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If a network for your business is on your to-do list, this primer is for you.

Fortune 500 companies have their own IT network staffs, and midsized companies that choose to outsource network services have enough outsourcing contract worth to compel first-class attention to their needs.

But what if you’re a small business under 100 employees–with network needs that can be just as critical to your business?

Unique challenges face small business owners and operators every day as they struggle with installing and maintaining their computer networks. Here are options and strategies that small business owners can use to solve their network issues.

The network perspective of small business

If you’re a small business, you may not have a dedicated IT staff. If you do, it likely consists of one or two employees who scramble to meet the company network, computer, and telephony needs on a daily basis. On a bad day, this means that company employees wait to receive service, and waiting for phones, computers, or networks to be restored means time and money.

For many small businesses with IT on staff, the IT-dedicated employees are those who started in other company functions and then expressed an interest in computers. These employees are often “homegrown” in their computer and network knowledge. They might be ill-equipped to fight the invasion of a major computer virus or worm–or a disaster-recovery scenario where all electrical power has been knocked out to the building, with computers and networks damaged or down.

Since small companies depend on functioning “lean,” with very limited budgets for training, employees who are working IT issues in these companies find it difficult to keep up with the latest technologies, trends, and in some industries, regulatory requirements. During company busy seasons, these employees may also be called upon to double on other non-IT tasks.

Very quickly, the case can be built for outsourcing networking services–but just as quickly, the barrier of cost enters in. Small businesses cannot afford expensive outsourcing contracts. If small businesses do secure services from network service outsourcers that also service larger organizations, the smaller companies will still struggle when asked to compete with larger companies and larger outsourcing contracts. Long waits for service compromise customer service, and that’s bad for business.

What strategies can small businesses use to navigate the seas of network technical support? Often, this navigation begins with a self-assessment of the business itself.

Do you need a network?

Small businesses differ widely in the products and the services they offer. It’s not surprising that their computer network needs also vary widely. For instance, if your small company provides call-center and communications services to business clients, your computer network is a mission-critical area of your business. If you are a metal fabrication shop, your computer network might still be a mission-critical component of your business if it’s where all your engineering drawings are stored and sent from.

On the other hand, if you run a gym, you might not need immediate access to a computer network, and you might be able to tolerate a certain amount of down time. This is why understanding your business information needs is paramount to your network strategy–and a major factor when you make decisions like whether to hire your own qualified IT staff, or to outsource all of your networking.

What size is the right size?

A network servicing solution for a small company is a balance between service and value. Two types of small companies opt to use internal employees for network support, and they are at the opposite ends of the spectrum:

* Companies with little or no resources and expertise in IT support, making do with the knowledge their existing employees have; and

* Companies that recognize they will not be a commercial success without excellent networks, and thus make the decision to employ highly skilled network professionals who are dedicated to their operations.

It is difficult to overstate the advantages of having highly trained network professionals on board. Since these employees are in demand and highly mobile, the persistent risk for companies that hire is that these employees sometimes secure advanced network training on company time, and then leave for greener pastures.

Small companies whose primary business does not directly rest on their technology often try to minimize their technology investments. These companies often opt to use an internal employee to troubleshoot technical issues and install computers as a secondary function–but they also consider outsourcing their network support.

hat about network and computer outsourcing?

There are different types of outsourcers in the network and computer market. This makes it important for the small business to distinguish among them.

Consumer-oriented stores like Circuit City and Best Buy have recognized the small-business market, and are expanding programs that serve this market. Small-business programs in these stores are built around multi-year contracts that provide 24/7 technical support for computer hardware and networks, and are directly based on the size of a company’s technology investment.

One example is Circuit City’s “City Advantage” program, which begins with a purchase of computer hardware by a small business. If the business purchases six desktop computers from Circuit City, it is charged between $130-$140 per station as a one-time upfront contract fee.

The contract is in force for two years, and if the company chooses to exit the contract, the remainder of the monthly contract payments is returned as a prorated amount to the business without penalty. The business also has the option of entering into a four-year contract that further discounts computer technical support fees in return for a longer contract.

“Our support for hardware problem resolution and replacement is virtually unlimited, although viral infections and accidental damage, like damage resulting from spilling a Coke on a computer, are not covered,” said a Circuit City representative.

Although consumer stores offer hardware technical support only, programs like these give small businesses cost-effective 24/7 support for hardware failures and troubleshooting. Some of the disadvantages are lack of software technical support, limited training options (the consumer stores are working to expand these), lack of an equipment leasing program, and little help or assistance in computer and network security.

Major PC equipment manufacturers like Dell, HP, CDW, and Gateway all offer small business technology purchase and technical support programs. All are reputable companies, with their own core competencies and areas of expertise.

Dell’s business services target companies with 200 employees or less. Dell offers installation services for hardware and software, outlets for the recycling of obsolete technology, and financing. It has a full complement of training programs that are both in-person and online. This training includes Microsoft certifications, Red Hat Linux certifications and Dell certifications.

HP offers network and computer technology purchase and leasing, with specialized solutions for vertical industry sectors in real estate, accounting, legal and healthcare. The company offers free online classes in desktop publishing, wireless technology and Web skills, along with online how-to guides for computer security, the production of marketing brochures, and Wi-Fi security. HP also offers small businesses network security and backup services–and keeps businesses informed about the latest network and computer technology trends.

CDW also provides purchase programs for government and education. The company provides technical support options and competitive pricing to small businesses.

Gateway offers programs for businesses with fewer than 100 employees. It has a n array of computer hardware and software, and is positioned to configure hardware for unique business applications. In one case, Gateway customized a handheld tablet PC with touch-screen capability for a medical center that the medical center was unable to procure elsewhere. Gateway also keeps small businesses informed of the latest network and computer trends on its Web site.

Smaller networking companies often support specific vertical markets. Recognizing the challenges that many small businesses have in managing their networks, a number of industries have formed associations or consortiums that offer discounted technology purchase prices at group rates, as well as affordable technical support. This is especially prevalent in vertical industry sectors like banking, hospitality, healthcare and small government.

“We recognized small business technical support as a significant issue several years ago, says Rodney Ford, vice president of Sales and Marketing for Core Technology, a Lansing, Mich., network provider and service bureau for law enforcement and government.

“When our clients began upgrading their technology into modern computer networks that went beyond modems and dedicated phone lines, and transformed into communicating over the Internet, smaller law enforcement and government agencies needed a new technology infrastructure at the same time that they were being mandated to adopt industrial strength security to meet state and federal standards,” adds Ford. “It was natural for us to offer them an online service bureau in which we procured the technology, installed it, ran it and responded to technical support issues.”

Another company working a similar market is five-year-old Sorbis, based in New York City. It provides computer network services to over 22 hotels in downtown Manhattan.

“We perform network installations, network servicing, project rollouts and problem resolution on a pay-per-service, 24/7 basis, says President Gene August, who began his career as a network specialist for a Manhattan hotel.

August acknowledges that he was initially concerned about the pay-for-service strategy that the company adopted, with no guaranteed ongoing income from contracts. Originally starting in the hospitality industry, August now estimates that about 60 percent of his firm’s business is in hospitality while another 40% of the client base comes from the financial and manufacturing sectors.

“We find that many of our clients are looking to save the expense of direct employees for technology,” said August. “At the same time, we can offer these companies 24/7 staff with all of the latest technology and security experience and credentials.”

An additional alternative for small companies is the neighborhood computer store that typically does not offer 24/7 service, but that offers the opportunity for a pay-as-you-go hardware repair service. Many times these smaller stores can respond quickly to a problem situation.

Because they are in the same trader area as the business, there is great potential for a mutual relationship. However, like other small businesses, these smaller, privately owned computer stores can be limited by their own internal resources. Companies may have to wait a little longer for technical support and problem resolution if the store has limited technicians to work on technical issues, and if incoming problem volumes are high.

One size does not fit all

There is no one network servicing and technical support solution that fits all small companies. Some companies opt to address their networking needs with internal resources. Others look for outside help.

For the latter, network service providers have recognized the need to provide service options for smaller organizations. The key for small businesses is finding quality service while maximizing the value of technology investments.

“We made a conscious decision to serve small businesses when we developed our service bureau,” said Core Technology’s Ford. “We felt we could meet the day to day technology needs they were hard-pressed to address. For a small business owner, I recommend that he make sure that his business is a priority for his service provider.”

Seven top network service strategies

Regardless of how a small business chooses to address its networking and computing needs, there are best practices that can be followed to ensure that the best possible choices are made. Below are seven best practices that small businesses can use for their network serving and support:

* Determine how mission-critical your technology is to your business

If your network is a critical component of your end business and you can’t afford to be without it, you need strong technical support. Conversely, if your business is able to function several days without your computer network, you might consider a very affordable but less service-intensive mode of technical support.

* Consider leasing instead of buying your computer and network equipment

The companies you lease from typically track technology developments, and can assist you in keeping up with current trends as you exchange and upgrade equipment on lease. From a financial standpoint, you can expense lease costs, and can thereby avoid having to depreciate an asset that will obsolete itself in three years. Leasing arrangements also assure immediate replacement of technology that fails–with the lessor assuming all servicing and replacement costs. All you worry about is the monthly cost of the lease.

* Look for an industry buying group or network service provider

If you belong to an industry with a trade association, the trade association often offers buying programs that give you better technology purchasing (and possibly even lease) options, based on the strength of a larger purchasing group comprised of multiple businesses. If you are looking for servicing, a number of vertical sectors also have network providers with both specialized network and industry knowledge. This combination is frequently a “best of breed” combination for a small business. You get the network know-how at a discount price and do not have to take on payroll–at the same time that you have a service provider that understands your end business and the particular technology demands that it has.

* Form your own network services cooperative

If you don’t have a trade association that can offer you technology discounts–or a service provider that specializes in your industry, you could consider starting an independent organization that provides network and technology services to a pool of small businesses that share the costs. Many small businesses in the same industry have done this, particularly in areas like financial services and healthcare.

* Ask your vendor what his performance guarantees are

Small businesses with limited technology needs don’t have much “clout” when it comes to demanding service guarantees from outside vendors–but many of these vendors make it part of their business to set such standards for themselves. Before entering into a contract for network services, ask your vendor what his service guarantees are. Important items to ask about include how quickly the vendor promises to respond to your trouble call, and how quickly the vendor pledges to resolve problems. At the same time that you are asking your vendor about service levels, also ask him about his business partnerships. Many vendors have business partners that can supply other technology needs, such as hardware and software fulfillment, or network disaster recovery services.

* Check references

Ask a prospective service provider for customer references, and take the time to interview these references. References are excellent sources of “inside information” about service providers. They can be instrumental in helping you with your decision.

* Consider a “payback period” for training investments

Some organizations are beginning to establish training investment “payback” periods with IT staff. Here’s how it works: You invest in a Microsoft network professional certification for an employee. In turn, the employee commits to repaying the hard-dollar training investment if he leaves the employ of the company within a certain period of time (typically, one year) after receiving the certification.

Mary E. Shacklett is president of Transworld Data, a marketing and technology practice for technology companies and organizations.

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