Tuesday, November 15, 2011

What Should Small Business Look for in an IT Provider?

Outsourcing is one of the fastest growing trends in the small business world today, and for good reason. By outsourcing parts of their operations, small businesses almost always save money and often end up with higher quality service than they'd be able to afford otherwise. When one considers overhead and training associated with internal hiring, the amount of expertise that can be had for a given budget is much greater with an outsourced partner than a full time employee or team of employees. This is especially true in the field of IT, where quality technicians are paid high wages and it's nearly impossible for an individual to be an expert in everything.

The only downside to the outsourcing model occurs if a business enters into a lengthy contract with a provider that isn't a good fit. Unfortunately, as technology continues to become more essential to everyday business practice, it's becoming increasingly difficult for small business owners to know what to expect from an IT provider and which of each provider's merits are reliable indicators of outstanding service.

Here are some surefire qualities of a good small business IT provider:

    Flexibility - Above all else, in order to properly serve the small business community, an outsourcing company needs to be flexible. Choose a provider that's willing to customize a service plan for you, both in terms of pricing and level of service. If you only have a handful of computer users at your company, it may make the most sense to pay your provider at an hourly rate on an as-needed basis. On the other hand, if you're supporting a dozen or more users and have more frequent needs, it can be much more cost-effective to operate on an unlimited-service basis at a flat monthly fee. Even with an unlimited service plan, however, you should never have to pay for service you don't need. For example, if your backup service is managed by a third party company and you don't need your IT provider to touch it, have them deduct that service from their price. One-size-fits-all does not equate to cost-effectiveness in the small business marketplace, and a good provider will be willing to work with you to find the best plan for your specific situation.

    Responsiveness - One of the biggest advantages of having a team of IT guys on your side instead of just one or two is the ability for them to respond to issues quickly. That doesn't mean you should expect your IT provider to get to everything instantly, but you should be able to expect them to clearly lay out their standards for responsiveness and meet those standards consistently. The bottom line is this: every minute a technology issue prevents you or one of your employees from working is a minute that your business is losing money. When you're shopping for an IT provider, you need to be able to trust that your provider can be responsive to the degree that your company requires - no matter what.

    Depth of Expertise - No matter how good an IT technician may be, he will not be able to be an expert in every technology-related niche. By contrast, a diverse team of IT professionals can tackle a wide variety of issues and projects. Leave the burden of staffing to the IT provider. Ask potential vendors to list their capabilities. Ask them how many technicians that they have. Consider all your current needs and future needs, and choose a company that has you completely covered.

    A Personal Relationship - When outsourcing to an external company, it's best to think of that company like a partner rather than a vendor. It's this type of relationship that will allow your IT provider the most intimate understanding of your network, and thus the ability to work with it most effectively. For this reason, it's best to choose a provider with a local presence. This does not mean, however, that you should avoid companies that perform remote support. Quite to the contrary, remote support is a very good thing because it saves you money and gets your issues resolved very quickly. Even if your IT provider is located next door, they should offer you remote support whenever possible as opposed to coming onsite and charging premium fees. Research has shown that roughly 80% of all trouble ticket issues can be solved remotely, but it's that other 20% of the issues - the major ones - that will make you want to choose an IT provider with a local presence. When your systems are down, you want to be able to rely on someone that knows your network in and out and can swoop in and save the day as quickly as possible.

If I had to summarize all of this advice in a single statement, I would say this: don't be afraid to expect excellent service from your IT provider. The IT world has changed drastically over the past few years, and we often run into businesses who have been putting up with terrible IT service for a long time, erroneously accepting it as an industry norm. As a paying customer, you do not have to accept anything short of what is promised by your provider. It's never acceptable, for example, for you to not be able to print for six months!

1 comment:

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