How to Pick the Right IT Consultant

By Patricia Fusco | Posted October 09, 2003

Choosing an information technology consultant to help you find and deploy new hardware, upgraded software, or a new networking system is no small task. All too often, the future of your business relies on your ability to make the right decision — not so much about the technology being used, but the technology partner you choose to provide the service.

So how should you go about choosing an IT consultant?

To find out, we talked to the experts — hardware and software consultants, resellers and independent software vendors offer their advice to small business owners seeking IT solutions.

Small, But Comprehensive
Senter Tech is a full-service small business consultancy group located in Centralia, Wash., population 8,000. Morris Pettit, Senter Tech vice president of business development, said the company's core focus it to provide computing infrastructures for small businesses.

"We build and manage a lot of wide-area and local-area networks for small businesses. Our average client needs to network 15- to 20-computers and doesn't have dedicated IT personnel on staff," Pettit said. "But these small businesses recognize that they need sophisticated technology in order to stay competitive with larger businesses — that's where we come into the picture."

Senter Tech relies on mainstream manufacturers, including Cisco, Dell and Microsoft, to provide high-quality computing systems for its small business customers. Pettit said it's important to work with high-quality vendors if Senter Tech is going to stand behind what it sells, which is one the things small businesses should look for in a consultant.

"We're not just a set-and-go vendor," Pettit said. "We stand behind what we sell — that's the key to building a good relationship with our customers. Small businesses want a trusted advisor."

Pettit said small business owners know they need new technologies, but they don't have the time to research what's available to them. Since time is money, small businesses need to trust a consultant to make cost-effective recommendations to them.

"Small businesses are very conservative when it comes to technology," Pettit said. "In order to connect with them, we have to gain an understanding of their business processes, and then show them how technology can improve these processes. Geography is fairly important if we're going to show a small business the value behind implementing a new system."

Integrated, Yet Inexpensive
Based in Omaha, Neb., eOne Group has been an IBM business partner for several years. eOne Group provides e-commerce applications for small retail and mail order businesses.

Dan Watson, eOne Group co-founder, said its applications provide a range of integrated functions, such as order management and customer relationship management, based on IBM's WebSphere and DB2 Express middleware.

"We were an IBM partner for 12 years prior to founding eOne Group," Watson said. "As an independent software vendor (ISV), we're certified in Linux and sell only IBM hardware and software. Our programs will run on other hardware, but we only certify that they will run on IBM gear because we know we can control the quality of our programs on IBM."

As an ISV, eOne Group brings a different service set to IT consulting. For business-to-business operations (B2B), eOne Group acts as an outsourcer for small businesses that need e-commerce and customer service applications. For business-to-consumer (B2C) operations, eOne Group's websites can help owners figure out what their customers look at and buy, in addition to performing online transactions and general trend-spotting.

Watson said that it's important that small businesses consider their ISV as a trusted partner.

"Small businesses expect expert knowledge that can wrap around their industry in order to produce unique online offerings," Watson said. "Their ISV has to be a trusted partner that can provide this expert knowledge so the small business can get comfortable with the technology and Linux."

Watson said some small businesses benefit from working with a local ISV.

"There are some advantages to being local, too. It helps build trust," Watson said. "We rely on our small businesses customer to do what they do well. As a software consultant, we come into the picture to help them maximize their investment in technology and make it really payoff."

Do More, With Less
Nestled in Shohomish, Wash., just outside of Seattle, Robert Strasser has been a Novell reseller for about two years, but has worked with Novell products for over eight years. As the co-founder of ClearView Consulting, Strasser represents half of the two-person firm. He said that's one of the greatest things about technology — small businesses can do more with less.

ClearView Consulting provides IT services to a range of small businesses, but Strasser said his clients tend to be on the very small or very large side of the small-business scale.

"We take care of a lot of very small businesses with five or fewer people and businesses with about 1,000 network connections — not much in between," Strasser said. "We're unique to the area because we specialize in Novell and XML, so we deal with some large, but mostly small businesses."

Strasser said one of the most common complaints from small business owners, is that their IT consultant doesn't listen to them.

"What we hear from most people is that their consultant is not listening to what they want," Strasser said. "The number one complaint is that IT consultants only push what they want to sell, which may or may not be the solution a small business needs."

Strasser said that it's important for IT consultants to know their products and be up to date with their certifications. For ClearView consulting, that means Strasser keeps tabs on new Novell software and Dell hardware.

Unlike some small business IT consultants, Strasser said geography shouldn't be much of an issue when it comes time to tap into outsourced IT services.

"We work with small businesses all over the U.S., Canada and Mexico," Strasser said. "We can go on site, provide phone support, or handle problems through remote access, so we're not too concerned about geographic distance — the Internet brings us all together."

Get Ready
Before hiring and IT consultant, take the time organize an overview of your business processes. Be prepared to point out problems and bottlenecks that better communications systems or new technologies could eliminate. Ask prospective IT consultants to listen to you first, and then prepare their recommendations second.

Before deploying an unfamiliar technology, get familiar with hardware and software consultants, resellers, and independent software vendors in your area. Consider the different types of services that each type of IT consultant can provide — eliminate obvious poor choices. Ask for references and check out only those consultants out that appear to be a good fit for your business.

You don't need to become knowledgeable in all the different technologies that are available — that's why you're hiring an IT consultant. Finally, understand that cost is not the only factor when implementing a new technology. After all, you can't put a price on trust, which is the key to building a successful business relationship with an IT consultant.

Do you have a comment or question about this article or other small business topics in general? Speak out in the SmallBusinessComputing.com Forums. Join the discussion today!

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