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Many small businesses may be overlooking an aspect of consulting that could prevent future problems. It is time to think long-term.

When most people think of technology consulting, they imagine a techie who arrives with screwdriver set in one hand and memory upgrade in the other. But although having spiffy systems is crucial, many small businesses may be overlooking another aspect of consulting that could serve not just to correct current problems, but prevent future ones as well. It’s time to think long-term.

The wealth of affordable technology has enabled small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) to gear up without blowing their bank accounts, but once systems and networks are in place, what happens then? The answer, unfortunately, is “not enough.” Yankee Group analyst Helen Chan has observed that SMBs tend to look at their technology set-ups in a haphazard fashion. Basically, if something’s broke, then they’ll fix it. But beyond that, they simply don’t have time to plan out what can be done next year, or even next month.

“They just don’t have that ability,” she says. “They rarely have meetings where they look at how to integrate technology into their business in six months. Usually, you only see larger companies have that level of strategy.” Chan adds that SMBs may also lack the technical expertise needed to keep on top of security issues, LAN upgrades, network needs, and the many other aspects of technology implementation and management.

For a growing number of SMBs, that’s where consultants come in.

What gets done

Like other types of business consultants, freelance technology gurus specialize in a range of services. Some can assist in pinning down a rock-solid strategy that will help a company scale through the use of Web services, while others might focus on security management and data protection.

For example, Baltimore-based TelephoNET provides business consulting services in the telecommunications arena, including VoIP applications. Beyond merely making recommendations, the company also offers management for SMBs that need a knowledgeable individual in the area, but might not have the budget for a full-time employees.

Such companies can be invaluable when an SMB knows what it needs. In other instances, more general assistance might be the ticket.

“Consultants can ease the day-to-day distractions of technology,” says Ann Westerheim, president of Massachusetts-based consultancy Ekaru. She adds that the continual flood of new technology and innovation can make SMBs in particular feel overwhelmed. Hiring a consultant can let a company focus on growing its business rather than navigating technology planning.

“We often see folks get to the point where they know they need help, but don’t know what exactly that entails,” Westerheim says.

The largest issues that keep Ekaru’s phone ringing are data storage and security, two areas that are vital to any company’s success, but that also are awash in competing technologies and standards. “Reliable backup has become so complex, and companies are outgrowing their backup systems,” says Westerheim. She helps to guide SMBs through decisions about hosted solutions, backup equipment, wireless networks, centralized management, and a score of other thorny issues.

Sometimes, an SMB might have adequate in-house tech savvy, but could benefit from more input. Mike Ryder, president of network security consulting company Safelink Networks notes that it’s fairly common for him to be called in as a “second set of eyes.” He says that like going to the doctor, many people value a second opinion when thinking about a diagnosis.

Finding good help

Ryder has also been called in to check the work of technical consultants, to make sure hardware or software was properly implemented. Occasionally, he says, he finds firewalls that were sold to SMBs but not installed, or that don’t have any data running through them. Most often, he discovers that clients were sold more technology than they needed, a situation that leaves him seething.

“It’s so important to find the right consultant, because they’ll sell you the right product, and won’t overcharge you,” he says.

When looking for help, he recommends checking references, just as you would when hiring an employee. Good consultants often ask their clients to serve as references, which Ryder says works to keep them honest and effective.

He notes: “One of the reasons that consultants work hard to keep their reputations spotless is because of the referral system. If I sell you something that doesn’t work, that breaks the chain of referral.”

When starting a search, it can also be helpful to examine exactly what a consultancy offers. Although some consultants offer a wealth of experience, Ryder notes that it’s often better to go with companies that have well-defined areas of expertise rather than those that boast of being champions of the all-around.

“Many companies claim they can do it all,” he says, noting that he’s seen consultant firms claiming that they have experience in LANs, security, programming, wiring, telephony, and Internet strategy. Such broadness could mean the company dabbles in each, but lacks true experience in any.

“I think some companies are just afraid to say no, because they don’t want to lose the business,” says Ryder. “But the truth is, you can’t do it all effectively. To go back to the doctor analogy, if you have a problem, you see a specialist. No doctor is going to say he can do cardiology and podiatry equally well. The same should be true of consultants.”

Also useful is to get referrals through networking, according to Westerheim. She says industry forums, associations, workshops, and casual chats with other SMBs can be valuable to know which consultants to call. “Some folks have been burned by consultants,” she notes. “Listen to those stories, so you can find the people who are responsive and professional.”

One situation that Ryder hasn’t seen yet, but would love to experience, is having an SMB call him in along with several other consultants from competing firms. He says putting together different experts into the same room to hash out a technology plan for an SMB would be worth the initial cost of such an endeavor.

“I’d love to see a company assemble a team of specialists, to really address everything that’s needed at the company,” he says. “That would put a company ahead, instead of just addressing technology problems.”

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