are often hidden in the experiences of others; experiences which reveal issues that may significantly impact vendor selection and which have nothing to do with the price of the service.
Any business with QuickBooks has the right to run their licensed product on an outsourced server infrastructure; there is no requirement to work with an authorized “server provider” – the business may elect to run their products on any systems they choose. The issue is whether or not that implementation will be supported, and whether or not the solution is for a single business or is being offered to other companies, too.
Intuit supports QuickBooks Enterprise in terminal server and Remote Desktop environments, but only when it is deployed for the single business organization and only Enterprise edition – not the Pro or Premier editions of QuickBooks. For example, if the business has an installation of QB Pro or Premier on a server at Rackspace and employees RDP to that server for access, Intuit may not be prepared to provide support for that “hosted” environment as they might for an Enterprise edition implementation. And, if a business has lots of different users on the platform and those users don’t belong to the one company who “owns” the infrastructure, then the implementation is also non-compliant and not supported.
Working with a 3rd party hosting service provider (a company which provides managed application hosting services and not just managed server platforms) generally means that the provider is taking responsibility not only for the server/network/infrastructure, but also for the setup, configuration and maintenance of system users and security, and the installation, management, and maintenance of the applications running on the server. When a business elects to outsource this level of service to any 3rd party, there are a variety of areas in addition to pricing which should be thoroughly explored prior to signing the service agreement.
When I provide clients with an evaluation of potential service providers for their projects, I also research the provider’s performance (and the public’s perception of them) in these 4 areas:
- Business Practices
- Customer Satisfaction
The technology evaluation relates not only to the systems and tools applied to the service delivery, but also to the systems or tools applied to assist the customer with dealing with the service. Too often, providers pay more attention to their ordering systems than their service delivery, believing that a quality customer experience rests more with simple ordering processes than with a functional and well-performing application service. Others may focus on delivering the best and highest quality application service, yet relegate their clients to static web forms and phone calls to place service orders or request service information. The providers who score the highest points in this category are those who recognize that both elements – service delivery and service administration – are critically important to providing a quality overall customer experience.
The innovation evaluation looks at the actual service infrastructure and delivery. One of the pitfalls of being an application service provider is the inertia created with existing systems and customers. Once the platform is in place and there are a bunch of users on the systems, upgrading and updating the underlying technologies can be a tremendous challenge. I have often related this as being like trying to change tires on a moving truck. Unfortunately, systems age and lose functionality, compatibility, support, etc. Keeping the platform updated isn’t the only element involved with scoring provider innovation. Even more important than simple change management supporting status quo, true innovation speaks to efforts directed towards crafting a better, more functional and more useful solution delivery. Many skilled technicians can set up a terminal server for remote access to QuickBooks using the “standard” tools available, but it takes more skill and understanding to create a service which offers more and better capability than everyone else. The point isn’t that the provider is changing QuickBooks software in any way – that’s not really an option. Rather, it is in how the provider elects to architect their systems and solution, and whether they are attempting to improve the experience and deliver with a unique approach rather than a generic one.
With increased competition and as some provider platforms experience challenges either due to age or capacity, certain “interesting” practices have emerged. I now look at these business practices as part of the process of evaluating providers. In the early days of the QuickBooks Hosting Program, the business practices of the various hosts were relatively similar, but not any more. The practices which frustrate me most (and which cause me to score the provider with low marks in this category) relate almost exclusively to transparency (or lack thereof). Here are three scenarios which I’ve seen come up with some frequency, and which (in my opinion) are indications that the provider may not necessarily be one you want to work with.
- A business has signed a one-year service agreement with a hosting provider, and has been required to prepay that annual contract. The business was not provided with a demonstration or evaluation system prior to executing the service agreement; they simply trusted the information provided by sales. After a few months on the service, the performance and support are so poor that the business wants out of the annual agreement, even though high service levels and support responses were part of the contract. In order to be allowed to end the service agreement and stop paying for the service, the business was told they would have to not only buy out a portion of the remaining contract, but also sign an agreement not to communicate the service problems they experienced or the exit agreement terms with anyone. (*please note that I am essentially in agreement about having to buy out a committed term agreement, at least in part, but applying a gag order? Not so much).
- A business is using the services of a hosting provider, and has a need to know details of their delivery (like server operating system version) in order to verify compatibility with a new software product they wish to purchase. Before the business customer is allowed to obtain the information, the provider requires that they sign an agreement promising not to disclose the information they may receive to any other party. (*note: While I recognize that this type of agreement is desirable to prevent competitors and potential customers from learning that the provider systems are still running what would be considered legacy or outdated technology (like Windows 2003, for example), it doesn’t do much in terms of building trust with the client.)
- A business customer using hosted QuickBooks asks their provider support representative if they need another QB license and login in order to allow another user in the system, but at different times. The response from the support agent is that the customer could simply share the login credentials with the other person, and they could avoid paying for another account and QB license that way. “But make sure not to tell anyone you’re doing it”. There’s the catch, and any time you hear these words it should raise a big red flag. With no equivocation and under all circumstances, each user is supposed to have their own login and their own QuickBooks license. (*note: If the service provider allows customers to “fudge” on their compliance with usage and licensing, what other compliance requirements are they “fudging” on, and doesn’t that increase the risk of using their services?)
The final evaluation is on customer satisfaction, where anecdotes and information is collected from both current and past customers of the provider. Admittedly, much of this information I scour from various forums and discussion groups and interviews but it is truly amazing what you can learn about a business simply by listening to customer stories in various social venues. The picture these stories paint is often (frequently!) very different from the “happy sunshine and rainbows” testimonials you find on websites and in marketing brochures. Of course, who would buy from a provider who says their “support is great until you’ve been with us for a month, and then we pretty much don’t care about you any more”. Also, people tend to be more vocal when they’re mad about something, so there is often more negative than positive out there in the social realm. But the fact that certain provider names come up more often than others is the clue; when you don’t see the provider name come up in these discussions, it usually means they’re simply not making people mad. (It could also mean they have no customers, but I’m focusing this discussion on the authorized Commercial QB hosts, and they do have customers).
There is a lot to consider in selecting the right service provider for the business, and the four items listed above are just part. While there are some (few) standards among providers required for participation in the QuickBooks hosting program, it is still what some might refer to as an “emerging” model and will continue to evolve as the market demands and technology move forward. You need to know that your business solution provider is trustworthy and willing to communicate honestly and completely with you. Selecting the right provider – a provider who supports their business and model with full transparency to the client – will help the business move forward, just as the wrong provider is more likely to hold it back. While pricing is an important aspect, businesses should also focus on these other 4 critical elements which help to reveal how the provider works with their customers, and to determine whether or not they can (or will even try to) meet your requirements now and in the future.
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