Managing technology comes last on the to-do list for many small companies. You want to focus on front-end business while hardware and software magically work behind the scenes.
For your tech backbone to function, however, it needs steady support. Finding the right IT expert can not only save money over the long run but also make the difference between merely surviving an emergency and powering ahead for growth.
Many mom-and-pop or home-based ventures rely on family and friends for tech help. In a crisis, some call a third-party service at a mall or big-box store. Larger companies may lean on an informal pool of on-staff "experts" or a part-time consultant.
"The main trend we're seeing for small businesses is to use as little IT help as possible, says Joslyn Faust, an analyst at Gartner research. "It seems like technology is catching up to that preference. With cloud computing and software as a service, there's much more of an ability to not use a lot of IT staff at all."
Rather than calling an expert to come over to your desk, for example, you could use free remote-access software to allow a pro to control and fix your PC from afar.
However, the time may come when tech growing pains can interfere with basic functions. Nobody wants to learn the hard way, for example, that the lack of a backup strategy has led to a wipeout of client records.
The need for IT help is changing, not disappearing. Your important tech investments may increasingly be in services rather than machines. Instead of providing nuts-and-bolts PC support, the person you bring in might work on higher-level challenges, such as establishing cloud-based backup or unifying communications across smartphones, tablets, notebooks, and desktops.
The breaking point at which you need professional help depends on your company. A five-person startup may need nothing more than occasional tune-ups, or yearly guidance to draw up a long-term tech blueprint. If you have close to 100 computer users on the payroll, on the other hand, you're probably in the market for a full-time technician.
No matter the scale of assistance you need, think of it as you would any other relationship. First, get to know each other. Then, make plans for the future.
"One of the biggest things we do is to try to become part of their environment," says Jeremy Hayward, who provides small-business tech support with SNS Technologists in Edmonton, Alberta. "I try to look at what's going to happen in six months, what's projected for sales and staffing levels. It's not all technical. We try to translate day-to-day business needs into technology that will help you do better."
Where to Look
Seeking outside help can be scary, like trusting a car mechanic when you don't know what's rattling under the hood. Word-of-mouth networking is a start. Just ask clients and vendors with tech needs similar to your own about who they use for IT advice.
You won't find a friendly, dedicated online reviews directory of all IT pros, but searching for "tech support" on local-reviews services such as Yelp.com can help. For $29 a year, you can use AngiesList.com, which specializes in user-rated construction and home-repair pros but also includes a 'Computer Repair & Services' category. Or, if you prefer, try posting a free ad on Craigslist in the 'Gigs Offered' section under 'Computers' to invite replies from professionals to your inbox.
If you tend to have a lot of gear from a certain brand, check the maker's Website for local partners or resellers that might also offer business support services, such as on HP's Partner Locator page. Some electronics companies, such as Dell, provide support and consulting within their small-business guides.
What to Look For
Seek a professional who observes your operations and asks questions about how your business works overall, not just the technologies it uses.
Your IT contact should feel the pulse of your network and pay special attention to data security and backup. Where is your business's e-mail hosted? What operating systems, software, antivirus tools, desktops, laptops, tablets, and smartphones do your employees use?
Ideally, the professional you select should help beyond your immediate needs with a three- or five-year plan that takes your budgeting and forecasting into account. A monthly or quarterly check-in isn't a bad idea.
An IT pro should translate geek-speak into user-friendly language you understand. This task may be tough for a helplessly left-brained technician, but they should at least try.
Someone who provides choices and a range of price levels has done research to keep you informed. The most expensive products aren't always the best option.
Make sure the consultant looks for tools that fit the size and type of your business. If your family runs an antique shop, for example, your accounting data may fit neatly on a secure USB key that you take home each night. If you're in charge of an investment firm or medical office, on the other hand, your data must have extra layers of protection to comply with privacy regulations and other laws.
A savvy IT technician keeps up with tech-industry news to know how and when products are updated and evolve. The pro doesn't have to be a news fiend, but you should assess their knowledge by asking them about something cool you spotted in a tech magazine or news site.
Look for credentials. Certifications that matter include Microsoft Certified Technology Specialist (MCTS) and Microsoft Certified IT Professional (MCITP). For networking, look for CompTIA Network+ or A+ accreditation. An Apple Certified Support Professional (ACSP) could be good for Mac shops with complex needs, such as multiple departments.
Get a sense of the IT pro's customer-support experience by reading between the lines of their résumé and having a real conversation.
Next: What to avoid in an IT professional