No longer the exclusive territory of enterprise organisations, small and medium business owners are increasingly looking to have IT infrastructure audited by third-party consultants.
Just two years ago, Victorian IT services provider, ZyNet, estimated 30 per cent of its requests for business assessment services came from SMB. That figure now stands at more than 90 per cent.
Managing director, Paul Turner, said the rapid move by SMBs into having IT audits performed was indicative of companies trying to find a competitive edge.
"I think it's about companies realising there's more competition out there. They need to be a lot more strategic in the way they look at their business," he said. "They realise they need to do things in a different way and that's when they call us."
This trend has also been flagged by the managing director and co-owner of another IT service provider. The Missing Link boss, Alex Gambotto, said he had experienced a similar pattern within his own client base.
"I think SMBs are trying to increase efficiency and productivity. There's also a general push towards lowering overall costs," he said. "There are so many variables in a network these days, that even just one thing going wrong can have a massive effect. If the network's down, the backbone's gone from the business."
Making the most of IT
Turner said another element to the trend related to finding a return on investment.
"Small companies used to purchase technology without taking into account future business plans," he said. "They now realise that conducting a companywide needs analysis, along with an IT evaluation, helps ensure the greatest long-term benefits."
Axxis Technology director, Mathew Dickerson, agreed SMBs were becoming increasingly conscious of IT needs and the best way to assess them. "You see examples over and over of small businesses not utilising their technology," he said. "Getting it assessed is so important because sometimes you'll catch really simple things. An SMB might not realise that staff can access email remotely with the equipment and software it already has in-house."
Dickerson said remote access was becoming an increasingly important issue. "More SMBs want remote access for staff but don't always know how it works and it can seem a bit scary," he said. "We try to be proactive with all our customers, having consultancy discussions with them and assessing what they might need."
Speaking the same language
A key skill for any business providing business assessment services to SMB lies in deciphering needs.
ZyNet's Turner pointed out that many small companies don't have in-house IT professionals. As a result, they often want to communicate needs in business terminology rather than technology jargon. Consultants must be able to speak the same language in order to find the solution.
The Missing Link's Gambotto said this presented real opportunity for channel organisations. The lack of in-house IT personnel, and the prohibitive cost of addressing this problem, meant SMBs increasingly looked to outsource services. "More businesses are moving to an outsourcing model because they don't have the skills in house," he said. "Why spend up to $80,000 a year on someone who will never know everything. The same company can employ a third-party provider to do it all for less than half the price?"
The practice of assessing SMBs isn't new for some providers. In fact, some have made this their heartland. However, even these organisations needed to embrace new methods wherever possible to keep making the process easier.
Axxis Technology's Dickerson, said the Dubbo-based group had been analysing the needs of small businesses for more than five years. Recently, it has started using a proprietary tool to do it.
"Microsoft has recently given us a new way to get out there into the small business marketplace," he said. "It's developed a toolkit that effectively lays out a progression of steps that assess a customer. You go through them step by step and it produces a report to give the client."
Looking ahead, The Missing Link's Gambotto sees the landscape for auditing SMBs becoming increasingly competitive. "There's definitely a trend at work here and it's been happening for a few years now. The future is all about businesses getting audited and perhaps outsourcing more of their IT needs," he said. "This is why the top few network integrators are really excelling at the moment. SMBs are realising that IT is crucial and it's becoming a budgeted category that more people are paying attention to."