The problem with the relationship between small businesses and IT (information technology) support providers is that there is usually no relationship.
When I first started supporting small businesses, it was all ad-hoc fire-fighting stuff. People would call me when they needed me and then I wouldnt hear from them for six months. That approach does no-one any favours including the customer, says Allan Hunter, director for West Auckland IT support firm Xanadu.
Jan Ferguson, small business manager for Microsoft New Zealand, says small business IT support relationships often happen following an IT crisis.
The screen goes blue, email goes down and people say who do I call? Theres then a need to find quality IT support people,she says.
And to stick with them - Robert Perelini, business development manager for franchised IT support network PC People, says managed services contracts are needed by businesses of all sizes, but small businesses tend to wait until theres a major problem before realising a support contract is justified.
When the system goes down theyll pay anything. Theyre much more reactive than proactive, says Perelini.
The problem with this approach is IT support will work out more expensive and possibly less prompt, say the providers. Hunter says his casual hourly call out rate is higher than for contracted customers, and the needs of contracted customers normally come first.
A lot of customers start with a three or six month contract. More often than not we get to the end of the contract period and there is no question that the customer wants to continue, says Hunter. The providers say there are few circumstances in which a fire-fighting approach to IT support is justified. However, a small business that does not have a server-based network and has a tight rein on a peer-to-peer network with carefully monitored online access may be an exception.
With [that set up], theres not that much can go wrong, so putting someone on site weekly for a health check would be overkill, says Hunter.
Microsofts Ferguson says some small business owners are terribly IT savvy but can make more money, be less stressed and have better blood pressure if they align with a trusted IT company.
IT support specialists can do in half an hour what you can do in half a day with swearing and frustration, says Ferguson.
Meanwhile Chris Wilson, franchisor of PC People says the biggest IT support mistake small businesses make is to choose the cheapest short term solution.
We ask people to consider the cost if they lost data or their system was not operating; this helps make a more informed decision.
What a maintenance contract delivers
Assuming an IT support contract is right for your small business, what does it deliver? Garry Harpur, sales manager for Sheffield Business Computers, says for small businesses 75 percent of IT requirements are the same between firms the main difference being the industry specific software each uses. Harpur says Sheffield Business Computers, which supports businesses with networks up to 50 users, offers support ranging from re-active break/fix support to pro-active preventative maintenance and monthly network health checks. There is also all you can eat support where Sheffield acts in the capacity of a virtual IT department for the business.
As youd expect, contract costs vary according to the type of support contract selected, the equipment being supported and the number of users. Remote support and server notification facilities are now commonplace, says Harpur.
Sheffields contracts are detailed in a 30 page Service Level Agreement (SLA) and the company has a policy to generate a response call from an experienced IT engineer within 15 minutes.
Most IT support contracts offer a combination of remote support and on-site support at varying levels and charges, according to Xanadus Hunter.
We have customers who have an engineer on site for up to 15 hours every week. At the other end of the scale is a customer who only needs us on site for two hours once a month, says Hunter. He says contract maintenance tends to cover servers, backup, disk space, overall health, and Windows and anti-virus updates. Remote monitoring and support is charged out at between $200 and $300 a month and if Xanadu engineers see a problem they alert the customer through an emailed follow up report.
Hunter says some service providers have quite detailed contract documents with costs, inclusions and exclusions, but arrangements that are more agreements than contracts may suit small business owners better.
A lot of smaller customers struggle with large fixed price contacts where the monthly fees are paid up front. We think its better to charge for exact on site hours that occur, says Hunter.
What small businesses get up to
Contract or not, some small business people cant resist a bit of DIY. Businesses on casual IT support rates might consider this a good way to save money, and even those on monthly preventative maintenance contracts will have a go to avoid paying for on site support visit. While some manage to DIY without mishap, others find one incident that goes the wrong way can end up costing as much as a years worth of preventative maintenance.
Microsofts Ferguson says when small business people have a go at the problem and make it worse they end up with steam coming out of their ears. She says its important small businesses get the message that IT support isnt about break/fix, but about helping businesses to work preventatively.
The preventative relationship has always existed at the corporate level and is now moving down into small businesses; this is because small businesses are starting to require the same functionality and support, says Ferguson.
Wilson says one of the biggest mistakes small businesses make is to only phone a technician when they already have a problem, rather than have an IT contract in place to prevent problems before they occur.
We had an example where a $100 component had failed and therefore cost the customer $6000 in downtime. This downtime expense could have been avoided had a contract been in place, he says.
Harpur says too many small businesses regard IT as an expense to be minimised rather than a dynamic productivity tool. He says most DIY issues occur when things have been done on the cheap. These include poor network design and installation, ill equipped staff, clone servers, lack of RAID drives, and inadequate backup and security facilities. A dollar saved in the short term can have expensive consequences in the long term for small businesses.
Harpur says if small businesses really want to DIY-it, they should focus their efforts to choosing a quality network design and IT components and have them installed by qualified IT engineers.
Install brand name kit, set up redundancy on the system; create a good backup and data security environment, and have intelligent disaster recovery facilities a quality IT solution will minimise ongoing support requirements.
Choosing a provider
There is a plethora of IT support companies listed online and in the Yellow Pages, but how do you know which one to choose? What makes for a good relationship between an IT support service provider and customer?
The providers and customers I spoke to are unanimous that this depends on three key things:
the IT support staff explaining what needs to be done (or has been done) in terms the customer can follow;
IT support people turning up when they say they will;
and the capacity of the business to trust their IT support provider and follow advice and suggestions.
Ferguson says IT support providers should understand the business need of the customer, even if they have to drag it out of them. After that, they have to be available when the customer wants them to be available.
Perelini says often the first job creates the impression and builds loyalty. He says once comfortable, small businesses tend to be quite loyal to their IT support company. The support provider needs to reciprocate that by being fully up front about what work is required and how much it will cost, and by being consistent in service, says Perelini.
Hunter says flexibility on the part of the IT support provider is a big relationship builder. Larger service providers can be less flexible in their working practices, while small businesses like things done a specific way or slightly out of the ordinary.
One of the things we hear quite often is that the small business has been told by the larger support company that they need to throw out their existing system and start over. Thats quite a draconian approach.
He says the customer should instead be empowered and able to learn IT support procedures from the support provider if they want to.
If I have a criticism of the IT industry it is that it is not always willing to share information and can treat people outside the industry as idiots. If you teach someone to use IT better theyll want to do more with it, says Hunter. NZB
The other Mitsubishi
There are two Mitsubishi New Zealands in New Zealand: one sells cars, the other imports and exports food and forestry products. Danny Seto, accountant for the latter, recently signed a $500 per month contract with IT support firm Sheffield Business Computers for preventative maintenance on Mitsubishis three-server network. Prior to that it was DIY all the way, says Seto.
We have 13 staff, 15 PCs and three servers. Before, if I got stuck I didnt have anyone I could call on. Our network was getting old and a lot of things needed updating.
Seto says not having a service contract in place worried him.
You go along for six months and nothing goes wrong, then something breaks and if you dont have a service contract, IT providers put you on a low priority list, he says.
Seto heard about Sheffield through word of mouth and while Sheffield provided him with reference sites, he didnt check them because he trusted them.
My family is Chinese and my father always stressed the importance of trust in business relationships. I get on really well with the engineers. I like the way they are full of ideas about what we can do, he says.
Questions for a potential IT support partner
How long have you been in business?
What do you specialise in?
How many people do you employ? How many of them are technical?
Are all your engineers senior engineers? What are their qualifications and what systems are they certified to service?
Do you offer only a reactive support service or can you provide preventative maintenance on a contractual basis?
Do you have reference sites for firms of a similar size and type to mine; can I call them without you calling them first?
What does your organisation do to work smarter?
What sort of work have you done in the past? What sort of remote/telecommunications work have you done?
What sort of questions should a SMB owner ask in order to choose the best IT support company?