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Choosing an IT consultant

If you run your own business, hours spent trying to sort out your IT is probably not a good use of your time. Read our tips for choosing someone to do your IT for you.

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One of the key strengths of successful business people is their ability to ask for help when they need it. Struggling to solve a technical problem yourself can be a huge waste of time and money and spending hours sorting out a broken PC is not the best use of most small business owners' time. So where do you go for help that is cost effective and meets your business's needs? Although there are costs up front, using an IT consultancy supplier will probably save you money IT consultant fees can range from £150 to £3,000+ per day. We suspect that there aren't many small businesses who would be willing to spend upwards of £3,000 on an IT consultant, so how do you make sure you get a good deal and value for your money? Why engage an IT consultant? Imagine that your computer has broken and you can't access a vital spreadsheet that has your customer billing information on it. You know little about IT and fear you have lost a lot of data. You are then faced with a dilemma. Do you continue to battle with the PC in the hope that you can fix it or do you call in an expert? Being a shrewd small business owner you will realise that your time is best spent winning new business, so it's time to call in an IT consultant to fix the problem for you. What is an IT consultant? There is no legal protection given to the job title IT consultant, meaning anyone can start up in business. Unfortunately, this means that there is a plethora of consultants with a huge range of ability, all trying to win your business. That said, IT consultants do tend to fall into some distinct categories: The local computer shop Quite often working from a local retail store selling computers and peripherals, these consultants will supplement their retail income with some ‘break fix' work or onsite consultancy. They are often very good at mending broken computers, installing basic networking and setting up basic software packages. The cost per day may be from £100 to £250 depending on the work they are doing for you. The one-man band Without retail premises, these people rely on word of mouth and advertising in local papers and listings to attract business. They may be very experienced and be able to help you fix a number of problems. They may also offer a technical support service on an annual contract, enabling you to call them up in an emergency to help fix an urgent problem. The cost per day is likely to range from £200 to £600. The small and medium-sized consultancy Often a group of consultants working together, these people probably have more specialised skills grown out of working as an employee for one of the big product-manufacturers. For example, they may be experts in small business accounts software, specialised CAD (computer-aided design) software or any other area. Many of these consultancies would be affiliated with one or more of the major vendors and would have undergone training and certification accordingly. These consultants are unlikely to offer more general or ad hoc IT consultancy. Costs per day will be from £500 to £1,500. Large consultancies These consultancies will employ thousands of consultants and IT engineers, offering everything from hardware supply to business remodelling. The cost base of these companies is reflected in their daily charges, many with a minimum fee of £1,500 per day for fairly junior staff. Principals and partners can easily be charged out at over £3,000 per day. These consultancies are probably not suitable for most small businesses. How to choose an IT consultant You will need to think about your business needs and which type of consultant is most likely to meet those needs. Finally, you need to think about how much you can afford to pay. Word-of-mouth is a good way to find someone, so ask around other businesses. If your problem is product specific, look on the producer's website for a list of potential consultants. Many consultants would consider visiting you to discuss your requirements. This is an opportunity for you to both size each other up and decide if there is both a technical and personality fit. It is very difficult working with a consultant you don't get on with. Ask them to provide references or case studies of similar work they have undertaken to get a feel for what they can deliver. You may also check to see who would be doing the actual work. Many larger consultancies will send in a sales consultant who would then pass the actual work on to someone else. Take a common sense approach and you should be fine. Define the task This is very important as you will need to be very clear about what you are expecting the IT consultant to do for you. Many will charge a daily rate rather than a fixed fee, which gives you flexibility, but will require you to watch your budget. If you want a fixed fee for anything other than the simplest of jobs you need to get the agreed task and deliverables documented in a contract. Many IT consultants will offer a mentoring scheme, which means that even if they do not do the work themselves they can help you outsource it effectively to another third party.

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