Small businesses can’t be an expert in everything; sometimes you need to call in a service provider
I like to think of myself as a handy man, considering I can change a tire, paint a room, install towel rods, and even wire my speaker system. But I do recognize my limitations. I don’t trust myself to knock down walls or deal with plumbing, for example. Even if I could do it, where would I find the time? So, I swallow my pride and call a professional for the toughest tasks. And when my car or house ends up looking new again, I have the peace of mind to know it was done right, along with the satisfaction that I was able to spend my time doing more important things.
It’s the same when you’re a small business. You can’t be an expert in everything and sometimes you need to call in for help when a technology task is too big or too unfamiliar for you to handle on your own.
That’s where service providers come in.They lend their expertise by offering all sorts of value-add services that make your life easier--everything from building your small business network to providing security services or hosting an IP phone system.
Before you trust your company’s critical data to an outsider, you need to make sure the provider will deliver quality service and protect your business assets. Here are five questions you should ask all potential service providers to determine if they’re a good fit for your small business.
1. Do you have experience serving a small business in my industry? Only contract with a service provider that has experience with small businesses. They’ll better understand your company’s challenges and goals, and will be well versed in the technologies purpose-built for small businesses. Also, find out if the provider specializes in your industry, because that level of knowledge makes a difference.
2. Can I count on your business to be around long term? Once you’ve found a provider that understands your business, you want to know that they’ll be around for as long as you need their services. Don’t be afraid to ask about their business history, the clients they serve, or any other details that give you confidence in choosing them. After all, working with a service provider is a partnership, and you deserve to know just as much about them as you would anyone else with whom you might partner.
3. What security measures will you take to ensure my data--and business--is protected? This is probably the most important technical question you’ll ask. If the provider’s security isn’t airtight, nothing else matters. Ask if data transferred over the Internet is encrypted, if they have a certified secure network, and what security measures they have installed on their networks and might install on yours. Also, find out if the provider permanently deletes files when they’re no longer in use.
Just as important is the provider’s response plan if a security breach happens. You need to know how they will react if your data is compromised, what procedures they have in place to handle a security incident, and how they will rectify any data or financial losses related to a security breach.
4. What kind of customer support can I expect? Things can go wrong at the most inconvenient times, and you need to know if your provider will be there to support you when you need help; for example, if your website goes down, your server crashes, or you can’t make a call on your phone system.To ensure your technology problems are quickly resolved, look for service providers that offer support 24 hours a day, seven days a week.Also ask whether you can contact them via phone, email, and live chat, and if their website includes an online support community with forums and FAQs.
Delivering solid customer service also means that the provider’s contracts are clear and comprehensive. For instance, if you’re contracting with a VoIP (voice over IP) provider, your contract should have clearly stated service level agreements (SLAs) that guarantee a certain availability and quality of service. You should know how a provider will support your business through any unscheduled downtime or service outages.
5. How difficult is it to move my data from your service to a different provider or to an in-house system? In Cisco’s recent survey of small businesses using cloud computing, 20 percent of respondents were concerned about flexibility and wanted the ability to move to a different solution easily. In other words, they were concerned about vendor lock-in--and you should be also. Ask any potential provider about the minimum length contract you can sign if you’re at all concerned that you might want to change providers or eventually perform the IT task in house. Some providers, such as those that offer cloud computing services, offer monthly contracts, while some will charge only for the services you use on a pay-as-you-go model. Other providers may require that you sign an annual contract but offer discounts if you commit to two years or more.
In the event that you did want to switch providers or move to an in-house system, you need to know that you can easily take your data with you.Find out how difficult it would be to migrate your data, and ask if there are any associated fees for doing so.
No small business can do everything; after all, you have a business to run. Just as you might hire an accountant to complete your taxes or an attorney to file a patent, you should hire a service provider to handle the technology tasks that you don’t have the time or expertise to manage yourself.
Have you hired a service provider to handle any of your company’s technology needs? Are there any tips you have for other small businesses looking to hire outside technology help?