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. Do you have a "day job"? Are you moonlighting?
Depending on your needs, you'll either be comfortable with someone who is only available part time, or you'll need someone who is committed to providing tech service full time.

2. Are there any other people who work at your company?
Find out if the consultant is a solo practitioner or part of a larger firm. If you discover he's part of a consulting firm, find out if others from the firm will be involved with your account, and what their backgrounds, specialties, and history with the company are.

3. What "size" is your typical client?
Determine what size business the consultant is most experienced in dealing with. Signing on with a consultant who works mostly with large companies might mean he has great experience working with many PCs and employees, but it also means he's used to companies with bigger budgets than yours.

4. Does your company specialize in any particular products and services?
Find out what software and hardware the company specializes in fixing, installing, and maintaining as well as the service vendors it might work with. Also, discover what types of technology they shy away from.

5. Does your company resell products, such as hardware and software? Are there any other vendors, such as ISPs or telephone companies, that your firm acts as an agent for?
Signing up with a reseller could put you in a position of only using the products their selling. Working with a true consultant, however, you'll be able to shop for your choice of products and services.

6. What are your payment terms, rates and minimums?
Discover what kind of work is billable vs. non-billable. Also, ask how much the firm charges for travel time, phone support, e-mail/online support, and remote support, and whether there's an increased charge for after-hours emergencies.

7. Can you provide references?
Ask the consultant to discuss long-term and more recent accounts with you to help get a better sense of his experience and abilities. Also, ask about those clients who didn't work out and why they didn't work out. This could reveal any potential pitfalls of a relationship with the consultant before you sign on with him.

8. How do you keep up with new tech developments?
What is new today can be old tomorrow, so it's important that the consultant you work with knows about the latest tools and trends. Find out how the consultant keeps up with technology. Does he attend regular programming classes, for instance? Or does he attend certification classes regularly?

9. What kind of user and technical training can you provide?
The more handholding a consultant does, the more money he makes. Ask the consultant whether or not he would be willing to train you or someone else internally to become more self-sufficient.

10. What am I paying for?
Besides understanding the exact services you'll be paying for, you'll also want to know what type of overhead is built into the consultant's rate structure. This way you'll get a good feel for whether you're paying for fancy cars and posh office space or working with someone you feel you're getting the most bang for your buck from.

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 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.

Joshua Feinberg ( joshua@smallbiztechtalk.com) is an internationally recognized small-business technology expert, speaker, trainer, columnist and author. His latest book, What Your Computer Consultant Doesn't Want You to Know, exposes 101 money-saving secrets of expensive techies. For more information on Joshua's new book, or to subscribe to his free weekly tips newsletter, visit www.SmallBizTechTalk.com or call 866-TECH-EXPERT (866-832-4397).

© Copyright 2002, Joshua Feinberg
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