Archive for March, 2021

The Cabbit: Pillar 2 of Connection Marketing

March 4th, 2021

Howdy. Nice of you to be here. Today we’re talking about the ‘cabbit’. The cabbit is pillar two within connection marketing. A cabbit is an aspect of your offering, your product or your service, that is remarkable and that is worth talking about. Now why would you want to implement a cabbit within your business?

Because why should people settle for ordinary, bland, crappy products? That’s basically why.

We talked about how you can’t connect with others based on just your price-point and we already have everything that we need, we now buy things that we want. Back in the day you would create a product or a service that filled a need and then you would offer it and people would buy it. Other companies saw this happen and it happened very, very well, so they started competing. What they did is they competed on price alone. Now that we have everything we need – now that we buy things that we want, you can make your product or your service really stand out and profit that way.

In order for you to implement cabbit into your business here are a couple things that you believe in.

First of all you believe in genuinely helping other people. You believe in creating goodwill and thinking outside the box. If you keep thinking the way you’ve been thinking you’re going to keep getting the results that you’ve been getting. If you really want to stand out you have to think differently, therefore thinking outside the box is a very big one here.

What you can’t stand is generic, one-size-fits-all answers and products and services. You can’t stand the hype; hyping of a very crappy product. You can’t stand that stuff.

You can’t stand sheep mentality. Sheep are people who wait and see what everyone else does just so that they can follow along and do the same with a different logo on it or something like that.

In the cabbit there are six steps. Again if you can incorporate all six steps, awesome – you’re golden. If not, try one or two or as many as you can. They’re actually pretty simple steps too so let’s get right into it.

The first one is what I call the ‘product conceptualization’. (Say that three times fast)

This is knowing how and where your product or your service may encounter hazards – friction spots or spots where you may get problems. One very quick way to figure that stuff out is to look at what everyone else offers and then NOT do that; do something different. You want to stand out, so you’ve got to be different.

This is where I would probably recommend that if you sell a product, that you physically have the product sitting out there on the table and really have a look at it and jot down every possible hazard. If I’m going to use the example of a chair, (let’s say you sell chairs) maybe the wood might give your customers a sliver, or if it’s a metal chair maybe the metal gets really cold or it gets really hot, or maybe the metal will have a reaction to the person’s skin, etc… Those are potential problems. Maybe the padding on the seat is not comfortable, maybe it’s the wrong color, maybe the angle of the back rest is off and people will get back aches.

All of these things, these potential problems, you want to take into consideration. That’s the first step, the product conceptualization. You really want to look at it, identify your potential problems.

Step two is the ‘research’. This is where you survey for those potential problems. You actually reach out to your customers and your prospects and you highlight those potential problems that you first saw and you get their take on it. This will offer you insights into the innovation process and, at this step in the research, you really want to identify the most dominant needs. This will come in play shortly.

Step one was all about identifying potential traps. Now hopefully you are keeping record of your customers’ contact info. What I mean by this is pretty much email. That way you can reach out to them and do your survey. It’s very good to involve them. It does create heightened loyalty. I think that people like to give their opinion in general. I think that if you can involve them you’re creating a two way dialogue and you’re hearing from the horse’s mouth.

And then you know what?

When you DO upgrade or update your product you can go back to them and say, “Hey listen, we’ve heard you with regards to potential problems. We fixed it, and we think that you might like this new one. Here, have a look.”

It’s as easy as that.

We talked a little bit about figuring out your consumers’ needs. There are six major needs – six general needs. They are security, variety, significance, love, growth and contribution. I’m not really going into this one too much. There is a great Tony Robbins’ video on YouTube about these six needs – a really, really good video.

If you can cater to a person’s need(s) you’re going to create connection. And, of course, we’re talking connection marketing so that’s kind of what we want here, right?

Step three is the actual innovation process. This is more than just altering your product or your service, this is the KEY to expansion, to growth and longevity.

If you haven’t done your ‘goals and accomplishments’ step yet you should probably do that. We talked about your legacy and where you want to be 50 years from now, 100 years from now… That’s longevity.

You’re going to have to innovate over the lifespan of the business. You’re going to have to innovate your products and your services to always be catering to groups of people.

Here are six quick ways; six approaches to innovation.

The first is new arenas, you take your technology and you apply to a new industry. The example for this is Honda. Honda started making motorized bikes, then they took that same technology and they put it in cars and now they make cars. They now make lawn equipment too. They used that technology and they just applied it to a new industry.

A second approach would be a new geography. Your product or your service is selling very, very well in North America, but how would it fare to an Asian market or a European market? Can you create a version of your product that would work in Asia or Europe, or something like that?

Approach number three is the industry structure. This is where you can add or you can subtract a middle-man. Let’s say you’re offering a product and you’re buying the physical product from a manufacturer, then you’re bringing it home and tweaking it and then adding your logo to it and reselling it. What if you started doing the manufacturing. If you didn’t outsource that? What if you did it yourself? That’s an innovation to the industry structure.

For the fourth approach, we’re looking at the value-delivery systems. You add a product or a service to a company. Whatever it is you’re offering. If you’re offering a product you would attach a service to it, and vice-versa – if you’re offering a service you attach a product. The example here is Spotify. There was a smartphone company where if you would buy their product (buy their smartphone), they would offer you Spotify free for a year. They were offering a service with the product.

Number five is creating a new product or a new service. This is where steps one and two come into play. Finding potential traps and then inquiring about that will give you a very good launchpad for creating the new product or the new service.

Number six is existing customers. Again steps one and two come into play. This example is car models changing every four years or so. They have updates. They have minor tweaks to certain aspects of the model; that kind of stuff. You’re catering to your existing customers.

Step number four is the ‘segmentation’. This is probably the most important part to pillar number two, which is the cabbit. If you can only apply one change I think that this would be it. We’re no longer talking about blanket solutions, we really want to segment.

I’ll give you a golden nugget actually. Go very, very deep within your segment. This is how you’ll create a genuine connection with your market. You’re not just offering one thing for everyone. There’s no one-size-fits-all.

The deeper you can go within your segment the more connection you’ll create, the more you’ll be talked about. Then when you want to attack a different segment you just tweak the product slightly for them, then they start talking about it and so on and so on. That’s really the basis of the cabbit. It’s to have the word of mouth by offering really cool stuff to the right people.

Step five is what I call a ‘killer promotion’. This is where it’s time to market-test your new product, your new service. You’ve segmented properly, you’ve identified the needs, you’ve upgraded the products, you’ve innovated it.

This is where you actually put it out there and you start getting responses. I preach accessibility first, THEN monetization, which means at this stage (the killer promotion), you basically want to forego profits. If you can get this out there for free, for trial, for beta testing; if you can offer this for your cost, that’s awesome. You basically want to get it in the hands of people.

If you’ve done your segmentation properly, if you’ve done your innovation properly your people will love it and then they’ll start talking about it. That’s essentially what you want, right? T

he cabbit’s goal is to be so remarkable that people are compelled to talk about you.

Finally, step six is the ‘key advertising’. This will work directly with your segmentation step. What I mean by this is that you’re going to prepare your advertising materials according to your segment. The wording, the messaging, will be according to your segmentation. Also, you’re going to prepare the delivery according to your segmentation. Whether it’s LinkedIn ads, Facebook ads, Google AdWords, newsletters, media buys, that kind of stuff. If most of the segment is on LinkedIn and they’re not very responsive to banners, you’re going to prepare your delivery according to that. You’re going to invest more into advertising on LinkedIn than you would on banners.

Here’s a quick recap; the six steps to the cabbit (which is pillar number two).

- The product conceptualization: you want to find potential traps or hazards.
- Number two is the research: you want to bring those forward to your people. You want to hear from them what they think.
- Then you move on to the innovation: you know exactly where you can innovate, where you can make it better. There are six approaches to that innovation so surely you can do something very, very good there.
- Once that is done, you’re looking at the segmentation: you want to go very, very deep. You want to get very precise on your segment. Focus on nailing a sliver of the market, doing it right once and then repeating that with a different sliver or segment of the market.
- Killer promotion: get it out there, get it into people’s hands. Accessibility over monetization – you just want to get it out there. You want to get people trying it, you want to get people talking about it. That could even offer you good testimonials.
- Finally, key advertising: you want to make sure that you’re advertising in the right place based on your segmentation, based on your sliver of the market.

How to Choose a Computer Support Consultant

March 4th, 2021

Introduction

Like so many other companies, you have made a significant investment in what has become the life blood of your business, your computer systems. From workstations to laptops and servers, and from software applications to printers and Internet connection, you cannot afford to be down even for a minute. Finding a trustworthy professional to keep you running reliably and securely can be a tough and expensive exercise of trial and error and, if you are lucky, when they leave they have fixed more than they have damaged, costing you even more money in the end. This is no economy to be picking up the tab for an alleged computer professional’s on the job training. You want someone that understands your needs, and knows how to address them.

All of my clients have been through this headache-inducing process. From the time they put in a request to their current IT guy for a fix, it takes days to receive a response and another few days before someone actually shows up to address the problem. The person who arrives is frequently under experienced and leaves a trail of problems in their wake. I am reminded of the old cartoons when the severely nearsighted Mr. Magoo would leave a trail of accidents in his rearview mirror as he drove down the road, not a care in the world. I am sure we’ve all felt this way with various vendors we’ve worked with over the years. Many of them are the biggest in their industry and we’re left wondering how they ever got so big?

In the interest of sparing you the pain of hiring a Mr. Magoo, I offer this article with some helpful information for finding and hiring a trustworthy, competent and affordable IT support company

The Value of Referrals

I’d never eat at a C, would you?

Once I made the mistake of telling someone that I won’t set foot in a restaurant unless someone has recommended it to me. “Oh, you can’t be afraid to try something new,” she admonished. I just smiled and nodded as I thought to myself, it isn’t about trying new things, it’s about not having to pay for something I did not enjoy. Likewise, when in need of a new dentist or mechanic I always poll friends, family or colleagues who they use and if they are happy with the service. I highly recommend doing the same when it comes to getting support for your office computers. Ask other business owners in your professional circle if they are happy with their IT support company. If you belong to any local professional organizations, ask your fellow club members if they can suggest anyone. Trust me; the company they recommend will greatly appreciate the referral.

In the late 1990s a Los Angeles local news program ran a hidden camera expose on the filthy conditions of some area restaurant kitchens. Grainy video showed the most extreme violations common kitchen hygiene practices, let alone public health code. The images alone were enough to make one sick and, in the interest of not grossing you out, I will not go into any further detail of the infractions. The public outcry lead to the requirement that restaurants and even stores that sell food post the letter grade of their most recent city inspection. Virtually overnight, small white placards with big a blue A, B or, heaven forbid, C became prominently displayed in eatery windows and even gas station mini-marts all over town. One never sees a D or lower because those places must keep their doors shut until they have cleaned up their act and passed a subsequent inspection. It is rare to see anything lower than an A and, if one did, would one eat there? Probably not. Personally I need that little blue A, that referral from the Department of Public Health, in the window as a reassurance that I won’t be spending the night in the bathroom.

Similarly, you should not hire an IT provider who is not recommended by someone you trust and would not rate anything lower than an A on their virtual report card. I don’t recommend trusting in online reviews from places like Yelp or Yahoo Local where it is too easy for vendors to plant bogus glowing reviews about themselves, or discredit their competition. Another reason I don’t trust them is that shortly after noticing advertisements offering to pay people to write product reviews there seemed to be an uptick in customer product evaluations at various etailers. Coincidence, maybe, but I can’t imagine going online to Macys.com to write a review about the underwear I bought last week whether they were comfy or not.

There are some sites that might be a little more credible, such as AngiesList.com, where consumers pay an annual fee for the privilege of posting and reading vendor reviews. Ideally, this lessens the opportunity for self-promotion and abuse, but I am not sure it is worth a monthly fee.

So, unless there is a particular vendor endorsement web site you like, I would stick with referrals from more traditional sources you know and trust.

Vetting the Candidates

If you called the first person someone recommended to you and it worked out, great! If you have a list of possible vendors that is good, too, but it is time to carefully narrow your selection to the kind of organizations that can meet your needs without draining your wallet.

If your finances allow and your organization is so large you feel only IBM consulting can support your needs, keep in mind that large IT companies have a lot of overhead. If they boast of a thousand employees, huge customers and a big shiny office building, think of the hourly rates they’ll have to charge you to maintain all that overhead.

Instead, look for smaller, local companies that are hungry for your business but have an established, satisfied clientele. You are likely to have a more personal experience as well as more of an opportunity to negotiate fees, terms, etc. Interview them just as you would a potential full-time employee. Have them provide you a list of references and even the resume(s) of the technician(s) that would be assigned to care for your environment. Check their references and, if an IT vendor has posted a customer testimonial to their web site, give that customer a call and get more information. You might learn that things have changed and they aren’t as happy since the testimonial was given, or that while the support is good, their business and computer systems are Macs and you need a PC guru. Hopefully you will find that they have nothing but praise and continue recommend the to anyone and everyone. It’s worth the phone call. In addition to checking basic references, here are more areas to investigate to ensure their competency:

Are They Competent to Handle What You Have?

Ask them demonstrate that they are competent in the software and hardware your business uses.
I really like my mechanic, Mike. He does a great job on my family’s domestic vehicles but if one day I experience a mid-life crisis and go nuts with a German sports car. Hopefully Mike can service it, but if not, I’ll ask him for a recommendation of someone that can. Imagine if you finally settled on a company you like, but when the tech shows up, he stares blankly at your PC and says, “I’m really more of a Mac guy.” That in mind, before you start calling around to see which company gives you the warm and fuzzies, make a list of the software and equipment you expect them to support and go over it with them during the interview. Ask them for specific examples of when and how they have improved networks like yours. Their response should give you an idea of their level of competence with your computer, server, email, financial or accounting platforms.

Familiarity with Your Industry

If you have highly specialized systems, look for companies who cater to your niche.

To a certain extent, the nature of a particular business is incidental to what IT folks do. The accounting staffing company is probably running what the insurance guy has down the hall: HP or Dell hardware running Microsoft Windows, Microsoft Office, QuickBooks, etc. with a T1, DSL or cable modem to the Internet. The staffing company will be running a recruiter-specific software application, such as ProSearch while the Insurance guy’s primary production application is Goldmine, or a web-based solution like SalesForce.com. Any IT guy worth his salt can take a quick look at these, do a little reading and have enough information to keep them running reliably. Businesses such as retailers or legal offices might have custom or legacy (old and out of warranty) software that requires a greater understanding to maintain. It can break in so many different ways that only someone with significant experience with that particular product or its foundations can render a fast, effective fix in the event of a failure. With a proper budget and knowledge, the best techs will have it configured with redundancy and failover mechanisms so that when it does break, it is transparent to the end users and there is no loss of productivity.
If you are running shrink-wrapped software like Windows, Office and QuickBooks, it won’t matter as much if the new IT support vendor is not immediately familiar with your marketing business as long as he has experience with the software you run it on. (He should take an interest to understand your business, which I get into in the next section.) If you are a securities broker with an SDLC card for your DTCC solution, it would be helpful to hire someone with a client base similar to your line of work. When that particular line of communication to the Wall Street goes down the last thing you want is your IT guy scratching his head and searching Google for error codes.

Understanding of Your Needs

Getting immediate problems fixed is important, so too is understanding what is essential to you and making continued improvements in your network to benefit your business.

As you entertain different companies the better prospects will work to gain an understanding of what is important to you and what you need so that you get a return on the investment you’ve made in your computer systems. He should ask questions like “What is the biggest challenge you are facing with your computers?”, “How do you feel things could be more efficient?” And “How is your current IT support vendor falling short?”

Does she listen and repeat back what you said to demonstrate an understanding of your situation, or just go on and on pushing her own product? Once you finally settle on hiring someone, over time the consultant should get a feel for your work flow and begin to make suggestions to improve efficiency and reliability. Security vulnerabilities should be discovered and mitigated, ongoing problems identified and resolved and eventually you will notice your network running more smoothly than ever. A couple of years ago I walked into the office of a new client and could not believe what I found. This was a multi-million dollar retail operation with over 100 employees in the field and 10 people in the corporate office on a peer-to-peer network. The “server” was the office manager’s desktop hosting all of the company’s documents including HR files, marketing, billing, invoices, resumes, etc. It was also hosting a huge QuickBooks file (over 500 MB!) which the other desktop computers accessed. QuickBooks just isn’t designed to run this way and, as a result, it crashed regularly. But that was not the first thing I noticed when I walked in. What caught my eye was a stack of black accounting ledger books, one for each of the 12 stores the company owned and operated. At the end of each shift, staff would call into a special voicemail-only number and leave the sales numbers. The following morning, a clerk would play back as many as 90 voicemails and transcribe the numbers into the black books for the owner to peruse later in the day. Talk about inefficient.

Within a month we had an online form available to the salons via Microsoft’s SharePoint. At the end of the shift, they simply added the numbers into the form for the owner’s immediate review in Excel. The new procedure saved the company 15 hours per week in labor costs!

Your IT consultant should be looking for ways to save you time and money by recommending and implemented efficiencies like we did for the customer described above. If this has not been your experience with your current provider, you need a new one.

Ensuring Business Continuity

Sure you have backups of your data, but do you know how to restore it? How long can you afford to be down while you struggle to get back up?

In the earliest stages of getting to know your environment, like before they are even hired, support providers should ask about your backups. How are they done – tape, external hard drives, online? Who is responsible for them? Are they tested? Once it is established that backups are performed regularly, and the budget allows, you should have a discussion about business continuity. How current does your backup data have to be for you to properly serve your customers? How long can you afford to be down while data is being recovered? In the event of a fire, flood or theft of your computers, how will you get that backed up data onto computers and get your business back up and running?

Make sure that your new IT consultant understands the answers to these questions and has the expertise to properly respond to an emergency to either keep you running, or get you back up and running according to their service level agreement.

Scalability

If you expect to grow, your IT provider should have the knowledge and resources to build a computer infrastructure that grows right along with you.

What are the current growth projections for your company? Are you planning to downsize, stay as you are, or become the 800 pound gorilla in your market? Of course, a new IT consultant won’t be as excited to help you downsize as it implies shrinking income for them as your need for them shrinks right along with you. But if you plan to stay as you are or grow, your service provider should be able to assist as well as keep up.

In the economic downturn of late 2000/early 2001, or the “dot-bomb” era, I was laid off as business took a dive and my employer went into survival mode. Seemingly overnight this successful organization went from about 75 employees to about 5. I was retained to support their computers, but when they decided to move to a more austere office I was not consulted and certain critical things were left out of planning the relocation, like the Internet connection. As a staffing organization the Internet was a key tool to find candidates for their customers, to send and receive emails, post positions to the job board on their internally hosted web site and more. No one at the company transferred the existing Internet service to the new office. And even if they had, no one had the expertise to make sure the web site and email would continue to flow when the servers were moved and brought back online. They were dead in the water.

Today you can get an Internet connection in a couple of days, but this incident was back when the DSL providers had over sold their services through very creative TV advertising campaigns (who remembers SBC’s “Web Hog” commercials?) and new installations were 6 weeks out. So, in a major pinch, they called me and I was able to help them get a temporary and very slow dial-up connection to the Internet to at least get email flowing again.
Whether you are growing or shrinking, your IT guy must know how to set up a new office or move your existing one so that all of your IT services go right along with you. Many IT departments become the de facto Facilities Department of their organizations, so they might even be able to help ensure that your other utilities, such as power and telephone are properly set up as well. If this is an additional office, it must be determined in advance the level of communication required between the computer systems. Will staff at the new location require access to files on servers at the old location? How will they log onto the network at location 2 when the server is at location 1? Is a new server required or will a site-to-site VPN connection be adequate? These are all issues a good IT service provider should be conscience of and develop solutions for.

Respected in the IT Community

The Mr. Magoos of the world develop reputations that begin to precede them. I’ve received resumes from people I would not ever hire based on personal experiences. In some cases the resumes themselves were so error laden, I could not let the sender near one of my computers. On the other hand, some IT guys are so respected that they are never out of a job because they have built such strong reputations as being technically proficient as well as just pleasant to have around. IT vendors can develop similar reputations through the good work of the people that comprise their staff. As mentioned earlier, you should be able to get references from those companies you are hiring, as well as copies of the resumes of the technicians assigned to care for your computers.

Another way to ensure their respectability is through their contributions to the IT community. I have yet to meet the computer professional that knows everything there is to know about computers. There are those who have an awesome memory and can remember every detail of configurations of esoteric applications they worked with 5 years earlier. Others, know a lot, but depend upon the IT community such as their partnerships and online support forums for help with more difficult issues. Hopefully someone has experienced with the same problem I have and has taken the time to post the resolution online. Likewise, when I get over a hump others are still struggling to conquer, I try and let everyone know the solution that worked for me.

A simple Google or Bing search of the name of the company you’re considering, the owner or her technicians might return contributions they have made to their community in the way of technical articles or blog posts. You might also find that they belong to industry affiliations for improving the level of service they provide their customers, awards, or other honors.

Howdy Pard’ner

The vendor you choose should have formal partnerships with the makers of products they sell and support. Among the myriad reasons Microsoft is such a big and powerful company is the value they place in their partners. As a technician, I know that, if I get in a jam, highly skilled support for any Microsoft product is a phone call away. For each product Microsoft has a team of professionals all over the world to help resolve the situation and make sure my customer is pleased. Whether 2 in the afternoon or 2 in the morning, if my customer’s email server is down and I have exhausted all other methods to resolve the problem, I know I can call Microsoft and a team of engineers will work with me 24 hours a day until it is fixed. They are one of the few companies that will do this and it is thanks to my partnership level with them, Small Business Specialist. This is not a designation that comes easy – a prospective partner must pass a series of tests and satisfy other stringent requirements. The more requirements met, the higher the partnership level and associated benefits.

If you are running Microsoft products in your business, make sure that the people you hire to support you enjoy some level of Microsoft partnership. Likewise for Sun Micro Systems, Oracle, Trend Micro, etc. You will benefit greatly from their association with these companies.

They will know more about the product and take greater interest in it resulting in a residual benefit for you in the way of more reliable performance. It could also mean better pricing when it comes time to upgrade or renew your license.

Non-Disclosure Agreement

When you trust someone with the keys to your kingdom, get some assurance they won’t make copies to share with others.

Almost any business has a valuable database of customer contacts that has grown with them over the years. It can include current and past customers as well as sales leads that will hopefully pan out one day. It takes years of hard work to develop such a list which contributes to the overall value of our company. You would never want to lose this resource or allow it to make its way to a competitor. To prevent it from becoming lost or corrupted it should be backed up nightly with your other data. And to keep it from falling into enemy hands, anyone like an IT provider with access should sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA). This goes for your employees as well; particularly those in a sales role who would benefit from your hard earned Rolodex if they jumped ship to start their own firm or went to work for your rival. You can easily find customizable boiler plate NDAs on-line, or send me an email and I will gladly provide one to you.

Contracts: Good and Bad

I am so thankful that cable TV, regular telephone service, the gas and power companies don’t make you sign a contract. Of course, they are pretty much monopolies so why would they? But I am sure they would if they could – they’d ding you when you move and need to cancel your contract, then they’d nail the person who buys your home with a sign-up fee. Fortunately, they don’t do that, at least not the ones in my neck of the woods, at least, not yet. It seems like there is plenty of cellular competition out there, but an implied conspiracy suggest they are in cahoots with their obscene early termination fess in excess of $300. The upside to the competition is, of course, they know that when that contract is up, you are a free agent to sigh with whomever you please, so they better be Johnny On the Spot when problems need correcting. I notice a significant difference between the level of service I get from the cable carrier which also provides my Internet service for my business (no contract and no cable competition) and my cellular carrier (contract with competition). The service I get from the latter is infinitely better and I gladly recommend them to others. The cable company? Not so much.

IT support providers have plenty of competition and in order to keep you, most will try and get you into a contract. But that is not necessarily a bad thing. The vendor enjoys predictable cash flow and some assurance that, despite how happy you made them today, they are less likely to hire someone else who is running an enticing promotion. What’s more, the vendor wants to keep making you happy by exceeding your expectations. The more smoothly your machines run, the less downtime you have, the less time you have to worry and the more time you have to focus on developing your business. Likewise, the better your equipment runs, the more money they make not having to pay someone to dash out and fix them. It is win-win for everyone involved. Indeed, contracts in this case can be good for everyone, but make sure that there is some kind of out clause so that you are not held hostage by a company providing you rotten service.

So, if either party can get out at any time, what’s the purpose of the contract? To establish expectations: I will perform this service for you and you shall compensate me x. If I fail to perform said service you may cancel the contract. If you fail to pay me, I will stop service until I receive payment, etc.

As I mentioned earlier, I am writing this in a period of economic decline and things are tough all over. I have allowed several clients to defer payment because I know business is slow for them and they are waiting on payment from their clients as well. Historically they pay their bills and we are all counting on the economy improving. But more importantly, their success is my success and their computers not working properly will impair their ability to conduct business and pay me. I believe this personal touch is what is going to help many companies survive this tough economy.

Even if your contract establishes 15, 30 or 90 terms, the personal relationship you develop with your vendor should allow for some wiggle room in this area as circumstances dictate.

SLA and SOWs

Establish in writing expectations for ongoing support as well as any special projects.

As its name implies, the Service Level Agreement (SLA) establishes the level of service the vendor is expected to provide and the customer expects to receive. It can be issued and signed separately or as part of the contract. On the hardware side this might include computers, servers, software, network and ancillary equipment. For example, the software could include the operating system and production applications such as the Exchange (email server) on the server side and Outlook (email client) on the desktop side.

The SLA should also establish how quickly you should expect the vendor to respond to when you alert them to a problem. Depending upon the severity level, their response time might range from 1 hour for the most critical issues (server down) to 4 hours (1 of 5 printers has a paper jam).

Any work not defined in the contract’s SLA performed on your computer systems should be clearly defined in a Statement of Work (SOW) to establish expectations on both ends. In a nutshell, the SOW will state the problem or need, the solution, timeline, deliverables, end result and costs.

An SOW might not be needed for the odd printer jam or email snag, but if you have been sold a firewall to control employee web surfing, viruses and spam, the statement of work will help both parties understand the scope of the project and agree when the project has been completed properly by the consultant and accepted by you. The last thing you want is for the consultant to tell you he is finished installing Internet filter but your employees are still updating Facebook on company time and you’ve got more spam in your Inbox than ever before.

Summary
The sole focus of this article has been to give you some guidelines for selecting a computer consulting company that, in the end, keeps you and your computers humming a happy tune. With any kind of sophisticated there will always be some issues, especially as changes are made, but overall your systems should run reliably when properly cared for and there should be no nagging, lingering problems that never seem to get fixed. I have worked in few companies where IT was given top priority. In fact, I can count them on one hand; it was a technology company with a commercial website, so naturally there was a great deal of emphasis on the quality of the network, servers, workstations, etc. and technicians looking after them. Unfortunately, either through budget constraints or misplaced priorities, IT usually goes under nurtured and, when there is a failure, it is a big emergency. The email server crashes and everyone runs around like the clichéd headless chicken clamoring for a fix. All the while untold business is lost by this huge workplace distraction. Productivity drops as the crisis dominates the day which is consumed by meetings to find solutions, workarounds or just commiserating and no one able to do his or her job. Making things worse, excuses are having to be given to customers because “the system’s down again” and the organization looks just plain bad.

Only a computer professional with training and experience in the software and hardware you operate has the skill set required keep it all running properly.

If you have not had the time to read everything in this article, here are a few quick questions to keep in mind when considering a company or individual to care for your business computers:

1. Can you provide a list of customer references?
2. Are you certified to support my hardware and software?
3. Do you have a written Service Level Agreement?
4. Do you have any other customers in my industry? (If so, make sure they are in the list of references.)
5. Is your work 100% guaranteed?