Finding Mr. Fix-It

By SmallBusinessComputing Staff | Posted July 01, 2001
by Amee Abel

Your pcs are the beating hearts of your office, and ailing PCs can be as devastating to your business as a heart attack is to your body. Most large corporations and some smaller ones, cope with PC meltdowns by employing an IT staff, but many small businesses don't have this luxury. If your organization is among them, what can you do to keep your technology problems to a minimum?

First, when shopping for new equipment, consider the warranty. Most desktops, even ones bought in volume, come with a standard one to three-year warranty. If you are going to rely solely on a major vendor for your tech support, be sure that your warranty comes with unlimited phone support, reliable on-site service, and a reasonable return policy. Most vendors offer optional agreements for small businesses that include coverage of hardware and software and 24-hour on-site repair.

If you are purchasing equipment from a reseller or local custom PC shop, or IT services from an independent contractor or service provider, be sure to get your warranty information and service agreement in writing. Gary Griffiths, CEO of Freemont, CA-based Everdream Corporation, an independent IT service provider, says that small businesses hear a lot of promises, but they often get the run around. "You need to understand what you are getting," Griffiths says. "It's important to have a written service guarantee, especially for response time."

Second, prepare for PC emergencies by taking care of your systems. Establish an organization-wide policy so that all of your employees back up their data at least once a week. Windows users should run Disk Defrag, Disk Cleanup, and ScanDisk once a month. You can also opt for service plans that provide regular maintenance, backup, and data recovery services.

Third, develop a plan for when disaster strikes. This includes excellent record keeping; Your office should have copies of invoices, the names of components you've added to your systems, and a list of previous service calls. If you are past your vendor's warranty, have the names and numbers of your vendor's paid technical support, reputable PC repair services, or online tech support sites.

Finally, make good decisions ahead of time. Just because you may not have the money, training, or space it takes to have an on-site support staff, doesn't mean you have to do without help. PC vendors provide solid support for small businesses, as do independent contractors, resellers, and local service providers. You just need to investigate which service is most appropriate for your business.

Case Study 1: Outsource
When Glenn Setzler, vice president of Hartford, CT-based FLB Architecture and Planning, could no longer maintain and repair his company's 11 PCs on his own, he turned to Erik Semmel at TAB Computer Systems. Setzler's 10 employees needed high-end systems, network maintenance, and specialized software for their growing architectural firm, but they couldn't afford an in-house specialist. "We had a local computer technician come in and install a network, but he didn't have the broad knowledge we needed," Setzler says. The company also tried their PC vendor's support services. Even though their problems were solved, they had to wait on the phone and get transferred around before they found solutions.

"We called Erik after hearing him on the radio ['Computer Talk with Tab' on WTIC News Talk 1080 in Hartford], and found he was much easier to deal with." Semmel provides the firm with PCs, network services, upgrades, purchasing advice, and support for approximately $260 per month. Setzler is satisfied with the service. "Because we are in a field that requires specialized equipment and software, it's hard to find someone with the knowledge we need," Setzler says, "but we found we can rely on Erik." Best of all, Setzler's crew doesn't have to worry about downtime. "We don't have to spend two days figuring out the problem ourselves or wasting time on the phone," Setzler explains. "If Erik can't figure it out, he sends someone out to take care of it right away."

Setzler recommends that small businesses go to a trustworthy local company and outsource their PC tech support to them. "Find someone who has good, general knowledge of all of your systems, and above all, someone you are comfortable with."

Case Study 2: Go to the Source
The manufacturing end of Hancock, NH-based Trikeenan Tileworks has outgrown their garage, and Kristin and Stephen Powers' computer expertise has grown too. These days, the couple's computer equipment purchases are tempered by their past experiences with local PC repair shops.

Three years ago, the Powers bought computers from a local store that did not provide free service and support. "Whenever something went wrong, I had to make an appointment. It was a lot of waiting around and $120 for each visit," Kristin remembers. A year later, they bought Dell desktops and have come to rely on Dell's excellent customer service. Powers likes the fact that Dell's phone service is free, and that when she needs a part, they ship it to her right away. "With the first computer, we didn't know anything about computers, and we were taken advantage of."

Powers suggest that businesses without on-site support seek out a comprehensive, three-year warranty, even if they have to pay a little extra. "Another machine, which is less than three years old, has a broken CD-ROM drive that I'm not even willing to get fixed. I know with Dell, they'd still be behind it and I'd get a new drive."

Case Study 3: Independent Ally
The seven employees at C. Brinker Communications, a Dallas public relations firm, were on their last leg in mid-2000. The large IT services firm they employed had installed an expensive PC network, and an Internet solution meant for 40,000 workstations, and was refusing to service it. "They took advantage of us because we didn't know anything about computers," explains Beth Doolittle, the company's office manager and accountant. When an attempt to contract another firm to undo the damage failed, Doolittle finally turned to local independent contractor Allen Lentz.

After helping them through mediation with the original provider, Lentz got busy reorganizing and refining Brinker's installation (desktops, a laptop, a laser printer, a small network, and ISDN access). And he did it for less. "He came in nights and weekends, and didn't take our head off," Doolittle says. "We're saving at least $1000 per month now." Lentz continues to provide the firm with on-call tech support and consulting.

Doolittle thinks hiring an independent contractor is the way to go. "We are so small, we wouldn't have enough work for someone on staff," she says. She also recommends doing your homework before committing to any service. Check with your Better Business Bureau; get a second opinion; make sure you have a contract that provides service for all of your hardware, software, and services; get references; and finally, don't assume that a big IT service provider will give you the best service.

Questions to ask
Before signing any service agreement or accepting any warranty, protect your business by asking these questions.

What is covered?
A PC vendor will usually cover your PCs - no operating system or other type of software - for the length of the warranty. Optional services or customized service agreements are available from the major vendors, such as Gateway's Help Desk (800-846-2000 or www.gateway.com), which provides 24x7 automated troubleshooting and single-point-of-access resolution.

Independent contractors and larger IT service providers often offer package deals consisting of hardware and software support and maintenance, Internet access, network administration, backup services, and disaster recovery. Full service resellers' or local PC shops' warranties and service plans will vary.

How much is this going to cost me?
The Gartner Group estimates that it costs $7,000 to $18,000 to maintain a single PC for one year, including hardware, software, support, personnel, lost productivity during downtime, and other factors. You can do it for less: Everdream Corporation (888-307-7299 or www.everdream.com), for example, charges less than $2000 per year per PC for service and support. Remember, your business is worth the cost of complete coverage.

Do I get any guarantees?
When you rely on your PCs and other computer equipment to run your business, you can't afford downtime. You can purchase support options from vendors and independent dealers that guarantee availability of service, phone and on-site response time, and uptime.

What about training and certification?
Major PC vendors usually have certification, but a local shop or independent technician may not. Erik Semmel, vice president of TAB Computer Systems in Hartford, CT, says the most important factor in choosing a service provider is reputation. "Finding a company with a proven track record is a small business owner's best bet," Semmel says. He recommends finding technicians who are A+ certified (have passed the A+ tests proving basic PC knowledge), but says you can do without certifications such as MCSE [Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer]. "Top certifications like MCSE are usually too costly for small businesses, so it will come down to reputation and a quality service history."

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