Small businesses often have a token “IT guy” on staff, and he's usually a director of sales or manager of finance who likes to dabble in PCs on the side. But when that guy gets busy with his real job, it usually means that issues aren't resolved quickly or capably.
Even though there are plenty of low-cost Web-based services for basic troubleshooting and automating tasks like security updates, storage and backups, it may make sense to find an outside professional firm that can support all of your information technology needs with a higher level of success.
“Small companies can't afford to hire staff, or it doesn’t make sense for their IT needs," says Ryan Renfrow, a systems engineer with Business Network Consulting (BNC), an IT outsourcing firm serving clients in Dallas and Denver. But he warns, "If you don't have someone looking at your systems on a fairly regular basis, something will go wrong."
Headwaters MB, a 35-person midmarket investment banking firm based in Denver, has been using BNC for about eight years to manage its IT. “What I like the most is that when they are not here, we are not paying them," says Cindy Atherton, the company's office manager.
Breaking down the costs
BNC works about 20 hours a month for Headwaters, including twice-monthly scheduled days and as-needed help desk support. Headwaters pays BNC $95 to $135 per hour, depending on the service, and $165 per hour for after-hours calls.
"We get excellent quality for the price," Atherton says. Some IT outsourcers charge a flat monthly retainer, but that’s more risky since it's hard to predict how much time you’ll need month-to-month. On the rare occasion when Headwaters is not happy with a particular service, BNC does not charge for the time, says Atherton. Be sure to ask prospective outsourcers about their terms and guarantees for the services they provide.
As a small-business owner, it’s also your job to control those costs when you're hiring someone on an hourly basis. Atherton encourages employees to go through her to schedule time with BNC. The benefits of having a single point of contact include being able to prioritize tasks into BNC's trouble ticket system for Renfrow to review before his next visit. Atherton can also catch wind of system-wide problems before they explode.
Managing employee expectations has taken time, and she's had to slap hands when people call BNC to fix preventable problems like failing to change network passwords before they expire. But for middle-of-the-night and weekend calls, Atherton says she loves that employees can call BNC’s 24-hour help desk directly — instead of her.
Finding the right fit for your business
Consultants need to have deep technical knowledge, but they also need to mesh well with your culture. Atherton advises interviewing consultants to find the right fit. Since Headwaters has a laid-back culture, it looked for someone with a sense of humor, she says. "We poke fun at each other and no one gets offended." Technicians should also be able to explain in nontechnical language, and in business terms, the nature of their work, according to Renfrow.
Beyond communications, setting expectations is also critical. Renfrow says BNC guarantees callbacks in one hour, and promises to have a technician on site within four hours. A great outsourcer should also go the extra mile for your business. If it doesn't, shop around, because there are plenty of IT consultants out there who will.
For instance, Atherton says that BNC has an alert system to help watch for potential problems. "One weekend, I got a text message from one of our guys wondering if our server was down. We found out that there was a huge power outage downtown," she says. "They were able to get into our suite and reboot our server right then."
Atherton appreciates the fact that BNC can support both her Mac and PC users, and is always prepared for disasters because of its large client base. "Our firewall went down the other day, and Ryan happened to be here. BNC was smart enough to know that these Cisco firewalls were hard to get so they had some back-ordered, and one was available for us that day."
Consider the value of having a firm, versus an individual, at your beck and call. For data-driven operations that depend heavily on IT, the higher fees will pay off. Don’t forget — the available expertise and resources will be much broader with a firm.
Polly Traylor is a former high-tech magazine journalist with CIO and The Industry Standard, among others. She writes about business, health care and technology from Golden, Colorado.