Computer technology may not be rocket science, but let’s face it—when computers start crashing, most business owners are in over their heads. Someone’s got to take care of your computers, email, and website, so the real question is this: should you hire an employee or outsource to a vendor?
Hiring an Employee
The appeal of an employee is clear…an employee will be available when you need them and your company’s systems will be their top priority. You don’t have to worry about them juggling appointments or charging emergency response fees. They won’t get confused about your network setup because yours is the only one they have to remember. You can easily budget their salary each month instead of worrying about unexpected, highly variable bills. And since they work directly for you, there’s no hidden agenda to try selling you new products and services you don’t really need.
Of course, that employee may not want to be on call all the time. Will he really be there when you need him? And what happens when several things hit at once—how do you handle the extra work and still turn it around quickly? Worse yet, if not carefully managed, some days that employee might be idle, in between assignments waiting for something new to arise.
A far more important question: will that employee really know everything you need? Just because someone is “good with computers” doesn’t mean they can do it all. Someone who’s great at building websites might also be a decent programmer, but it’s unlikely that same person can adequately maintain your server and create a bullet-proof disaster recovery plan. Likewise, a tech may keep your computer systems running smoothly, but they can’t configure your accounting system or set up an effective pay-per-click online ad campaign. There are far too many specialized skills for any one person to be an expert in more than a few. Naturally, the more areas of expertise, the greater the expense.
This is also a case where a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing. Many smart young techs figure they can google whatever they need to know—a legitimate problem-solving strategy—but they often fail to appreciate how much experience they lack or what they might miss as a result. Many of the worst system failures I’ve seen were caused by a fatal combination of good intentions and inexperience.
There are many other hidden costs—training, special software tools, support subscriptions. A tech company can make this investment because the costs are spread among many clients. If you have to bear the full expense, well…you won’t. You’ll skimp, because it’s just too expensive otherwise.
Outsourcing to a Vendor
Outsourcing actually requires much of the same communication you’d have with a new employee. You’ll want your vendor to understand your business and your priorities; you need an agreement on the job role, project scope, and level of authority; and you must make sure processes for working together are clear. Experienced vendors know this and will initiate these communications to make it easy for you.
A key advantage of outsourcing is access to a large pool of resources with a variety of specialized expertise. On an hourly basis, you pay more, but then again you only buy what you need, when you need it. Unfortunately, you may not always work with the same few people. In order to manage priorities and handle staff turnover, vendors must be able to shift resources around quickly. Be patient when this happens; generally it means your vendor is doing their best to be responsive to your needs. That said, your vendor should work hard to make the transition as painless as possible. Good communication, thorough documentation and clear processes make this easier for everyone involved.
You may use a single vendor; more likely you will work with a few to provide the full range of services that you need. At some point, you will inevitably run into a “pass the buck” situation, one of the most frustrating aspects of managing several vendors. You may find it helpful to appoint one company as lead vendor and recruit their assistance in managing the rest of your vendors. Typically the company that manages your network is the best fit for this role. They can talk tech-to-tech with your other vendors, leading to direct and speedy problem resolution. Just make sure they are crystal clear on their expanded responsibilities and have the authority to speak on your behalf.
Another important discussion is agreement on the service level you can expect. This is your chance to clarify support procedures and response time. Your needs will vary depending on the vendor; with websites, you may not care so much about how fast updates will be made, but you certainly need to know how fast your tech company will fix a network outage. Questions to ask: what are standard business hours, how do you request support, what is the policy and pricing for after-hours support, and how do you escalate a request if you aren’t getting what you need? Take a close look at your business needs and compare them to what your vendor offers. Four hour response time is standard for emergencies; is this adequate or do you need to pay for priority support? How important is after-hours access? The last thing you want is to find out your vendor can’t support you in the midst of an emergency, so address these questions up-front.
It’s Your Decision
Outsourcing certainly has its challenges; making sure your vendor understands and values your business are top of the list. But when you find the right match, for the same cost as that employee—or even less!—you’ll benefit from a variety of expert resources equipped with the right tools to meet all your business needs.