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Advice and Consent

Columnist: Mike E. Duffy
April, 2018 Issue
Columnist

Mike E. Duffy
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When you stop to look closely, there are lots of technologies in use at your business. There’s a computer, your Internet connection, maybe a computer network and various types of servers. There are also printers and copiers as well as your phone system. For retail operations, there are point-of-sales systems. There’s credit card processing, word processing and spreadsheets. There’s accounting software, scanners, document storage and retrieval, computer security. The list goes on and on. (In all the excitement, I forgot to mention email, text messaging and social media.) Frankly, it’s overwhelming.

Larger companies have people dedicated to worrying about this sort of thing; smaller businesses are not so fortunate. This is why the most important step you might take in 2018 is to find a trusted technical advisor for your business. Someone you can turn to when you need help in making decisions about the technology you use in your business. And someone who understands technology and is willing to make the effort to understand your specific business and goals.

Part of the trick is to get independent advice. DELL is happy to advise you on solutions that involve buying DELL computers, though they may be no better (or worse) than some other brand. Microsoft wants to sell you Microsoft products (as do their Certified Solutions Providers, i.e. resellers). Just as for a financial advisor, it’s important to understand a technology advisor’s relationship to the technologies they recommend.

Finally, you need someone who is willing to look for new ways of approaching old problems. If your house needs a new roof, most roofing companies are unlikely to recommend one of Tesla’s new solar roofs, though it might be worth considering (I looked. It’s pricey, but very cool).

How do you find an independent, forward-thinking expert? Do you do a Google search for a local “trusted technology adviser?” I tried that search, and the results were not encouraging.  Looking for a “technology consultant” yields more results, but how do you choose among the various options? As someone who has worked in this role (providing technology advice to companies, particularly non-technology companies like publishers, fulfillment companies, and the like), let me tell you about my process.

First, I want to understand the details of how my client’s company works. Basically, how does the company make money? This may seem obvious—a bookstore sells books, a magazine sells advertising and subscriptions—but a good tech advisor wants to understand more deeply than that. A client wants to see a return on their investment in technology, and that implies their advisor must understand the sources of revenue and expense, and the relative of contribution of each source to the total. For example, if you can reduce a particular cost by 75 percent by applying technology, but that cost is only two percent of overall expense, it may not be the best choice for the business. For this reason, it can be useful to find an advisor who works with businesses similar to your own, though that’s not a guarantee of success.

Second, I want to understand my client’s goals for the business. Are they seeking profits, or growth? With privately-held companies, every dollar invested in technology is a dollar out of the owner’s pockets. What is the timeline for seeing payback on their investment?

Finally, I ask clients this question: What’s the biggest headache you (or your employees) encounter every day? A balky printer? Slow Internet connection?  Trouble exchanging large files with clients via email? I find that removing pain points early on provides both relief, and a measure of confidence that I do, in fact, know what I’m talking about. It opens up the conversation, by moving from tactics (solving individual problems) to strategy (looking at broader changes with correspondingly broader impact on the business as a whole).

When looking for a tech advisor, ask people you trust how they address the use of technology in their business, and see who they recommend. It’s not uncommon for accounting firms to consult in this area, since they also understand the financial side of business. While many computer/IT/network consulting firms do a fine job and are knowledgeable about tech, they’re not always equipped to think about the larger picture and the specifics of your business. If you work in a business where your competitors are friendly, businesses in the same line of work often give the best recommendations. (Just make sure to ask the winners, not the losers).

Here’s my recommendation for the best results. After gathering recommendations and doing some research, pick the top three candidates. Based on your budget—and know you must be willing to spend some money here—pay each of them for a few hours of their time to talk with you and develop a statement of work, describing what they would do. Observe their process, perhaps comparing it to what I’ve outlined here. Make your choice based on the results, and start with a small, specific project with identifiable results and a modest time frame.

Good luck! And let me know how it works out at mduffy@northbaybiz.com.



 

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