Your choice of IT provider is key to getting IT which helps your business work more efficiently. A good IT provider will understand how you work, then build a vision of how technology can help you. Craig Sharp explains how to find the right IT provider for your business
Is your IT provider local?
There are a number of reasons to look for IT providers located close to your business. It’s not so much that they will need to get to you quickly (many issues can be resolved via a remote connection) but simply that it helps you develop a relationship.
If your IT provider is based in London and your HQ is in Manchester, how often do you think they’ll come and see you? Look for an IT provider who will visit not just when there is a problem, but also as part of a wider account management process. It’s good to discuss your plans, challenges, and requirements in person.
As a starting point, try searching online for “IT support [your location]”. Take advice from business owners you know, too. Ask who they use currently, but also ask who they used to use; they may have switched IT providers for a reason. You can also try our IT support directory.
These contacts will help you build up a picture of the local IT community. In many parts of the UK, research will reveal a clear top five IT suppliers. In larger cities like London, Birmingham, Manchester and Glasgow it may not be so straightforward, but local networking contacts, friends and business owners can steer you in the right direction.
Find an IT supplier, not a hardware vendor
The best IT providers don’t make their money from selling computer hardware. They sell advice and support. They may help you procure IT equipment, but this should not be their core business.
So, be wary if a prospective IT provider starts talking about buying lots of new equipment, especially if they offer you a deal to sign up there and then. A professional IT provider will want to find out about your business and how you use your existing IT set-up before looking at how to help you do things better.
What to ask an IT provider
When approaching IT providers, make sure they understand how you work, and don’t let them make you feel out of your depth. Jargon is unnecessary, so don’t be afraid to say “can you simplify that for me please?”
Another useful phrase is: “OK, but how will that have a positive effect on my business?” Technology for technology’s sake is not going to help you move forward.
For example, if you run a call centre and your staff work from the same location all day, they probably won’t benefit from having a smartphone like an iPhone or BlackBerry. Make sure the options on the table have benefits. If those benefits aren’t obvious, ask the IT provider to explain them.
The final decision
Once you have drawn up a shortlist of providers, ask for references. From each IT supplier, request details of three clients that are similar to your own business. This is important: if you are a property letting agency with eight staff, then a 50 employee law firm is not a good comparison.
Call each referee. Ask how long they have been with the IT provider, find out if they’re happy with the service, and ask if the IT provider has had a positive impact on the business. Don’t be afraid to ask awkward questions - for instance, to find out if they've had any problems — this is a key part of making the right decision.
At the end of this process you should have a good idea which suppliers are best suited to your needs. Price, payment terms and contract length will be additional considerations which come into play once you‘ve picked a favourite IT provider.
Finally, make sure you get on with the IT provider you choose. You’ll work with them for a long time, so personality and gut feeling are important factors, too.