As our motivating example, let’s start with the worst offender in terms of predatory IT salesmanship. I normally don’t shy away from naming companies or products, but I’m normally not so unilaterally critical of an organization. Let’s just say that there is a large retail chain with an in-house IT brand that gets its own commercials and its own custom-painted cars. We’ll call them Sleek Squad for their preference for style over substance. But let’s also be fair. We’ll broaden our scope, and say that Sleek Squad is any predatory IT service that serves the general consumer.
Sleek Squad’s ideal customer is the ignorant one. The less you know, the more services they can sell you, and the less willing you are to learn new things, the easier it will be to keep you as a regular. For example, they might charge you dozens of dollars to “back-up and transfer” all your old files to your new computer – which amounts to you paying some college freshman the equivalent of $120/hour for the five minutes it takes him to drag and drop some folders onto a thumb drive and then back on to your new computer. If you are this vexed by the activity of “backing-up” I will tell you that for a few dollars and a friend you can learn to do it yourself and end up +1 thumb drive in the process.
Sleek Squad’s favorite myth is that backing-up data is an arcane process. Copying data is approximately the easiest thing to do with a computer. Hollywood is annoyed that data copies too easily, not the other way around. A defining characteristic of the information age is that information is immortal. Sure, your office could probably use automation and an efficient recovery scenario, but if you are in your living room wondering about how best to back-up all those baby pictures, the answer is that you drag and drop them onto a thumb drive and call it a day, (There is, of course, the extra step of don’t lose the thumb drive, something that always seems to elude me).
Like any professional service, you may ask Sleek Squad for a house call. The alternative to a house call is to work through the problem yourself with the aid of a friend or professional who is in contact via phone or, worse, e-mail. There is definitely something more personal, immediate, and effective about having professional, in-person assistance, and there is nothing wrong with paying a premium for the real thing. However, the advantage to messing-with-it-yourself alternative is that in the process you are learning how to take care of things on your own.
A helpful IT professional is no different than a helpful auto-mechanic or a helpful plumber. You are exchanging your money for their expertise. I suppose telling you to learn how to fix it yourself might sound like I’m telling you to learn how to fix all the plumbing in your house. However, Sleek Squad-style bulk consumer IT support sets your bar insultingly low. Imagine if the plumbing industry aggressively marketed the idea that you should be afraid to install your own garden hose. Please, call them to make sure it gets done right. In fact, don’t even go out and buy your own hose, buy their brand instead. Sleek Squad Plumbing, at your service.
You shouldn’t have to make registry edits, partition your hard drive, or use the command line if you don’t want to, but if you can’t set up a new printer or router, understand that you are paying someone a garden hose installation fee. You don’t know how to fix your plumbing, but you know how to use it. You don’t call a plumber when you need to fill up your ice tray. There is a big difference between not knowing how to fix your computer and not knowing how to use it, and the moment you are paying money to have somebody professionally use your computer for you, you are wasting your money.
Of course, I’m focusing on the worst, which is to say, I’m focusing on the general consumer service. In business, you have much larger and important problems, and even if you are savvy enough to do something for yourself, there is a point where it ceases to be in your job description. My assumption is that anybody reading this enjoys a partnership with honest, non-predatory IT service. I used the extreme example to help put perspective on your current IT situation; whether it reflects well on them or not is your call. It is unlikely you are the victim of the same sort of aggressive fear-mongering you get from Sleek Squad, but I will part with some red flags to look out for:
- Are they unconcerned with explaining the problem to you? Conversely, do they overexplain the problem with jargon they know will confuse you? In general, if they implicitly expect you to trust them, but do not put the effort into filling you with confidence, they either have poor communication skills, (genuinely possible), or they are hoping to leverage your ignorance against you.
- Do they solve problems, or do they sell problems? Certainly preventative counsel should be taken seriously, but if your IT service seems fixated on all the things you should be worrying about, there’s a good chance they are fear-mongering.
- Do they lack alternatives? Not that you should suspiciously grill your support, but if they do, they might be behaving dishonestly. However, don’t be offput by higher-cost alternatives! That just means their modus operandi was to provide the less expensive solution.