What are professional services?
Professional services can help your business by solving IT problems and letting you get on with your work. It’s a broad category so, while there’s plenty of help available, you need to make sure you get the right professional services. Here’s what else you need to know.
Definition of professional services
In the broadest sense, professional services involve a provider offering a service based on their expert knowledge rather than selling a product. It’s a particularly popular approach in IT where knowing which hardware and software to use and how to use it can be just as important as the products themselves.
As a very simple example, Microsoft Word or a network router are both products. Installing and updating Word or selecting and configuring the router are both professional services.
Are there any exceptions to this definition?
As we’ve noted, in most cases software itself doesn’t come under the professional services umbrella. The exception is custom-designed software that a professional services provider creates to meet your specific needs. This means you’re effectively getting a two-for-one deal: the professional knowledge and skill to create the software and then the software itself.
In this context, the professional services solution is in contrast to an “out-of-the-box” option where you simply buy an existing software product.
What’s the difference between professional services and consulting?
Consulting is one of many different options that come under the IT professional services umbrella. In other words, consulting is a professional service, but not all professional services involve consulting.
What does professional services cover?
The term “professional services” is broad and limited only by the needs of a business (and the ability of a professional services provider to meet those needs.) However, many professional services fall into a few major categories:
As noted, this is one of the most important professional services in IT. Before recommending solutions and making them a reality, a good provider can take the time to talk through your needs and options. It’s worth being open-minded here as in many cases a provider can suggest solutions and possibilities that you hadn’t considered.
IT is often as much about logistics as the actual work itself. A good professional services can figure out the right order to carry out the necessary steps to achieve your goals. They’ll also be able to plan timescales, spot potential holdups, and build in contingencies for any hitches. More experienced providers will also know the importance of working around the way you do business to minimize disruption.
Whether it’s a custom application or a system for using existing technology, professional services providers can take care of the full development process. This can include:
- Coming up with the idea for a solution.
- Planning it in detail.
- Building it.
- Testing it for both bugs and performance.
- Revising it where necessary.
- Making sure it’s fully compatible with your existing set-up.
Deployment and Migration
A professional services provider can take care of the potentially major headache of installing software and solutions on your system. This includes minimizing disruption and dealing with any technical problems. They can also transfer over existing accounts, data and workflows to the new software or system, removing or reducing any headaches.
This work can also include training staff on using the new software and dealing with any initial problems.
Professional service providers can analyze all manner of data in your systems and software. In some cases this could simply involve the way the systems work, highlighting areas where things aren’t as efficient as they could be or there’s a particular risk of delays and faults. In other cases this can extend to the content of your data, throwing up ways you could change how you operate to become more efficient.
What’s the difference between professional services and managed services?
This is a somewhat disputed point as some IT providers consider managed services to be a particular type of professional services, while others disagree.
The most common distinction is the timescale. Professional services tend to be a one-off proposition where you hire a provider to carry out a specific task or project. As noted, this could be developing an application, transitioning to a new software package or consulting on how to achieve a particular goal.
Contrastingly, managed services is an ongoing proposition. You’ll hire a provider to take care of a particular aspect or aspects of your IT activity and they will then look after this indefinitely while you continue paying a regular service fee.
How does pricing work for professional services?
Traditionally, professional services worked on an hourly pricing model. The price would normally depend on a combination of the expertise of the professional services provider and the type of tasks you asked them to carry out. Providers who use this model will often give an estimate of how long a particular task will take. This gives you a good idea of the total cost while still allowing some flexibility if the project expands or proves more complicated than anticipated.
More recently some professional services providers have switched to a fixed price model where you pay a single agreed fee for the project. This means a little more uncertainty for the provider’s finances but can be a commercial advantage by attracting clients who need the reassurance of a fixed fee. It also gives providers an incentive to work efficiently rather than there be any impression of them “padding out” the hours.
Some professional services now work on a subscription basis, which arguably brings them under the more common definition of managed services.
What are the pros and cons of professional services?
The main advantages of the model are:
- You can access expertise without the need for full-time in-house staff.
- You can hire a specialist for a particular project.
- The provider can not only help you choose the best option, but can often suggest options you weren’t aware of.
The main disadvantages of the model are:
- Professional service providers are often more expensive that generalist IT workers.
- The model doesn’t always lend itself to long-term thinking.
- You need to be confident the provider follows best practices for security when accessing your data and systems.
Are there any alternatives to professional services for IT?
Some businesses prefer to handle their IT operations in house and keep control of decision-making. For these businesses the gap that needs filling is not planning and logistics, but rather qualified, expert staff.
One option is to simply recruit full-time or permanent staff, though this can be financially inefficient, particularly for a business with expanding or fluctuating needs. Another option is staff augmentation. This means hiring expert staff on a temporary basis to work on a specific project. (That’s not the same as simply hiring extra generalist staff to cope with additional demand, for example seasonal work.) A specialist recruiter such as Intercast Staffing can help source qualified and experienced professionals for staff augmentation.
How do I choose a professional services provider?
Normally the best starting point is to think through exactly what you want to achieve with a project or task. This will help you decide what work you need the professional services provider to do. (Remember, though, that professional services can include consultancy that helps you identify tasks and solutions.)
In most cases you should look for a professional services provider that has specialist skills in the type of work you need done. You should then ask for a price quote based on specific requirements for what you want to achieve and any restrictions or preferences for how it is done.
Don’t be afraid to ask for evidence that the provider follows best practice in areas such as maintaining client confidentiality, vetting its staff, and keeping its experts up to date through professional development and training.
Many businesses prefer to use service providers that speak to them in plain language, explaining any jargon and detailing the implications for the specific business of the various decisions they must make.
Let’s recap the main things you need to know about professional services:
- In an IT context, professional services means hiring outside experts to carry out specific tasks.
- This can include consulting, project management, development, deployment and migration, and analytics.
- Professional consulting usually involves work on a specific one-off task or project, unlike managed services which cover a particular area of IT on an ongoing basis.
- The most common professional services pricing model is an hourly rate, though some providers offer fixed pricing for a project.
- Professional services has benefits including accessing outside experts who can find the best way to perform a task. Businesses that prefer to keep control and simply need more expert workers for a particular project may find the staff augmentation model a better fit.
- A good professional services provider will have specialist knowledge of the task in question. They’ll also clearly explain their methods and your available options.