Posted on October 18, 2006
Filed Under (Advice) by jennifer

Just as you cannot build a house without a solid foundation, you cannot build a business (or one with more than three people) without a reliable network. Yet many small business owners barely give their networks a thought — until something goes wrong.

To get the 411 on how to find a good network consultant who will keep your network — and your business — in tip-top shape, I spoke with Constance Rajala, the CFO and co-founder of Sterling Network Integration, a successful Chicago-area network integration and consulting business which works with small (and larger) businesses.

KNOWschiff (KS): What is one of the biggest mistakes you see small business owners make when it comes to IT in general and their network in particular?

CONSTANCE RAJALA (CR): A pitfall that a lot of small owners get into is not asking questions. They take the first recommendation they get and buy themselves a world of trouble. Many salespeople are under-informed. So the quality of information you get is generally not very good. And often they [small business owners] are being asked to make a decision with a gun to their head (figuratively speaking).

KS: What do you mean by small business owners buy themselves “a world of trouble” when they too quickly take the first recommendation?

CR: A world of trouble can mean anything from you were sold the wrong product; you were sold the wrong scale of the right product; you were sold a product that won’t work with something you already have; or you have the right product but you have the wrong people to put it in; or when it is integrated into your system it breaks everything else or it can’t be configured to do what you want it to do.

KS: And how do you avoid “a world of trouble” when it comes to your network?

CR: You need to find somebody whose exerpise is network related. It’s got to be somebody who comes from the network side, who is familiar with cabling infrastructure, hardware, all of the software applications that you are using, be they server based or workstation based. In addition to that, they need to be familiar with things like security, compliance (what is pertinent to your industry), your telephone system, your fax, your printer, your copier, your scanner. All of those things come together in one spot, and that one spot is your network. Your network is the focal point over which all of that will be deployed.

You really shouldn’t have somebody whose day job it isn’t putting in your network. Just because your neighbor is in the IT department at IBM doesn’t mean this guy knows jacks**t about putting in a network. And when you have a problem at 2:30 on Wednesday, he’s not going going to answer your call.

Similarly, just because you were able to get your DSL modem working at home does not mean you can bring up a Windows 2003 Server on your own. You need a network consultant.

KS: How or where can small business owners find a good network consultant?

CR: Word of mouth is the best way.

KS: Who should you ask for a recommendation?

CR: Where I started and where a lot of small business people start is with a banker. Bankers are like yentas. We got the name of our accountant and our lawyer from a banker. Every small business has to have a lawyer, an accountant, and a banker. So ask any of those people. [KS NOTE: Another good source is fellow small business owners, particularly ones who are in the same industry as you are.] Just say, ‘I’m going to need a network. Do you have a network consultant that you work with? What do you think of him?’

KS: What should a small business look for — or avoid — when choosing a network consultant?

CR: Beware of the hotshot salesperson who cannot talk technically. Avoid companies or people whose attitude is ‘I’m converting you. I’m migrating you. See you in church.’  Ask companies what their hours are. Your business is not 8 x 5 x 50. Your business is 24 x 7, and it’s not unreasonable to ask if people have coverage at what would seem strange hours.

Get an initial network diagnostic [if you have an existing network]. Most consultants should do that for no charge or if they do charge for it then if you subsequently engage them to execute their recommendations, they should give you a rebate.

The results should tell you a lot about that person. Do they simply give you a simple quote that says something like ‘Install Windows 2003’ or do they give you a long discource — ‘This is what we found. This is why it’s a problem. And this is what you need to do to fix the problem’?

When we start talking to people we talk about becoming your technology partner. What differentiates us from the Tom, Dick, and Harrys who call themselves network consultants is that I care about how everything works. I don’t care just about how your one application works — or selling you that killer app or piece of hardware. I care about whether your workstations are new. I care about your security. I care about your phone system. I care about how all of this works together. And I would much rather make sure that you have an efficiently operating network than sell you a piece of Cisco equipment.

KS: Anything else small business owners should avoid or look for?

CR: Do not put up with somebody who is three hours late. Do not put up with somebody who gets into the office and pulls out the manual. Do not put up with somebody who hasn’t shaved in a week. Do not put up with somebody who send you a bill that says ‘$1500 XPC.’ Put up with none of those things.

Expect your network consultant to be efficient, on time, communicative, able to give good feedback and talk to you. If you say, ‘What was wrong with my PC?’ They should be able to give you a good, clear explanation in two or three sentences.

KS: When is the best time to hire a network consultant?

CR: The best time to do it is when you’re doing your business plan and looking at office space. But nobody does that. Very few people put a network in when they are starting their business. They usually drag in a few PCs and set up Windows sharing.

Engineers will say that when you get to have more than two or three people you have to have a network because Windows-based file sharing is not secure. And you need virus and spam protection and a lot of other things to keep operating efficiently.

So the best time to get a network consultant is when you get to a flash point, like when you are thinking of buying the killer app. When you need to buy a major piece of software, that’s the time to factor in the network, because you want to plan the network properly.

KS: Any final words of advice?

CR: The IBMs and Motorolas of the world can absorb a multi-million-dollar mistake. Small businesses cannot afford a $25,000 mistake. They cannot absorb the lack of business continuity that results when something on their network isn’t working.

Also, do not look at a network consultant or network people the same way that you look at the washing machine repair man. There’s a lot more skill to it than that. Have some respect for the profession. 

KS: So to recap:

  • Plan your network when you plan your business — or before you get to more than three people or need that killer app.
  • Find a network consultant who knows networking, knows your business, and knows your industry.
  • Ask tough questions to make sure the prospective consultant isn’t just selling you something to make his quota.
  • If you already have a network, have the consultant perform a diagnostic — and give you a detailed report of his findings.
  • Make sure the consultant keeps the same hours you do and can communicate problems effectively.
  • And don’t put up with poor or sloppy service.
    CR: Yes.
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