Tech Support Showdown: Battle of the Big-Box Chains

Small and midsize businesses have most--if not all--of the same IT needs as larger organizations, but they lack the resources and dedicated IT departments to manage them. At the same time, small-business managers and owners would rather focus on effectively running their companies than on trying to resolve various computer issues.

Unfortunately, technology requires maintenance, troubleshooting, and repair. For assistance with those tasks, small and medium businesses (SMBs) have a choice between relying on independent IT consultants and working with IT services from big-box stores.

In most instances, the technicians at big-box retail chains are not just low-wage sales reps wearing a different hat. Usually they have at least some entry-level experience as technicians, and in some instances they may obtained certification such as CompTIA's A+, which demonstrates expertise with basic PC hardware.

Tech support pricing at big retailers.
Nevertheless, big-box IT service techs rarely possess the experience and skill typical of a successful independent consultant. The big-box role is essentially entry level, and technicians who build up significant experience tend to move on to greener pastures.

That said, what do the large retailers offer, and can their tech support do the job for a small business?

Best Buy Geek Squad

The Best Buy Geek Squad offers a comprehensive suite of services for SMBs. With more than 11,000 technicians nationwide--most of them zipping around in signature Geek Squad Volkswagen beetles--and with numerous mammoth Best Buy stores conveniently located for drop-off service, the Geek Squad is familiar to most SMBs.

Best Buy is a major retailer of PC and networking hardware and software, and many SMBs also look to it for support and troubleshooting as well. The Geek Squad provides services ranging from PC or network installation and configuration, to installation of peripherals, to basic training in tasks such as e-mail and social networking, to PC security and troubleshooting.

Technicians can perform most of these services in-store, remotely (via online tools), or on-site in a home or office. Housecalls cost more than the equivalent services performed at a Best Buy store or remotely online. Best Buy backs up its tech service with a 30-day guarantee.

Staples Tech Support

Though not as widespread or recognizable as Best Buy, Staples is a major presence in the U.S. retail landscape. Aside from selling office equipment and supplies--including computers and networking equipment--Staples offers IT services through EasyTech.

Staples is typically not the cheapest of the big-box IT service providers, but it unlike its rivals it offers volume discounts. For example, Office Depot charges $70 for PC tuneup services, while Staples charges $120-- but Staples volunteers to work on additional PCs at the same site for only $30 each.

A business with one or two PCs in need of attention might be better off with Office Depot, but a company with four or five such PCs will save a bundle by working with Staples EasyTech. And Staples will perform PC tuneup services free of charge if you bring the PC to the store.

Office Depot

Another familiar fixture of big-box strip malls is Office Depot. It provides less-comprehensive services than the Best Buy Geek Squad does. Office Depot offers around-the-clock service, however, which can be a tremendous benefit for an SMB staring at a "blue screen of death" on a crashed PC at three in the morning.

Most of Office Depot's services are designed to be performed remotely online. The few on-site services, such as setting up a PC in an office, are priced significantly higher than comparable services from rival big-box chains. Office Depot does offer a monthly support option, though, that might be worth looking into for ongoing maintenance needs.

Next page: More types of tech support--and which should you choose?

Independent Tech Support Consultants

"What a small business needs is typically not all that different from what my individual home users with a private home network need: shared access to files and resources with minimal downtime and expense." says David Bookbinder, an independent IT consultant in the Boston area. "The simpler it is for them, the more reliable it is, the better they are served, and the happier everyone is all around."

Being independent, local consultants have a stronger motivation to please customers and to foster their loyalty. Independent consultants typically have more experience and skill than the average cookie-cutter tech who works for a big-box company, and they should take the time to form a relationship and understand the needs of their SMB clients.

Pricing is harder to pin down, and it may vary widely depending on the consultant and the region. Some aggressive independent consultants may deeply undercut both big box chains and rival consultants on price, while more-established consultants with a regular clientele and a solid reputation commonly charge significantly more. In either case, you're likely to find that you get what you pay for. Often, an SMB can engage in some type of loose contract or retained service with an independent tech support consultant, paying a monthly fee or buying service "hours" in bulk to be used as needed.

Somewhere In-Between

Big-box giants and independent local operators are by no means the only options. IT services franchises that fall somewhere between the two include OnForce and Geeks On Call.

For example, Geeks On Call tries to combine the experience and skill of a local technician with the reputation and credibility of a chain. Though it is a franchise operation, there may not be a Geeks On Call branch in your area. If there is, this option is worth investigating by any business that needs PC and network support and wants service that is more customized and personal than what the huge retail chains offer.

Go Local

With IT services from big-box stores, SMBs can rely on the established credibility and reputation of the store, and they can be confident that the retailer will back the services provided , at least to some extent. But those services may not be the best available, and their technicians' decisions could reflect corporate profit motives rather than the best interests of the customer.

Big-box store technicians often have an incentive to push specific products or product lines, and to seek ways to maximize revenue. Even when technicians suggest a solution with the best of intentions, they may be required to choose from among the products available from the retail chain, rather than being free to pick the best available products to meet the customer's needs. Whereas stores such as Best Buy and Staples are limited (for the most part) to consumer-oriented hardware and software, larger businesses may have relatively complex server, database, or networking needs that the big-box chains can't handle.

I recommend that SMBs seek out and forge a relationship with a competent and trustworthy local independent consultant. Finding technician you can trust takes more effort than driving to the neighborhood Best Buy, but the dividends are large. You can start by checking with your local Chamber of Commerce or Better Business Bureau.

Still, the big-box chains are probably fine in a pinch. If you can't find a reliable consultant in your area, or if you just have a one-off tech need to address, the familiarity of a brand name may offer you some peace of mind.

Word of mouth from fellow business owners is one of the best ways to find high-quality IT support. Track down a local IT consultant you can trust, and establish a working relationship that lets you rely on the person's skills and expertise as an extension of your business. Think of that consultant as your IT department on demand.

More resources:

• "Choose the Right Tech Support for Your Business"

• "Get VIP Treatment When You Buy for Your Small Business"

• "IT Certifications That Matter"

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