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Working With Security Service Providers: What Every Small Business Manager Should Know

Choosing the right provider is only the beginning, experts say. The real key is building a relationship

So you work in a small to midsize business, and you've decided to outsource security to a third-party service provider. Congratulations!

Now what?

If your answer is, "I don't know," don't feel too badly -- you're not alone. In fact, experts say, most SMBs don't know much more about managing or negotiating with security service providers than they knew about security technology in the first place.

"Most SMBs don't know the difference between MSSPs [managed security service providers], SaaS [software as a service] providers, or cloud security providers," says Joel Smith, CTO at AppRiver, which provides a variety of security services for small businesses. "That's not their job. That's why they call us."

Khalid Kark, senior analyst for security at Forrester Research, agrees. "We're seeing increased activity among SMBs in the services space," he says. "The external threats are becoming more complex. They have limited resources, and their security skill level is not very high. They're looking for help."

So if they don't have the time or skills to do security themselves, how can SMBs build a relationship with a security service provider -- without getting rooked?

The first step is not to expect too much, experts say. "One of the first mistakes we see with people who are looking to outsource is that they want to dump the entire burden on someone else," says Kevin Prince, CTO at Perimeter eSecurity, a managed services rovider that offers a wide range of services for SMBs. "They think they're going to give the job to the provider, and they won't have to worry about it anymore. But that's not the right way to approach it."

Kark concurs. "A lot of SMBs have an expectation that they are not only outsourcing the responsibility for security, but also the accountability for security," he says. "That's wrong. Even if they've brought in a third party to manage security, they're still accountable if something goes wrong. You can't just hire somebody and forget about it."

The best relationships between SMBs and third parties develop when both parties view the relationship as a partnership, experts say. "If you know your environment well, and you know your business, then you can get the skills and services you need," Kark says. "If you aren't sure what you need, if you don't know what your priorities are, you're going to have problems with any provider."

Most SMBs start their security outsourcing relationships with just one or two services, observers say. "That's an effective strategy," Kark says. "You don't want to hand off everything right away. The [service provider] doesn't know your business. You don't know them. You want to hand off capabilities slowly, and see how they do."

Prince says that's how most SMBs get into security outsourcing in the first place. "Our average customer has five different services from us," he says. "But in most cases, they started out with one. They work with us, we learn about their business, and we tell them about the threats and the risks. They begin to see the value of some of the other services."

The key to building a strong relationship with a service provider, AppRiver's Smith says, is to continually test and give feedback to the provider as the relationship develops. "The first thing you want to do is befriend a sales rep and somebody on the support side," he says. "You want to be able to ask how you can do this or that, and get an educated response from someone who understands your business."

But while SMBs need a flexible relationship with their providers, they should also be careful to build some minimum expectations into the service contract, Kark warns. "If you don't set any expectations, then the outsourcer will probably do the bare minimum," he says. "Establish some service level agreements. Monitor them to be sure they're meeting their promises." Tim Wilson is Editor in Chief and co-founder of Dark Reading.com, UBM Tech's online community for information security professionals. He is responsible for managing the site, assigning and editing content, and writing breaking news stories. Wilson has been recognized as one ... View Full Bio

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