According to Innovators Forum guest blogger Ken Presti:
The term, "middleman" often has negative connotations in our business world. Cutting out the middleman is often seen as a commitment to profitability. And at times that can be true.
Unless, of course, the middleman has something of value to offer.
This balance between financial common sense and the need for professional services is a very common theme for small businesses trying to optimize their use of information technology. When dealing with computers and relatively straightforward networks, it can often be tempting to go it alone as opposed to hiring a technology reseller to help.
I don't think my job as your faithful blogger is to talk you out of doing this. We all have varying levels of expertise and skills, and the technology systems that we use have varying levels of complexity, based on what we do and how we get it done. Add the presence of available time to the equation and we've got a three-legged stool that becomes the basis for making the decision of hiring a reseller or forging ahead on our own.
The three legs of this stool are often very closely related. For example, a company may have someone with a totally different job who can function as the de facto IT person. That's kind of a freebie, of sorts. But that person might not always have the time, or even the expertise, to do tech support without neglecting the things they are actually paid to do. And while technology tends to gain increased importance in all of our businesses, it's also true that the occasional temporary outage may be more of a crisis for some of us than it is for others.
If your company does not have such a person, then circumstances have made the decision on your behalf. A solid channel partner is a matter of practical necessity. Referrals can be hugely important here. The need for tech support is so pervasive that most people you know will have some sort of recommendation. Essentially, they can attest to certain key factors including speed of response, overall project success, and, perhaps, some feel for whether the fees were in line.
When talking to prospective channel partners, price is one of the most obvious things that will be on your mind. But a number of other things factor into the equation as well. How does this partner prefer to work? Will they use remote access to troubleshoot your systems, or will there be a truck roll every time you need help? This answer will go a long way towards assessing the fee.
Do they have an office nearby? In other words, can you throw the offending piece of gear into your trunk and haul it to their facility without planning a road trip? If you do need them to come on site how long will it take?
How many engineers do they have, and what sort of training do they carry?
Does the partner have any particular vendor designations, like, perhaps, Cisco Select Certified?
What are their response times? And are there additional fees for high-priority help? What add-on charges may factor into the equation? Do they have experience with the equipment on your network? And do they have experience with companies in your line of business?
If, on the other hand, you DO have a kinda-sorta tech support person, try to get them involved in the partner selection process as early as possible. The same questions will prevail, but you'll also need to get a sense of which problems you will want to bring to your internal person, and which problems you will want to bring to your channel partner. With a little planning, and clear communication with all concerned parties, your IT systems will be highly reliable the vast majority of the time, and bring you very few surprises when help is needed.