Strategic partnerships are a key part of any successful company, but this is especially true for small-to-medium-size businesses when it comes to their IT partners. Why? The main reason is the sheer importance of the relationship. IT partners help make decisions that directly impact your technical infrastructure and daily business operations, and in some cases how your customers interact with and think about your organization.
In working with many SMBs, I have identified a number of best practices that, when followed, can result in successful IT partnerships:
1. Look for an IT partner, not just a provider
Successful IT relationships are true partnerships and not just vendor to customer transactions. The key is to find an IT partner that is committed to helping your business grow and succeed. One that doesn't treat you like someone to sell a new server or other technology items to, then move on to the next sale without any thought for your future needs or plans. You want to choose a partner that understands your business and IT environment and provides solutions that meet your unique requirements and budget.
For example, partners will ask about future growth, scalability, security, type of workloads, and many other aspects of your IT operations. Providers will turn and burn. Do you need a server? They will sell you a server without ever asking any questions to understand its use-case and then move on to their next sale. Partners should act as a reliable part of your business and ask strategic questions to help propel your business forward.
On the flip side, if an IT service company is smart, it will want to truly be a partner and develop a solid relationship that ensures your business is a long-term account, not a short-term one. It should have the goal of making sure that your IT investments are smart ones that support and catalyze your business. If a provider is successful at that, it basically guarantees them many IT projects in the future.
2. Find the right expert for your situation
Smaller businesses tend to have fewer partnerships due to the very nature of their size, so the ones you do have need to be impactful. The successful IT partnerships I see align well when it comes to size, scope and expertise. There is the saying that you don't want to be a small fish in a big pond because you won't get the attention you deserve. The same holds true for not wanting to be too small for your IT partner.
SMBs should look for IT partners that align with the size and structure of their organization. If the IT partner you are considering only works with enterprise-level companies, then they may not understand the unique IT challenges that you face as a medium or small-size business. Also, find a partner that has expertise in a broad range of products and services, so no matter what comes up they can jump in, advise you, and apply exactly the skills you need. For instance, a versatile partner should be able to assist with cloud, storage needs, backup and recovery, help desk, security, hardware, and other IT aspects that are not your forte.
3. Research the provider's past successes and partnerships
The best decisions are made when things are well researched and vetted. Ask potential partners about their current clients, past projects, or other experiences that align with what you are looking for. A potential partner will not be afraid to talk about their past successes.
Don't be shy — ask to view customer testimonials, case studies, and to even talk to some of their happy clients. Once you've begun to narrow down your choices for an IT partner, due diligence will help to confirm your ultimate decision. And, if you're just starting out on your search for an IT partner, don't forget to consider recommendations from other successful SMBs.
4. Develop a clear budget, expectations and timeline
Another key to a successful relationship is to set clearly defined expectations from the get-go. This helps things start out on the right foot by making sure that both parties understand and agree upon the performance parameters and deliverables upfront. To be sure, this isn't a "one and done" type process.
IT partners should revisit projects, expectations and key performance indicators, and check in regularly with you to make sure the relationship is still healthy and on track for a successful future. Budgets also need to be a core part of these conversations. It's vital, in fact, that SMBs are transparent and honest with their partners about their budgets. This will help the IT provider find the best solution for your business that is also financially feasible for you.
Conversely, the relationship should also be such that the IT provider is open and honest when a budget just does not fit the project. When communications are clear and forthright, solutions can be proposed and discussed before important financial decisions are made.
5. Plan it out
We have all heard Benjamin Franklin’s quote: "By failing to prepare, you are preparing to fail." Still, so many companies continue to put planning on the back burner, especially when it comes to their IT strategy. In their defense, looking at all the technology options out there can feel like you are trying to drink from a high-powered firehose. However, let me just say that putting a plan in place is well worth the effort. The good news is that a strategic IT partner can help you with formulating your plan from the start.
Most SMBs with limited budgets only purchase what they need at the moment. They may think they are saving money by piecing things together along the way, but what they are missing is that eventually, it will be difficult to manage a hodgepodge of software and hardware without a master plan in place. Why? Typically, it is because the computers and programs are not consistent with one another, or the company does not have standard security protocols installed, to name just a few common issues.
Simply put, there is no method to the madness. While it may work for a short period of time, at some point a basic IT plan needs to be put in place. Otherwise, it will continue to be a vicious cycle of patch fixes, bandages, and other short-term solutions. A strategic IT partner can help you to avoid such dilemmas. They're the experts, so you should leverage their experience and trust the purchasing roadmaps and solutions they present.
When it comes right down to it, your SMB needs hardware, software, and other IT services in order to function in today's fast-paced, technology-driven environments. So, why not find a great partner to help you build a solid IT infrastructure? That way, you can focus on the other elements of growing your business.
Now is the perfect time to align your organization with fresh, new partnerships that will bring expertise and value to your organization. And, as for your existing partners of any type, use the new year as an opportunity to sit down with them and map out expectations for the coming year and beyond.