Wednesday, 13 July 2011

IT Maintenance Contracts

Contributed by Farzana Rasheed

This blog post was prompted by a very promising meeting with a UN agency on the possibility of providing monthly maintenance services at their offices. The organisation was previously engaged with another IT company who initially provided good service but tapered off to the point where assigned staff to the site was constantly changing, breakdowns of hardware were not speedily attended to and service was quite poor. 

UN agencies have 'corporate' standards, central servers, standardised OS and Anti-Virus on all users' machines, and massive bandwidth. The whole system usually runs pretty well, updates are automatically and swiftly done thanks to high internet speeds, equipment is regularly replaced, and so on. 

What can NATC do? Where NATC can bring value is servicing of the hardware especially copiers and printers in order to extend the life of these machines, prevent breakdowns and not let users be affected. Laptops may experience blue screens due to a hardware or memory failure. NATC can resolve these problems by replacing parts or re-formatting the disks. By adhering to regular maintenance and being available for requests for call outs and breakdowns/repairs we can help this organisation to maintain its set up and the IT officer can focus on overall management of the system. 

The meeting went well and fingers crossed, the client will approve our proposal. 

We are currently signed on with several customers in the NGO and mining sectors and the experience will inform the technical and financial aspects of our proposal. 

IT Maintenance Contracts in Liberia

IT Maintenance Contracts have a significant scope in Liberia. The potential market is comprised of international NGOs and the UN agencies, banks, multi-nationals, mining outfits and local companies.  NATC is currently providing monthly maintenance to such entities who not only benefit from monthly maintenance on hardware and software but also general tech support and network management. In short, some of the clients we deal with have outsourced all their IT to NATC. 

Qualified and experienced IT professionals are hard to find in Liberia because of the poor educational system, lack of IT forums, and very few job opportunities. Organisations often complain of having poorly-skilled IT officers who cannot do basic trouble shooting. 

NATC routinely addresses IT issues of organisations that vary in size, style, culture, and location. One one hand we deal with modest-sized international NGOs who need monthly servicing on rather outdated laptops. Their local staff are not so IT-literate and ask us to help them with basic queries. On the other hand, we deal with giant mining companies who need us to transfer their V-SAT equipment from one camp to another; to extend their network across their new pre-fab container offices and rooms; and, repair large network printers. We solve very varied IT issues every day which gives us a lot of experience and knowledge on how to resolve hardware failure, source replacements parts, plan and execute projects in Monrovia or in other counties; and so on. We are familiar with organisational issues and how they affect IT. All in all, this gives us a significant edge over the average IT officer working here in the IT-deprived environment of Liberia. 

But things are improving! 

Ushahidi and iLab Liberia recently organised a workshop to discuss the use of free online tools to monitor the elections and open source technology.  Google West Africa has also organised a couple of "Google Internet Camps". However such workshops and events are rare. 


Liberia's economy is slowly but steadily moving towards services. Services can be typically more difficult to 'sell' than goods and Liberia is no exception. People prefer purchasing a good which they can touch and see rather than paying for preventative maintenance on their hardware and software. It can be quite tricky to convince new customers to invest in monthly servicing of their equipment and network. 

International NGOs have very limited budgets. We have experienced termination of contracts after 5 or 6 months into a signed contract due to "limited funding." This is a euphemism for 'we find your services too expensive and only realised this now.' This has led us to offer even more competitive pricing to the NGO sector. In fact, we now throw in any request for tech support free of charge within the same monthly flat fee. A customer can call us at any time and we dispatch a technician to their offices as soon as possible. 

Such pricing issues have forced us to assess all our contracts and apply the same strategy across the board be they international NGOs or international mining outfits. We now offer a flat monthly rate to all customers for all their IT needs. The customer gets regular maintenance as well as all the tech support they need. They would only separately and additionally pay for replacements parts in case repair of a hardware is needed. 

The local Liberian IT officer, who is essentially our counterpart, can be a challenge at times. He/she has to be engaged in a manner which does not challenge nor undermine him/her. We have actually been driven out of two organisations where the IT officer was a Liberian with whom we initially enjoyed a pleasant relationship, delivered excellent service, and even covered up his/her desperate lack of IT prowess but only to be sidelined out of a contract!

The ideal customer actually does not have in-house IT personnel and sees the merit in outsourcing IT to a company. It actually turns out to be cheaper than hiring personnel, paying a salary and benefits. 

Clients have also poached our painstakingly-trained and polished IT personnel. So there is the danger of having our staff snatched away, especially by those clients who have cancelled our contracts. You know who  you are!

With some of our customers, our entry point is usually at a nascent stage i.e. we come in at a time where the customer is setting up their office, needs networking, a server, hardware and reliable internet services. This is the most ideal context where NATC can actually help the client to set up their IT and then maintain it. Apart from the obvious profitable bit of it, it makes it that much easier to provide support on it. The customer feels comfortable in us managing and maintaining their system. 

On the other hand, if the entry point is after the organisation has already set itself up and has been around for a while, it takes time to 'learn' the the system and accordingly provide the best possible maintenance services. 

Lastly, it is useful to draft extremely detailed contracts but also to be flexible because the customer is always right!

How to stand out from the crowd?

First of all, NATC does not really have much in the way of competition. So, it is quite a thin crowd. But that does not mean we should not try to be as professional, stream-lined and on our toes all the time!

We have designed multiple forms to be used when on site. We have a Call Out Log for ad hoc calls and jobs. We also have a Maintenance Check List for the monthly visits. And lastly, we have a Customer Feedback form so we can constantly gauge the client's perceptions and levels of satisfaction.

For quality control purposes, the head of operations regularly accompanies staff on call outs and monthly visits. 

For comprehensive maintenance contracts, we submit detailed monthly reports that serve as a good record for what we have accomplished and highlight any relevant recommendations. As good and hardworking as our staff is, the basic report as written by them cannot be submitted as it is. We often have to heavily edit and beef it up. Furthermore, basic language skills are quite poor so we have started vocabulary and spelling classes at the office on Saturdays!

To overcome the high turnover that is common in Liberia, we have a trainee programme at NATC where youngsters can apply and enter a two-year traineeship. These trainees are taught, supervised and groomed both by the IT Supervisor and the Management. 

We are also planning on sending our staff for fibre optics training to Nigeria later this year in anticipation of the arrival of the undersea cable from France to West Africa and how it will affect the IT market/infrastructure in Liberia. 

It's Worth It and Moreover, it's Still Good Business

Despite all the challenges outlined above, IT Maintenance contracts have excellent potential in Liberia and this market is only going to grow. Multi-nationals and mining companies are coming in by the bucket loads and they all need IT. Moreover, these big corporations really appreciate the concept of outsourcing services like IT. They have global contracts, large and sophisticated systems that still need require local support and they are more than happy to pay for it. 

The ups and downs of various contracts we have executed have emphasised the need to be as competitive as possible in terms of pricing and as professional, efficient and slick in the actual service as possible. 

A deep understanding of the client in terms of their organisational structure, changing needs and priorities is also very useful. 

As mentioned previously, service can be difficult to sell and deliver but it is profitable. The main investment is staff and continual development and nurturing of staff - as opposed to stock, warehousing, exports/imports, duties and fees etc - which is well worth it and rewarding. 

We at NATC believe we have raised the standards for professional IT maintenance services in Liberia. We have an excellent core team of technicians managed by a forward-looking and optimistic leadership! We can't go wrong! 

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