SEO Consultant: Five Reasons Your Local Business Needs One

This is one of those rare times when an opportunity is on the edge of exploding. Currently getting top rankings for local search terms is relatively inexpensive and can be accomplished in a surprisingly short span of time. Local businesses who take advantage of this opportunity will position themselves to reap the benefits for years to come and be ahead of the competition. The competition will only become more fierce as the days go by.

A local SEO consultant can help your business flourish by adding value to your brand and bringing you more customers. Here are five reasons your local business needs an SEO Consultant:

1. Consider this: An estimated 42 percent of all click-through traffic goes to the first listing of a search engine; the next gets around 12 percent, third 8.5 percent, the fourth 6 percent with all the rest getting under 5 percent. The first page receives about 90 percent of all click-through traffic while the second only gets 4.5 percent. An SEO consultant will take the necessary steps to get your website in a position to receive a higher click-through rate to your site giving you contact with more potential customers.

2. Google Places often has its listings before the organic search results when searchers type in local search terms. Therefore if your business is not listed in the Google Places listings you have less chance of being found. A local SEO consultant can set up and optimize a Google Places listing giving you greater visibility in Google local searches.

3. While SEO and online marketing are different tasks, they go hand in hand. Optimizing the marketing aspects of your website should be something that your SEO consultant can help you with.

4. Setting up and maintaining social media accounts for your business has become a critical part of marketing. A Facebook Fan Page, a Twitter account, managing directory listings and reviews are all part of social media marketing. Again, while not technically SEO, social media marketing is usually a skill set most SEO consultants possess.

5. Finally, there is what I call “The death of the Yellow Pages” (may they rest in peace). The print Yellow Pages is rarely referred to for finding businesses these days. Where do you go to find what you need? If you are like 74 percent of the people in a 2007 study by Yahoo, then you went to the Internet and used a search engine to find what you were looking for. This is a trend that has continued and the percentage is probably much higher today. Using your Yellow Pages advertising dollars to advance your brand on the Internet through a local SEO consultant will provide a greater ROI from your advertising budget.

Advertising, marketing and promotion are all necessary expenses for a business owner that wants to grow their business. Investing in an SEO consultant is not only smart but a necessity in today’s digital society.

Social Media Consultants: Do They Really Do Marketing?

A lot has been said about social media marketing and the social network consultants who work behind it but there are still a lot of questions that people want to know about the people in this industry and the things that they do. Well, who could blame this people for expressing their desire to be a part of this industry when they can see how productive it is and how much it has helped businesses from all over the world to increase their market as well as their sales.

Much has been written about what social media consultants do though none of which claim to be true. In fact, negative articles have been written about these people saying that they do not really work as hard as the other internet marketers or that their job is really not a job. Well, perhaps these two points that were raised are true to some extent. Maybe social network consultants do not work as hard not because they are lazy but because they do not see their job really as a work because they enjoy doing it. Who can say then that a job is much more difficult than the job of the other that the people who have actually tried doing both as jobs, right? So for the many who speak of social media consultants and about them not doing their job very well, perhaps they should look at how far social media marketing has gone.

Without the knowledge of how social network marketing has been done, no one could really say that social media consultants are doing a job that is much easier compared to the other forms of marketing online. On the other hand, on the idea that the job of a social network consultant not being as difficult as the other internet jobs, then perhaps the level of difficulty is the same but the fun of doing social media is what others could not compare to.

Social network / media consultants have done a great job in uplifting the kind of job that they do. Nobody could really say that their job is less compared to the others because the more important thing is that, they are able to help businesses increase sales.

Grow Your Business By Being a Search Engine Marketing Consultant

Business consultants often start with a few clients from their existing circles and eventually grow their client base with the help of referrals and some word of mouth. Getting new clients may be a great way to increase your income but it can also be time-consuming and expensive. Experts suggest offering your services as a search engine marketing consultant to your existing clients to get additional jobs.

Why you should be a search engine marketing consultant

Necessity

Building a website is easy but getting people to find it on the Internet takes skill. Anyone who owns a website will need help to get more online users to visit the site. To do this, they will need your help in planning ways to drive huge traffic to it.

Your current client list is a good place to start because these people already have websites that you helped create. Your prior understanding of their businesses will give you the upper hand when planning strategies for search engine purposes and clients who are satisfied with your previous work are more likely going to hire you for additional projects.

Easy tools and applications

Unlike web development and design which require some technical training or knowledge, search engine marketing strategies are easy to learn and implement using advanced applications that are reasonably priced. These include:

* copywriting systems
* landing page creation tools
* email marketing services and
* article distribution services

While you may be able to find free tools and tips online, these often fall short of providing you with a complete solution that you can implement in your projects. Look instead for quality applications and services that can give you good value for your money.

Getting started

Learning Internet marketing strategies are now made easy with training programs, e-Courses, webinars, and live seminars. Because the business you are in is technology-based, using only the most cutting edge techniques is a must, to get real results fast.

You’ll also need to invest in good systems which you can use for all your clients and projects. Don’t wait for your client base to grow before making this investment because a system can save you time and energy without sacrificing the quality of results. A system may cost a little, but it can give you the best return on your investment.

Finally, as your business progresses, you’ll need to form a team who, just like you, will be able to serve as search engine marketing consultant to a growing list of clients.

Using Consultative Sales Techniques to Win Business Faster

The shift of focus from product selling to solution selling has brought huge benefits and huge challenges to selling organisations over the past 10 years. The benefits include higher-value sales, higher customer satisfaction, and longer-term supplier-customer relationships. However, the challenges this shift has brought include:

Greater skills are required for selling and higher wage bills for those higher skills
Longer sales cycles and poorer closure rates, i.e. deals slip, get cancelled or are lost despite being part of the sales forecast
The last point is the greatest reason why sales managers and sales directors resist the shift. Yet we have developed clear evidence that the sales-cycle in solution sales do not actually have to be longer. A great consultative sales methodology can really make the selling of high-value solutions a rapid process and it will transform the effectiveness of any company’s solution sales force in terms of closing deals on time.

Analysis of Causes of Failure to Close a High Margin Sale: In the hundreds of case studies we have reviewed, the reasons why sales individuals and sales teams fail to close on time (in relation to expectations of forecasts) come from right across the range of the sales opportunity qualification matrix, including:

No external pressure / event is driving the client to make a change (i.e. no compelling event)
The internal pain-points and cost implications don’t hurt enough to make ‘change’ a real priority
The perceived benefits are not great enough (i.e. Return on Investment) and not differentiated from those of the competition
The solution doesn’t actually satisfy the need (subset of the above)
The risk of the solution is too high for the prospect (e.g. no relevant case studies, insufficient trust, high impact of failure, etc)
The buyer’s contact doesn’t have the authority to sign (i.e. the sales person is spending time with the wrong contact)
The customer never intended to buy from the selling organisation (i.e. the selling organisation is being used as a benchmark to leverage a better deal with a stronger competitor)
The decision makers were too busy to sign the deal
In our research, the least common cause we came across was that the prospect organisation didn’t have the budget to sign the contract. Given the current economic climate this is a particularly surprising observation.

Further Analysis: In observed sales calls and role-play simulations (using real case examples), we also found that sales professionals typically:
i) Failed to take the lead in a sales meeting because they failed to start the meeting at a business level with a clear objective to obtain a formal commitment (to a contract or a project that involved a contract being signed within an agreed timescale).
ii) Were poor at funnelling from ‘open’, or ‘semi-open’, (i.e. leading) questions down to closed questions at every phase of the consultative sales meeting
iii) Didn’t use a compelling event, the cost of “doing nothing” and the value of the solution as a pressure to close.
iv) Went for the big solution sale in the medium-to-long term but MISSED the opportunity for immediate wins.
v) Couldn’t bridge the gap between the client’s needs and the selling organisation’s products or services via a ‘value-added’ solution, i.e. they leapt to a product sale too early and killed the higher value opportunity (and often killed the client’s interest!)

Using a Consultative Selling Approach

On the other hand, our research demonstrates that skilled consultative sales people were able to overcome the aforementioned limitations and were therefore able to proactively sell their solutions effectively and efficiently AND were able to close their deals in line with their forecasts. We found that a professional consultative selling approach worked in any industry and worked just as well in the business-to-business world AND for companies selling to high-value personal clients in almost any scenario. Hundreds of buyers have told us that they hate ‘Feature, Advantage, Benefit’ (FAB) selling. It’s what gets a sales person a bad name. Effective selling in today’s world (of far more discerning buyers) has to start with the shaping of the client’s needs and has to drive the need and the urgency by using: i) The external pressure on the client to change ii) The pain and cost implication of ‘doing nothing’ iii) The client’s (often unconscious) desire for a better world

Conclusion: It is a myth that consultative selling is a sales technique that is only appropriate for the longer term or complex-solution selling environment. Wherever a company aims to sell a bundled solution (or set of services), consultative selling works – regardless of an individual’s experience or the industry they are selling to.

Recommended Solution: Sales people and companies need an efficient and effective methodology for consultative selling that enables them to:
i) PLAN and EXECUTE the sales introduction and the sales meeting in a way that creates a high-priority need and a compelling urgency to set up the close.
ii) Articulate HOW the VALUE PROPOSITION (the value-added solution that the company is offering in terms of compelling business benefits and differentiating advantages) aligns directly to the client’s NEEDS so that the client is compelled to commit to moving forward. This will ensure that a desire for a close is created in the client’s mind.
iii) LEVERAGE the urgency, the need and the desire to drive the close of the sale in terms of a sales roadmap (from immediate win to medium and long term higher value solutions).
iv) EFFICIENTLY repeat the process for any client on a ‘sell-to’ and ‘sell-through’ basis. This structured approach to selling will help you and your company avoid the common causes of failure which sales professionals regularly experience when attempting to close solution sales and will enhance the bottom-line sales performance.

SEO Consultancy: 2 Things Your Consultant Should Never Say

Because internet marketing is not a tangible thing, you cannot hold it in your hand, there are a lot of pirate companies out there who aim to target naive people, promise them off the chart results and do a runner with all their money. This of course makes it awful for those internet marketing businesses that are complete legitimate. So we have put together a list of some of the top lies that fake SEO consultants tell to help you spot the conmen from the honest folk:

“We can guarantee you top spot in a week”

An SEO campaign takes time as the website in question needs to build in authority and there is always going to be some kind of competition. Your keywords should be selected bearing in mind how many exact local monthly searches they receive, the higher the search volumes the better. Also in SEO there are no guarantees. Honest SEO consultants will give you a rough estimation but not exact timelines.

“The best keywords contain your company name”

This is not the case. People who search your exact business name in search engines like Google are pretty much safe bets and are there because they are specifically looking for you services or products. They will try to convince you of these as there will be no ranking competition for these key terms and so you’ll be able to rank high for them very quickly if you are not already. Sound SEO consultants will show you a long list of potential keywords and their search numbers and assist you to pick out which ones you would like to target.
So, make sure that if you hear either of these statements come out of the mouth of an SEO consultant you run away as fast as you can!

Get to grips with SEO with our SEO Consultancy services, or learn more about search optimisation inSME Marketing’s SEO Training section.

Financial Climate is a Good Reason to Contact an International Courier Consultant

If you don’t know that we are in a global financial crisis then you have been living under a rock for the last 18 months. Many businesses around the world are finding it difficult and budgets are being cut across the board in both small and large organizations.

Although they don’t realise it, businesses are probably spending much more than they need to on their courier services – and this area alone could help to save them more than they could possibly image.

The problem is that most businesses don’t realise this and they continue to use a courier that they have used in the past “just because they do”.

A courier consultant could effectively come into your business and save you a small fortune. Figures of around 30% are an average saving that your business could be putting to one side. Naturally, it goes without saying that if you are a large business that relies on a courier service that the savings add up.

By contacting a no fee courier consultant you are not staking any risk. An independent consultant will simply search the market, or use his already collated market data to help find the right deal for you. There are couriers on the market that offer a range of different services from International Courier to local bike messenger so you need to find the right one for you.

As Courier companies can be global it may be a cheaper option to use a foreign courier company to get your goods abroad. This is something that the consultant will be able to advise you on – if you don’t ask you never know!
What’s best about using a courier consultant is that if you decide not to use them, because there is no risk or fees it won’t cost you a penny and you can ultimately make your own decision based on the advice that the consultant will give you.

Arbonne Consultants – How to Become a 6 Figure Arbonne Consultant

Becoming a 6-Figure income earner for Arbonne can be a difficult thing to do. Especially when it’s hard for you to find people who will help you grow your downline. So, what I’m going to do is share with you some tips on how to become a 6-figure Arbonne consultant.

That way, you will be able to reach financial freedom with your company.

The tips to succeed as Arbonne Consultants are:

1. The first tip on succeeding as Arbonne consultants is to know your target market (or the right people for your products). You must understand who would buy the products from you. Not everyone will buy them from you. Even though the products are great.

So, you have to understand who want your products. The people who would buy from you are people who already buy products that are related to yours.

2. Another tip on becoming a 6-figure income earner as an Arbonne consultant is to know your products. You need to understand the benefits of your products and how they will help people. This tip goes right along with find the right people. Once you understand these two tips, you will earn 6 figures very quickly.

3. The third tip is to have a system. You need to have an effective system in place for you downline. When you have your system set up, you will attract people into your downline, that are literally handing you their credit cards, ready and willing to grow a business with you. That’s just how powerful a system works.

These are some tips on how to become a 6-figure Arbonne consultant. If you are serious about growing your business and really succeeding in this industry, you need to do something about it now. There are thousands of people who would love to buy Arbonne products from you.

Copywriter Vs Consultant – Deciding What You Need

From the outside, the line between copywriter and marketing consultant can look a little blurry. Copywriters are sometimes asked to give marketing advice to their clients, and part of a marketing consultant’s job is articulating a company’s position and message. And within both industries, some “value-added” professionals operate under both umbrellas.

But they are different. And especially if you’re hiring one or the other for the first time, you need to know what to expect with each-and what each expects from you.

You Need a Copywriter If:

You need a specific product. Copywriters sell concrete deliverables: copy for a brochure, a website, a series of articles, and so on. You need a copywriter if you need something specific written. You may not know exactly what you need, and some copywriters may be willing to discuss your goals with you and make suggestions. But at the end of the day, you need to have a specific project in mind.

You know yourself and your competitors. In preparation for your work, copywriters will ask questions about your company. These questions help them figure out how to best present you to your customers. Common questions include:

o What is your trademark as a company?

o What do you do better than your competitors?

o What is your current position in your market?

o How do you currently market yourself?

o What tone and image are you looking to convey?

If you don’t know the answers to these questions, a copywriter will have difficulty figuring out the best angle to take when presenting you to your customers.

You know your customers. One of the first questions any copywriter will ask you when starting a new project is “who’s your audience?” To write a successful marketing piece, you need to know your customers inside and out: what tone appeals to them, what they’re looking for in a product or service like yours, and what their hot-button issues are. A copywriter will need to know the following about your audience:

o What is the demographic you’re trying to appeal to? Describe your “typical customer.”

o What factors are important to your audience when choosing a product like yours?

o What problems do your customers have, and how do you solve their problems?

o What do your prospects need to know about your product?

o What is your audience’s “hot button”?

o What emotions do you want your audience to feel when reading this piece?

o Do you serve more than one demographic? How are they different?

Call A Consultant If:

You don’t know yourself. A copywriter will need to get a sense of your business and market to write a good piece. If you don’t know why a customer would choose your product or service over a competitor’s, you need more help than a typical copywriter can provide. You need to talk to a professional marketing consultant who can help you discover your own strengths and weaknesses and help you position yourself in the market.

You don’t know your audience. A copywriter will expect you to know your customers inside and out. Without this information, she’s writing blind. If you don’t know your customers’ demographics, likes and dislikes, problems and how you solve them, and the tone and image that will appeal most, you need a marketing consultant. These consultants can help you by crafting surveys and doing market research that will help you get to know your customers.

You need information-not a deliverable. If you need to know how to do something-not have a specific job done or piece written-you need a consultant. Marketing consultants can help you figure out who you are, who your customers are, and how to present yourself to them. They usually don’t write press releases or craft website content.

Marketing consultants offer valuable insight into your business. Copywriters can help you take that knowledge and make it into compelling copy. To make the most of your associations with copywriters and consultants, you need to know what they both do best-and when you need each.

How to Choose a Computer Support Consultant

Introduction

Like so many other companies, you have made a significant investment in what has become the life blood of your business, your computer systems. From workstations to laptops and servers, and from software applications to printers and Internet connection, you cannot afford to be down even for a minute. Finding a trustworthy professional to keep you running reliably and securely can be a tough and expensive exercise of trial and error and, if you are lucky, when they leave they have fixed more than they have damaged, costing you even more money in the end. This is no economy to be picking up the tab for an alleged computer professional’s on the job training. You want someone that understands your needs, and knows how to address them.

All of my clients have been through this headache-inducing process. From the time they put in a request to their current IT guy for a fix, it takes days to receive a response and another few days before someone actually shows up to address the problem. The person who arrives is frequently under experienced and leaves a trail of problems in their wake. I am reminded of the old cartoons when the severely nearsighted Mr. Magoo would leave a trail of accidents in his rearview mirror as he drove down the road, not a care in the world. I am sure we’ve all felt this way with various vendors we’ve worked with over the years. Many of them are the biggest in their industry and we’re left wondering how they ever got so big?

In the interest of sparing you the pain of hiring a Mr. Magoo, I offer this article with some helpful information for finding and hiring a trustworthy, competent and affordable IT support company

The Value of Referrals

I’d never eat at a C, would you?

Once I made the mistake of telling someone that I won’t set foot in a restaurant unless someone has recommended it to me. “Oh, you can’t be afraid to try something new,” she admonished. I just smiled and nodded as I thought to myself, it isn’t about trying new things, it’s about not having to pay for something I did not enjoy. Likewise, when in need of a new dentist or mechanic I always poll friends, family or colleagues who they use and if they are happy with the service. I highly recommend doing the same when it comes to getting support for your office computers. Ask other business owners in your professional circle if they are happy with their IT support company. If you belong to any local professional organizations, ask your fellow club members if they can suggest anyone. Trust me; the company they recommend will greatly appreciate the referral.

In the late 1990s a Los Angeles local news program ran a hidden camera expose on the filthy conditions of some area restaurant kitchens. Grainy video showed the most extreme violations common kitchen hygiene practices, let alone public health code. The images alone were enough to make one sick and, in the interest of not grossing you out, I will not go into any further detail of the infractions. The public outcry lead to the requirement that restaurants and even stores that sell food post the letter grade of their most recent city inspection. Virtually overnight, small white placards with big a blue A, B or, heaven forbid, C became prominently displayed in eatery windows and even gas station mini-marts all over town. One never sees a D or lower because those places must keep their doors shut until they have cleaned up their act and passed a subsequent inspection. It is rare to see anything lower than an A and, if one did, would one eat there? Probably not. Personally I need that little blue A, that referral from the Department of Public Health, in the window as a reassurance that I won’t be spending the night in the bathroom.

Similarly, you should not hire an IT provider who is not recommended by someone you trust and would not rate anything lower than an A on their virtual report card. I don’t recommend trusting in online reviews from places like Yelp or Yahoo Local where it is too easy for vendors to plant bogus glowing reviews about themselves, or discredit their competition. Another reason I don’t trust them is that shortly after noticing advertisements offering to pay people to write product reviews there seemed to be an uptick in customer product evaluations at various etailers. Coincidence, maybe, but I can’t imagine going online to Macys.com to write a review about the underwear I bought last week whether they were comfy or not.

There are some sites that might be a little more credible, such as AngiesList.com, where consumers pay an annual fee for the privilege of posting and reading vendor reviews. Ideally, this lessens the opportunity for self-promotion and abuse, but I am not sure it is worth a monthly fee.

So, unless there is a particular vendor endorsement web site you like, I would stick with referrals from more traditional sources you know and trust.

Vetting the Candidates

If you called the first person someone recommended to you and it worked out, great! If you have a list of possible vendors that is good, too, but it is time to carefully narrow your selection to the kind of organizations that can meet your needs without draining your wallet.

If your finances allow and your organization is so large you feel only IBM consulting can support your needs, keep in mind that large IT companies have a lot of overhead. If they boast of a thousand employees, huge customers and a big shiny office building, think of the hourly rates they’ll have to charge you to maintain all that overhead.

Instead, look for smaller, local companies that are hungry for your business but have an established, satisfied clientele. You are likely to have a more personal experience as well as more of an opportunity to negotiate fees, terms, etc. Interview them just as you would a potential full-time employee. Have them provide you a list of references and even the resume(s) of the technician(s) that would be assigned to care for your environment. Check their references and, if an IT vendor has posted a customer testimonial to their web site, give that customer a call and get more information. You might learn that things have changed and they aren’t as happy since the testimonial was given, or that while the support is good, their business and computer systems are Macs and you need a PC guru. Hopefully you will find that they have nothing but praise and continue recommend the to anyone and everyone. It’s worth the phone call. In addition to checking basic references, here are more areas to investigate to ensure their competency:

Are They Competent to Handle What You Have?

Ask them demonstrate that they are competent in the software and hardware your business uses.
I really like my mechanic, Mike. He does a great job on my family’s domestic vehicles but if one day I experience a mid-life crisis and go nuts with a German sports car. Hopefully Mike can service it, but if not, I’ll ask him for a recommendation of someone that can. Imagine if you finally settled on a company you like, but when the tech shows up, he stares blankly at your PC and says, “I’m really more of a Mac guy.” That in mind, before you start calling around to see which company gives you the warm and fuzzies, make a list of the software and equipment you expect them to support and go over it with them during the interview. Ask them for specific examples of when and how they have improved networks like yours. Their response should give you an idea of their level of competence with your computer, server, email, financial or accounting platforms.

Familiarity with Your Industry

If you have highly specialized systems, look for companies who cater to your niche.

To a certain extent, the nature of a particular business is incidental to what IT folks do. The accounting staffing company is probably running what the insurance guy has down the hall: HP or Dell hardware running Microsoft Windows, Microsoft Office, QuickBooks, etc. with a T1, DSL or cable modem to the Internet. The staffing company will be running a recruiter-specific software application, such as ProSearch while the Insurance guy’s primary production application is Goldmine, or a web-based solution like SalesForce.com. Any IT guy worth his salt can take a quick look at these, do a little reading and have enough information to keep them running reliably. Businesses such as retailers or legal offices might have custom or legacy (old and out of warranty) software that requires a greater understanding to maintain. It can break in so many different ways that only someone with significant experience with that particular product or its foundations can render a fast, effective fix in the event of a failure. With a proper budget and knowledge, the best techs will have it configured with redundancy and failover mechanisms so that when it does break, it is transparent to the end users and there is no loss of productivity.
If you are running shrink-wrapped software like Windows, Office and QuickBooks, it won’t matter as much if the new IT support vendor is not immediately familiar with your marketing business as long as he has experience with the software you run it on. (He should take an interest to understand your business, which I get into in the next section.) If you are a securities broker with an SDLC card for your DTCC solution, it would be helpful to hire someone with a client base similar to your line of work. When that particular line of communication to the Wall Street goes down the last thing you want is your IT guy scratching his head and searching Google for error codes.

Understanding of Your Needs

Getting immediate problems fixed is important, so too is understanding what is essential to you and making continued improvements in your network to benefit your business.

As you entertain different companies the better prospects will work to gain an understanding of what is important to you and what you need so that you get a return on the investment you’ve made in your computer systems. He should ask questions like “What is the biggest challenge you are facing with your computers?”, “How do you feel things could be more efficient?” And “How is your current IT support vendor falling short?”

Does she listen and repeat back what you said to demonstrate an understanding of your situation, or just go on and on pushing her own product? Once you finally settle on hiring someone, over time the consultant should get a feel for your work flow and begin to make suggestions to improve efficiency and reliability. Security vulnerabilities should be discovered and mitigated, ongoing problems identified and resolved and eventually you will notice your network running more smoothly than ever. A couple of years ago I walked into the office of a new client and could not believe what I found. This was a multi-million dollar retail operation with over 100 employees in the field and 10 people in the corporate office on a peer-to-peer network. The “server” was the office manager’s desktop hosting all of the company’s documents including HR files, marketing, billing, invoices, resumes, etc. It was also hosting a huge QuickBooks file (over 500 MB!) which the other desktop computers accessed. QuickBooks just isn’t designed to run this way and, as a result, it crashed regularly. But that was not the first thing I noticed when I walked in. What caught my eye was a stack of black accounting ledger books, one for each of the 12 stores the company owned and operated. At the end of each shift, staff would call into a special voicemail-only number and leave the sales numbers. The following morning, a clerk would play back as many as 90 voicemails and transcribe the numbers into the black books for the owner to peruse later in the day. Talk about inefficient.

Within a month we had an online form available to the salons via Microsoft’s SharePoint. At the end of the shift, they simply added the numbers into the form for the owner’s immediate review in Excel. The new procedure saved the company 15 hours per week in labor costs!

Your IT consultant should be looking for ways to save you time and money by recommending and implemented efficiencies like we did for the customer described above. If this has not been your experience with your current provider, you need a new one.

Ensuring Business Continuity

Sure you have backups of your data, but do you know how to restore it? How long can you afford to be down while you struggle to get back up?

In the earliest stages of getting to know your environment, like before they are even hired, support providers should ask about your backups. How are they done – tape, external hard drives, online? Who is responsible for them? Are they tested? Once it is established that backups are performed regularly, and the budget allows, you should have a discussion about business continuity. How current does your backup data have to be for you to properly serve your customers? How long can you afford to be down while data is being recovered? In the event of a fire, flood or theft of your computers, how will you get that backed up data onto computers and get your business back up and running?

Make sure that your new IT consultant understands the answers to these questions and has the expertise to properly respond to an emergency to either keep you running, or get you back up and running according to their service level agreement.

Scalability

If you expect to grow, your IT provider should have the knowledge and resources to build a computer infrastructure that grows right along with you.

What are the current growth projections for your company? Are you planning to downsize, stay as you are, or become the 800 pound gorilla in your market? Of course, a new IT consultant won’t be as excited to help you downsize as it implies shrinking income for them as your need for them shrinks right along with you. But if you plan to stay as you are or grow, your service provider should be able to assist as well as keep up.

In the economic downturn of late 2000/early 2001, or the “dot-bomb” era, I was laid off as business took a dive and my employer went into survival mode. Seemingly overnight this successful organization went from about 75 employees to about 5. I was retained to support their computers, but when they decided to move to a more austere office I was not consulted and certain critical things were left out of planning the relocation, like the Internet connection. As a staffing organization the Internet was a key tool to find candidates for their customers, to send and receive emails, post positions to the job board on their internally hosted web site and more. No one at the company transferred the existing Internet service to the new office. And even if they had, no one had the expertise to make sure the web site and email would continue to flow when the servers were moved and brought back online. They were dead in the water.

Today you can get an Internet connection in a couple of days, but this incident was back when the DSL providers had over sold their services through very creative TV advertising campaigns (who remembers SBC’s “Web Hog” commercials?) and new installations were 6 weeks out. So, in a major pinch, they called me and I was able to help them get a temporary and very slow dial-up connection to the Internet to at least get email flowing again.
Whether you are growing or shrinking, your IT guy must know how to set up a new office or move your existing one so that all of your IT services go right along with you. Many IT departments become the de facto Facilities Department of their organizations, so they might even be able to help ensure that your other utilities, such as power and telephone are properly set up as well. If this is an additional office, it must be determined in advance the level of communication required between the computer systems. Will staff at the new location require access to files on servers at the old location? How will they log onto the network at location 2 when the server is at location 1? Is a new server required or will a site-to-site VPN connection be adequate? These are all issues a good IT service provider should be conscience of and develop solutions for.

Respected in the IT Community

The Mr. Magoos of the world develop reputations that begin to precede them. I’ve received resumes from people I would not ever hire based on personal experiences. In some cases the resumes themselves were so error laden, I could not let the sender near one of my computers. On the other hand, some IT guys are so respected that they are never out of a job because they have built such strong reputations as being technically proficient as well as just pleasant to have around. IT vendors can develop similar reputations through the good work of the people that comprise their staff. As mentioned earlier, you should be able to get references from those companies you are hiring, as well as copies of the resumes of the technicians assigned to care for your computers.

Another way to ensure their respectability is through their contributions to the IT community. I have yet to meet the computer professional that knows everything there is to know about computers. There are those who have an awesome memory and can remember every detail of configurations of esoteric applications they worked with 5 years earlier. Others, know a lot, but depend upon the IT community such as their partnerships and online support forums for help with more difficult issues. Hopefully someone has experienced with the same problem I have and has taken the time to post the resolution online. Likewise, when I get over a hump others are still struggling to conquer, I try and let everyone know the solution that worked for me.

A simple Google or Bing search of the name of the company you’re considering, the owner or her technicians might return contributions they have made to their community in the way of technical articles or blog posts. You might also find that they belong to industry affiliations for improving the level of service they provide their customers, awards, or other honors.

Howdy Pard’ner

The vendor you choose should have formal partnerships with the makers of products they sell and support. Among the myriad reasons Microsoft is such a big and powerful company is the value they place in their partners. As a technician, I know that, if I get in a jam, highly skilled support for any Microsoft product is a phone call away. For each product Microsoft has a team of professionals all over the world to help resolve the situation and make sure my customer is pleased. Whether 2 in the afternoon or 2 in the morning, if my customer’s email server is down and I have exhausted all other methods to resolve the problem, I know I can call Microsoft and a team of engineers will work with me 24 hours a day until it is fixed. They are one of the few companies that will do this and it is thanks to my partnership level with them, Small Business Specialist. This is not a designation that comes easy – a prospective partner must pass a series of tests and satisfy other stringent requirements. The more requirements met, the higher the partnership level and associated benefits.

If you are running Microsoft products in your business, make sure that the people you hire to support you enjoy some level of Microsoft partnership. Likewise for Sun Micro Systems, Oracle, Trend Micro, etc. You will benefit greatly from their association with these companies.

They will know more about the product and take greater interest in it resulting in a residual benefit for you in the way of more reliable performance. It could also mean better pricing when it comes time to upgrade or renew your license.

Non-Disclosure Agreement

When you trust someone with the keys to your kingdom, get some assurance they won’t make copies to share with others.

Almost any business has a valuable database of customer contacts that has grown with them over the years. It can include current and past customers as well as sales leads that will hopefully pan out one day. It takes years of hard work to develop such a list which contributes to the overall value of our company. You would never want to lose this resource or allow it to make its way to a competitor. To prevent it from becoming lost or corrupted it should be backed up nightly with your other data. And to keep it from falling into enemy hands, anyone like an IT provider with access should sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA). This goes for your employees as well; particularly those in a sales role who would benefit from your hard earned Rolodex if they jumped ship to start their own firm or went to work for your rival. You can easily find customizable boiler plate NDAs on-line, or send me an email and I will gladly provide one to you.

Contracts: Good and Bad

I am so thankful that cable TV, regular telephone service, the gas and power companies don’t make you sign a contract. Of course, they are pretty much monopolies so why would they? But I am sure they would if they could – they’d ding you when you move and need to cancel your contract, then they’d nail the person who buys your home with a sign-up fee. Fortunately, they don’t do that, at least not the ones in my neck of the woods, at least, not yet. It seems like there is plenty of cellular competition out there, but an implied conspiracy suggest they are in cahoots with their obscene early termination fess in excess of $300. The upside to the competition is, of course, they know that when that contract is up, you are a free agent to sigh with whomever you please, so they better be Johnny On the Spot when problems need correcting. I notice a significant difference between the level of service I get from the cable carrier which also provides my Internet service for my business (no contract and no cable competition) and my cellular carrier (contract with competition). The service I get from the latter is infinitely better and I gladly recommend them to others. The cable company? Not so much.

IT support providers have plenty of competition and in order to keep you, most will try and get you into a contract. But that is not necessarily a bad thing. The vendor enjoys predictable cash flow and some assurance that, despite how happy you made them today, they are less likely to hire someone else who is running an enticing promotion. What’s more, the vendor wants to keep making you happy by exceeding your expectations. The more smoothly your machines run, the less downtime you have, the less time you have to worry and the more time you have to focus on developing your business. Likewise, the better your equipment runs, the more money they make not having to pay someone to dash out and fix them. It is win-win for everyone involved. Indeed, contracts in this case can be good for everyone, but make sure that there is some kind of out clause so that you are not held hostage by a company providing you rotten service.

So, if either party can get out at any time, what’s the purpose of the contract? To establish expectations: I will perform this service for you and you shall compensate me x. If I fail to perform said service you may cancel the contract. If you fail to pay me, I will stop service until I receive payment, etc.

As I mentioned earlier, I am writing this in a period of economic decline and things are tough all over. I have allowed several clients to defer payment because I know business is slow for them and they are waiting on payment from their clients as well. Historically they pay their bills and we are all counting on the economy improving. But more importantly, their success is my success and their computers not working properly will impair their ability to conduct business and pay me. I believe this personal touch is what is going to help many companies survive this tough economy.

Even if your contract establishes 15, 30 or 90 terms, the personal relationship you develop with your vendor should allow for some wiggle room in this area as circumstances dictate.

SLA and SOWs

Establish in writing expectations for ongoing support as well as any special projects.

As its name implies, the Service Level Agreement (SLA) establishes the level of service the vendor is expected to provide and the customer expects to receive. It can be issued and signed separately or as part of the contract. On the hardware side this might include computers, servers, software, network and ancillary equipment. For example, the software could include the operating system and production applications such as the Exchange (email server) on the server side and Outlook (email client) on the desktop side.

The SLA should also establish how quickly you should expect the vendor to respond to when you alert them to a problem. Depending upon the severity level, their response time might range from 1 hour for the most critical issues (server down) to 4 hours (1 of 5 printers has a paper jam).

Any work not defined in the contract’s SLA performed on your computer systems should be clearly defined in a Statement of Work (SOW) to establish expectations on both ends. In a nutshell, the SOW will state the problem or need, the solution, timeline, deliverables, end result and costs.

An SOW might not be needed for the odd printer jam or email snag, but if you have been sold a firewall to control employee web surfing, viruses and spam, the statement of work will help both parties understand the scope of the project and agree when the project has been completed properly by the consultant and accepted by you. The last thing you want is for the consultant to tell you he is finished installing Internet filter but your employees are still updating Facebook on company time and you’ve got more spam in your Inbox than ever before.

Summary
The sole focus of this article has been to give you some guidelines for selecting a computer consulting company that, in the end, keeps you and your computers humming a happy tune. With any kind of sophisticated there will always be some issues, especially as changes are made, but overall your systems should run reliably when properly cared for and there should be no nagging, lingering problems that never seem to get fixed. I have worked in few companies where IT was given top priority. In fact, I can count them on one hand; it was a technology company with a commercial website, so naturally there was a great deal of emphasis on the quality of the network, servers, workstations, etc. and technicians looking after them. Unfortunately, either through budget constraints or misplaced priorities, IT usually goes under nurtured and, when there is a failure, it is a big emergency. The email server crashes and everyone runs around like the clich├ęd headless chicken clamoring for a fix. All the while untold business is lost by this huge workplace distraction. Productivity drops as the crisis dominates the day which is consumed by meetings to find solutions, workarounds or just commiserating and no one able to do his or her job. Making things worse, excuses are having to be given to customers because “the system’s down again” and the organization looks just plain bad.

Only a computer professional with training and experience in the software and hardware you operate has the skill set required keep it all running properly.

If you have not had the time to read everything in this article, here are a few quick questions to keep in mind when considering a company or individual to care for your business computers:

1. Can you provide a list of customer references?
2. Are you certified to support my hardware and software?
3. Do you have a written Service Level Agreement?
4. Do you have any other customers in my industry? (If so, make sure they are in the list of references.)
5. Is your work 100% guaranteed?
6. Do you offer monthly support maintenance agreements?
7. Do you offer a discounted hourly rate for customers under a maintenance agreement?
8. What is your guaranteed call back time for emergencies?
9. How do you protect my data and can you give an example of how you recovered a client’s data in the past?
10. How quickly can you get my business systems up and running in the event of an emergency?

Selecting an Internet Consultant

Selecting an internet consultant for your business should be undertaken with the same care as selecting any of your professional advisors. Although the local phone directory may be full of accountants and lawyers, the same can’t be said for internet consultants.

That shouldn’t be a problem to you anyway, as most internet consultants are found online or by referral and it doesn’t really matter if they are local to you or not. What’s important is that they provide you with a thoroughly professional service. Generally with online business requirements, this can be provided via email, but even more preferably using Skype as you can actually speak to the internet consultant and if you have a web cam, virtually talk face to face.

When seeking a web consultant, you should always insist on a free consultation up front to discuss your requirements. This is also an opportunity for you to quiz the internet consultant on their background and skills. This is very important and you should choose your internet consultant with the same level of care that you would choose any of your professional advisors.

Of late, there has been a bit of a marketing splurge in the online world and several programs sold suggesting that internet marketers take their skills to the offline world. The problem of course is that whilst many of these internet marketers may know how to set up a one page sales site, setting up a total business web site is a different matter entirely.

Ideally you want someone who has good web design skills, a sound knowledge of search engine optimization and a good working knowledge of social media. These skills are important to ensure your business web site not only looks good, but ranks well in the search engines resulting in traffic to your site. A social media campaign can supplement these things and drive additional traffic to your site.

If someone is outsourcing all this work and raking the cream, they don’t necessarily have the skills to assess the value of what is being done. This is where a depth of wide ranging experience is necessary, indeed essential for the internet consultant. After all, it is your goal to create an extremely effective online campaign that will drive traffic to your website and customers into your arms. Don’t be satisfied with anything less.

So in summary, make sure you get a free consultation. During this time, have a list of pertinent questions to ask and also get testimonials and references regarding the quality of work performed in the past. These simple steps can help you make sure you get yourself a decent internet consultant.