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The world is full of brainy folks who would just love to dig into the technical chores your SMB has sitting around–for a modest fee, of course.

If you own a small business, odds are you know how to run a computer. Maybe you’ve even set up your own small local-area network, or an FTP site. But it’s likely that your tech expertise ends somewhere near there–and even if it doesn’t, you probably don’t have the time or the inclination to dirty your hands on keeping your computers going.

That’s where IT consulting comes in. The world is full of brainy folks who would just love to dig into the technical chores your small-to-midsize business (SMB) has sitting around–for a modest fee, of course.

If your small business is typical, you don’t need a full-time consultant; you might not even need to turn to the same one more than once. But anytime you come across a project need that’s beyond your area of expertise, you’ll be glad that help is only a phone call away.

Lots of ifs

So when is a good time to turn to a consultant, and when should you save your pennies? Unfortunately, the answer to that question is fraught with contingencies. Some feel you should have consultants on the line from Day One to help you develop an IT strategy, while others maintain such services should be sought on an as-needed basis only.

“If you are managing a modest networking environment, a couple of file and database servers, 25 to 50 desktops, e-mail and a Web site, [there are] monthly system maintenance activities that need to be done and monitored by an IT professional,” says Detroit-based IT consultant Chris Cameron. “One day a month of an IT consultant’s time is reasonable for an office of this size.”

How much IT support you’ll need also depends largely on what kind of business you’re in–the owner of a body shop will probably need next to none, while a burgeoning online retailer might consider a fulltime support staff.

Most IT consultants, naturally, are quick to tout the wisdom of retaining a fulltime tech guru, while some concede that it’s easy to waste money on unnecessary outsourcing. But all agree that if your business involves any kind of computing beyond one or more unconnected PCs, you should cultivate a relationship with someone (or better yet, several someones) who can lead the cavalry charge when things go wrong.

Only you know what you need

The key here, as in most areas of small business, is thinking ahead and planning according to what your company might need–and nobody should know that better than you.

“Budget in time for a few specific projects and you have the total hours for the year,” Cameron says. “A reasonable hourly rate for these types of services will range from $80 to $120, so this may mean $1,200 to $2,000 a month in IT support expenses.”

Joel Schneider, founder of Chicago-based Liberty Technology Advisors, says that companies can get a great return on a consulting investment of a few thousand dollars. Steve M. Winter, principal and CEO of Houston-based Ergos Technology Partners Inc., agrees that you don’t need to break the bank if you find the right people, and that it pays to take a hard look at your needs.

“You need to make a prudent investment in technology based on your business,” says Winter. “How long can they afford to be down? Will they need to be able to access their information remotely or on the road? Will they be using PDAs? Should they consider wireless technology, and what are the security risks? Will they have a Web site? What about e-commerce?”

Too much is too much

The biggest mistake any entrepreneur can make is to overextend himself, and this is most true when it comes to computers. In the vast majority of cases, trying to fix an IT problem yourself quickly leads to a point of diminishing returns.

Schneider of Liberty Technology Advisors says companies should be honest about what they’re capable of.Ê”Small businesses should turn to an IT consultant for [things like] planning and installing a networking system, evaluating and selecting a new software system, or negotiating a software contract,” he says.

“Many small businesses think they can save money by having Fred the sales guy or Bob, the boss’s nephew, do the IT,” says Steve Halligan, chief information officer at Minneapolis-based Techies: Network Task Force. “If you really think that a person like this can be your primary IT source, at the very least, hire a professional to check out [their work] to make sure it’s up to snuff.”

Be honest with yourself about what you and your staff can and can’t maintain. Odds are, you can find a happy balance between the two if you take a comprehensive inventory of your IT needs.

“The end-user has become quite tech-savvy, and is capable of many basic routine computer service and maintenance procedures,” says Denis Cheng, owner of Expetec Technology Services of Sacramento, Calif. “Setting up and installing a single workstation, connecting basic peripherals such as a printer, and troubleshooting operating system freezes comes easy for most people. What seems to be more of a challenge these days is network installation and troubleshooting.”

At the top of the “help me!” list for most IT consultants are network systems and the broad range of items that fall under the “break-fix” category (usually hardware in need of repair). If you can get that finnicky printer to work, more power to you. But don’t punish yourself if you find you’re not on the cutting edge of the technology–that’s what the experts are there for.

For many small businesses, the answer lies in figuring out exactly what technology they use, and exactly who they need to turn to if things go wrong.

“There will always be emerging niches that require a very specific depth of expertise that goes beyond the average end-user’s abilities,” says Art Hopkins, vice president of Technology and Consulting for Chicago-based Blackwell Consulting Services. “IT consulting also remains necessary for one-off projects where business owners cannot–or should not–invest in permanent IT resources.”

Some IT consulting basics

— Cheaper isn’t necessarily better. There’s probably a reason Consultant A asks $100 per hour and Consultant B asks $300. What’s the reason? That leads us to…

— Get references. Any IT consultant who’s worthwhile will offer references, or provide them quickly upon request. And if he’s really honest, he’ll also give you the name of a client who wasn’t thrilled with his work. How did things get resolved? Check out the references carefully to make sure they aren’t just shills.

— Think twice about fixed-price contracts. The length and complexity of a consulting project can change dramatically once work gets under way; if you settle on an hourly rate, you’ll be able to more effectively monitor how much money is going out the door.

— Have the second string ready. It’s possible that you’ll recognize in the middle of a project that the person you hired isn’t right for you. You’ll thank yourself later for having the number of someone else who can do the job.

— Have one lead person, and one only. Whether it’s yourself or a trusted comrade, put one person in charge of the IT consulting side of your business, and leave him to it. This isn’t an area for committees.

— Have a nice, long list of suitors. Although some consultants specialize in general IT work, no single company is suited to all your IT consulting needs. It means extra work, but have a name for every IT category. You’ll be happy if you let the specialists specialize.

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