The majority of small businesses don't have their own in-house IT staff trained to set up and maintain the latest servers and networking gear. This has leading IT providers ramping up their efforts to meet the unique service and support challenges associated with small business customers.
Among those providers is Apple. And although Apple maintains a network of consultants, to which it refers SMB customers who need help with their installations, it's not a full-service operation, as Apple doesn't fully oversee the process.
About three years ago, OnForce approached Apple with a proposal to integrate its IT services network into the small business sales process. OnForce presented itself as a resource for the small business customer who might purchase a handful of computers, a server and networking equipment from an Apple store, only to return to the office to face a colossal configuration challenge.
"It all sounds good, but then they get a bunch of boxes," said OnForce COO Bill Lucchini. "That's when [Apple] will refer that customer to OnForce services."
Apple rolled out the in-store OnForce integration last June. Now, Apple store employees have OnForce's referral page bookmarked on the iPads they carry with them. The OnForce service is a default option for small businesses that want to undertake Apple deployments but require technical assistance to make it all work.
The customer-service aspect is crucial to the arrangement. OnForce reinvented its operating model to forge its partnership with Apple, and it provides those customers with a unique level of care and oversight.
For instance, the bulk of OnForce's processes for submitting and routing IT jobs are automated, and Lucchini describes it as a "no-touch" system. Not so with Apple.
"In this business, when the referral comes in, the first thing we do is reach out to that customer with a phone call," Lucchini said.
Once the referral comes from the Apple store and OnForce contacts the customer, the firm submits a description of the job to the most qualified technicians in its network. From that point forward, OnForce provides Apple with running updates about the status of the job, a level of transparency that lets Apple compile data about, say, the lag between when a job is accepted and when the tech shows up, or the average amount of time it takes to complete a job.
For Apple, that partnership has provided a higher level of the service and support that can be a critical element of the value proposition for small business IT customers. For OnForce, the deal has "been a huge boon for us," Lucchini said.
"From a volume and financial perspective, I can't comment. We're happy, I'll say that," he said. "From a branding perspective, being able to deliver successfully on Apple is probably the most successful marketing program we've run."
An Unconventional IT Service Model
The OnForce service model -- with its unique arrangement with Apple -- is a marked contrast from its conventional mode of operating. OnForce maintains a database of some 100,000 IT technicians, giving it a nationwide footprint and a strong presence in Canada, as well as services in more remote areas such as Puerto Rico and Guam.
The company's system provides an interface for a small business to upload a description of a job and the expertise that will be required, which OnForce's automated system then analyzes and cross-references with its database of technicians.
Once it settles on a handful of the best matches by skillset and geographical proximity, the system sends out a notification to the technicians, who can then submit a bid for the job through the OnForce dashboard. At that point, the company that originally submitted the job can review and accept a proposal.
"We're always sort of mining our data to present opportunities to the best of the best," Lucchini said, explaining that OnForce's aim is to help small businesses "subcontract to the best guy in the neighborhood" through its automated process. "In most cases no one has to talk to anybody," Lucchini said.
OnForce boasts of an average of nine minutes between when a work order is routed to when it is accepted, a motivating factor for the field technicians to submit their bids quickly. "It's very quick. These guys understand that they need to respond," Lucchini said.
OnForce's client base varies, but Lucchini estimated that the company maintains an annual average of around 3,000 customers, ranging from boutique shops to very large corporate customers like AT&T and Best Buy with a steady stream of projects they are looking to outsource.
The company typically charges an upfront listing rate of $15 for the work order, and then takes a 10 percent cut of the fee paid to the field technician.
Lucchini noted that at present there is a heightened interest in catering to the small business market at the moment, a surge in demand that has helped OnForce swell its ranks of customers in the retail, teleco and OEM industries, among others.
Asked if OnForce is looking to strike other deals patterned on its arrangement with Apple, Luchinni hinted that while OnForce continues to pursue tailored small business offerings, the degree of hands-on service that it provides with Apple is not soon to be replicated.
"Apple is a unique customer for us not only because they're Apple, but because Apple is the only one where we own the whole service," Lucchini said. "We touch every customer that comes through."
Kenneth Corbin is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C. He has written on politics, technology and other subjects for more than four years, most recently as the Washington correspondent for InternetNews.com, covering Congress, the White House, the FCC and other regulatory affairs. You can find Kenneth on LinkedIn.
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