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The long and winding road

When you want some advice about IT, who you gonna call?

The answer, for many small businesses, seems to be ‘someone they know’. There is a wide range of IT advice available, but getting the best advice can be challenging even for large organisations, with substantial in-house expertise.

Small businesses can be forgiven for sometimes feeling afloat in a confusing world of conflicting advice. Who is best placed to give IT advice? Your accountant, your bank, local business resellers or retailers, or government business advisers perhaps? Can you rely on the advice you get on-line or in magazines? Or is it safer to rely on the bloke down the pub?

There are no hard-and-fast rules about who to turn to – different sources provide different things (see box) and in the end, it is down, once again, to the issue of trust. Rebecca Cadman-Jones, managing director of an events and conference business, for instance, is typical. “Before choosing our IT suppliers I spoke to friends and colleagues about the type of system we needed”, she says. But she did not only rely on people she knew and also contacted the government flagship advice service for small businesses, Business Link. That worked well for Cadman-Jones, who gained advice about both hardware and software for her firm, which now employs five staff.

But there has been industry concern about the effectiveness of government advice for small businesses. In January, a CBI report criticised the Government’s business support network as a “baffling array of conflicting, confusing and inconsistent quangos, grants and agencies across the UK”. It said businesses do not trust the quality of advice on offer and said Business Link is used by only one in seven firms.

The CBI wants to see government-backed advice streamlined, in order to avoid confusion and the Federation of Small Businesses is also critical of Business Link.“Our view of Business Link is that it is mainly aimed at businesses that want to grow, so if a small business wants some advice, they can find themselves in something of a spider’s web, with a raft of leaflets coming their way about how to grow, when most businesses are happy as they are,” comments an FSB official.

The FSB itself provides not just IT advice for its 190,000 members, but also IT services, such as broadband. “We found small businesses were turning to suppliers, customers, friends and family and local high street stores for IT advice,” says the official, “and we felt small businesses needed this. Yes, of course they can shop around, but this is nice and safe and warm.”

The issue of trust is key when getting IT advice. There is, for instance, a plethora of advice on the internet for small businesses wanting to set up IT systems – but it always pays to be cautious and see who is providing the advice and what they may be looking to get out of it. Some advice sites,

for instance, are little more than advertising portals, providing links through to selected suppliers.

John Hutchinson, head of sales at Eden Sales and Support, a small business developing new properties in Bulgaria, found government-backed advice very helpful when the business was setting up a new office in north Yorkshire. “They rang us and were very helpful,” he comments. “They put us in touch with three hardware and three software specialists.” The system Eden has installed also includes costeffective support. “A local guy looks after the system,” says Hutchinson. “He’s not on a retainer; we just pay when we need to call him out.”

Small businesses are often caught on the horns of a dilemma when it comes to IT advice. They need impartial advice from a source they can trust but rarely have the resources to pay for expensive consultants.That is why so many small businesses tend to start out by asking around among people they know. But while the wider world can seem confusing, it is best to recall that sometimes it pays to search out advice from those with sound experience in this field.

Who’s telling you what?

Accountant: may charge for time spent on advice and is unlikely to be an IT specialist.

Solicitor: same as accountant.

Reseller: likely to be local, which is useful for support, accredited and experienced. Worth checking out – a longer-term relationship can be worth an initial investment. To find a local reseller click here www.living-it.co.uk

Retailer: may be able to provide computers and some advice and service but is unlikely to have specialist skills in IT for small businesses.

Government-backed business advisers: Can provide a wide range of IT advice, often free, or sometimes on a consultancy basis. Pluses include free courses in specific areas, such as setting up websites,etc. But it can be tough finding the right agency with the right skills.

Local chambers of commerce: Can be a good starting point, but unlikely to have specialist skills.

Online advice: Can be excellent, but needs to be treated with caution, and finding the right advice can be time-consuming.

Consultant: Can be expensive, but should provide advice tailored to a specific business.

Trade association (inc FSB): often a useful starting point.

Friends, colleagues and family: Easy to find and cheap, but should again be treated with caution. Unlikely to have the specialist skills many start-ups will need.