Managing The Local Tech Guy (Or Gal)

Five tips on how to choose--and manage--your support vendor wisely. The business you save may be your own.

April 27, 2006

4 Min Read
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“We had someone who was wonderful, then all of a sudden, he quit showing up.”

That’s how Joyce Gioia, president of The Herman Group, a firm that advises clients on business trends, describes one of her experiences using a local computer specialist.

After a few weeks, she found another specialist via a referral, but in the interim her business suffered because glitches--and there are always glitches--remained unfixed until the new technician was found.

This is the dilemma that many small businesses face. As technology becomes essential for everyone from automotive shops to home businesses to Mom and Pop retailers, a computer or network crash can severely curtail operations--or in extreme cases, cause a business to fail.

Although increasingly major firms such as Best Buy and IBM are providing national support networks for small businesses, many smaller businesses opt for local computer experts for their support. The reasons for doing so are many: for starters, they're often cheaper. And, when it works out, you can get more personalized service. But not all local firms are the same, and learning how to choose--and manage--these vendors can make a huge difference to your business.Here are some tips on how to make the best decisions when hiring local computer support.

1. Investigate a company’s legitimacy. A basic first step is to check to make sure that the local firm is listed in the local Yellow Pages. Then check out the Website. How professional is it? How "deep" is it--is it just a calling card, or does it have real substance to it? Check out the business with your local Better Business Bureau. But first and foremost, get references--and check them out. Don't even think about using a firm that doesn't have at least three--and preferably four or five--enthusiastic existing customers.

2. Find a firm that’s the right “fit.” Joshua Feinberg, co-founder of Computer Consulting 101, a West Palm Beach, Fla.-based firm that advises computer technicians on the operation of their businesses, says that small, one-person firms might be fine for a business such as Gioia’s with a handful of computers, but larger small businesses will need a firm with more technicians so that they can better provide service quickly.

However, the larger the computer support firm, the larger the overhead will be, so the higher the cost that the small business owner can expect to pay. Additionally, very large computer support firms may not send the same technician every time. That means time, and perhaps, expense to account for the learning curve every time someone new comes in.

Most of all, make sure you feel comfortable with the firm, and its representatives. Yes, this is a bit of a touchy-feely issue, but it's a critical one. “Computer support companies are becoming trusted business advisors, much like CPAs or attorneys,” Feinberg says. “When you give someone access to your computer network, it’s like giving them the keys to your house. They have access to all of your [computerized] information. You need to be comfortable with that.”3. Find the right billing plan. Robert Shoemaker, CEO of Professional Computer Associates, Red Hook, N.Y., recommend that small business owners carefully consider which billing option suits them best. In general, however, unless a small business is very small indeed, and it's network is extremely basic, usually a monthly billing plan that provides a certain number of hours for a predetermined fee will provide a better hourly rate than buying services on a project basis.

A critical thing to consider is that support firms will give monthly customers preference over per-hour or by-project customers when emergencies arise.

However, a monthly contract can also mean paying for hours that are never used. So each small business needs to use its own determination for which type of rate plan makes the most sense.

4. Hire a company that offers online monitoring. Gordon Bridge, president and CEO of CM IT Solutions, a firm that supplies computer support to small businesses, recommends online monitoring as a way to help small businesses control computer support costs. Online monitoring enables a computer support firm to receive automatic alarms when something goes wrong. According to Bridge, the cost for the service, which varies depending on the provider, will be made up by the time saved (and billed) in driving out and then diagnosing and fixing a problem on site. Many of the problems may be fixed online (i.e., running a new virus scan). Others may require a site visit, but the technician will know what he needs to do when he gets there and won’t need to spend the time diagnosing the problem. Since many local techs charge on an hourly basis, this can make a huge difference to a small business' monthly technology maintenance budget.

5. Start small. Don't jump into a commitment to using a vendor with both feet. Begin testing the waters first by using a computer support firm on a small, non-critical project first and gradually work up to larger, more expensive projects. Eventually, you may want to switch over to a monthly contract--but only after you know who and what you're dealing with. This will enable the small business owner to reduce the chance of unpleasant surprises.0

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