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.
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.
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.