The Ultimate Guide to Tech Support for Small Business

by Drew Robb

Every business needs tech support. We look at small business IT support options that range from free tech support sites to paid outsourcing on local, regional and nation-wide levels.

Does your small business need IT support? Easy! Just find a couple of experienced, highly trained IT people, and lure them away from some other firm by offering a massive paycheck.

Well, so much for easy.

"A lower-level, in-house IT salary ranges from $50,000 to $80,000 with salaries considerably higher for specialized techs," said Jason Kelly, director of customer success at security firm KnowBe4 . "The break point for a company to hire an in-house IT person usually kicks in between 25 and 50 staff."

Of course, the practicality of hiring an in-house IT professional depends on your type of business and level of service it requires. But financial realities often make it difficult to add another person to the payroll. One alternative is to add the IT support function to the duties of some other staffer—or the boss ends up wearing the IT hat. Either way, the results are rarely ideal.

Small business IT support

An increasingly popular alternative is to outsource tech support to a firm that specializes in providing small business IT services. There is a growing legion of IT resources—both free and paid—that small businesses can turn to for help. This article provides a basic guide to both types, though there are undoubtedly many more resources available than we have space to include.

The Many Flavors of Small Business Tech Support

There are many different levels of IT support. Some work purely on a break/fix basis—e.g., if you have a problem, someone helps you fix it. At the other extreme is 24/7 tech support. People are on call around the clock to keep everything up and running and to deal with any and all IT issues. You can also bring in specialized support for your most important business applications, or outsource the disaster recovery (DR) and backup function.

"We let the client’s needs dictate level of support," said Erik Shanabrough, a tech support specialist at Magtype/CR, a computer support firm servicing southwestern Connecticut.  His company provides server, workstation and network support for both PC and Mac platforms. It also provides Web and software development.

New clients, Shanabrough said, typically have a to-do list of projects or items to build up over time—so there can be an initial flurry of activity. After that, his firm operates either on an as-needed basis or with a support contract for a minimum of six hours per week, often more.  Contracts may be cancelled with a 30-day written notice.

Magtype charges $125 per hour for on-demand support with a travel fee for going onsite. Those with a contract pay $100 per hour, with the higher rate applying if they go over their contracted amount.

Small Business IT Support Tips

Every business has different IT support requirements. That makes defining what you really need an important part of the selection process.

"The business owner should decide what result he or she wants to achieve and determine how frequently it's required," said Kelly. "That process can guide them in finding the best solution for the best price."

Your IT support options can involve farming out specific tasks or activities—from setting up computers and networks to keeping everything up and running to email set up and support—or specifically addressing backup or security. These days, there's so much flak from spyware, popups and viruses that it's smart to have someone on call to deal with the consequences.

But IT support needs are not a static thing. As your business grows, the level of support that you need from vendors may change as the business matures. Further, you need to calculate the cost of not bringing in help. Thomas Pore, director of IT and services at networking firm Plixer, suggests this is another key part of the vendor evaluation process.

"When selecting the level of support for a service, you need to think about how much you are losing each hour due to down time," said Pore.

Small Business IT Support Resources

Those are a few of the considerations to take into account with regard to bringing in outside tech support. Here are just some of the many IT support resources at your disposal.

Free IT Support Resources

You might be surprised to hear that there are plenty of free sites around that offer loads of advice. Tech Support Guy is run by volunteers. If you have an issue, you go to the various Tech Support Guy Forums, which will often already have a fix for the issue you're facing.

Small business owners and individuals post questions or detail their IT trouble. The site's volunteers answer the question, provide the fix, and store it for future visitors. You can search for the subject on your mind. In all likelihood, someone else has already had the same problem.  

But there are plenty of other free sites, too. The Free Site offers a roundup of various tech support resources as well as free tutorials, tips, courses and learning resources. 5 Star Support  contains computer technical support and advice, as well as computer tips, tricks, tutorials and free downloads.

Other free IT support sites include

Small Business IT Vendor Resources

You'll also find many vendor resources, some of which are free. In most cases, it makes sense to maintain some kind of a vendor support contract. And don’t let those contracts lapse in order to save a few dollars.

"Always maintain a current support contract with any vendor for equipment and services that are in production use," said Pore. "If something fails, you don’t want to be scrambling around because you saved a little money by not renewing a support contract."

His company, for example, provides multiple tiers of support for its products. This ranges from email/forum support to chat services, technical phone support and full-day training.

Microsoft Tech support for SMB is a forum for questions that have already been answered about Microsoft products, as well as a place to ask new questions. Other major vendors have similar sites.

Remote Tech Support Resources

An excellent way to keep tech support costs low is to sign up for remote support. This allows a support technician located anywhere in the world to log into your system to fix any issues without having to come on site. There are a variety of tools available for this purpose.

"We use LogMeIn Rescue for on-demand remote support," said Shanabrough. 

For services more involved with day-to-day support, he said his company might use Remote Desktop for Windows Servers/Workstations, Timbuktu or VLC to allow them unattended access. In other words they can remote in to the troubled machine without needing anyone to be in the office to help the support technician establish the connection.

In addition, you can find plenty of companies that offer support services wholly or mostly over the Web. Computer Systems and Methods is one such provider.

Local IT Support Resources

Some companies prefer to have a local IT person who they know and trust. In cases where you have someone who can expertly deal with your IT problems, this is often the best option. He or she becomes involved in the operations of the firm and takes an active interest.

Tech support for small business

Pore recommended an easy place to start looking for such a person—at the very resellers you may have bought your computer equipment from in the first place. As well as being local, they already know something about your operations, and they are often staffed with knowledgeable people.

"Resellers often provide direct product support as a value-add and will help proactively maintain support contracts," said Pore. "Alternatively, you can use managed service providers (MSPs) to outsource IT support, as well as helping with technology decisions."

When it comes to who to trust as your MSP, Kelly advised SMBs to use search terms for their specific needs and the programs they may already use. Once they have a few candidates, obtain recommendations from the IT vendors whose products they use, as well as from existing clients. Preferably, you look for references at firms similar to yours.

National IT Support Resources

Some of these MSPs, such as Magtype/CR, are local. There are similar companies that serve specific markets around the country. Dataprise has a territory that extends throughout New York, Philadelphia, DC and Virginia, Maryland, and New Jersey.

But other support firms have a national presence. A few examples include Techs in a Sec, Cetrom, and Worldwide Tech Services.

Pope considers the nationals the best option, particularly for companies that are based in more than one location.

"These organizations can provide every need for an small business to thrive with optional tiers of support per product," he said.

As well as IT vendors such as Dell, Apple, Cisco, VMware, HP and Lenovo that support their own products, there are also many national MSPs from which to choose. Don’t skip your due diligence; you can research reputable providers on sites like MSP Alliance and MSP Mentor

According to MSP Mentor, MSP's charge an average of $52 per desktop and $216 per server, or flat fees ranging from $100 to $150 per user for monthly support and maintenance.  For on-call support (when something breaks and needs fixing), costs average about $120 per hour.

Geek Squad, one of the biggest support networks—and part of the Best Buy store empire—offers 24/7 support for up to three devices (no matter where you purchased them). This includes unlimited virus removals, tune-ups and troubleshooting as well as Internet security software installed and device setups starting at $9.99 per month, plus $99.99 initial setup.

 Alternatively, annual plans cost $199.99 (1 year); $279 (2 years) and $349.99 (3 years). Geek Squad also has access to more than 60,000 online training videos on most IT subjects, which is often included as part of such packages.

Drew Robb is a Los Angeles-based freelancer specializing in technology and engineering. Originally from Scotland, he graduated with a degree in geology from Glasgow's Strathclyde University. In recent years he has authored hundreds of articles as well as the book, Server Disk Management by CRC Press.

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This article was originally published on Thursday Aug 7th 2014
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