When you’re shopping for an Internet Service Provider (ISP), your choice might be based on any number of criteria—perhaps the vendor’s reputation, the security they’re offering, or the availability of virtual private network services. But your clients’ ISP needs may be very different.

If a particular client is in the early stages of developing their Web strategy, they need an ISP that can support them in reaching that goal. If the client is already conducting most of their business on the Web, they need an ISP package that offers optimum network reliability and performance. But considering the vast number of ISP choices in the market, your clients may turn to you, their trusted advisor, to make this big decision.

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IBM Corporation is the exclusive sponsor of TechRepublic’s special series on Web Hosting. IBM’s e-business Hosting gives you the freedom to customize an array of services into a solution that is shaped by your business, not ours.

For more information, check out TechRepublic’s Web Hosting Center, or visit IBM’s e-business Hosting site

In order for you to make the right decision for your client, you must be up to speed on the Web hosting market and clearly understand what your client is looking for from an ISP, as well as your role in the decision-making process. Read on to find out how to make sure you choose an ISP that’s the right fit for your client.

The client’s wish list
So, what do buyers want most from an ISP? According to a recent survey in Interactive Week magazine, these six attributes stand out as most important among respondents:

  • Network reliability
  • Value for price
  • Network performance
  • Customer service responsiveness
  • Technical support
  • How quickly the ISP can get the site up and running

Network reliability is the strong leader as the number one customer requirement; second-tier attributes include network capacity, availability of broadband service, and network reach.

Price will also be a major factor for small and midsize companies, according to Gartner analyst Ted Chamberlin. (TechRepublic is a subsidiary of Gartner.)

“Let’s say you’re a company and you have a small Web presence, but in six months to a year, you’re going to have potentially explosive growth,” he said. “These companies want to look for a hosting provider that can take care of their needs now, but that, as they grow and their needs get more complex, [won’t necessitate a] move to another provider, which is really painful. [They want] a hoster that has…a snapshot of the future and can handle client growth.”
TechRepublic is featuring a series of articles on this topic in every republic this month. If you’d like to see what your IT colleagues are doing with Web hosting, click here.
But for those buyers who want to curb costs, Chamberlin warns that the price can mean the difference between average and optimum service from an ISP. He recommends that site monitoring be done by both the ISP and the customer, and that a savvy customer push for this in the service level agreement (SLA).

“When you pay more money, you get what you pay for in measuring and monitoring,” Chamberlin said. “The better hosters will give you an online access to the portal to look into the network and see what’s going on. Some will send you a report once a month. You’re paying them $30,000 to $100,000 a month—you expect that. When you’re paying a little bit less for hosting, that’s when it becomes a little bit fuzzy. I think you really have to take the job of monitoring your [own] site.”

How can you help?
So, what role do IT consultants play in their clients’ selection of an ISP? Chamberlin notes that many large companies are calling on consulting firms to help them through the process, often because clients need the consultant’s help writing a request for proposal (RFP) to go out to the ISPs being considered.

“They’ll hire [a firm] like Cap Gemini or PricewaterhouseCoopers to go through and help them construct RFPs,” he said. “It really helps them wade through a really undifferentiated market where what people can deliver and what they say they can deliver are definitely two disparate items. People will say, ‘We can do everything, and we’ll give you 100 percent up time,’ which is close to impossible.”

In his experience, consultants have been involved mainly on the front end. They generally offer set design and site content, “but when it comes down to the actual negotiations with the hosts, you don’t see consultants playing a big role,” Chamberlin said. “A lot of hosts will only deal with the end user.”

Others in the business, however, say that’s changing, asmore consultants are being called on to help implement e-business solutions.

“Most companies are moving from using the Internet as a marketing and e-mail tool to a more robust business solution,” said Greg Miller, a consultant whose firm, Technology Means Business, is dedicated to helping clients integrate their business and technology efforts. “As part of this process, you need to ensure that the infrastructure is appropriate (and this typically means going back to see what the ISP is capable of doing for your client) in the short and long term. This means going back to the client and getting them to understand the critical role the ISP plays in their plans. Too often, they view [ISPs as playing] a back-office role that is not really important to their plans.”

Miller generally acts as a project manager for his clients, which requires his services past the initial setup of the SLA.

“Once the ISP has been selected, I craft an overall project plan that addresses both the business and technical aspects,” he said. “We use the standard PM constructs. I facilitate meetings between my client and the ISP and work directly with the ISP to resolve any technical issues. I normally stay on for 15-30 days after the installation to make sure all the bugs are ironed out.”

Use Miller’s matrix to determine client’s needs and wants
When called on by clients to help choose an ISP, Miller starts from the beginning with a matrix that allows him to determine in a reasonably quick fashion the needs of the organization and the cost/profit ratio they want. He talks with clients to determine the following:

  • What do they want to accomplish? Will they use the Web for marketing, sales, and back-office functions? (This gives Miller an idea of the client’s functional needs.)
  • What are the timing requirements? Do they need 24x7x365 uptime, or something less stringent?
  • What do they expect the current and the future data needs to be?
  • What level of support does the client want from their ISP?

From those answers, Miller determines the cost estimate as well as the return on investment. He also searches for cost savings by outsourcing or using software vendors that have strategic partnerships with ISPs, and researches performance bonuses or penalties that are part of various vendors’ SLA offerings.

“We look into financials of the companies, time in business, strategic partnerships, and references. Using the matrix we developed in the beginning, we rate vendors. This keeps us honest to our plan.”

Finally, he determines 5-10 vendors that most closely meet the criteria that has been established and sends RFPs or RFIs (requests for information) to each of them.
Do you advise clients on Web hosting? What’s your role? Is this part of a larger menu of service offerings, or do you focus solely on this market? Join the discussion below or send us a note.