When your computer conks out, there's no bigger priority for a small business owner than getting it fixed. It's not such a problem if there is an IT professional on staff. However, for many small and mid-sized businesses it's not realistic to be able to hire a full-time IT person -- at a cost of at least $4,500 or more per month.

Is the solution to pay for premium tech support? Is having a contract for third-party tech support worth it?

The trick is to answer such questions before the next IT crisis in your business. "For businesses that lack the internal skills to be able to support their IT infrastructure, having a support services contract ensures that they will be able to recover from IT problems that occur," says Matt Healey, a senior research analyst for IDC Corp., a Framingham, Mass. research group.

Different levels of premium tech support

Generally, for very small businesses, with fewer than 99 employees, the higher-priced premium tech support offerings may be more overkill for their IT needs. However, a lower-priced package that provides extended basic coverage will often ensure the required level of service, says Healey. He adds that organizations with between 100 and 999 employees may want to evaluate the business processes that are most important to their company and invest in the premium services for the IT systems that supports those processes.

Without having an IT service, the small business owner can find himself, or his employees (who should be focused on other tasks) hanging on the phone with the hardware or software manufacturers' tech support provided for in a warranty. Or they may have to spend valued work hours hauling their machine into the small neighborhood computer shop and waiting while it's serviced.

Not all third party premium tech services are alike, though. Some firms guarantee a 30-minute response rate and you have to determine whether time is so valuable to your business that you are willing to pay extra for swift service. But some small businesses may be interested in ways to troubleshoot their problems for a lower monthly expense. In that case, some IT support firms provide access to recorded tutorials, downloads and quick FAQs before you are connected with a live person.

Lower costs for remote tech support

Another way to save money and yet to have the benefits of IT help is to go for one that works remotely. British Columbia-based Transparen Corp., which provides tech support remotely to clients all around Canada and the U.S., offers plans for as little as unlimited help for $30 and proactive support – including checking your computer at night for spyware – for $45 per computer.

Here are some of the things that tech support can do remotely: take care of software issues, excise viruses, and put in patches and new software.

Transparen president Case Jones says that his group has three people assigned to every client and that allows the firm to really get to know each client's needs and make sure that all the systems are uniform. They can detect, for example, if one person at a company has downloaded Skype and another one's anti-virus software isn't up to snuff. Of course, Jones acknowledges that there are some situations that can't be fixed remotely and requires that someone be called in on site to correct a problem. 

But in general, Jones describes the remote premium tech service this way: "It's like having Medicare. You have to have a doctor look once in while to make sure that you're not doing something wrong."