The Intelligent Search for IT

By Lauren Simonds | Posted August 02, 2005

Having the right IT support for your small business can improve the company's overall efficiency and productivity and ultimately help it compete at a level that belies its size. But finding the solutions that work best for your company takes a lot of time and specialized knowledge. Surveys consistently indicate that SMB owners would rather focus on running — and growing — the business than get bogged down sorting out IT issues.

For many companies, hiring a third party to handle their IT needs may be the way to go — but how do you find the expert service and reliability you need for your specific business? We spoke with Will Luden, CEO, and Keith Costas, director of engineering, of Info Partners, a San Mateo, Calif.-based IT firm that caters to small business. Here's what they say every small business owner should think about before he or she signs a tech support contract.

Who Do You Trust?
"Most small business owners don't like dealing with IT, " said Luden. "They just want it to work and then go away. They're tired of employees complaining that it doesn't work." At the same time, owners know don't want to risk their companies to just anyone. Trust pays an integral part when it comes to outsourcing IT.

Both men advise small business owners to begin the search process by looking at three main criteria: expertise, availability and reputation. Look for an IT company that offers a breadth of expertise with extensive experience in all kinds of technology. "They should be able to handle hardware, software, voice, video and all your data needs — anything that plugs into a wall and then some," said Costas. "You should be able to rely on them for big concerns such as strategic advice, budgeting, security and software as well as smaller stuff like downloading wallpaper to your cell phone."

Your IT provider should also have enough staff to handle any emergency or sudden, short-term project. "They should have a team that can scale up when you need it and scale down when you don't. You want them to be able to throw nine people at project and get it done quickly," said Luden.

Of course, you want a reputable company, so you need to ask for references. "Word of mouth is key to bringing in new business," said Costas. "We know our customers refer us because they're pleased with our work. When you're shopping around for an IT provider, make sure you ask to speak with a few of their customers."

Matchmaker, Matchmaker
Once you've established that an IT company has the expertise and availability you need, along with outstanding references, it's time, according to Costas, to examine how the company does business and whether its philosophy fits with your own. "Let's say, for example that maintenance, budgeting and planning are the most important issues to you. If an IT company comes back with 'yeah, yeah, but what's really important is getting your server back up,' you have a disconnect in priorities," said Costas. "Look for an alignment in business values and business style.

Luden noted that it's important for IT providers to listen to their customers and understand their needs. "IT is not about servicing computers," he said. "It's servicing people who have computer needs. Half of this job requires technical skills and the other half calls for social skills. You can't do it if you don't have both in abundance."

Luden sees similarities between selecting an IT provider and finding a family doctor. "You want a good rapport," he said. "I like to call it finding someone with a good 'keyboard-side manor.'"

In Search of IT
Costas recommends that you start by asking other companies, especially those within your industry, who they use for IT support. Once you have the names of several contenders, you can start interviewing them to find the right fit.

"Ask how many engineers they have on staff," said Costas. "An IT firm's entire team of engineers makes up a collective knowledge pool; the more engineers, the deeper the pool. It's a lot like car repair in that no one mechanic is good at every kind of repair." At the same time, Costas said to avoid anyone who tosses around jargon. "You want someone who can explain the technology in straight, non-technical English."

Also, said Luden, it's important to ask what vertical industries an IT company works in. "Find out if they have experience in your specific line of work and be sure to discuss your industry's down time tolerance." That's important, he said, because, for example, a venture capitalist firm will have a very high sensitivity to network down time where as it might not be as critical if a landscape business went without e-mail for four hours.

Both men advise asking your prospective providers to do an assessment on the current state of your IT and submit a detailed plan of what they'd do for you. "We provide this service," said Luden. "It let's customers see how we work, and it shows how much time and resources it will take to get your company where it wants to go. Most importantly, it gives both the customer and the IT provider a chance to see if the relationship's a good fit. It's a time when you're interviewing each other.

"Ultimately, finding an IT provider is about making a good personal and technical match," said Luden. "It's an ongoing relationship that requires good communication on both sides."

Lauren Simonds is the managing editor of SmallBusinessComputing.com

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