Short circuits Featured

10:03am EDT July 22, 2002

Computers can be one of the greatest tools a small business owns, which in turn can also make them one of the biggest liabilities.

Sure, they're great for productivity and can help keep costs down through efficiency gains, but who can understand all the technobabble and still have time to run a business?

Should the company have a network? What kind? How many printers do you need to keep everyone from standing in line? Should we have a programmer write a custom accounting package for us because none of the off-the-shelf products seem to do what we need? Can we use the old computers for any new tasks, or are they $3,000 doorstops?

"Small businesses are in a rather unique and sometimes dangerous position where their information technology needs are concerned," says Frank Boyko, vice president of Delcom Computers, a computer-consulting service based in Newark, Del. "They have the same needs as larger organizations as far as technology services, but often have a very limited budget and little or no IS staff. Worst of all, they are in a position to make a significant investment with little knowledge of the technology itself."

If you decided outside help is needed, make sure you at least understand the scope of the project and its goals.

"Consultants are helpers by definition," says Michael Pastore, president of IBID Publishing, a provider of consulting and printing services for computer professionals in the area of certification. "If you don't know where a project ends, it will just keep going, and you'll get billed for it."

Think about what the goals are for the project. What do you hope to achieve or what should the equipment be able to do when the job is done? This can be one of the most difficult points to identify when working with a consultant, because often the problem can't be identified without help.

"If the consultant can hear from the customer what they hope to achieve, then they can make an intelligent estimate and decision on what needs to be done," says Pastore. "They may need to spend time identifying what the problem is before they will know what needs to be done."

Like any good business relationship, chemistry is important. You should feel comfortable working with the consultant, and it should be a partnership. Spend time interviewing consultants before the job starts, and don't expect the consultant to know everything. It's not uncommon for someone to do three-quarters of a job and then need outside help to finish the rest.

Boyko recommends the following for choosing a consultant:

  • Check for industry certifications. All major players in the industry - Novell, Microsoft, SYSCO and others - have certification programs to ensure the knowledge and skill level of the individuals in the field. Although there are many techs without certification that are just as knowledgeable, the time, effort and costs of obtaining certification says something about the individual's level of commitment to their field. Also, certified techs have access to a support structure of industry experts through the certification programs they are involved with.

  • Check references. Companies that provide true quality service will be anxious to get a prospective client in contact with a present customer.

  • Get a second opinion. This is not yet a common practice in an industry. Many companies will get multiple quotes when shopping for a service, but few will seek validation of recommendations after they have selected a company to work with. In many cases, it's not necessary, but in the event of a major purchase or system change, having a second company research your options may yield a previously undiscovered solution. In any event, the small research fee will ease your mind about the investment that you're about to make.

  • Look for someone who is interested in your business and is actively seeking information. A consultant needs to fully understand your business model and situation to meet your needs effectively. Too many IT professionals are more interested in telling you what they know.

  • Work with someone you like.

  • Look for the back end. IT companies that are truly service-minded understand that a quality network implementation never ends. They should suggest developing with you a future support structure and a plan to keep your systems running efficiently.

  • Look for options. Rather than presenting a set plan, the consultant should present you with various options for handling your problem. They should clearly explain the cost, advantages and drawbacks of each option, make a recommendation, and allow you to make the choice. There is never only one way to accomplish something.