Geeks for Rent: Changing IT Support for SMBs

Since most small businesses don’t need and can’t afford a full-time IT person, SMBs frequently relied on Fred, the receptionist’s flaky-but-computer-savvy cousin to handle the support. But as IT becomes mission critical to small businesses, a quiet revolution is taking place. As networks and security issues become increasingly sophisticated and state and federal compliance regulations affect more and more SMBs, many companies have found that turning over their support function to a company that specializes in providing such services is a better option.

In fact, it’s often more productive to hire an outside company that offers a combination of part-time on-site IT support with on-call helpdesk available in case problems arise when the on-site person is not around. In recent years, an entire cottage industry of “Geeks’R’Us” companies has appeared to answer the need for reliable, quality part-time IT support for small businesses.

Before entering into an outsourcing relationship with an IT services company, however, you need to understand exactly what you should outsource and what to keep in-house. This month we look at how to choose an outsourced IT support solution that best suits your business.

Available Services
No matter what your exact IT requirements, you’ll find a company that’s ready to work with you. Many IT support companies were started by people who previously provided tech support services in larger companies. As the bigger companies standardized their systems, the need for legions of IT support staff diminished. At the same time, the need for support in small companies has dramatically increased. Voila, an opportunity was born and thousands of entrepreneurial computer support personnel started their own IT support companies dedicated to the home and small business markets.

You’ll find IT support companies that specialize in servicing architectural firms, law offices, insurance agencies &#151 you name it. The benefit: they’ll be familiar and comfortable with the software and applications commonly used in your industry.

Service options range from per-call support (for the budget conscious), to full staffing of an entire IT department. You can arrange for a monthly or yearly contract that guarantees you access to a specified number of support hours.

For example, a company called Digiticians offers desktop support over the phone and through their Web site. The price is great, you can purchase help in 15-minute blocks, but it only works if you have an operational Internet connection.

Identifying Your Support Needs
The decision to outsource your IT support might sound simple, but if you don’t know what your requirements are, you might find yourself paying for services you don’t need, or worse, finding that you don’t have enough coverage. If you’re comfortable with a provider that’s available during standard business hours, you’ll pay a lot less than you would if you needed extended hours or 24/7 support.

If you own a very small business or you’re cost sensitive, you might be interested in a service that provides per-call or per-incident support rather than a monthly service contract. Think about how much on-site support you really need. Having a part-time person visit on a weekly or monthly basis can substantially cut your support services bills.

Some outsourcing companies claim that they will save you money because you won’t have to pay employee benefits, but that’s not always true. After all someone has to pay the staffing costs, either directly or indirectly.

Finding an IT service company that supports a generic Microsoft office environment with a file server or two is relatively easy, but if you have specialized software and hardware, you should consider a provider that’s familiar with your unique requirements.

For example, an engineering company needs support for their specialized applications while a small retail shop might need someone familiar with point of sale (POS) solutions. If you are in a niche industry, look for a company that advertises that they service your industry. Often these specialized providers have worked in the industry or have previously held full-time positions supporting similar companies.

Keep the tech support in-house only if you would have difficulty locating a person with the specialized knowledge that you need, or if you’re sensitive to giving control of an important business function to an outside party. SLAs and contracts are great, but they’re only as good as the business relationship. You might be able to take the vendor to court, but don’t count on much recourse if things go wrong.

Choosing the Right IT Partner
It’s important to make sure that your IT support service can deliver the services that you need. Many providers tout that their staff’s vendor certifications, but that only guarantees that they were able to pass an exam. It doesn’t demonstrate the ability to troubleshoot or address your support needs.

Remember, this company will have all the passwords and know all your company secrets, so it’s important that you trust them implicitly. Many people find their IT partners through word of mouth from other companies in the same business. References from satisfied customers are your best assurance that the company can deliver the promised services.

Ask potential IT providers about the size of the company and how they maintain their accounts. Many providers assign a one person to service your account. You benefit because they get to know you and are generally more responsive to your needs, but the downside is that if they leave, the replacement might need to be retrained if the provider doesn’t track of your account history in other ways.

As for vendor size, several large, national companies have started servicing SMBs, but most of them can’t compete with the low overhead and personalized service of a Joe Geek who has only four accounts. Your decision should be based on your comfort level with the specific provider rather than the company size.

You need to ask them how they would normally provide support. Often the service provider has a standard way of doing things that might not suit your needs. If the answer is a list of cookie cutter applications and a requirement that you conform to their way of doing things, walk away. They will not be responsive to your specific requirements. You’re buying services, not an off the shelf product.

The Bottom Line
Seriously consider outsourcing your IT support if you don’t need a full-time person but you do need flexible services that you can’t provide in-house. A good relationship with the right service provider &#151 where the outsourcer is more like a true business partner &#151 will ensure that your operation runs smoothly and that your business will be more productive.

Beth Cohen is president of Luth Computer Specialists, a consulting practice specializing in IT infrastructure for smaller companies. She has been in the trenches supporting company IT infrastructure for over 20 years in a number of different fields including architecture, construction, engineering, software, telecommunications, and research. She is currently consulting, teaching college IT courses, and writing a book about IT for the small enterprise.

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