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Having provided IT solutions to our customers for over 20 years, we’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly in client/provider relationships. And it would be no exaggeration that in our business, perhaps 50% of new customer acquisition are from those companies that have switched from providers that were not delivering the level of customer service these customers are expecting. It’s depressing to see how much money, effort and time have been put into failed IT projects. For small businesses, this wastage can be a killer. So I write this post as a reminder to both my team and our customers that IT is serious business.

High Stakes

As a business owner, you are passionate about your business. You’ve got it all figured out: your craft, your customers, your market and your employees. But when it comes to a vital component of your business, your information technology infrastructure – a catch-all term that encompasses your servers, computers, operating systems, applications and data – it’s a mystery. Yet you absolutely depend on it to run your business, serve your customers and make money.

And it’s expensive.

It’s for these very reasons that forging a relationship with the right IT service provider or consultant is so crucial. Your provider will need to learn about your business, recommend hardware and software systems, manage your projects, provide ongoing support and assume accountability. And it’s not always about the software. Whether it be a solution by Sage, Microsoft or SAP, the way the software is implemented by your provider can either work its magic or curse you.

So it comes to no surprise that information technology management is so fraught with risk and injects fear into even the most seasoned of business owners.

But there are some strategies that you, as a small business owner, can employ to help forge a strong and healthy relationship with your IT service provider.

The Right Mindset

Do you see your IT provider or consultant as a patient sees a doctor? As an occasional patient, the mysteries of the medical world are above me. I don’t have time to go out and learn everything there is about health and disease. So I trust my doctor that he or she will do the right thing. When it comes to your business this is  the wrong type of relationship to have with your suppliers and consultants. It creates imbalance and doesn’t put you in the driver’s seat.

An alternative way of looking at the relationship is that of the employer and the employee. As a business owner, YOU are the employer hiring the consultant to serve the needs of YOUR business. The same rigor you put in when hiring an employee, the interview, checking references, asking lots of questions, etc., should be the same when hiring a consultant. However, many IT providers will balk at this kind of relationship. They bring skills to the table that will benefit your business and want to be treated with respect.

In reality, your relationship with your IT consultant is a partnership. In a partnership, both parties have responsibilities. The provider is responsible for living up to their promises, understanding your needs, delivering proven solutions, and ultimately keeps your best interests at the forefront of the engagement. As a client, you are responsible for guiding the consultant, participate fully in requirements analysis, taking ownership of the project or delegating ownership to the right staff, participate fully in testing and mobilize your staff to provide adequate support to the project.

One final point worth mentioning is there is a difference between a consultant and an IT technician. Terminologies get thrown around sometimes used interchangeably. A consultant thinks of the overall picture and takes into consideration many factors such as your needs, budget, skill sets of staff, etc. A technician or engineer is skilled in one area of technology. Even among consultants there is a huge range of experience you can expect. Watch out for IT consultants that are compulsively pushing solutions, specific products or their own expertise, rather than learning about your business and asking lots of questions.

Seeking Clarity

Every great project or business relationship begins with having a clear idea of what you wish to achieve. So it’s amazing when I see both business owners and consultants rush into buying and selling software before making an effort to elucidate business requirements and then validate those requirements with product demos. As an acquaintance of mine once said, “as a consultant, it is scary how much a customer will trust that I’ll figure everything out about their needs.” Spend some time with your staff flowcharting your business, writing out business processes, brainstorming pain points and gaps and visualizing how an ideal IT environment would like and feel like for your company.

Managing Risk

As a business owner, you must be wearing your risk management hat at all times when it comes to IT projects and relationships with IT providers. Always be asking yourself these tough questions:

  1. What could go wrong with this project?
  2. How do I ensure it stays on budget?
  3. What if my consultant / service provider goes out of business or if I have to fire them? How well can another provider take over the relationship?
  4. Has this consultant / service provider delivered customer satisfaction to other companies who are in a business similar to mine?
  5. Is the product/solution readily supportable by other service providers or is it a custom-developed solution that only the original developer will be able to support?
  6. How will I ensure the product / solution being recommended will truly meet my needs?
  7. How is it in my service provider’s best interest to ensure my systems are always up and running smoothly?
  8. What if key employees of mine who own the system decide to leave my company?

It helps to sit with your senior staff to brainstorm various risks with your IT operation and partners and come up with risk mitigation strategies.

Avoid a “time and materials” relationship with your service provider. For project-based work, fixed priced quotes are the better way to go. However, it takes more pre-project time to ensure the scope and expected outcomes of the project are very clearly defined up front. Often we see customers that want a new system but don’t have the “time” to work with us to define requirements. The customer may then rush into a time and materials type of contract which ends up becoming a black hole of time and money spent. Time and materials style billing is more suited to occasional consulting or break/fix service calls.

Ask for customer references from a new service provider. Make sure to contact them and ask about the provider’s strong and weak points.

As a Sage Accpac ERP and CRM provider, I always tell our prospects to challenge us to demo the system according to their business needs. After the initial discovery / needs analysis meeting, ask the consultant to develop a demo script that addresses all key features you are looking to implement. And don’t forget about requirements that are unique to your business or industry. If the provider really wants to win your business, they will offer this demo for free. For more complex solutions, you may be asked to pay for an initial proof of concept implementation before committing to the full project.

Acknowledgements and Further Reading

I would like to thank the following individuals for their valuable insights in helping develop content for this post:

For additional reading, check out these posts from Bryan Beaty’s blog: