0 Comments |  IT |  PRINT | 

Don’t get outgunned by the IT cowboys

Monday, 20 September 2010 | By Jenna Pitcher

When asked about small business IT problems, Hannah Watterson recalls one occasion when she called the IT company supporting her growing PR consultancy and informed them the system backing up her data wasn't working.




"They shrugged their shoulders and said they'd get it sorted in a few days," she says. "They were amazed when I demanded an immediate fix!"


And the problems weren't just limited to that provider. "The next company advised us we needed a new server, which we duly bought," Watterson adds. "That server crashed a couple of weeks later and the service company tried to charge us for fixing it even though we had paid for onsite warranty."


Issues also extend to the telecommunications field. "We recently discovered our internet service provider was offering a 140GB plan for the same price as the 75GB plan we were on," says Watterson. "We had not reviewed the plan since we originally signed up with the ISP."


Watterson's experience is typical of how small businesses experience IT and telecommunications support. Among the chaos of starting a new company, it is easy to let IT infrastructure fall to the wayside. More often than not, it is better to get outside professionals to look after the technology requirements.


But as with every other industry, IT has its fair share of shonky operators who take advantage of customers who put their trust in them. These tech cowboys take on different personas: offering services the client doesn't need, doing shoddy work or even scamming unsuspecting businesses by producing false invoices. Or maybe they just don't pay attention once they've made a sale.


How to avoid the cowboys: Ask around

Any small business operator will tell you that one of the best ways to find good service providers is to tap into the most powerful network that many small businesses have available to them: your peers.


Stephen Collins founded social media consultancy Acidlabs several years ago - and although it's the first business he has owned, the consultant has extensive experience in the SME environment.


"More than anything, small businesses need to get a range of views from their peers - similar businesses, similar sizes, varying levels of tech-savvy, to see what options might fit their needs," says Collins. "So too, find out what support you can get, when, and where (especially if you travel or have a dispersed team)."


Watterson agrees.


"Talk to operators of similar businesses – find out what technology they’re using and what works and what doesn’t," she says. "Check the ads in your local paper, and talk to neighbours and local businesses and see who they use. Always check the references of any companies recommended to you."


Watterson also suggests getting quotes from three different companies and asking suppliers to submit "real world examples of similar implementations from their customers" - just to play it safe.


Task Retail Technology began in the front room of the founders' home - and customer technical support team was initially based in the garage. The POS system company recently expanded into Atlanta, Georgia.


"Ask associates in similar businesses of your own who do they use and what were their experiences? A good customer is a good reference and is your best sales person," agrees founder Kim Houden when asked about the IT support issue.


Fit the solution to your needs


The next principle you need to keep in mind when putting together IT infrastructure for your small business is that different businesses will have different needs, and what you need may not immediately be obvious.


Watterson explains that a good look at your customer base – do they communicate by email, phone or written correspondence, for example - and how the business will operate should be reviewed before setting up infrastructure. It’s also important to look at how you want to work.


"Do you want to be able to work from home or when travelling? If so you might want to set up a virtual private network so you can access documents on the server and your email as if you were in the office," says Watterson.


"I think too many businesses think that the Microsoft stack is their only option. I actually think it should be their last resort," says Collins "There are a range of options now available to cover the general needs of small business in terms of their IT needs, whether that's email and calendar, CRM, project management, storage or anything else."


Watterson also warns against skimping on IT infrastructure.


"The biggest issue is to understand how important the IT is to your business and then invest accordingly, ie. don’t take the cheapest option just to save money in the short-term; that low cost server or “free” email service might crash and really hurt your business," says Watterson.


"Be aware of the so called “cheapest quote”. It is normally cheap for a good reason, something is missing."


Collins said IT solutions don't have to be expensive but make sure quality isn't sacrificed.


"No matter what solution you go with, there's always someone really good you can turn to that won't cost you the Earth and won't stuff you around," explains Collins. "All that said, I have seen some incredibly amateur operators do setups for small businesses, and seen a large number of small businesses make IT infrastructure decisions that end up costing them way more than they need to be spending."


Some final tips


So you've asked around to avoid the shonky operators, and you've worked out how the requirements of your business match up with what sort of technology you need. What are some final detailed tips that you need to know?


"One of the biggest issues is carrying out regular backups and then testing the backup to make sure it works," says Watterson. "We took three copies of our backup every day for years – one was left on site and two went off site each day to make sure we were covered. Once in awhile we had to restore single files and that went fine but the first time we had to do a full restore we found the backup didn’t work!"


The Watterson principal also recommends buying two of everything when it comes to keeping infrastructure and connectivity live – hard drives, modems and switches – so the failed hardware can be swapped over and potential crises evaded. Regular revision of office technology and telecommunication providers is wise.


Watterson says hardware insurance against the unknown is one smart investment that will save in the long run.


"We lost a server a few years ago and the IT people spent a lot of time trying to fix the problem. That time ended up being covered by the insurance. We now have our IT insurance extended to cover software and services on some of the PCs as well as the server," said Watterson.


Vaughan Bowen, managing director of business telco M2, warns against operators who don't offer a steady price for services. "If they’re not willing to do so, be prepared to be unpleasantly surprised," he says.


Kazacous Peter Kazacos Executive Chairman of Hostech – a SME and regional IT&T provider - says companies should buy brand new hardware with a sturdy warranty and a proven track record.


"Make sure you have adequate backup and recovery procedures that are regularly tested," he adds. "Use a quality Antivirus software product."


In the end, getting IT support right for your small business is not an easy task. But it's one that every business owner should pay attention to.


"As much as you might not want to get too involved in your IT, if you own the business you must understand the technology well enough to decide knowledgeably on what you need and how it supports your operation," says Watterson.