Wanted: small business tech support, good and cheap

Technology is a great enabler but for most small businesses dealing with a single customer’s concern generally takes priority over setting up a server or learning the in an outs of a new software.

“Give us the support we need so we can concentrate on our business.” That was the general message to technology vendors that SMB owners aired in round table discussion hosted by Dell Canada on Wednesday.

The computer maker also released results of a worldwide survey on the attitude towards information technology products of 1,800 SMB owners and experts worldwide that backed up this demand.

The poll indicated that 66 per cent of SMB owners believe IT is extremely important to their business. Fifty-seven per cent of small business experts, researchers and educators said technology plays a vital role in the growth of small businesses.

For instance, Web-based networking technology and trends has fueled the growth of Baby Sherpa, a manufacturer of diaper backpacks based in Stony Mountain, MB.

“We’re this little company in the mountains but things like the Internet and exposure in blogs has expanded our reach around the world and made us appear bigger than we are,” said Heather Campbell-Dewar, the company’s CEO.

The company now counts Tiger Woods and Brad Pitt among the celebrities proudly lugging around its diaper backpacks.

Despite its many advantages, more than 75 per cent of SMB owners identified budget constrains as a major limiting factor in their use of IT resources. About 82 per cent stated that lack of time kept them from using technology, 80 per cent identified “management discomfort” and 70 per cent mentioned “employee discomfort” with technology as a limiting factor. Rapid technological changes curbed the enthusiasm for IT of about 78 per cent of the respondents.

“We want customized products designed to serve our specific environment and we need the expertise to help us set it up,” said Christian Morin, director of operations for Genetec, a Saint-Laurent, Quebec-based IP security solutions provider.

He said at one time a server arrived in their office during a busy season. “The equipment remained in its box in the corner for about four months because nobody had the time to rack it up.”

What most businesses need are plug-and-play products that enable their very limited number of employees to focus on business and operational demands, Morin said.

He said Genetec’s relationship with Dell helps in this area since the computer maker sends in technicians to install its products and “make sure they work the way we want them to.”

Morin said his company is also considering expanding their contract with Dell to include customization features to computers they buy. He said, under this arrangement, the hardware could be set up and configured in such a way that Genetec’s corporate image “is baked into each machine right at the factory.”

The package could include installation of business specific software sporting Genetec’s corporate logos and templates as well as tracking tags.

A growing number of small businesses are now tackling a global market and they need to be able to run a 24/7 operation, said Joshua Gold, principal of Auctionwire, a fledgling online auction agency based in Toronto. The company manages corporate and charity auction sites and has received upwards of 50 million worldwide visitors.

While his business is highly dependent on technology, his organization is still in need of technical expertise that will keep Auctionwire’s system running. “When your system fails just as an auction is about to end, you can’t tell customers, sorry we had some technical difficulty.”

“We need tech vendors that can provide hardware and software support 24/7,” he said.

Many SMBs need providers that can give advice on how to leverage emerging technology, according to Michael Mattalo, president of Fifth P Solutions, an online training tool developer headquartered in Mississauga, Ont.

“Small operations are extremely focused on growing their business and often do not have the manpower or time to spend on research and the re-iterative nature of technology,” he said.

Technology vendors, Mattalo said, can assist SMBs by providing advice on IT trends and products that could improve their business or what equipment or software needs to be replaced. “My greatest nightmare is having my tech people come to me saying we need to spend another million dollars because what we have just doesn’t cut it anymore.”

Small businesses have a greater need to protect data, according to Kevin Peesker, vice-president and general manager of the SMB division of Dell Canada.

“From a privacy, security and regulation compliance point of view, SMBs are demanding better data protection and management features,” he said.

Other concerns with technology include ease of use, shorter training requirements and data backup and protection.

Peesker said among the top 5 drivers for IT investments for SMBs with one to nine employees are: easy to use hardware; easy access to service and support; technology that enables online communication; information security; and data storage and recovery.

For SMBs with 10 to 99 employees, the drivers are: sales and marketing; database management; online communication; data storage and recovery; and tools to communicate with customers.

The top five pain points for SMBs are: bothersome trialware and freeware that come free-installed on machines; dependence on outside companies; frequent server slowdowns and failures; the need to keep PCs optimized for security and productivity; and setting up new systems.

Peesker said Dell offers a variety of technical support for its customers including a tiered software resolution package in conjunction with its software partners.

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