Networking

Consultant guides small firm through ISP selection process

When it comes to choosing the right Internet service provider, many small companies can't do it alone. Read how one consultant helped his client through the process.


Small companies often depend on an Internet service provider (ISP) to help them grow their business. No one knows this better than Greg Miller, a consultant whose Phoenix-based firm, Technology Means Business, is dedicated to helping clients integrate their business and technology efforts. He says it’s important to demonstrate to clients that their choice of an ISP plays a critical role in the success or failure of their e-business efforts.

“My main focus with my clients is, ‘Let’s start with the business and then worry about the technology,'” he explained. “In effect, I’m telling them, ‘Don't buy anything without really knowing your requirements first.’”

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Miller is currently working with a small construction company that recently chose an ISP to boost a number of areas of its business. Read on to see how he formulated and implemented a plan that improved not only the client’s site but also the communication within the company, plus his five tips for helping clients pick the right provider.

Getting started
The client currently has a small technology base—an e-mail server, PCs on-site running Microsoft Office, a file server on which the remote sales teams store their work, software pertinent to their industry, and a simple Web page to promote the company. “The site has no function; it just says, ‘Here’s who we are and what we do,’” Miller explained.

Miller and his client determined that the priority should be building a better customer interface. Currently, customer interaction takes place over the phone or on paper, so the goal became to allow customers to access information directly from the Web without depending on a sales agent. The function of the Web site would then be “not so much [to make] the initial sale, but [to facilitate] communication,” Miller said. “A customer could come to the Web site and view the status of their project, get a project plan, costs, and select features of their project.”

In addition, customer e-mail accounts would be created so the company could send out automatic project updates, and interconnectivity between offices, partner, and vendors would be enhanced.

Miller began his task by interviewing the managers of the finance, operations, marketing, and sales divisions. Buy-in from the management team of small companies is critical to the success of implementing IT, Miller noted. “As it turned out, [the managers] were in sync with each other, but most had reservations on how technology would bring value to them.”

Miller created a strategic plan that reflected the company’s long-term vision, broke it down into action steps, and then presented the managers with a map of how he saw things fitting together. “I needed to get them to see that everything needed to fit together based on their desire to leverage the Web and other technologies,” he said. “Once they understood this, the particulars, like business processes, software, outsourcing vendors, and ISPs, would fall into place.”

Heading in the right direction
Over the next several years, the company not only expects a 10 to 15 percent sales boost, but they also plan to expand into at least three states in the Southwest, which should increase Web site traffic about 7 percent. Uptime of 99.5 percent is a must, and the company wants responses to problems to be handled at the local level.

“The approach we’ve taken with the ISP is that we expect them to be ahead of the curve,” Miller said, “so there’s no delay in response time for customers or partners.”

Miller helped the company choose a two-way implementation, using both a Web builder and a midsize ISP that serves the western United States. Because the Web site will be growing in breadth and depth over the next year, the company needed a firm that could provide Web development capabilities. Local Internet service providers had been considered for Web hosting capabilities, but the client wanted the most robust solution available. “The ISP ran more than expected, but because I had all the details, it was an easy discussion on why [my client] should go with them,” he said. “There was also an issue with local companies—how long would they be around, how much financial backing do they have.”

Miller is about halfway through this two-year project, which has been broken into segments. The first step—the setup with the Web host—has been successful, and now the company is considering hiring its current ISP as an application service provider (ASP). But because the software the company uses is specific to the construction industry, the expense may be too great. The company does plan to centralize their data with the ISP and use them for encryption and monitoring for that process.

Miller said it’s too soon to call it a success story, but he’s happy with the results to date. “So much is going to be based on the long-term capability of the ISP to be ahead of the curve on bandwidth and addressing problems,” he said. “This is a small company that doesn’t have an in-house IT shop. It falls to these partners to step up and be ahead of the game.”
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Miller’s tips for choosing the right provider
In general, Miller follows these steps to help his clients choose the right ISP:
  • Define how clients want to enhance their e-business in the long run and what they want in the near future. “I do this to solidify, in my mind and theirs, what the long-term relationship will entail with an ISP. It's painful and expensive to switch over. So it's better for them to spend some time up front [formulating their goals].”
  • Break down requirements by function, such as customer service, operations, and back office. For each requirement, Miller then defines the type of work that is to be done, how many people will be involved, the locations, process, logistics, success criteria, and service-level requirements. “I've found this to be the best way to ensure a complete set of expectations. We prioritize and place a value on each. This gives me the basis for the RFP.”
  • Research the available technologies and case studies and then compile a list of three to five possible ISPs as candidates. “I keep the list short to give my customers the most time to concentrate on the candidates. It reduces my time—and therefore their cost—and improves the decision making on the part of my client.”
  • Score proposals based on predetermined criteria and walk the client through the results. Once a candidate has been selected, Miller facilitates the contract negotiations between the client and ISP. “I feel it's important for my client to get to know their prospective partner and have found this the best way to see if they can communicate with each other.”
  • Nail down functions, costs, and technical support, emphasizing the SLA. The agreement is written in the client’s language and is relative to their business. “We work on the ‘failure’ basis, asking what the ISP will do when something goes down. Through this effort, we not only build a contract with service levels but a picture that describes the components. This gives both my client and the ISP a common communication tool that they can refer to in future discussions. It is especially helpful when there are real problems and emotions are high.”
Did you save a client money? Negotiate for a boost in service levels or increased bandwidth? Post a comment below or send us a note.

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