10 Questions You've Got to Ask...

I often get questions from small business owners about how to deal with difficult computer consultants. However, if you're able to uncover potential problems at the start of your relationship with a computer consultant, you can avoid many of these unpleasant issues altogether.

While many small business owners and managers know exactly what to ask when it comes to hiring a salesperson or bookkeeper, hiring a tech person can be more difficult -- especially when that tech person is an independent contractor or works for a systems or network integrator.

So on top of dealing with the myriad legal issues surrounding how you retain the services of contractors, as opposed to hiring employees on your payroll, you'll need to know how to ask the "right" questions. Don't make the common mistake of focusing on the wrong things. Use these tips as a checklist for doing your homework before you sign on the dotted line.

1. Part-time or Full-time Services for Hire
Do you have a "day job"? Are you moonlighting?

2. Solo Practitioner or True Consulting Firm
What do you mean by the "we"?

Are there any other people who work at your company?

Are they employees or contractors? What are their names, specialties and backgrounds? How long have they been with the company? Will they be involved with this account?

3. Small Business or Large Company Experience
What "size" is your typical client, in terms of number of PCs, employees and annual revenue?

4. Generalist or Specialist
What industries have you worked with and in what particular aspects and software applications?

What kinds of products and services does your company shy away from?

Do you work with specialty hardware, software or services vendors?

5. Reseller, True Consultant, or Hybrid
Does your company resell products, such as hardware and software?

Is this a profit center or do you mind if we shop for our products elsewhere?

Are there any other vendors, such as ISPs or telephone companies, that your firm acts as an agent for?

6. Costs and Billing Practices
What are your payment terms, rates and minimums?

What kind of work is billable vs. non-billable?

How do you charge for travel time? Phone support? E-mail/online support? Remote support?

Are there any rate premiums for after hours or emergency service?

7. Reference Accounts
Can you tell me about one of your more long-term accounts?

Can you tell me about one of your more recent accounts?

Can you tell me about a client who didn't work out and why?

Can you provide references?

8. R&D and Skills Development
How do you keep up with new tech developments?

9. Training Approach and Philosophy
How do you feel about handholding?

What kind of user and technical training can you provide?

Will you train our internal computer administrator to become more self-sufficient, even if it takes away from your "job security" and revenue opportunities?

10. Fancy Cars, Fancy Offices or Spartan Business Model
What kind of overhead is built into your rate structure?

What am I paying for?

The Bottom Line
Don't fall into the trap of hiring a computer consultant or consulting firm that isn't a good fit for your small business. Use these questions as the basis for making a more informed hiring decision. And if you have any doubts, don't be afraid to seek out a second opinion.

About the Author

Joshua Feinberg is an internationally recognized small business technology expert, speaker, trainer, coach, columnist and author. His latest book, What Your Computer Consultant Doesn't Want You to Know (Small Biz Tech Talk Press; ISBN 0-9714153-8-2; $19.99 USA), exposes 101 money-saving secrets of expensive techies.

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