Know Your Nerd

All computer consultants are not created equal

Herby Beam isn't having a very good year. Unlike his colleagues at EverGreene Painting Studios Inc., a 70-person New York company that restores historic theaters and churches, Beam isn't an artist. Still, he is doing some restoration work of his own--on the company's aging, crash-prone computer network. In March, the company spent $9,000 to have its eight-year-old network updated by a small New York company that specializes in putting together computer systems. Today, just six months later, employees dare run only six of the company's 11 personal computers at one time. Otherwise the network crashes, knocking out all the computers. What's more, says Beam, the computer company responds slowly to his calls for help: It recently took a month to replace a broken cable.

Unfortunately, EverGreene's experience is normal. As more small businesses automate, the number of horror stories is growing almost as fast as the overhyped Internet. Complaints about computer resellers, retailers, and mail-order companies tripled to 4,000 in 1995 from 1,300 in 1991, according to the Council of Better Business Bureaus in Arlington, Va. Meanwhile, calls made by business managers to inquire about the track record of these companies nearly quadrupled, to 58,000 in 1995 from 15,000 in 1991.

Choosing a systems integrator can be a life-or-death matter for a small business. Most small businesses don't have the time or money to hire their own people, so they turn to the swelling ranks of high-tech helpers who will advise and train employees and install all types of computer gear. But the wrong choice can lead to a digital nightmare where costs escalate, computers crash constantly, and company records mysteriously vaporize.

BLURRED LINES. It isn't easy to find the right company. Computer service providers range from consultants, who can help you design a strategic technology plan, to systems integrators, who pull together hardware, software, and network components, to resellers, who provide installation with the products they sell. To make matters worse, the lines are blurring. Many consultants also act as systems integrators, for instance. And these days, retail chains such as CompUSA Inc. provide or refer consulting services and offer installation, service contracts, and training, for a fee.

In this confusing landscape, it's critical to decide up front what kind of service you really need. Have a vague desire to get your office on the Web, or add an order processing system? You probably want a consultant who knows your industry, can evaluate your needs, and then design a system specifically keyed to your business goals. If you already know what software and hardware you want, a systems integrator, which typically specializes in installing certain technologies, databases, or multimedia applications, could do the job. (The cost for a 10-PC networked office should run roughly $6,000.) Simply need 10 copies of Windows NT? A reseller could do the trick. Think you'll need someone to maintain your PCs and provide help-desk support? Then you'll need to engage a "facilities management" firm, typically an integrator, that will baby-sit your systems--and their users.

The big challenge is determining whether a service provider can actually deliver on its promises. For instance, systems integrators will often claim skill in assessing a company's business needs. But the integrator is really a technology specialist, argues Peter Rosati, the principal of the Boston area consulting firm iBeam Systems Inc. To cut through this salesmanship, referrals are crucial. Get references from industry colleagues or a trusted adviser, such as your accountant.

TALKING THE TALK. You don't need to become a Bill Gates, but make sure you get a basic understanding of the technology you're considering. If you want to install a network, at the very least read computer magazines, surf the Internet, or ask a savvy friend to define network terms for you. Or talk to others in your field who have recently undertaken major technology projects. And always insist that consultants explain technical jargon. "Small-business people will often make the claim, which is rapidly becoming unacceptable, that `we don't need to know the computer side; that's what we pay consultants for,"' says Jeffrey Zalusky, director of systems consulting at UK&W Technical Resources Ltd. in Washington.

Zalusky urges clients to determine their business requirements, budget, and the products they'll need before choosing a systems integrator or computer reseller. For example, when the Albany (N.Y.) law firm Segel, Goldman & Mazzotta decided to network its computers, it seemed sensible to allow attorneys to share word-processing documents. Zalusky told them how they could also use a network to streamline the firm's billing system, send faxes, and do legal research online. The result: The law firm cut in half the two-month lag it took to bill clients.

Once the firm decided what it wanted to automate, Zalusky designed the network, specifying the computers, software, and wiring that would be needed. Then he reviewed vendors' bids and listed the pros and cons of each proposal. The law firm ended up going with a company that was servicing its printers because its track record was good. The vendor installed a Novell network and provided software training and a year's worth of service for $70,000. Zalusky's services cost the firm about $2,000--well worth the price, says Kim Linn, the company's network administrator.

But not all consultants are worth their rates. Marvin Richardson, chief technology officer of Ottawa's SHL Systemhouse, advises asking two key questions. First, does the company have a standard method or template to solve any technical problem? Second, has it done a truly similar job? For example, a newspaper might find an integrator that has worked with publishing systems, but on a far smaller scale. "Can someone do a system twice as big as they've done before?" asks Richardson, whose company is both a consultant and integrator. "Probably. Can they do it five or six times as large? That's risky."

References were crucial to Skip Cobb's success in installing a new document-imaging system at his $1.5 million Gaithersburg (Md.) company, Revolutionary Mortgage. He had already chosen the software he wanted--File Magic, from Westbrook Technologies in Branford, Conn. But he needed advice on hardware, and he needed reliable service. He called Westbrook and requested a list of local resellers, along with numerous customer references. The customers he called heaped praise on Beltsville (Md.) systems integrator Vertical Software Inc. VSI, says Cobb, "listened to what I wanted to accomplish and didn't try to sell me something." Now, Cobb's company scans thousands of pages of documents into a system, where lender information is accessible instantly. Since 1993, the system has helped him generate more than $500,000 in revenue. "When interest rates drop, I can pull up prospects for refinancing."

Cobb couldn't be happier. Today, when he buys new software, he calls the developer first to ask for service references. In his business, "location, location, location" means a lot. But when it comes to computer services, "references, references, references" can't be taken seriously enough.

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