July 2, 2007 – IT troubleshooting: Should it be in-house or outside contractors?

By Steve Bauer
Managing Editor
In today’s computer-dominated world, staying ahead of the curve when it comes to maintaining a reliable IT system is one of the biggest keys to success for a multi-point dealer.
Whether it’s installing and maintaining new systems like Microsoft’s Windows Vista down to fixing a broken printer or monitor, having the ability to handle IT issues as they arise — and who you place in charge of handling them — is a major challenge that every multipoint dealer must address.

Contract or In-House?
Deciding whether to hire a full-time IT employee or contract out on a part-time basis is one of the most crucial decisions a dealer must face, as both present a unique set of advantages and downfalls. Greg Mackey, president of Cycle Central, which includes more than 10 stores in Florida and Georgia, has two full-time IT staff members, which he says were hired when day-to-day IT problems began to overwhelm his staff.
“We decided to hire a full time IT employee around a year or two into our second store,” he said. “The volume of problems we were having to tackle on our own prompted us to make the decision to hire a full-time IT employee. Things like printers going down, computers crashing, issues aside from things like creating Web sites and things like that. Now it’s been to our advantage that he’s been able to help us out with things like Web site development and the like, but the reason we hired him was really a hardware issue of day-to-day operations.”
Mackey says Cycle Central hired a second IT staffer once they added their fifth store, as the workload became too much for one person.
Rick Alcon, owner of R&S Powersports Group, which encompasses four stores, contracts with an independent IT company. The reason he’s gone that rout is he has staff members who are already tech savvy and he has committed himself to understanding the ins and outs of his computer network.
“If I wasn’t so comfortable with our systems I probably would have hired someone full-time, but for now I’m still comfortable about our process,” he said. “So that’s an advantage I have over other dealers who are facing the same issue. The reason we’ve chosen not to hire an IT employee is because aspects of our system that I wouldn’t be comfortable with are rapidly evolving types of things, for example the various Microsoft Windows operating systems and different types of components that go along with that. Also, issues with viruses are also problems we struggle with.”
For problems Alcon and his staff aren’t comfortable dealing with, he’s contracted with a local IT company that works with other vehicle dealerships in the area. Alson fears that employing a full-time in-house IT staffer would distance that person from emerging trends in the computer and software industry.
“We made the decision that it was best to have someone who works in that industry on a regular basis become a partner with us, so I have a local computer company that has taken the time to become familiar with my system, but they still work in the computer industry,” Alcon said. “So they’re staying on top of their certifications, trends, issues that our developing in their industry and they don’t become stagnant by just working for me.”
Jim Maslyn, owner of Motoprimo, which consists of two Minnesota stores, says although he has his controller fill the role of IT employee coordinator, he still contracts for all IT work, upgrades and new software. For Maslyn, the decision is based on the size of his dealerships, and says it’s up to each dealer principle to determine which route is best for them.
“It really depends on the size of someone’s dealerships,” he said. “If you’re $12 million or more, then just do it right and don’t skimp on the costs to hire an IT staffer. If you are smaller, however, you have to ask yourself whether you really need to consolidate your systems? What are you spending on an on-going basis vs. what are you gaining? Be clear on that answer before you decide what to do.”

Trust is the key
The most important thing every multi-point dealer must have when maintaining their IT systems is peace of mind, and having that comes from hiring a person or company that you have the utmost trust in.
“I think trust is a huge issue, and that’s probably the biggest reason that back in the 1980s I made a personal commitment that I was going to be the most knowledgeable person on my systems at my dealership,” Alcon said. “Our entire business is built on trust, whether it’s the guy at the parts counter, accountants dealing with our books, sales managers, etc. But for a lot of powersports dealers and nontechnical people in general, there’s a lot of mystery to IT systems when you don’t understand them, and that can create a lot of heartburn when it comes to putting it in the hands of another person. I would equate it to not understanding how to do accounting, and if you don’t know how to do it, you’re totally at the mercy of your office manager or accountant.”
Mackey says Cycle Central hired its IT staffer on a part-time basis at first, and eventually approached him about becoming full-time. He cautions dealers that the best way to protect themselves from future problems is to have an outside source verify any work that’s being done.
“If you’re ever in a position where you have someone who you fear might leave without notice, then have an outside source come in and at least do some consulting every six months,” he said. “You should do this to not only verify the work of the person you hired, but to also check security to make sure that person isn’t stealing and to get a handle of what’s really happening with the system.”
Mackey also suggests limiting the number of people who have an understanding of your system.
“My suggestion would be to limit it to the ownership solely. I wouldn’t let anyone like a GM or office worker become too familiar with your system,” he cautioned. “I say that because the last thing you want to do is create any more ways for people to steal from you.”
Alcon adds that letting one person have complete control over your IT system is asking for trouble.
“IT isn’t different than your office manager, your sales manager or your general manager. If your general manager was the only one who knew how to run your store, then he’s got you in a potential hostage situation, so somebody else has to have that knowledge,” he said. “So whether it’s IT, administration, sales, etc., it re-emphasizes the need to be systems driven and have documentation, processes and systems, and then not let the process become a people-dependent process. If you bring in an in-house IT person and he starts to write programs and code for you, you’re trapped into the cycle of a huge investment in a proprietary product that limited people could figure out. By the time someone comes in and is able to decipher it, they could have probably designed a whole new system.”

Be Consistent
Above all else, the key to having a successful IT network in place is to create a consistent system that all employees can utilize, regardless of which store they’re working from.
“I think the most important thing a multi-point dealer can do to avoid pitfalls and have a smooth flowing system is to maintain consistency,” Mackey said. “If you have to move players around on your team, those people should have the same setup at every store. For example, if you need to move a parts manager from store A to store B or C, you know your system is a success if he can use your systems at each store without any problems.”
Alcon agrees that just like any other aspect of a dealership, building in redundancy to your IT system is a smart business move.
“I think there has to be some kind of redundancy in every part of your dealership, and that certainly includes IT,” he said. “Because when you’re at a level where you have multiple stores and several hundred employees and a variety of different systems, there can be nothing in the dealership where you rely solely on one person or expect your employees to be able to quickly adapt to different systems in different stores. That’s just business suicide.”

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