Using tech-support firms can be money





Monday, September 10th 2007, 4:00 AM


When there's tech trouble at a big company, workers usually know who to call to try to get the problem fixed.

But for small businesses, a tech nology setback can instantly turn into a crisis.

"If something goes wrong - even as simple as e-mail - we have trouble," said Mark Gilbert, who owns Mark's

Bookkeeping Services, a 12-employee midtown firm that keeps the books for other small businesses.

But since dealing with Internet connections, software upgrades, virus protection and e-mail was becoming a

distraction, Gilbert decided to hire information technology support company, which takes care of all that

for a monthly fee.

I.T. Companies are targeting small businesses by giving so called all-you-can-eat tech support for a set monthly price.

It can be a smart option for businesses that either can'tafford the $65,000 to $80,000 a year it takes to keep a full-time computer expert on staff or who don't want to be left unprotected when their one, invaluable geek goes on vacation or quits.

These services are also an alternative to freelance consultants typically called in to solve a specific problem, but

may charge an hourly fee of $150 or more.

Since flat-fee IT support companies are paid a consistent amount no matter how much help a client needs, they

say it's in their own best financial interest to keep their clients' computer systems in good shape.

In contrast, consultants paid hourly "are incentivized for things to break, because if the equipment is not breaking,

they're not making money," said John O'Keefe, managing director at ITelagen.

Of course, "that's not in line with the goals of a small business," he said.

Many flat-fee companies use software programs to remotely monitor factors such as the health of a company's

network, which allows computers to connect and share information; its connection to the Internet; and its virus

protection systems. They may also perform routine maintenance to keep a client's computers and systems

running smoothly.

Most have call centers to answer queries and solve problems via telephone, and some maintain a local, on-call

staff which can be sent out if in-person repairs are necessary.

But the flat-fee model isn't for everyone. For businesses with only a handful of computers that run fairly smoothly

on their own, calling in a tech expert on an hourly basis may be the cheaper and better option.

In addition, flat-fee companies can vary widely in their offerings and prices. Most require businesses to purchase

their own computers, and some expect owners to shell out money for other gear like servers, which allow workers

to share files and e-mail and which can cost $1,000 or more.

Gilbert said the downside to the flat-fee service is the $700 he shells out each month. But it's worth it, he said, to

let someone else deal with the company's technical issues. "A few hours of my time easily runs up to that."


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