How to Provide Tech Support for Small Business
Posted by Timothy Platt on Sep 2, 2017
How to provide Tech Support for Small Business – All you need to know
In this article, we’re going to outline the essential and best practices of providing tech support for a small business. What’s tech support? It’s the ongoing service to ensure that your business is utilizing technology and actually getting the value of that technology. Computers, servers, applications, and networks are tools that you use to conduct business to make profit. The business doesn’t exist for the sake of the technology – and we’re not going to lose sight of that throughout this process.
Let’s design the ideal tech support organization for your business. How do we do that? Just as with any well-run project – it all starts with business requirements. This process will be helpful for any small company that is contemplating hiring their first IT full-time employee, or for a company wishing to review and ensure their current IT staff (or provider) are up to par.
Let’s understand the needs of the business first. There are several categories of information we need – who, where, when, and what.
First, let’s talk about the employees – who are they and where are they?
- How many employees do you have?
- How many require support? What is the complexity of their technical support needs – are they utterly dependent on computers to perform their work, or do they need the computers only occasionally?
- Where are they located?
- Are they in company offices, or do they work from their homes? Are any of them “road warriors” – such as sales people or otherwise work in the field?
When do you do business?
- Are there set, normal business hours?
- Is your business open or avaialable outside of normal business hours?
- Is your business open on weekends and holidays?
- Are there special circumstances that require after-hours work either occasionally, frequently, or always?
- Does your business span time zones?
What are the support needs? These span two major sub-categories – specific technology and common, foundational best practices processes.
What specific technology do you have in use (or wish to have in use?):
- Windows PCs – Desktops, laptops, and notebooks running Windows 10, 8, 7?
- macOS – Do you utilize Apple Mac computers and devices?
- Point of Sale (POS) – are POS systems and other tech that supports retail operations in use?
- Servers – Do you have Windows or Linux based servers, for file sharing, databases, and application hosting?
- Cloud services – Do you require support around one or more cloud services? This can run the gamut from cloud hosted servers to fully independent applications (also known as SaaS) such as Google’s GSuite, Microsoft’s Office 365, or Salesforce.com
- Business applications – What sort of business applications do you use? Email and Office Suite – such as Word, Excel, and PowerPoint? How about ERP, CRM, Business Intelligence (BI) and other business-related applications?
- Networks – How about Wi-Fi, Internet connectivity, Local Area Network (LAN) and all the associated equipment that accompanies that?
- Phones – How is phone service provided in your company? What technology and for which locations. Are company provided cell phones in use for remote users and sales people?
- Mobile devices – Are cellular smartphones and tablets in use?
- Audio-Visual devices and video conferencing equipment – Are there any special needs around conference room support and equipment?
What sort of data does your business deal with? Is it regulated or controlled?
- What sort of data do you collect or generate regarding your customers, end users, or clients?
- Is it subject to federal or industry regulations, including: PII, PCI DSS, HIPAA, and other regulations?
- Are there special considerations or controls required for that data? Either already in use, or to be implemented?
Let’s now talk about other general considerations that span all of your technology needs. These are best practice processes that every business must implement.
- Security – Are your current systems and networks – both on the cloud and on premise – sufficiently secured to meet all obligations to your customers, clients, and auditors? Are you subject to any special or additional security requirements, perhaps because you work with government data? Are you required to produce security audits on a regular basis? Whether or not you must supply audits and assessments to potential clients and customers – are you comfortable with your actual level of security? Are passwords handled with best practice and sufficient security? Are your business partners and service providers implementing sufficient security themselves?
- Backup & Recovery – Do you have backups and recovery systems and processes in place for all essential data? Do you have a Disaster Recovery (DR) and Business Continuity Plan (BCP) that is up to date and covers all business-critical needs?
- User Awareness and Training – Do your employees have a good level of understanding of how to use their technology? Are they “power users” or novices – or do they span the entire range?
- Policy & Procedures – Is your use of technology supported by the full range of policy and procedures that ensures your employees understand the proper usage of company provided equipment and IT services? Policy and procedure is a key component of user awareness.
- Support documentation – What’s the current (or desired) state of the essential support documentation for your company? Do you have a network and server diagram to ensure that problems can be resolved quickly? Are there documented procedures around onboarding and offboarding employees? Or is every new hire an adventure in getting them what they need to start working? Are all the important administrative passwords stored and controlled in a secure fashion?
A word on what is really necessary for your business
After having read all that, you might be feeling over-whelmed. You might be thinking – does my small business really need all of that? We believe the answer is yes. But the truth of the matter is that most of those items can be designed and implemented in a format and level of completeness that is appropriate to the size of the business. An example: everybody needs a business continuity plan (and backups) – how complex or simple it is will be dictated by your business. But it’s a worthwhile exercise regardless.
Tech Support Best Practice
Let’s switch gears now – we understand your requirements, let’s talk about what is needed to meet the needs. This involves the right skills, resources, and other mechanisms – in the quantities needed.
The quantity of tech support your company is going to need is driven by size – how many employees and how much technology is involved. More employees = more support. Likewise, more computers, servers, networks = more support.
At what point is a full-time IT employee needed? For most businesses that will be somewhere between the 25 and 50 person mark. If your business is particularly tech intensive, or if you have to support extended hours, you may need a full-timer well before that.
Coverage – hours of support and how
Let’s discuss coverage first. Normal business hours support is easy to handle – as it occurs in a well-defined, typical timeframe. But weekend, evenings, holidays, and other special needs can throw a wrench in that plan. You need to make sure you have enough technical resources to cover the needs – when they are needed. For most small companies, having two dedicated IT staff is not practical from a budget and management perspective. Utilizing a single resource may work, at least for a while, but ultimately that person is going to be burning the candle at both ends – with never a weekend, holiday, or vacation to enjoy without interruptions.
Beyond the question of having enough resources to cover all the hours needed, consistently, and without heroic efforts, you’ll also need a process. How do employees request support – both on regularly business hours and after hours? A controlled, audit-able process is required. Having employees contact the technician directly on their personal cell phone is fraught with problems – it’s a “single point of failure” for one, and it’s not easy for a supervisor or 2nd technician to help, assist, or monitor. Therefore, we recommend a ticket or help request process be implemented. It should be simple, easy to access, but must allow tracking of support requests – including all the key information – who needs help, on what, and when. Secondly, all the employees need to know how to request support, the right way. It’s not efficient to have an employee unable to work for 4 hours, because they don’t know how to get support.
Lastly, you need to be able to provide support where it’s needed. If you have remote locations, or traveling employees you will need a remote support tool at the very least. You may also have to send your technician onsite occasionally for hands on work. This is an important consideration for coverage. It’s hard to support users while you are driving in your car.
It’s also important that your tech support team have sufficient tech skills to cover the technology your business requires. Supporting desktops, servers, networks, and applications is a tall task for any one person. With gaps in skill set – you are prone to extended outages, delays in receiving help, and extra expenses when you have to pull in special support. The important point is to cover what you need most often, and supplement with additional mechanisms for occasional needs.
It’s also at this point that we need to consider fractional resources. Your business probably does not need a Network Engineer full time. But when you do need a network engineer, you are going to want them to understand your network, your needs, and be able resolve issues quickly. There are three aspects to this. It’s hard to fix a problem when you don’t know what the setup should look like. Having a proper network diagram, that’s complete and up to date, is essential. Secondly, you need access to the administrative passwords for devices such as firewalls, routers, switches, and Wi-Fi. Fixing an outage takes a lot longer when you can’t login to the devices! Lastly, it’s good to have a familiarity with the network – knowing “what good looks like” so you can quickly pinpoint the source of the issue.
So how do we cover all the skill sets needed? We recommend having knowledgeable skilled staff, in the quantity needed for the average support, and being able to establish a “lifeline” quickly to skilled techs already familiar with your environment for special and advanced needs – that’s the fractional resource.
Another concept, essential for efficiency, is tiered support. For example, as a small business you need server and network support. You don’t want your high skill (and higher paid) server administrator troubleshooting basic issues that a help desk person could resolve. It’s just inefficient, from a cost perspective, but it’s also a sure path to burning out your server administrator.
Therefore, we recommend that support be engaged via tiered model. The first call for help, or ticket, goes to a help desk person. They’ve got the procedures and skills to troubleshoot and resolve simple, known issues on the fly. Also, because they don’t get bogged down in bigger problems, they are always available to take the next request. Need a password reset? That’s a help desk item. Second level of the tier structure is the more advanced or time consuming problems. Have a computer that needs to be re-built from scratch? Or a harder problem that requires some experimentation? That should go to the second tier, because it’s going to take a while, and it needs a higher level of skill. Lastly, the third tier are the most skilled (and expensive) resources. The deep problems that might span multiple domains go here. For example, if there’s an intermittent issue with phone calls involving the network and a server – that’s a 3rd tier problem. They also might have to call in vendor support.
Lastly, there’s got to be a supervisor or manager. Maybe not as a full-time role, but certainly for some amount of time. The technicians need oversight, guidance, and management – for all the same reasons that every employee does. The supervisor is the point of escalation, the decision maker, and ultimately the overseer to ensure that customer service is at its highest level possible.
A concept that is closely tied to support is proactive maintenance. It’s best to prevent or resolve issues before they happen. Is this possible? Yes, it requires having the right systems, tools, and processes in place to ensure the team is not just purely reactive. Security patching, maintenance, and application upgrades all fall into this bucket. Tool support is great to have for this part of the workload. You can automate a lot of maintenance and this is beneficial for two reasons – 1) decreased labor and 2) better consistency and less errors. It’s also best to have a monitoring system system in place – it can alert you to impending problems before they occur (such as a critical disk about to run out of space on a server). Sometimes it’s hard for a small team to get such a rigorous monitoring system in place, and to maintain it, but it will pay benefits forever.
Projects and Improvements
Here’s an issue we see frequently. The core support team is so busy dealing with the everyday support issues that they never have a chance to take step back, plan for the future, and improve the basic foundations of technology. The sad part is that’s a cost the business will have to pay – forever. Inefficiencies and improvements never get implemented – and the same old problems and issues keep coming up, over and over. The second downside to an inability to focus on getting projects done – the business never gets to take advantage of new capabilities and features.
Separating project staff from day to day support is a best practice. The people undertaking the long-term projects and improvements can focus, and have enough time to properly research, design, and implement what the business needs for the future. Without getting distracted every 10 minutes. Of course, for a small business with a small number of tech staff – this will be a challenge. Again, this is where we consider outside help and fractional resources to be essential.
With project resources – you can tackle all those big ticket missing items – policies, procedures, a disaster recovery (DR) plan, a Business Continuity Plan (BCP), security audits, and other essential items that just seem to never get done otherwise.
Lastly, someone with Project Management (PM) expertise can help map out the required tasks, resources, and critical path items to ensure projects are complete. A good PM is worth their weight in gold. And any IT project needs at least a little bit of PM attention.
Long Term Strategy and Business Alignment
You’ll also want to make sure these higher skilled, more expensive resources are working on the right thing, at the right time. How do you identify and implement technical strategy and improvements? This can be a very hit or miss process – unless you have an experienced resource or experienced oversight. A fractional Chief Information Officer (CIO) role is important. As a small business, you don’t need a CIO constantly, but you certainly need them some of the time. Their wisdom and expertise, and the fact that they have “been there, done that” greatly increases the odds of successful outcomes.
Secondly, the CIO ensures the technology keeps pace with business needs, and that the two are aligned. The business is here to make money, and the technology supports that. It’s easy to get carried away with the latest bells and whistles (especially for tech staff), but it’s all got to align with business priority and budget. The CIO is an expert in making that happen.
Next Steps on Tech Support
So, as you can see, there are a lot of options to consider. And what is right for your company depends on what your business needs. As it so happens, we can fulfill all of your small business tech support needs: help desk, tiered support, after-hours coverage, projects and upgrades, and a long-term tech strategy. We’re a one stop shop for small business. And our options are competitive with hiring your own employee.
But if you aren’t quite convinced and still need some help – we can supplement your internal IT person or department as well. We’re that “fractional resource” we talked about – skilled experts with deep skills that have “been there done that”. We can drop into a problem or project and make it a success. And we’re available on short notice.
The Orlando IT Company that Cares About Your Small Business
Virtual Operations is the Orlando IT company that cares about your small business. Our Managed IT Services offering provides the expertise and proactive care required to ensure your technology works for you. We are Orlando’s best small business tech support, and that is the advantage that Virtual Operations provides.