When it comes time to search for an IT consulting partner, there are a lot of areas that you should consider before selecting a firm. According to Zack Schuler, founder and CEO of Cal Net Technology Group, it takes a specific skill set to understand and address the technology issues that businesses face.
“Over the years, we’ve taken over from sub-standard providers, and I’ve seen some pretty bad work that our clients have paid a lot of money to get done,” he says.
Smart Business spoke to Schuler about how to choose the right IT partner for your business’s needs.
How can business leaders best approach the process of finding the right IT firm?
In my experience, there are six things to look for when selecting an IT consulting partner:
1. Years in business. I’ve seen a ton of ‘fly-by-night’ IT companies. They usually start with a very technical owner, who has difficulty hiring and managing good people, and are out of business within three years of getting started. When looking at years in business, it is important to see whether or not the company survived the last recessions. For example, if they started their business in the ’90s, they’ve been through the dot-com bubble, as well as the latest recession. If they survived one or both, that is a good sign. My recommendation: if they’ve been in business less than five years, I would steer clear.
2. References from your industry. Even though many of the IT systems are the same across industries, there are some industries that have their idiosyncrasies. For example, with accounting firms, an IT provider familiar with that industry would plan upgrade projects in November. Then, between the Christmas holiday and April 15th, they wouldn’t make any changes unless absolutely necessary. And while they might not be experts in tax accounting software, they have enough experience with the packages to know when to call the software vendor when they run into an issue. My recommendation: hire an IT firm who can provide references in your industry, and call those references.
3. Industry certifications. IT is one of those areas where you don’t need any sort of minimum certification to practice. It’s like hiring a contractor without a license, or a lawyer who hasn’t passed the Bar. Because of this, it is important to see if the companies themselves have industry certifications. This entails their engineering team to have personal certifications, among other things that the company has to do. Also, check to be sure that their certifications are current. For example, they could have been a Microsoft Gold Certified partner two years ago, but haven’t qualified this year for the new requirements. My recommendation: look closely at industry certifications when selecting a partner, and make them prove their currency.
4. Strategic IT consulting. In today’s times, it’s relatively easy to find an IT provider who can patch your servers and workstations, update your anti-virus software, and fix your e-mail when it’s not working. These types of services have become somewhat commoditized simply by the fact that so many people can perform them. That being said, to find a company who can truly be a ‘strategic partner’ with your organization is another set of skills entirely. This would be a company who can, with your input, write a full-scale strategic plan around technology. They would be able to manage any other vendor you’ve got who provides a technological role, as well as track your IT assets, forecast your upcoming expenses, etc. These are duties typically involving an IT director or CIO, and you should have the expectation that a firm you work with, no matter your company size, should have these types of resources.
5. Number of employees. While even the smallest of IT organizations can have some very talented people, those talented people can’t know everything. It is hard to throw a number of people out there as to what the ideal number of people is. On the smaller end, somewhere between 15 and 20 people is a good number, assuming that they don’t have too many disciplines, nor cover more than a county or maybe two. You want to make sure the IT provider has great ‘back-office’ support (i.e. HR department that can hire quickly if they lose a key employee, good accounting department, etc.) as well as field personnel who are ‘local’ to your place of business, and have redundancy. In other words, if you have a ‘subject matter expert’ on your account who knows a specific piece of technology, you want to make sure that the IT provider whom you partner with has multiple experts on that technology as redundancy. My recommendation: ask how many employees they’ve got, and then go to their office to see their place of business. It’s an easy step if you are going to trust them with your IT
6. Hiring and retaining. The last and perhaps one of the most important aspects to inquire about is how they hire and retain their people. I would encourage you to read our August article, entitled ‘Your toughest hire.’ This article outlines how to hire a good IT person, and I feel as though IT providers should be placing these same standards upon themselves.
In terms of retaining, there is no harder employee to retain than an IT employee, and this can spell bad news for you if the company that you are partnering with is riddled with turnover. Every time an employee at your IT partner turns over, there is going to be some knowledge lost — it is likely the idiosyncrasies of your business, but sometimes, that can be a lot. I think it is important for you to ask them, ‘How do you retain your people?’ An average sales person might not know the answer to this, but any member within their management should have a good answer for you. My recommendation: inquire hard about hiring and retention processes.
Zack Schuler is founder and CEO of Cal Net Technology Group. Reach him at ZSchuler@CalNetTech.com.