By Guy Clapperton.

Outsourcing is an important part of the modern business landscape. The result is a lot of companies that have set up in the very recent past offering services to organisations like yours. There are a few ‘screening’ questions you can ask to safeguard yourself from cowboys — although the final decision and responsibility remain yours!

1. How long has your organisation been operating?
Without wishing to freeze out the new entrant in business, when you’re handing over so much of your critical infrastructure you want to see some sign of financial and operational solidity. Don’t be afraid to ask about balance sheets and assets — will your monthly fee be going straight into paying last month’s bills or will the money be working for you?

2. What is your staff turnover
Hiring engineers quickly is relatively easy — you throw money at them and they arrive. Keeping them is more difficult and you want the qualified team that impressed you enough to secure your contract to hang around for a while. Be open-minded — if there was a plague in Hackney or something then there could be good reasons a lot of people have moved on, but don’t fall for any flannel.

3. Do you have any other clients in my industry?
Here you’re asking whether your supplier really understands your business. If you’re an independent cinema or theatre you need someone who understands ticketing; if you’re a vet they need to understand tracking medicines and an appointment system. If they don’t, forget it.

4. How many operating systems do you support?
Maybe you’re all Windows at the moment, it’s not unlikely — but what if the design department suddenly starts demanding a Mac, or if you decide to have a server running Linux? If that’s all hieroglyphics to you then fine — there’s no reason you should know everything. Nevertheless you’re hiring people who should — so don’t let them off the hook.

5. What happens if I have a problem out of hours?
Start-up companies are the worst for demanding out-of-hours services for their contractors; they’re working all the hours they can for little return and can lose sight of the fact that others may not be so keen to do so. By all means ask your outsourcing team whether you can get in touch out of hours — but don’t be surprised if there’s a premium to pay.

Don’t write outsourcing off as your business grows. A lot of people think they ought to be in charge of and run their own IT; the question is, why? You wouldn’t want to put your own phones in, you’ll leave that to BT. You’re likely to ask a specialist company to supply water, gas and electricity to your premises and yet you and many others feel technology should be different. It’s worth trying to get over this preconception and outsource your computing to an expert if it’s not your field — the trick is to make sure you find the right one, and the above questions should help.

Guy Clapperton is a freelance journalist, broadcaster and book author/editor specialising in small business issues and technology.

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