What Are Your Options for Technical Support?
With the constant changes to technology and the daily development of new threats, even a small network requires ongoing maintenance from a highly-trained consultant to ward off viruses, spam, spyware, slowness, user errors, and data loss. However, hiring a full-time IT person is not always feasible for small to medium businesses. If your business can’t justify hiring an IT manager, you only have three options for computer support:
Option #1: Don’t do anything.
This is really foolish, but we see it every day: businesses that don’t pay attention to the care and maintenance of their network until it stops working. Then they are forced to call in an expert to repair or replace whatever caused the problem.
This reactive model of network support is similar to ignoring oil and filter changes in your car until smoke starts pouring out from under the hood. Taking a reactive approach to network maintenance is a surefire path to extensive downtime, lost data and excessive spending on IT support, not to mention major disruptions in staff productivity, sales, production, and customer service. Even if your computer network appears to be working fine, there are a number of daily, weekly, and monthly maintenance tasks that must be performed to keep your data secure and your system running smoothly. A shortlist of these tasks includes:
- Virus scans and updates
- Security patches and updates
- System backups & disaster-recovery planning
- Spyware detection and removal
- Server and desktop optimization
- Employee policies and monitoring
- Intrusion detection
- Spam filtering
If you run specialized practice management, customer-relationship management, or production software, or if you have multiple locations, a wireless network, highly sensitive data (as in financial or medical organizations), or other specialized needs, the list will get longer. Remember, your computer network is just like your car or your house. They all need regular maintenance to avoid problems.
If you learn only one lesson from this book, I hope it will be to proactively monitor, maintain and secure your network instead of choosing to react to network and computer problems as they arise. Aside from a telephone, your computer network and the data on it are undoubtedly the most important business tools in your office. When they are unavailable, all productive work comes to a grinding halt.
As the old saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure; this goes double for your computer network. Unfortunately, most business owners are under the incorrect assumption that regular computer maintenance is not necessary, and therefore only call in an experienced consultant when something goes wrong. As we stated previously, this model of “break-fix” computer support is not a good idea, especially if the operation of your network and the data on it are important to your business.
Option #2: Do it yourself.
Although this option is better than doing nothing, it still puts you at risk for computer network disasters. Instead of hiring a qualified consultant to support your network, you designate the most technically knowledgeable person on staff to be your makeshift IT manager, and bring in outside help only when you run into a network crisis you can’t solve.
Problem is, you are pulling these people away from the real job you hired them to do, and unless they have the time to stay up-to-date on the latest developments in IT support, security, and management, they don’t have the skills or time required to properly maintain and secure your network and could actually worsen the situation. This inevitably results in a network that is ill-maintained and unstable, which may cause excessive downtime, overspending on IT support, and expensive recovery costs.
Another variation of this option is to get your neighbor’s kid or a friend to provide computer support on a part-time basis. This is a mistake for two reasons: First, they may not be fully qualified to handle the job, so they could make things worse. They may be able to fix the problem in the short term, but they might not have the time or expertise to get to the root of the matter. Second, they may not always be available when you need them. If your server goes down at 9:00 am, they might not be able to come until later that day or evening, or next week, causing you to lose a full day or more of productivity.
Also, as mentioned previously, they are providing reactive support. As with all things in life and business, it is far less expensive to prevent problems than to clean them up. If your part-time technician is not performing regular maintenance and monitoring of your network, you are susceptible to more problems.
Option #3: Outsource your support to a competent consultant.
Obviously, this is going to be the fastest and surest way to solve your computer problems. However, there is an ever-growing number of companies springing up across the country that offer computer repair services and support, which makes it difficult for a business owner to know which vendor is right for them.
As it stands today, there are five types of external computer support you can use:
- Vendor support:
Phone support is provided by Dell, HP, Microsoft, or any of the big software and hardware vendors. If you’ve ever tried to get technical support from a large manufacturer or store, you know how frustrating it can be.
First, many vendors don’t provide free support. If they do, it is usually very limited and only available by e-mail or Web response forms. If you are lucky enough to reach the support department, you’ll end up going through a maze of phone options before you get a live person, and then the person is usually a nontechnical customer service representative who can’t provide any real assistance. In most cases, they’ll be located in another country, and may even be difficult to understand (many technology companies outsource their customer service because it’s cheaper than employing U.S. workers). You’ll also get a different person every time you call, and most will not have any particular knowledge about your business or what you are trying to achieve.
Here’s another problem with vendor support: They aren’t going to help you solve problems that aren’t related directly to their hardware or software. For example, let’s suppose you’re having trouble connecting to the Internet, so you call your local provider. If their service is not causing the problem, you’re stuck. Maybe your firewall is not configured right. Maybe the cable is not connected properly. If your problem is even partially related to another software or piece of hardware on your system, they won’t help you.
- Computer support hotline services:
These services work like prepaid calling cards. For a set fee, you’ll get an 800 number to call for 24-7 technical support. Sounds reasonable, but it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.
If you are a home user with simple application problems and questions, this service may work well for you. However, if you are a business with mission-critical data, the last thing you want is a junior technician giving you advice. Also, some problems simply need to be analyzed on-site. Finally, these services are set up to deliver basic computer support, not to troubleshoot server problems, help with data recovery, or provide proactive maintenance.
- The part-time technician just getting started:
This is usually someone who left a job in the IT department of a company, got fired, or lost a job due to downsizing. Either way, he decided to start his own business with the dream of making lots of money by providing computer support to small businesses.
In many cases, he will try to do a good job for you. He means well, will often work cheap, and is usually eager to please. He might even have been referred to you by a friend or business colleague.
Although he has every intention of providing you with a good service, there are some things you need to consider before hiring him to work on your network. Since most of these folks work from home, they don’t have a secretary or office staff to handle your requests. When you call, you’ll either get:
- An answering machine.
- A spouse, friend, or child who will take a message (which might or might not reach the technician).
- No answer and no voice mail; the phone just keeps ringing.
- The technician on his cell phone. Unfortunately, he’s usually at another client’s site, in his car, or taking care of some personal business (you catch him at the doctor’s office or in a noisy restaurant).
The problem with this choice is response time; if you have a major network crisis, you need to know that you can get in touch with your consultant AND get a callback or response immediately. But it doesn’t end there …
Another problem you’ll encounter is availability; the technician might not always be around when you need him. What happens if he leaves town for a week or has to go to the hospital? Or two or more of his clients experience a major emergency at the same time? Or does the going gets tough and he decides to take another job? These are all scenarios that happen frequently with computer technicians who haven’t established best practices and systems in their businesses. And if he is only supporting your network part-time, you can bet your emergency is going to take a back seat to his full-time employer.
Guaranteeing his work is another problem for the part-timer. Most don’t have a professional contract, proposal, or invoice to give you, which means you have no written paperwork or contractual agreements to fall back on if things go wrong. Plus, most don’t carry insurance, and can’t compensate you if they accidentally screw up your network or cause you to lose data.
Even if he guarantees his work, how do you know he’ll be around to fulfill his promises? Addresses and phone numbers can be changed instantly, and your one-man-wonder can disappear, leaving you no recourse or recovery.
- The “major player” tech-support company:
This vendor is the complete opposite of the one-man band. They may have multiple technicians, multiple locations, and a support crew. They might even have locations across the globe. There are many first-rate computer-support companies in this category that can be trusted to do a good job for you. As a matter of fact, many have the staff and resources to do an outstanding job.
So what’s the problem? Their schedule, price
and availability! In many cases, these companies are so busy servicing a number of large, profitable clients that they might not give a small-business owner the service, response time, and support you want. They also may charge you exorbitant fees to cover their massive overhead of staff and offices. If you own a big business, with a big IT budget, you’ll do just fine with this type of company. However, if you own a small or medium business with a conservative IT budget, this may not be the best option for you.
Since you don’t represent a large windfall of profits for them, big tech-support companies may delegate their junior technicians, who are just learning the ropes, to support your network, saving the experienced consultants for their more profitable clients. As a business owner yourself, you can hardly blame them for taking this approach but, as a customer, you don’t want to be the small fish who is easily brushed aside.
Just like the big vendors, the larger the tech-support companies get, the less personalized the service becomes. You may not always get the same consultant working on your network, and you might not be able to talk directly with a consultant when you call. Being part of a large franchise doesn’t guarantee great service either; it just means they were able to write a check to cover the franchise costs. That doesn’t automatically buy them good business sense, technical skills, and/or customer-focused service.
- An independently-owned computer consulting firm:
You might accuse me of being biased here, but please give me a minute to explain my position before you dismiss my advice.
First of all, I’ve been doing business in this industry for 25 years, so I have considerable experience working with, and talking to, hundreds of other small-business computer consultants. I’ve seen the horror stories and heard the complaints business owners have with all technology service vendors. Based on that experience, I think the best option for a small business is an independent consulting firm that is locally owned and operated.
The business you choose to support your network should be large enough to provide backup support and fast response times, but small enough to provide personal service. That is the way we’ve modeled our company, and we’ve been able to deliver consistent professional services.
We certainly don’t feel as though our model is the sole option you can choose, and the size of a company is certainly not the only way to know in advance how professional and competent they will be. There are firms in all the choices outlined above that will do a great job for you.
The remainder of this book will further outline what to look for when choosing a computer consultant for your business.