For a small and medium-sized businesses looking for help with the implementation of a technology solution, the abundant Canadian reseller channel offers a smorgasbord of high-tech talent. But so much can go wrong in any working relationship, it’s critically important to ask the right questions before signing any kind of deal. The alternative – hoping against hope the concerns you failed to raise were unfounded – is not a good course of action.Question one:
Can I interview a few of your customers?
If you went hiking in the woods and came across a bush full of berries you didn’t recognize, would you try a few just for fun? Doubtful — they could be poisonous. As a buyer of technology, you need to know that others have bought products or services from your prospective solution provider/VAR/consultant and lived to tell about the experience. Ask for several references. Make sure you access companies of a similar size to yours that have purchased similar technology. Your questions about the solution provider and the implementation experience may highlight barriers to successful implementation, or pinpoint areas where you need to be better prepared before the start of the project.
Also, find out how long the company has been in business, and specifically how long they’ve been offering the things that you’re planning to buy.

Question two:
Do you speak my language?
Terry Van Ness, president of Edmonton reseller Digiware Computer Service and Sales, says an SMB should know something about the application or service it wants to acquire before meeting its possible providers. “A lot of times, the end user isn’t sure what they’re looking for, so it can be easy for the vendor to do a lot of bafflegab, and the user might wind up with a solution that they weren’t looking for.” This is obviously very dangerous, since you can’t ensure that you got the right solution, but you can be fairly certain you paid more than you should have for it.
Michael Hyjek, senior analyst of Canadian customer segments with Toronto’s IDC Canada, agrees, stressing the need to perform due diligence up front. “It’s really critical,” he says. “There are lots of places to do [due diligence]. The Web is one of the best places to start, plus vendor sites and asking your other trusted IT provider, or providers.”

Question three:
Can your solutions scale up as I do?
Davide Petramala, vice-president, marketing and business development at Richmond Hill, Ont.’s Esna Technologies Inc., a developer of communications software and unified messaging that sells through the channel, says SMBs must ensure they purchase a solution built for growth. “Small businesses are usually growing businesses. Rarely are they static,” Petramala says. If the contract you sign offers no flexibility, it really is going to hinder your progress in the future, says Petramala, so don’t buy for today’s needs, buy for next year’s needs.
Because many SMBs are reactive by nature, IDC’s Hyjek tries to encourage them to be more proactive. You should also understand whether the solutions you’re buying actually jibe with your existing infrastructure, he says. It might be a great solution, but, as they say, you can’t fit a square peg in a round hole. And if it doesn’t work, does the consultant understand what must be added (or replaced) to make it work?

Question four:
What are the details of your service level agreement (SLA)?
Most service providers have a service level agreement, and if they don’t fulfil it, you’re entitled to walk away without penalty. As a result, you should be part of a contract that gives you the flexibility to bolt if basic service levels are not met. “That’s the first thing SMBs should ask, especially of an Internet, voice over IP or application provider,” says Esna Technologies’ Petramala. “What is their service level agreement? No one ever asks that.”
Also, make sure the consultant can provide a complete service package. Critical elements of any software implementation are product training, technical support, and future maintenance and upgrading, according to a document on the subject by Sage Software, developers of Accpac and BusinessVision accounting software. “Look for a reseller who wants to assist you not only with the immediate sale installation, but also with longer-term training and service.”

Question five:
Are we a good fit?
If you answer no to any of the following three questions, there probably won’t be a love connection between your and your prospective technology suitor:
Do the company’s reps listen effectively? A consultant or VAR who goes on and on about the product’s quality but rarely hears you when you ask questions about it is a consulant or VAR you don’t need. According to Sage, this question distinguishes the true consultant from the product pedlar. To make the best recommendations, a solution provider must first learn about your organization and your needs.
Do they communicate clearly? If you can’t understand them now, you definitely won’t when the technology goes down and you need expert advice in the middle of the night.
Will you be able to work together? Find a consultant you enjoy working with, who aligns well enough with your company’s philosophy and culture, and whom you feel will provide the necessary expertise in a professional way.
As IDC’s Hyjek points out, not all SMB technology decisionmakers are technically savvy.
“Is the provider explaining things in a way that makes you feel comfortable with what you’re getting?” he asks.
If not, you should probably just take a pass.

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