The Anti-Buzz: Tech Support

by Andrew Emmott on August 31, 2010

in Anti-Buzz,Hardware,Software

The Buzz: Once you invest in a computer system, it should work forever. That’s why you paid so much money!

The Anti-Buzz: Like or not, your real investment should be in quality tech support.

Why: Like everything else you depend on, maintainence is required to keep it working properly.

I have already told you how we computer geeks enjoy our car metaphors; tech support is no exception. Finding good tech support can indeed be like finding a good auto mechanic – some will be incompetent, some will overcharge, some will be dishonest, some will suggest upgrades you don’t need and a few will be just perfect. Finding that perfect techie might unfortunately be a matter of luck, but that won’t stop me from giving you as many pointer as I can.

If you are cynical about the value of support, try to remember those times you ignored a problem on your bike or car or some other thing and then when you finally did get it fixed the performance boost astonished you. Similarly, computer and network performance can degrade very gradually, such that you won’t notice the effects yourself, but your business will still be suffering from them.

There are many factors which can affect the quality and quantity of support available to you. We’ll start from the beginning.

A new system:

Whether you realize it or not, the real reason you want computers in your office is for the database of information. I’ve heard my father extol the merits of office management software before, so I know an easy example is the appointment book. Without computers, it would make no sense to have an appointment book in every treatment room and at each receptionist’s desk – if you did that the record keeping would be very inconsistent. If a hygienist makes an appointment in one book, every other book has to be updated. If a patient cancels, same thing.

Of course, traditional paperized offices only keep one book for this reason. With a database you have the advantage of one consistent, centralized appointment book, but now not only can you make appointments in the treatment room, but two treatment rooms can be setting appointments at the same time, while a receptionist discusses the schedule over the phone with a patient and perhaps a Dentist in the back of the office wants to review what lies ahead for the day. All of this can happen without bottlenecking at the front desk for use of that one book.

But this is the sort of thing Emmott Sr. can explain better than I. I just wanted to reiterate that the whole purpose of having computers in your office is that you can condense all of your records, inter-relate them, browse them easily, and that you can do this from anywhere in the office. This means that at minimum you are purchasing the following:

  • One server computer, (for the database), and a workstation computer for every location that you would ever want to access your office records from, (treatment rooms, labs, front desk, private offices).
  • Equipment to network all of them.
  • A software database. (DBMS)
  • A suite of applications that let’s employees interact with the database. (Practice Management Software).

Possibly, each of those items could require a specialist technician. A dental office is small enough that the last two items are often combined – your practice management suite likely includes the database itself. Let’s cover the three categories.

Computers:

If buying a new computer, the first question is do you buy prefabs, (Dell, HP, etc), or do you have them custom built? This is a support question because prefabs often come with their own support crew, and often even a warranty. This is probably the most painless way to go, but is not necessarily the most cost effective.

You can typically save money on custom-built computers versus prefabs, and much like going to the dealership for your auto-maintainence, you can often find cheaper support if you look for it elsewhere.

I would not say that prefab computers are more reliable than custom-built ones, but their support team is going to be effective and reliable, if overpriced. Looking elsewhere can run the risk of getting bilked or disappointed. A good middle ground would be to buy computers supported by a warranty, and then be prepared to find cheaper support elsewhere once you stop getting it for free from the manufacturer.

(Editors note: In the past there were no reliable resources for dental IT support it was every man (or woman) for himself. That has changed with the introduction of national IT service departments supported by the big dental vendors like Patterson and Henry Schein. To add to what Andrew has said regarding price and to continue the car analogy going to Henry Schein Tech Central is like taking your car to the dealer for service. You will most likely pay more than you will at a local shop but you are assured of quality service.)

Networking:

If your computers are maintained by a plucky local tech, then you might have your networking covered by the same person. If you are going with prefab warranty support, they might not cover your networking problems. For the latter, this would be a good time to investigate the caliber of your local tech support gurus while you wait for your warranty to expire.

Either way, these first two areas, while separate disciplines, can often be covered by the same person or group. As professional relationships go, it will probably be less strain on you to have to interface with more techs than you need to, but that can vary.

Questions like WiFi vs. ethernet cables are good one to discuss with your support technician, but they are not as ground-shaking as the decision to buy prefab computers over custom-built ones. Transitioning from wireless to wired and back again should not be terribly expensive or time consuming, should either option ever dissatisfy you.

Practice Management Software:

This is another huge investment, and hard to back-peddle from once you commit. My father has urged you many times to get you and your staff trained on the applications you use and this somewhat falls under the support umbrella.

But for actual problems with the behavior of the software, the original vendor is going to be the best source most of the time. A normal tech isn’t going to be versed in the idiosyncracies of your software, and expecting them to be so would be like expecting every college English major to be versed in JD Salinger. They very well might be, but Salinger is a small subset of English literature much as Dentrix or whatever you are using is a small subset of all software out there.

While I do urge the consolidation of your support crew if at all possible, the only way to get your practice management software included is to get all your support from the software vendor, (Including computers, networking – even though that’s not their industry). While this might work fine – and would certainly be convenient – your software vendor is also the only support person you can’t fire. Agreeing to take all of your support from an organization that is not incentivized to build you an inexpensive computer or network might be a mistake. Its not strictly a bad idea either, but just be alert, do your homework, etc, before handing over the reigns to a singular entity.

Pitfalls:

If I were to ask you to take only one piece of advice from this column it would be this: Don’t let your lack of techknowledge make you timid. Hold your tech support to a high standard. Shifty IT guys and shifty auto-mechanics both prey on the same thing: your ignorance.

If a doctor gave you a serious diagnosis, you would likely get a second opinion. Likewise, if IT tells you something can’t be done, or is going to cost a lot to get something done, or that you really should perform an expensive upgrade from this to that, get a second opinion. Going back to our opening: no, your system shouldn’t work perfectly out of the box, but it should work perfectly if you are investing in good IT. If you want your system to do X and your IT guy would rather it do Y, then move on to the next IT guy. If you do want to find that rare, perfect tech support crew, you aren’t going to get anywhere settling for someone who fills you with a great sense of mediocrity.

Like I said, don’t be timid. You need to walk the fine line between trust and alertness. It is okay to make demands; IT works for you, not the other way around.

On the flip-side, if you are a tech geek yourself don’t think that means you can get away without paying for good tech support. Just because you can fix all the problems in your office doesn’t mean that you should. You are a dentist, not an IT professional. While being able to handle tech-emergencies on your own is a great skill, time spent in self-IT is time spent away from the rest of your practice. Improve your skills, build rapport with your patients, etc, etc. If you really like fixing computers more than you like dentistry, you might want to consider switching careers.

Conclusion:

The idea of holding tech support to a high standard can be applied generally to your office computing experience. It’s a tired joke, but it has a ring of truth: If computers are supposed to make our lives easier, then why can be such a source of frustration? It’s a good question. Problems are inevitable, but if the computers in your office are not pulling their weight, then you need to be bold and fix the problem, and that requires outside assistance, and that’s why you invest in tech support. Don’t “computerize” just because that’s the way the world is shifting. See what it can do for you, and then make those things happen.

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David Vernon August 31, 2010 at 10:05 am

From the desk of a plucky local tech. :-)

Great article, Andrew! I wholeheartedly agree with most of what you said.

I can’t underscore enough the importance of having local IT support – someone who really knows your people, business and technology. Oftentimes, the national IT providers’ solutions are a little too “flow-charty,” if you know what I mean. For example, last month I got a call from a dentist who got a virus on one of her computers. At that point, she already called the computer manufacturer to remove it. So, they loaded the base image and the problem was solved. (g-r-r-reat) But, she was left with a system that had to be completely re-configured for her network and have Dentrix and Dexis reinstalled. That might work for a home user, but this is a business. There is so much more to consider when repairing or installing a computer than just where to plug it in.

Also, I think you may have understated the complexity of changing from a wired to a wireless network and back. Depending on the size of the network and the infrastructure already in place it could be a quite expensive AND time-consuming process. IMHO. this is a move that should not be taken lightly.

Thanks for another great piece!

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