One by one, major technology vendors are rolling out programs meant to offer small businesses the chance to source all of their tech needs, from desktop and mobile PCs to printers, servers and software to support it all.
The trend is unmistakable and, in recent months, everyone from Dell to IBM to retail chain Best Buy have rolled out programs offering such one-stop shopping to small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs).
The reason is simple: Even though they spend a fraction of what large enterprises do on IT infrastructure, there are literally millions of such businesses in the United States alone.
Comparing the products from vendors can be a challenge, since each offers its own unique attributes. The goods new for small businesses is that vendors are not only creating solutions designed especially for them, but are eager to attract and retain those customers.
“Technology vendors are starting to focus on building relationships with small businesses rather than just selling them hardware or software,” Gartner analyst Leslie Fiering told TechNewsWorld. For now, the offerings are largely still being developed out of existing products, though vendors such as Dell, HP, IBM and others are aiming to create customized products and service offerings. “Small businesses can count on being marketed to heavily in coming years.”
That reality will create an additional burden for small businesses, many of which operate without any in-house technology expertise — figuring out which vendor or option is the right one for them.
Making a Push
For years, small businesses have been turning to establish technology vendors, but often straddled the line between a vendor’s consumer-facing offerings and its enterprise products and services.
Earlier this year, Dell tried to fill that gap by launch its Vostro brand aimed at those same small businesses. While the product line is still being rounded out by Dell, the approach is already winning supporters.
Nancy Kirk, the owner of marketing firm PRM Associates, turned to the Vostro option mainly because of the support it offered when she made a recent PC purchase.
Kirk chose Vostro in part because of the option to buy “Gold Tech Support” which promises 24/7 tech help via a toll-free number.
“I’ve had to call twice so far, and it has already been worth the price,” she told TechNewsWorld. “Both problems stumped their tech guys at first, but both persevered until the problem was fixed and both seemed to really want my experience to be a positive one.”
Kirk’s story underscores how important support is to small business owners and the larger strategy behind Vostro highlights another trend, with Dell offering online data backup and security software services in a Software as a Service (SaaS) model.
The Vostro brand is aimed at businesses with 25 or fewer workers, Dell said. Rival HP’s offering is known as “HP Total Care.” With either option, a small one-office business could likely solve all its technology needs through the vendor, with 10 networked PCs, printers and hosted data storage, for under US$10,000.
VARs: Focus on Value
As businesses grow their technology needs, many turn to value-added resellers (VARs) for their IT needs.
Large VARs such as CDW can offer small businesses a number of advantages, including the ability to pick and choose offerings from various vendors. A business can buy a PC from Apple, a printer from HP, storage devices and brand-name software in a single sales transaction.
Customers typically pay a premium to VARs, but many are willing to do so for the ability to get access to integrators and other experts they offer to help design, select and install computer systems.
Many small businesses turn to local computer resellers instead.
Such corner stores offer a number of advantages, said Mark Amtower, founder of FederalDirect, a service that helps businesses sell products and services to government agencies.
“You get someone you know who knows you, real service and the ability to call a number where someone actually answers the phone and can give you a real answer,” Amtower told TechNewsWorld.
Such a relationship also can offer the advantage of letting a vendor become aware of a business’ changing technology needs over time as it gets to know the specific challenges it faces.
In some cases, businesses prefer to work with vendors who have no alliances with the makers of the technology.
Just a few years ago, Erez Zevulunov, a director with MIT Consulting, said his firm was forced to create small-business solutions out of enterprise gear. That has changed thanks to products such as Microsoft’s Small Business Server and smaller servers from vendors such as IBM and HP.
“A lot of small companies are looking for a one-stop shop,” Zevulunov told TechNewsWorld. “It is hard to believe that it took this long for major vendors to start offering these products.”
Although more resources are being put into the field, computer consultant Joshua Feinberg said the variety of small businesses makes it difficult to design solutions that meet all such business’ needs. In fact, he noted, some vendors define small businesses as those with fewer than 10 employees, others say the cut off is 50 or 100, but even those descriptions fail to take into account the difference among businesses, even those of the same size, he said.
“There is no one-size-fits-all solution because small businesses are extremely fragmented in their needs for small business technology support,” Feinberg said.
“In order for a small business owner to get tremendous value from their technology support vendor, that vendor must understand at a deep level their true business problems and not just provide a superficial band-aid style fix to broken hardware, software and peripherals,” he added.
Feinberg believes that more than just SaaS but true “virtual IT” will evolve as the dominant model, with outsourced consultants handling the task of deciding what technology a company needs — and likely getting most of it through an on-demand model.