When a commercial building in Chappaqua burned down earlier this year, IT pro Kevin Frost at Tarrytech Computer Consultants sprang into action. One of his clients runs a cleaning service that was located in the building and needed to access his files. Fortunately, Tarrytech had set up off-site backup. Frost and his team were able to help the client regain access to the files immediately. “We were able to get him up and running in 45 minutes,” says Frost, operations manager at Tarrytech, in Elmsford.
Frost is one of the many professionals in Westchester County who provide critical behind-the-scenes support to other local companies. Working in fields such as IT, human resources, public relations, payroll and benefits services, and financial services, these B2B providers can be a very efficient way for small and midsize businesses to expand the expertise at their fingertips. Working with high-quality, outsourced services can often be easier than finding talent to bring in-house.
To help you source the best local B2B providers for your needs, we went straight to the experts — local vendors themselves — for insight on best practices for finding and maintaining excellent relationships with great B2B service providers.
There’s a reason the Saturday Night Live skit on “Nick Burns, Your Company’s Computer Guy” was so funny. Most non-techies have encountered their share of similarly impatient computer techs and feel a little intimidated about selecting an IT provider. When it comes to tech services, “most people do not fully comprehend exactly what they are purchasing,” says Robert Cioffi, COO and cofounder of Progressive Computing in Yonkers.
Fortunately, the county is home to a range of tech vendors who go out of their way to make their services friendly to people in other fields. Local IT pros advise companies to look for providers who have been in business for a while — a sign that they know how to keep customers happy on an ongoing basis — and pay attention to what initial contacts with them are like.
The best professionals will take the time to understand the needs of your business, even if it’s a very small one, and respond to those needs in their service recommendations, says Mario DeRiggi, executive vice president of Rye Brook-based communications provider Broadview Networks. Avoid providers who “go very superficial on trying to understand a customer’s needs and put together a solution that doesn’t meet the long-term goals of the company,” he adds.
During your initial conversations, tech pros advise asking yourself some key questions: How easy is it to work with the vendor? How easy is it to get a response from them? How easy is it to use and implement their technology? Does it really work with what you are trying to accomplish as a business owner? If you find that dealing with a tech firm requires steely endurance, then you probably have not found the right one, even if its prices are the lowest. “Instead of focusing on price, focus on value,” advises Cioffi.
Visiting the offices of potential IT vendors is a good way to find out if there will be a proper cultural fit between your team and theirs, he adds. “Engage with the people who will be delivering the service — not just the sales guy or owner,” he says. “Maybe bring some of your people to meet their people. It really exposes whether you are going to get along.”
Once you find a team you like, make sure they are willing to explain what they are doing in terms you understand. “This is where the trust comes in,” says Cioffi.
Determining whether your tech vendor is doing a good job can be difficult if you are not a techie yourself. Fortunately, there’s a simple way to do so, says DeRiggi. “Ask yourself: Do they help me drive growth, productivity, and efficiency in the way I do business? If not, keep shopping around,” he says.
Tasks like setting up payroll and benefits can be as much fun as reading the phone book. But given how important your employees and contractors are to your business, it’s important to get the details right. “Payroll is the single largest expense most businesses have,” says Norman Michaels, president of TriState Pay LLC, a payroll and compliance services provider based in White Plains.
To find a good payroll provider, look for one who can offer you deep experience in compliance, he says, as there are many laws employers must comply with or risk fines.
If you offer healthcare or other benefits to your employees, finding a good benefits consultant is also essential, given the complexity of the healthcare industry. “There is not a lot of transparency in the healthcare field,” says James Schutzer, vice president of benefits consultancy JDM & Associates in White Plains.
A good benefits consultant can help you do things like select a healthcare plan that delivers the most bang for the buck. But that’s only part of the picture, says Schutzer. Your benefits firms should also be willing to sit down with your team, answer their questions and help them get the most out of their plan. “If you are not communicating with employees and educating them about [the benefits package] you are offering, a lot gets lost in translation,” he says. “You want someone who is going to get in front of your employees and explain all the nuts and bolts of all the different plans.”
Good consultants are willing to turn off their PowerPoints and go off-script to address specific employee concerns, he adds. At one recent meeting, for example, a client’s employees wanted to find out why certain services were not considered preventive care by their insurance company. “I scrapped my agenda,” he says, to make sure the employees had the knowledge they were requesting.
Given that employers view benefits as an important tool for employee retention, it is essential that employees feel good about the plans offered to them. “An employer can go through a lot of time trying to bring value to the benefits they offer to employees,” he says. “If employees feel that they’re not getting that value, then the employer doesn’t get the mileage.”
Find People Who Find the Right People
When a prospect recently asked Don Zinn for help finding a CEO for her firm, she mentioned that her five-person search team was already talking to three candidates. “If we are wowed by one of these three, we’ll make the hire,” she said.
“How do you define wow?” Zinn recalls asking her. “Do you agree on what wow means?” he went on. “What if each of you has a different interpretation of what wow means, and you hire the wrong person for CEO?”
Asking tough questions like these is a big part of Zinn’s role as a partner at the executive search and recruitment firm Jobplex Inc., which has an office in Tarrytown. While many companies see hiring as just another item on their to-do list, he views recruitment as a strategic process. “Whenever you are making a new hire, there is a new opportunity to define the business,” he says. “A good client will allow me to work with them and become part of their team.”
So how do you find outsourced human-resources professionals who can help you take your team and your company culture to the highest level?
“You want to partner with a company that is ideally local to your market and has a good finger on the pulse, in terms of what hiring profiles are in demand, what the appropriate salary levels are, and what skill sets are hard to find,” recommends Jason Witty, vice president at Robert Half, which has offices in White Plains and Stamford.
To get a sense of how a recruiter thinks and whether there is synergy between you, ask some key questions, Witty advises: What hiring trends do you see in the marketplace? What compensation trends are you seeing? Who are the last two or three people you placed?
Also, ask how many candidates a recruiter typically vets to fill a position. Finding the best talent is ultimately a numbers game. Zinn often aims to speak to 150 people, succeeds in reaching 75, winnows that group down to 15 to interview and then will present four or five to the client.
Once you find an HR pro you trust, being open about your culture and strategic goals is key. “In order for us to deliver the best service to our clients, we need to know who they are,” says Witty. “I ask them, ‘Why would a candidate who is looking at two, three, or four different opportunities choose to work for your company? Is it the culture? The growth? The compensation or benefits that are being offered? What is really attractive about your company versus others?’”
The best way to determine if your recruiter is doing a good job is to look around your office. If you’re thrilled with the candidates you have hired as a result of the work you’ve done together, that’s a powerful indicator that you have a great partnership. “It boils down to having a deep and trusting relationship,” says Witty.
Want to find a great PR or marketing team? Ask about their failures, recommends Mike Dardano, founder and owner of the marketing firm Buzz Potential in Tuckahoe. Almost all PR and marketing teams have taken on clients they couldn’t help — and the best ones will be able to share what they learned from what went wrong. “If they say they don’t have failures, don’t hire them,” Dardano says.
To begin your search, ask for recommendations from colleagues in a local business organization, recommends Dardano. Consider whether you need a firm with connections in the local media or one that has national reach, then narrow down the list to three or four candidates that have active contacts in the right type of media, he advises.
Dardano recommends asking potential PR firms what accounts they serve, so you can check out their clients’ media presence. “If they say, ‘I’ve worked with XYZ Company from August of last year to this year,’ Google to see what kind of media placements they got,” he says. A firm’s published case studies — often available on the website — can give you an idea of the approaches they use, he adds.
Interview a few firms before you sign a retainer contract, to make sure you’ve found the best fit, advises Stacey Cohen, president and CEO of Co-Communications, an integrated marketing firm with an office in Mount Kisco. “No two firms are alike,” says Cohen. “I always get nervous if a company says, ‘You’re the only firm I’m meeting.’”
When you negotiate a contract with an agency, take the time to define what a successful relationship will look like one year from now — and set expectations for how you’d like to work with them. If, for instance, your goal is for the firm to build awareness, make sure you explain what you want your PR or marketing firm to do with that awareness. Set short-term, actionable and realistic goals, advises Robin Colner, CEO and founder of DigiStar Media in Harrison. “Say, ‘I need 10 percent more leads in this target segment by the end of the quarter.’ That’s a realistic goal,” she says.
Also make sure you have the right pieces in place to make the most of the attention you generate from PR/marketing services — like a website that appeals to prospects with a clear call to action, advises Sherry Bruck, creative director at Harquin Creative Group in White Plains. “If you get all of this wonderful PR and are not completely ready, it’s going to be wasted,” she says.
One of the biggest mistakes business owners make when hiring a PR or marketing firm is to expect to simply hand off these responsibilities. “It is a symbiotic relationship,” says Cohen. For instance, your PR firm will probably want you to approve the press releases they generate on your behalf and to appoint someone as a single point of contact to do that, so they can be sent out quickly.
The best PR and marketing firms will take a big-picture, strategic approach, tying your marketing and public relations to the company’s overall goals, rather than just concentrating on getting short-term media hits. They will also incorporate social media into your overall strategy, rather than looking at it as an isolated service.
How do you know if you’re getting a good return on investment? Even the best firms may need three to six months to start building awareness of your firm and start getting results, so it is important to be patient. Ultimately, “The proof is in the pudding,” says Carolyn Mandelker, president of Harrison Edwards PR & Marketing in Armonk. “Once you enter that professional relationship, time will tell. Either you get the results you are hoping for, enjoy the relationship and find the agency is servicing you properly — or you don’t.”
Pick a Partner Who Can Show You the Money
If you’re not a financial professional, one accounting or tax firm may seem to be interchangeable with another. But once you find a great accountant who provides ongoing, proactive advice on tax planning and compliance, you’ll find there is a world of difference, in terms of how much visibility you have into your company’s finances and how much money you save on taxes. “Business owners really need a partner [on financial matters],” says Tony Tempesta, managing partner in charge of the Westchester office of accounting and advisory firm Marks Paneth in Purchase.
To find a great accountant, ask for a referral from other professionals who advise you, such as your attorney or banker, advises CPA Howard Klein, a partner in Citrin Cooperman, which has a White Plains office.
Also, look for an accounting firm that already serves clients in your industry. “We’re in the age of specialization,” says Robert Bernstein, a partner at Grassi & Co., which has an office in White Plains. “It’s always smart to try to find an accountant who understands your niche, whether it is baking cookies or washing cars.”
Spend some time talking with potential candidates to make sure you feel comfortable working together. Sit down and explain what you hope the accountant will do for you. “If that’s not clearly defined, it could derail the whole relationship,” notes Tempesta.
Among the things you should spell out are the services you need — such as bookkeeping, accounting, or taxes; how often you want to talk with your accountant and how often you need any financial reports.
The accounting firm should also have some questions for you. “I like to find out what a potential client’s needs are in advance, so I can make sure whoever is in the room is the right person to be in the room,” says Klein. If a client is an auto dealer, for instance, Klein might want to bring in a partner who works with a number of similar businesses.
Some accounting firms will take on your bookkeeping, too, but if you plan to handle it separately, make sure you understand the program you are using. “I’ve seen business owners try to cut costs by doing some accounting themselves in QuickBooks,” says Tempesta. “Then they turn it over to us, and it’s a mess. Fixing it is costly.”
Although you don’t hire a bank the way you retain an accounting firm, it is essential to select your banker with just as much care. “A banker should be a trusted advisor,” says John Tolomer, president and CEO of The Westchester Bank, headquartered in White Plains. “Look for someone who is accessible, whom you see in the market, who provides you with their business phone number, cellphone number, and email address, so they are never out of contact.”
Once you find a banker you like to work with, take the time to articulate how your business operates, so your banker can make suggestions that make sense, says Tolomer. How do you know if your banking relationship is successful? “They key questions would be: Are you getting what you need from your bank? Is that relationship something that is valued and important to you?” he says. “If the answers to those questions are uncertain, then I think you have to evaluate if you are settling or would be better working with someone else.”
Elaine Pofeldt, a former senior editor at Fortune Small Business, writes about entrepreneurship. She is author of The Million-Dollar, One-Person Business (Random House).