In an ideal world, the tools you use to run your business would work properly exactly when you need them to. However, the reality of small business ownership is somewhat like Murphy’s Law—if something can go wrong, it probably will. As such, it’s important to have IT support measures in place that are ready to jump into action when disaster strikes and you find yourself without a working computer or a malfunctioning software application.
The precise details of your IT support strategy will depend largely on your business needs. At the end of the day, though, you should be able to answer one question: when a crisis strikes, will you be able to respond quickly and effectively?
Types of small business tech support
There are two primary options to consider for your small business’s tech support: outsourced services and in-house experts. It’s not necessarily an either-or decision, but it’s important to understand the benefits and drawbacks of both options.
- Outsourced IT services
- In-house IT support
Outsourced IT services
If you have an especially lean team of people helping run your business, outsourcing your IT support needs might be your best option. As opposed to hiring someone to support your IT needs full time, it may be better for you to work with an external partner on a contractual basis.
The details—and cost—of this contract can vary tremendously depending on your needs. You can hire some service providers on a break/fix basis; if you have a problem, someone helps you fix it. At the other extreme is 24/7 tech support, where people are on call around the clock to keep everything up and running and to deal with any and all IT issues. You can also find specialized support for your most important business applications and functions, like maintaining your CRM software or disaster recovery (DR) efforts.
“We let the client’s needs dictate their level of support,” said Erik Shanabrough, a tech support specialist at Magtype/CR, a computer support firm servicing southwestern Connecticut. His company provides server, workstation, and network support for a wide range of device types.
New clients, Shanabrough said, typically come with a to-do list of projects or items to build up over time—so there can be an initial flurry of activity. After that, his firm operates either on an as-needed basis or with a support contract for a minimum of six hours per week, often more. Companies like Magtype typically charge anywhere from $100-200 per employee per month for their services or a similar price per hour for on-demand support.
Benefits of outsourced IT services
With an outsourced IT support contract, there are a few benefits you can expect. First, you’ll have direct access to a wide range of experts, ensuring you’ll be able to get a solution to any problem you encounter. Rather than digging through countless troubleshooting documents yourself, you can spend your time focusing on your business priorities.
Plus, most service provider contracts include minimum service-level agreements. This means when you reach out to your IT service representative with an issue, there is a set timeline in which you should expect to receive a response. In-house IT staff aren’t always able to drop all of their other priorities at the drop of a hat, but service providers have a stake in making sure all your needs are met in a timely manner.
Drawbacks of outsourced IT services
On the other hand, outsourcing your IT needs can get expensive if you have a large number of employees. Some providers may offer a lower rate to provide more services to more people, but outsourced contracts can still come with a higher price tag than bringing someone on full time.
In the same vein, you may end up paying for more than you actually need. With in-house staff, you can ensure that your employees’ time is put to good use, but with contract work, you’ll be expected to pay the company you hire whether you ultimately use their services or not.
In-house IT support
Hiring in-house staff for IT needs might seem like a more pragmatic option for larger teams, but it’s hard to know when it’s worth the investment to add another person to your team. The first thing to consider is your staffing budget and how much service you actually need.
“A lower-level, in-house IT salary ranges from $55,000 to $100,000 with salaries considerably higher for specialized techs,” said Jason Kelley, VP of Product Support at security firm KnowBe4. “The break point for a company to hire an in-house IT person usually kicks in between 25 and 50 staff.”
One alternative is to add the IT support function to the duties of another employee, though this should come with an adjustment in compensation. You might not have the budget to bring in someone for a dedicated IT support role, but nobody likes taking on extra work for free.
Benefits of in-house IT support
Regardless of whether you choose to hire someone or ask an existing employee to take on more responsibilities, keeping tech support in-house is usually more affordable than hiring an external vendor. It’s also easier to maintain continuity with this approach; for example, if someone has an ongoing issue with their computer, their co-worker will better understand the history of the problem and not need it repeated every time something malfunctions.
Additionally, in-house IT support staff have more familiarity with your business needs. This means they can prioritize urgent needs and use resources more efficiently. Easily resolved issues, for example, can be addressed with self-guided troubleshooting documentation so more time and effort can be spent on big-picture needs instead.
Drawbacks to in-house IT support
At the same time, relying on internal IT support staff sometimes means problems aren’t always resolved as quickly as they could be if you opted for outside assistance. All of your employees have a limited number of hours in the day, and sometimes more pressing concerns mean smaller issues fall to the bottom of the to-do list. With outsourced IT support, the vendor you choose can add more manpower to support your business during busy seasons.
Further, your tech support employees may be somewhat limited in the breadth and depth of their knowledge compared to what an external partner can provide. A system admin should be able to solve most computer challenges, but you may be out of luck if you run into a complicated problem that requires specialized expertise.
Tips for using IT support services
Every business has different IT support requirements. That makes defining what you really need an important part of the selection process. “The business owner should decide what result he or she wants to achieve and determine how frequently it’s required,” said Kelley. “That process can guide them in finding the best solution for the best price.”
Your IT support options can involve farming out specific tasks or activities—from setting up computers and networks to keeping everything up and running to email set up and support—or specifically addressing backup or security. These days, there’s so much news around data leaks and malware attacks that it’s smart to have someone on call to deal with the consequences.
But IT support needs are not a static thing. The level of support that you need from vendors may change as the business matures. Further, you need to calculate the cost of not bringing in help. Thomas Pore, former VP of Technical Services at networking firm Plixer, suggests this is another key part of the vendor evaluation process. “When selecting the level of support for a service, you need to think about how much you are losing each hour due to down time,” said Pore.
As with most IT-related decisions, it’s always better to pay more for a service you won’t use very often than face the consequences of being underprepared for a worst-case scenario. Even if you choose the most basic level of service, you’ll still be better off in the long run knowing you have a security blanket to step in if things go wrong.
This article was originally published on August 7, 2014. It was updated by Kaiti Norton.