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A Small Business Approach To Computer Downtime

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If it’s true that the backbone of any small business is its employees, then I believe it’s fair to say that the muscle of many small businesses would have to be their computers.

Plain and simple, business today is performed electronically. Whether it’s a day-trader trading stocks over the internet, a lawyer, physician or other professional looking up data, or a shopkeeper tracking prices and sales, computers are often an essential “tool of their trades”.

In fact, in the majority of professions where a computer is used, it is often not possible to effectively perform the job role without it. Sure the day-trader could continuously call their broker every five minutes for stock quotes, but in practical terms their business is reduced to a standstill. An analogy would be a carpenter trying to work without his hammer.

However, when you consider complexity, comparing a PC to a hammer is kind of like comparing a space shuttle to a bicycle. The average computer is a marvel of complexity. In fact, when we break it down, we’re not even talking about a single device. Computer systems are made up of a collection of hardware and software components, usually made by different manufacturers, working together for a common purpose. And it follows simple logic; the more complex the system, the more that can go wrong. All it often takes for a business to come grinding to a halt is for one of those components to malfunction.

Computer downtime can result from numerous circumstances. Viruses and spyware are waiting to infect your PC through the internet, email and even commonly used applications. Internet hacking, identity theft and other cyber crimes are all on the rise. Compatibility issues and missing or corrupt drivers plague both hardware and software alike. And problems with the installation and use of everyday programs can cause no end of headaches.

While the above points can raise a number of questions in the average small businesspersons mind around the costs associated with these downtimes and what can be done to minimize them, straight answers are often not easily found. In this article, we will attempt to analyze these questions and determine the best approach for professionals and small businesses to take in dealing with computer downtime.

Options for dealing with downtime

Questions surrounding downtime related costs have become such a hot topic on the Internet that an online calculator has been developed by NTA Monitor Ltd. to assist individuals and companies in determining the cost of computer downtime (You can try it out at http://www.nta-monitor.com/services/downtimecalc.htm). While this calculator can be quite handy, it is often not readily apparent what numbers to use for “total downtime” or “labor costs”. So lets just do some calculations of our own to determine the total overall costs that a professional or small business faces due to downtime and see if we can determine the best approach to resolving downtime related incidents.

The first and hardest question to answer is “how long is an average downtime incident for a small business?” Well, I’m afraid that there is no easy answer to this. While the average time is completely dependant on the nature of the problem, for this example we can piece together a typical scenario of events to create our timeframe.

When a typical computer issue or problem arises, there are a number of avenues that a small business owner can take to see it resolved. As most small businesses can obviously not afford to pay for a full or even part-time IT staff, the “do it yourself” method is often first employed. Resources such as friends, family and the internet are consulted for answers and some trial and error approaches, such as using generic “fix all” programs, are tried. That failing, a local computer service shops can be called for on-site or drop-off support. Or as a new and increasingly popular alternative, a remote service provider can be used.

Depending on the user’s knowledge of computers, the “do it yourself” approach can sometimes work and considering the time spent doing research, trial and error fixes, etc. the average issue can be resolved in as little a an hour or two. But sadly, more often than not, the time spent does not result in a solution and it is added to the overall incident time. So to make our calculations simpler, let’s deduce that on average the amount of self help time spent saves as much time as it looses and instead we will focus on three remaining options; on-site, drop-off and remote support. We will base our calculations on an eight hour work day.

While being a more expensive option, on-site services can often result in a quicker resolution time than drop-off service. Usually a technician can be scheduled for “same day” or “next day” service. On average this results in a total downtime of around eight hours.

A small business can save some money on the hourly rate it is charged by choosing to drop off their PC for service instead of having a technician come to them. While some service depots have longer waiting lists that result in the business owner losing their PC for numerous days or even weeks, shopping around for service usually results in an average turn around time of two to three days. Factoring in the time spent disconnecting and reconnecting your system, as well as the time spent dropping it off and picking it up, it’s reasonable to say that the average downtime for drop-off service is in the neighborhood of 24 business hours.

Finally, there is a lesser known option for small businesses that has grown out of advances in “desktop sharing” technologies. Professional remote computer service and support technicians can access computers directly through their internet connections to resolve computer issues.

Michael Hovila, the owner of AdvanceServe Remote PC Services (http://www.remotepcservices.com) informs us that “remote computer repair and support services are available to any computer that is connected to the Internet, anywhere in North America; It can be from home or business, a hotel suite or while telecommuting, or even through local wireless \hotspots\. We can even connect though your home or corporate firewall… Then just sit back and watch as our remote technician controls your mouse and keyboard to diagnose and fix your computer problems or to demonstrate how to use or configure common applications.”

The hourly rate for remote support usually falls somewhere between that of local drop off and onsite service rates, while the downtime is reduced to an average of two hours per incident as a result of not having to wait for service. However, not all issues can be resolved remotely. Physical problems such as hardware failures still need to be dealt with by a “hands on” technician.

Calculating the costs

So which option is best for the small business owner? Let’s do some quick and simple math to find out. Based on average “resolution time” claims from numerous sources, I have decided to use two hours as the mean resolution time for these calculations.

For onsite service, rates are charged either on a “per hour” or “per incident” basis. Since we are calculating “per hour”, I compared the rates of four leading national on-site service providers and worked out an average of $100 US/hour for onsite support. So the total cost for a two hour service call ends up being $200.

Next we examine the cost of the drop-off service option. Prices in this category vary a little more depending on the service provider but a comparison of two national providers and two “mom and pop” local service depots resulted in an average hourly rate of $60 US per hour. Based on our two hour resolution time the labor cost for this option is $120.

Finally there is the remote support option. An average comparison of four trusted national providers resulted in a rate of $80 per hour. For a two hour resolution time the total cost is $160.

But we’re not done yet. Now we have to factor in the loss of wages that has resulted from the down time. 2003 Bureau of Labor statistics suggest that individuals who use computers for a living make an average of $36.20 an hour in wages and benefits. So using that figure as the “per hour” loss due to downtime for a single computer, we can calculate and compare the total cost of downtime for each of our three timelines.

Option One – Onsite Service
Total Downtime: 8 hours
Lost wages: $36.20×8=$289.60
Cost of Service: $200
Total Cost of Downtime: $489.60 per PC

Option Two – Drop Off Service
Total Downtime: 20 hours
Lost Wages: $36.20×20=$724
Cost of Service: $120
Total Cost of Downtime: $844 per PC

Option Three – Remote Service
Total Downtime: 2 hours
Lost Wages: $36.20×2=$72.40
Cost of Service: $160
Total Cost of Downtime: $232.40 per PC

Well, based on total costs the hands down choice appears to be “Remote Computer Support”. However, there are a couple additional factors that should be examined a little closer before making a final decision. As mentioned earlier, remote support has its limitations. The primary two being, the issue cannot be fixed remotely if it is a result of a physical problem with a component, and the computer being serviced must have working internet access.

To determine how the first limitation factors in, we need to determine what percentage of computer problems are hardware vs. software related. Vendor data shows that software issues are actually 40 times more common than hardware issues. Therefore, in theory, when the computer can still boot up and access the internet, around 97% of problems can be solved remotely.

The best approach

I now believe we have enough data to make a well rounded decision regarding the best approach for professionals and small businesses when dealing with computer downtime.

Step Zero: The reason I’ve added a “step zero” is that an age old saying still applies to modern problems; an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Take the time to have routine computer maintenance performed on your PC. There are a number of great “self help” guides to keeping your PC running smoothly. Or consider signing up for a routine maintenance plan by a professional remote provider if you are either not comfortable with, or do not have the time to maintain your own computers. But no amount of maintenance can prevent the inevitable, so when downtime does occure

Step one: If you are reasonably knowledgeable in computers and you can still access the internet, it can’t hurt to take a few minutes to search online or with your peers for answers. If the answer is not apparent within fifteen minutes of searching, there is a good chance the solution is not simple enough for the average computer user to solve and professional assistance should be considered.

Step 2: To save time and money, your next best step is to try a remote service provider. They can often resolve your issue quickly and get you back to making money instead of spending it. Even though they cannot resolve physical problems, you will still come out much farther ahead on average by trying a remote technician first.

Step 3: In the few cases where the issue ends up being hardware related, your next best choice would be the onsite provider. Many remote providers have local affiliates who they can recommend you to and can provide you with diagnostic information to pass on to the local technician, which may reduce the required support time.

Addendum: Since this article was first published, I have received a number of emails asking for my recommendations on the best choice for computer support providers in each of the areas I covered. So as requested, here are my choices for the top national providers. Please note that the following choices are simply based on my own research and experience:

Recommended Remote Provider:
AdvanceServe Remote PC Services
http://www.remotepcservices.com
1-877-87SERVE

Recommended On-Site Provider:
CompUSA Technical Services
http://www.compusa.com/tech_services/techknowledgist_mobile.asp
1-800-COMPUSA

Recommended Drop-Off Provider:
CompUSA Technical Services
http://www.compusa.com/tech_services/instore_services.asp
1-800-COMPUSA

From downtime to uptime

Computers are an essential part of most modern small businesses but when problems occur, the costs associated with them can quickly spiral out of control. However, a quick and well thought out response to computer downtime can save a small business hundreds or even thousands of dollars. I hope this guide will help you to be better prepared when your downtime comes because it’s not a matter of if; it’s a matter of when.

Aidan McDermott has a Degree in Information Technology and runs a small computer consulting firm. He writes freelance articles in his spare time.

A Small Business Approach To Computer Downtime
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