Your Domain Registrar
Most domain registrars (the company you registered your domain with, to which you pay an annual domain registration fee) also offer email hosting. Assuming the company has good phone support, it can be a pretty easy setup (or switchover).
In our experience from working with many insurance agencies over the years, not every domain registrar is a good fit for hosting your email. Some companies don't offer very reliable service, while others have pretty poor customer service options (long hold times, untrained tech support staff, etc).
One registrar we have had great experience with is GoDaddy. If they are your domain registrar, they are also a good option to consider for your email hosting too.
A 3rd Party Email Hosting Company
If you're not comfortable using your domain registrar, you might consider a larger company who specializes in email hosting, such as Google Apps or Rackspace. Both are large companies who offer a high degree of reliability and flexibility.
If you're looking for an Exchange solution, definitely look into Hosted Exchange (meaning you do not have a physical server in your office). Not only is this more cost effective (no expensive server to buy), it's also your best option in any kind of disaster preparedness plan.
If the power goes out in your office, or the office floods where your Exchange server is located, or if someone spills coffee on it, you're automatically without email.
If the Exchange server is hosted off-site (like with Rackspace), your email will still be functional, allowing you and your employees to keep in touch with customers via email from home computers or your mobile devices.
Rackspace offers a great option for this, and (at the time this article was written) includes the Outlook software licenses as part of your hosting package.
As a side-note, Banyan Theory has been using Google Apps for our email hosting for over 5 years and we've been very happy with it. Our team uses a variety of devices to access email (desktop computer using Outlook or Apple Mail, laptops using Webmail, mobile phones and iPads, etc).
No matter what device email is viewed on, it stays in sync across all devices (so when it's read on a phone, it gets marked as read in Outlook).
This kind of syncing is available with IMAP. If this is something you want for your email hosting, be sure to ask any potential hosting providers if IMAP is available (some providers only offer POP, which does not sync your devices).
Your Website Hosting Company
Often the company who hosts your website also offers email hosting. However (such as with a local contractor), chances are they are using a service that you could utilize without involving them, such as Google Apps or the domain registrar.
It may seem more convenient to just have everything all in once place, but our recommendation (which we often provide to insurance agents when discussing a new website) is that you keep your email and website hosting separate.
The main reason for this is that if you want to change your website down the road, but not your email, it can get kind of messy to manage the change (and sometimes impossible to do without also changing your email hosting). It should be very simply to swap out one service and not the other. A lot of web hosting companies like it to be complicated though because it makes it harder for you to switch away from them – for email, web or both.
A Local IT Contractor
If you have an IT person who manages your computer hardware and networks, they may also offer an email hosting solution. Chances are, they're going to use one of the services you could go direct with, as opposed to their own exclusive system.
The benefit with this is you have someone on-site to help you with Outlook changes on your computer, and technical questions. The downside is this can be a more expensive option since these types of contractors often charge per visit or per hour.
Some important questions to ask when considering a local contractor for email hosting are:
- Do they have 24/7 support?
- What's their SLA (service level agreement) or response time (how long does it take for them to return calls/emails or come to the office to fix an issue)?
Your Internet Service Providers (ISP)
Many ISPs offer email hosting as part of your internet/phone service bundle. This can be simpler in terms of billing, but doesn't always offer the same level of support you'll get from a company who specializes in email hosting.
These companies specialize in something completely different than email, and often are limited in the type of phone or in-person service they are able to offer.
In addition, in many cases, if your internet service goes out, your email will too (meaning if you also rely on email on your phone, it may not be available there or from a home computer).
Sometimes it's better to spread out your services among serveral companies (despite the extra bills to keep track of) to avoid being too dependent on a single provider in the event of an outage.
So What's Best?
Ultimately you will need to weigh the pros and cons of each of your email hosting options before making a decision on which route to go. Always keep the long term benefits in mind – an email hosting provider should be one that you're comfortable staying with for many years to come.
When you do make a decision, also check out our article "Tips for a Successful Email Hosting Transfer" to ensure a smooth transition to your new provider.