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Don’t do it yourself

Even the most talented techies need a little help from their friends sometimes. But if you don’t have a list of able-bodied geniuses available, don’t worry. You can rent one.

You’re set up in a home office with an ergonomic workstation and a chair that adjusts your body like a glove. On your wrap-around desk sits a PC and always-on Internet connection hooked up to a wireless network. Next to the PC, you have a voice-over IP phone system that makes your company look far bigger than it is and forwards your calls to the cell phone when you’re out visiting clients.

On the other side of the PC, a multifunction printer cranks out all your documents–from faxes to four-color brochures–with the quality of those huge machines at large offices. Behind the scenes, you’ve got a great looking Web site, hosted off site, that you can maintain from your desk with your browser.

Your SOHO business is hooked up and ready for action.

The trouble is, you find yourself spending way too much time maintaining all this equipment and not enough time doing what you do best and making money for it. Just last week you spent 40 hours cleaning up after yet another worm that shut down your systems.

After you rebuilt a client proposal from a back-up version and updated your firewall and virus definitions, it was Friday night and your proposal would have to wait for next week–possibly another client lost due to computer failure.

You’ve done everything right, and still you can’t seem to keep your computer systems running efficiently enough to make money at your SOHO business. What’s wrong?

A too-full plate

Ryle Irwin, president and owner of two Geeks On Call franchises in Northern Virginia, has heard it all. His company specializes in small-office clients who are too small for the large tech support companies and too big for Ma-and-Pa support services.

“The biggest mistake I see is people trying to do it themselves,” he says. “They end up spending more time working on their computers than they do working with them.”

Irwin suggests SOHO owner/operators concentrate on their strengths and outsource their tech support functions to a company that can keep them up and running.

Once you make the choice to outsource, there are several things you should know about developing a relationship with a tech support company. Andy Bork, COO of Techies Network Taskforce, a Minneapolis-based tech-support company that also specializes in small and home businesses, says SOHO businesses often can’t afford to wait for a tech support company to get back to them. They need rapid response in order to survive.

“When people come to us for help, they’re often reeling from experiences with another tech support company,” he explains. “The biggest complaint we get is that many of these companies are not easy to reach.”

Finding the right support

Bork explains that most tech support companies fall into two categories: the single owner who is often too busy to provide consistent rapid response; or the large companies that can’t be bothered by such small fry.

Both Geeks On Call and Techies Network Taskforce have developed models specifically for the large number of SOHO businesses. Techies is a developing company that tries to direct the enormous influx of unemployed technicians logging onto its job board toward available IT work. Geeks On Call is a Norfolk, Va.-based company that sells franchises to tech support owner/operators in specific regions and handles all the workflow and marketing issues for its franchisees.

The combination of a central management company and distributed independent technicians gives both companies models that fit the needs of SOHO companies. Both expect their respective models to eventually provide nationwide rapid-response tech support for SOHO businesses.

While Techies is just beginning to deliver, Geeks On Call is already supporting SOHO companies in several markets, primarily on the east coast. (Consult its Web site to see if your area is covered.) In markets with no such company, SOHO businesses need to use best practices to ensure that they get the service they need.

Love the one you’re with

Both Bork and Irwin emphasize developing a relationship with a single company, rather than hopping from one tech support guru to another.

“Definitely check out three companies,” Bork says, “but once you develop a comfort level with one of them, stick with it. They will get to know your systems better and will be able to more quickly solve problems as a result.” Irwin says up-front service-level agreements are the key to ensuring that your problems take priority over one-time call-ins. In the case of Geeks On Call, SOHO businesses can save money by paying a flat fee up front. This gives the Geeks On Call franchisee incentive to set up the machines properly from the start–the less often they have to go to a home, the more money they make. So Irwin always sets up the firewall, virus protection, back-up routines, automated routine maintenance, and other up-front systems to keep machines running with a minimum of problems.

He also recommends companies that tailor the service-level agreement on the type of business being covered. The more stringent requirements placed on a business transactions, the more complicated and expensive the service-level agreement.

“For example, I want to know if they’re dealing with competitive proprietary data,” he says. “If they are, I will recommend a tougher firewall and intrusion detection system.”

Who are you?

Irwin says another issue that needs to be cleared up immediately is the type of business you’re in. For example, if it’s a medical practice, it needs to have rock-solid systems to comply with HIPAA laws.

“It’s a hard line to walk with coaching a client with the appropriate maintenance level they’re at versus selling more service than they need,” he says.

Bork says the service-level guarantee is the most important aspect of outsourcing tech support.

He suggests asking a lot of questions abut the guarantee before signing on the dotted line: “How quickly will they get there? Do they carry liability insurance, or errors and omissions insurance? Will they compensate you for lost data if it is their fault?”

Errors and omissions insurance places the responsibility on the tech support company if they failed to perform a routine task and it resulted in a systems failure later on.

“Make sure you have legal counsel review any contract before signing it,” he adds. “Be wary of any company that asks for money up-front; they might not be there to fulfill the contract.”

We’re not happy unless you’re happy

Both Irwin and Bork also emphasize the importance of a comfort level with the company’s product suggestions.

“We make specific recommendations because they will tend to save the customer money over the long haul,” Bork says. “For example, we recommend the Windows platform because it is the most widely known. If, for some reason, you need to change tech support companies, it will be easier for them to maintain a well-known system than some hybrid Linux system.”

Irwin is less keen on Windows simply because he has spent the better part of his career cleaning up after Windows stability issues, viruses, and worms.

“Windows can end up costing our clients more money because I have to play a larger role in making sure the right patches are installed,” he says. “A lot of patches are worse than the bugs they’re trying to fix.”

Bork says he tries to recommend products that have a six-month track record. Not only will they be cheaper than “bleeding edge” products, but the bugs are more likely to be worked out. Both Bork and Irwin recommend refurbished computers rather than buying new.

“Most SOHO businesses don’t need the fastest machines,” Irwin says. “One-year old-computers are just fine and can save companies a lot of money.”

After system recommendations, the first thing they suggest is a good hardware firewall, which is a router between your always-on connection and your PC.

“Hardware firewalls are easier to manage and they give you adequate protection,” Irwin says. “With software firewalls, you really have to understand more about protocols and ports than the average SOHO owner wants to know.”

Time for a check-up?

The most frequently overlooked issues both Bork and Irwin see are routine preventative maintenance, which can save SOHO businesses a lot of money in both equipment and tech support.

“I spend a lot of time doing stuff that users can set their systems up to do automatically,” Irwin says. “Things like removing spyware, cleaning up and optimizing the hard drive, establishing a back-up routine that works, and cleaning the dust out of the box and preventing it from overheating as a result.”

“When you do have visits with technicians, ask them to document what they did,” Bork suggests. “Documentation will give you recourse in case something bad happens.”

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