IT Consulting Buyer's GuideBy BuyerZone.com Editorial Staff - BuyerZone.com
A guide to choosing the right computer consultants, whether you need database work, web development, or other IT help.
If you lead a small business, you're probably no stranger to rolling up your sleeves with your do-it-yourself attitude. As you grow, though, it will make sense to hand off aspects of your business to others. One of the first areas you'll likely be relieved to offload is Information Technology, also referred to as IT.
Whether you run a mail-order web site, a pet store, or an art gallery, there's a certain amount of expertise required for things to run smoothly, efficiently, and cost-effectively on the technology side of things. The more you grow, the less likely you are to be able to take care of all that's needed. This is where IT consultants come into play.
Why might you hire an IT consultant?
Maybe you've decided to fully automate all your business transactions. Or you'd like to network the computers in your office. Perhaps it's time to take your business to the Web.
No matter what your needs, hiring consultants for IT projects can often be critical, even if you already have an IT department head on staff. Whether it's to smooth the installation process for hardware or software or to troubleshoot the end result, they can make life a heck of a lot easier for you.
What are your options?
Your options in choosing an IT consultant will vary from project to project.
In many cases, you should be able to hire any IT consultant that appeals to you, as long as you are confident he or she can do the job. But other times, your options are not so cut and dried.
For example, if you're installing new software (or even customizing existing software), the vendor may require you to use a consulting firm with which it has an established relationship. But this can work in your favor: when implementing sophisticated software, it's often best to go with a consultant that is endorsed by the vendor.
However, a vendor's seal of approval doesn't excuse you from doing any of the necessary background checks on their consultants, or requiring the terms of the consulting project be fully outlined.
How to choose
It doesn't matter if your consultant has worked on the biggest projects for the most prestigious corporations in the world. That doesn't mean much if he or she can't demonstrate proficiency in the area you need.
Here are some examples on how to approach certain projects that require IT consulting services:
Example 1: The big guys are too expensive
Your company just purchased a suite of software from Software Giant X. Proper installation and employee training is a must. The consulting services offered by Software Giant X are beyond your budget. You'd like to consider an independent, local, third-party software IT consulting firm with reasonable rates.
Is certification necessary? Before proceeding, ask Software Giant X if consulting on their software requires official certification. If so, and the consultant you hire isn't certified, you may be out of luck if the software malfunctions.
Get proof of past work. Also, if a consultant claims to have a close relationship to your software or hardware vendor, ask for proof.
Example 2: Customizing your own software
John Doe Software is customizing some software for you. Because this software has never been used by any other business, there isn't a single independent software consultant qualified to consult on this project -- except, of course, the consultants that are exclusively partnered with John Doe Software.
You have a choice: either use their preferred software consultants or try to implement and troubleshoot the software yourself. Whatever you decide, make sure to do the following:
- Base your decision on cost. If you can't afford John Doe's consultants, then you can't afford to have the software customized. If you are straight about that with the software vendor, they lower the fees so you'll still purchase the software. But if you wait to find about the fees until after the software is designed, you're stuck.
- Check the level of expertise. Don't assume that your preferred software vendor will be providing you with top-notch consultants. Find out exactly which individual consultants will be put on your project, and check their backgrounds extensively. If at all possible, get assurance in writing that at least one senior level consultant will be a key player in your project.
Unfortunately, in the end, no matter how many referrals you receive, choosing the right consultant is a crapshoot. But here are ways to help you reduce the risk of ending up with the wrong consultant. Use an agent Never used a consultant? Go through an agency. Make sure, however, that you have someone from your company that is in charge of the IT project make the call to the agency (even if they claim they are too busy!).
Why? A knowledgeable person needs to be able to communicate your needs to the agency. If you leave the choice up to a receptionist or equally uninformed person, even if you send the consultant away, you still have to pay for their time.
Use the phone
Having a project manager or member of your IT team conduct a simple phone interview with the consultant before they are sent over is also a possible time and money saver.
Try to gauge the consultant's level of enthusiasm. For your part, give as many details as possible about what you need. Both you and the consultant need to feel that you're well suited for the partnership.
Use your connections
Even if you're a small firm, you may have some partnerships or client/customer relationships with larger, higher-profile companies that use a lot of IT consultants. Get in touch with the head of their IT department and ask for a referral - at best, names of specific individuals, since there is a lot of turnover in the IT consulting industry. And it may in fact have been a particular person that made the consulting job so successful - not necessarily the firm itself.
We won't try to kid you. Getting other businesses to go into depth about their experience with a certain consultant or team might not be easy. For competitive reasons, companies often don't like to discuss their difficulties in implementing technology. Also, they often don't like to admit that they were swindled. No businessperson enjoys appearing naive.
But it will be worth the effort if you find out anything that makes you the least suspicious about a consultant. Or on the flip side, if you hear lots of praise, you just may have found yourself a winner.
Questions you might ask include:
- What was the most difficult part about working with the consultant?
- How much time did it take to manage the relationship?
- Whom did you enjoy working with in particular?
- What advice would you give on how to work effectively with them?
- Would you use them again? Why not?
Some consultants will prefer to bill by the hour while others will have set flat fees for specific projects with concrete start and finish dates. Ideally, you should find a firm that really wants your business and is willing to customize a price plan based on both your budget and the project's scope.
The price of IT consulting can be exorbitant. You can expect to pay upwards of $80 an hour for their services. If you are a start-up, especially an Internet one, and are seeking funding, it's best to factor in the cost of IT consultants into your financial needs.
Whether you opt to pay by the hour a flat fee, to help ensure you are only paying for exactly what you want, it's absolutely necessary to have your goals and expectations fully outlined for your IT consultants.
Before your IT project can begin, establish measures to help guarantee some sort of retribution if the consulting team your hire falls short of performance expectations or tries to cheat you.
Get it in writing
We can't stress the importance of this enough. If your consultant feels that particular goals are unachievable, then it is their responsibility to tell you so. If they promise you a particular outcome in writing, they will be held responsible if that outcome is not achieved.
Make sure you're completely clear on your end
Even the toughest business negotiators are reluctant to get down to the nitty-gritty of outlining a high-tech project because they lack confidence in the area of IT. When you don't know much about technology beyond your word processing and email software, it's not always easy to ask questions like "So what does this mean exactly?" or "Is this absolutely necessary? Why?"
Do business with friends carefully
Also, business people often like to partner with folks they already know, because trust is a big part of it. But just because you play tennis every Saturday morning with head of the IT Consulting firm you've chosen to hire, don't let that keep you from clearly outlining your goals; very often, inadequate performance is just a casualty of misunderstanding.
Get legal assistance
If this is a major, full-scale IT project, have your attorney look over the contract between you and your consultant before any terms are finalized. Obviously, your attorney is another added expense. But you have an attorney to protect your interests. This is one of those times you'll need that protection.
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