Managing technology comes last on the to do list for many small companies. You want to focus on front-end business while hardware and software magically work behind the scenes. For your tech backbone to function, however, it needs steady support. Finding the right IT expert can not only save money over the long run, but also make the difference between merely surviving an emergency and powering ahead for growth.
Many mom-and-pop or home-based ventures rely on family and friends for tech help. In a crisis, some call a third party service at a mall or big box store. Larger companies may lean on an informal pool of on-staff "experts" or a part-time consultant.
"The main trend we're seeing for small businesses is to use as little IT help as possible," says Joslyn Faust, an analyst at Gartner research. "It seems like technology is catching up to that preference. With cloud computing and software as a service, there's much more of an ability to not use a lot of IT staff at all."
Rather than calling an expert to come over to your desk, for example, you could use free remote access software to allow a pro to control and fix your PC from afar. Web-based services, mobile computing, and virtualisation also provide flexibility and cost savings that make it easier for entrepreneurs to get off the ground.
However, the time may come when tech growing pains can interfere with basic functions. Nobody wants to learn the hard way, for example, that the lack of a backup strategy has led to a wipeout of client records.
The need for IT help is changing, not disappearing. Your important tech investments may increasingly be in services rather than machines. Instead of providing nuts and bolts PC support, the person you bring in might work on higher level challenges, such as establishing cloud-based backup or unifying communications across smartphones, tablets, notebooks and desktops.
The breaking point at which you need professional help depends on your company. A five person startup may need nothing more than occasional tune-ups, or yearly guidance to draw up a long term tech blueprint. If you have close to 100 computer users on the payroll, on the other hand, you're probably in the market for a full-time technician.
No matter the scale of assistance you need, think of it as you would any other relationship. First, get to know each other. Then, make plans for the future.
"One of the biggest things we do is to try to become part of their environment," says Jeremy Hayward, who provides small business tech support with SNS Technologists. "I try to look at what's going to happen in six months, what's projected for sales and staffing levels. It's not all technical. We try to translate day-to-day business needs into technology that will help you do better."
Where to look
Seeking outside help can be scary, like trusting a car mechanic when you don't know what's rattling under the hood. Word-of-mouth networking is a start. Just ask clients and vendors with tech needs similar to your own about who they use for IT advice.
You won't find a friendly, dedicated online directory of IT pros, but searching for "tech support" on local reviews services such as Yelp.com can help. For $29 a year, you can use AngiesList.com, which specialises in user-rated construction and home repair pros but also includes a 'Computer Repair & Services' category. Or, if you prefer, try posting a free ad on Craigslist in the 'Gigs Offered' section under 'Computers' to invite replies from professionals to your inbox.
If you tend to have a lot of gear from a certain brand, check the maker's website for local partners or resellers that might also offer business support services, such as on HP's Partner Locator page. Some electronics companies, such as Dell, provide support and consulting within their small business guides.
What to look for
Seek a professional who observes your operations and asks questions about how your business works overall, not just the technologies it uses. Your IT contact should feel the pulse of your network and pay special attention to data security and backup. Where is your business's email hosted? What operating systems, software, antivirus tools, desktops, laptops, tablets and smartphones do your employees use?
Ideally, the professional you select should help beyond your immediate needs with a three- or five-year plan that takes your budgeting and forecasting into account. A monthly or quarterly check-in isn't a bad idea. An IT pro should translate geek-speak into user-friendly language you understand. This task may be tough for a helplessly left-brained technician, but they should at least try.
Someone who provides choices and a range of price levels has done research to keep you informed. The most expensive products aren't always the best option.
Make sure the consultant looks for tools that fit the size and type of your business. If your family runs an antique shop, for example, your accounting data may fit neatly on a secure USB key that you take home each night. If you're in charge of an investment firm or medical office, on the other hand, your data must have extra layers of protection to comply with privacy regulations and other laws.
A savvy IT technician keeps up with tech industry news to know how and when products are updated and evolve. The pro doesn't have to be a news fiend, but you should assess their knowledge by asking them about something cool you spotted in a tech magazine or news site.
Look for credentials. Certifications that matter include Microsoft Certified Technology Specialist (MCTS) and Microsoft Certified IT Professional (MCITP). For networking, look for CompTIA Network+ or A+ accreditation. An Apple Certified Support Professional (ACSP) could be good for Mac shops with complex needs, such as multiple departments.
Get a sense of the IT pro's customer support experience by reading between the lines of their résumé and having a real conversation.
What to avoid
When the consultant speaks in buzzwords and acronyms, don't be intimidated. But be ready to let that person go if they won't explain, efforts to bewilder you with jargon reflect arrogance or fear not expertise. Stay away from fly-by-night, crisis-based services that try to sell you the tech flavour of the month. They're not equipped to look at your operations as a whole for the long term.
Be wary of consultants who present a particular technology or a single brand as the end-all, be-all solution. It's fine to favour a brand that works for you, but no individual manufacturer makes the best of everything. Before you follow an IT know-it-all who insists that you need to wipe your hard drives and throw out most of the equipment you own, get a second opinion.
Watch out when someone tries to sell you top-of-the-line, enterprise-level gear. For example, you may not need to spend $10,000 on a server if you have only five users, a network-attached storage device with cloud-based backup could do the trick.
If you're determined to use something that your IT support person refuses to consider, such as equipping your sales team with smartphones, the professional had better explain why it's not in your best interest.
Avoid dangerous shortcuts. Someone who installs 50 black market copies of Office 2010 may not be around when Microsoft comes knocking. A tech professional should be prepared to help you comply. Multitasking may be a talent, but it's also a warning sign. A staff engineer doing double duty as your IT pro probably has their hands full.
If you already have a full time IT staffer but they're reluctant to explain what that World of Warcraft thing is they're "managing" all day, you can bet they're struggling to look busy and afraid to lose their job. Maybe it's time to outsource to a part-timer.
Finally, an IT pro who rescues your data and saves you thousands of dollars with wisely chosen equipment may seem like a miracle worker, but don't expect magic. You're in a partnership that requires give and take from both sides, so work together and be patient.
"If somebody's using technologies I haven't investigated, I don't pretend I know everything that's out there," says IT pro Hayward. "The answer should be, 'I'm not sure, but I'll find out.'"