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By Carl Weinschenk

It doesn’t take a degree from the academy to say that in this world of increasingly complex technology, small businesses must find a systematic way to determine which new hardware and software really will help them.

That's much easier said than done, however.

From search engine optimization (SEO) to voice over Internet protocol (VoIP) to software-as-a-service (SaaS) to a bunch of other equally intimidating technologies (and their intimidating acronyms), the world of technology is complex. Too complex and varied for many small business owners to follow.

That's a big problem. These technologies play a pivotal—perhaps decisive—role in the business's fate, whether the owner wants them to or not. Of course, emerging hardware and software can drive efficiency, sales and profitability. The other side of the coin is that a business that turns its back on technology inevitably will lose ground to companies that more proactively engage these emerging tools.

So a lot is at stake, and the bottom line is clear: Business owners must have a systematic way to ensure that prospective service providers and vendors are deeply knowledgeable and have their best interests at heart. This goes way beyond determining what device works most efficiently or which software has the largest feature set. It cuts to the core of whether the technology is needed at all.

It isn’t easy because the business owner needs to know a little something just to ask the right questions.

SEO is a great example. It may be lost on small businesses that are busy doing other things (such as generating revenue) that Web design goes far beyond creating a good looking and relevant site. Designers also must use very exacting procedures to get the site as high on search engines as possible. How many business owners realize that the person designing and updating the site must understand SEO?

There are subtle questions that deal with need across the board. VoIP: Does the company do enough collaboration to make it worthwhile? SaaS: Are the businesses' needs complex enough to justify the investment, or can they be fulfilled by a trip to Best Buy or Office Depot during lunch? Before spending good money on software and hardware, a small company should be confident that the new technology or software is really serving its needs.

This often is a close call. Indeed, it can be a more difficult decision than actually choosing the gear or software, which can be compared on a nuts-and-bolts basis. This is more conceptual. The business owner, one of his or her employees, a consultant or a value-added reseller must figure out precisely what the company needs—and figure it out in great detail. They must determine the best questions to ask to ensure that the vendors and service providers interviewed can and will provide it.

Carl Weinschenk is the Editorial Director of SmartBiz.
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