How do you find the right person to help you manage and address your IT needs? If you’re not especially technology-savvy in the first place, how do you know what to ask various candidates? Here’s a checklist of some basic issues and important questions. As in any hiring process, take your time, and do your homework before you sign on the dotted line.
COMPETENCE AND EXPERTISE
- How big is your firm and how long have you been in business? Are you a sole practitioner? Who will work on my business?
If the consultant is part of a larger firm, determine who will be involved in your project and who will be the project manager. Your primary contact should be someone who communicates well without confusing you with technical jargon, is easy to reach and demonstrates an excellent understanding of your needs. If you are dealing with a one-person operation, determine if the consultant is a sole proprietor (available during regular business hours) or “moonlighting”.
- Have you worked with companies in my industry, and with smaller businesses like mine? What “size” is your typical client?
Some consultants are geared to work with larger companies with larger budgets. Make sure your candidates understand the technical needs of small businesses, how to work within smaller budget parameters, and understand the specific challenges of your industry.
- Does your firm specialize in particular services? What IT areas don’t you cover?
No one can solve every problem and so, be very leery of any consultant who says he can.
- Can you supply references or contacts where you’ve performed similar projects?
Any reticence on this issue raises a big red flag. Ask for case histories of similar-sized companies and for references from companies involved in the same business.
COSTS AND BILLING PRACTICES
- How do you bill for services? What about out-of-pocket charges (travel costs, e-mail technical support, etc.) and after-hours emergencies?
Your best bet is to obtain a flat fee estimate for the project and a payment schedule based on the pre-agreed completion of specific milestones. Most IT consultancies can estimate the staff hours needed, plus equipment and other charges, based on the scope of the project. Get three competitive bids, and ask for each firm’s estimate to be itemized to show staff (labor) charges, equipment and miscellaneous out-of-pocket costs. Find out what hourly billing rates are charged for various staffers and what is considered billable time and what isn’t. If the scope of the project increases, or changes, the consultant will want to increase the cost. Tell your consultant you must approve any changes and sign- off on additional cost estimates before any unbudgeted costs begin to accrue.
- Do you have reseller relationships involving hardware or software, or do you act as an agent for any ISP or phone company?
Don’t lock yourself into a consultant relationship that may limit you to using only the products or services they sell. If your consultant is going to get commissions from vendors, he should be upfront about it.
- How often will I get progress reports? Will you provide training for my staff to enable them to use new systems etc.? Will you support the project after completion?
Ongoing regular status reports and face-to-face meetings with the project manager are vital throughout the project implementation. Just as important is your consultant’s willingness to provide on-site training for your staff and full documentation of the new system. If your contractor offers a post-project service contract, make sure you understand what it includes and who will provide the actual support.
Use these questions as a framework for interviewing candidates, and get input from your legal advisor before signing any contract. Take the time to get and review competitive bids to find a consultant who is a good fit for your company. Hasty decisions can be very costly.