When it comes to technology help, what you see isn't always what you get.

    I remember forming the opinion that a capable IT consultant is perhaps more difficult to find than a capable financial advisor after I hired a couple of Microsoft Certified Systems Engineers (MCSE) a decade ago. Does a CFP certification guarantee excellence? Right; neither does an MCSE.
    So if credentials don't come with guarantees, how does an advisor succeed in finding a decent IT consultant? If you're like David Lewis (and most of us are), you employ that age-old method of trial and error. The owner of Resource Advisory Services Inc. in Knoxville, Tenn., needed help deciding whether to replace or upgrade his old server. "I had determined a new server would cost approximately $1,500 plus the cost of installation. Since I didn't have anyone who could recommend the right system for me, I decided to let that be the test question for the next consultant we hired. That is, I shopped with the question, 'Keep or upgrade?'"
    Some consultants Lewis interviewed told him to buy a new server while others said upgrade the existing one, which had a few more years in it. He finally signed a 12-month contract with a firm that sent over two guys who stretched to four days the upgrade job they said should take only one. Lewis says, "They advised us not to install the copy of Windows 2000 I'd purchased, but to just upgrade with [the less stable operating system] we already had. That just carried forward problems from the old operating system. I terminated our one-year contract with them after nine months. They simply couldn't straighten out the problems that resulted from the way they'd installed things. I should have just bought the new server," concludes Lewis.
    Lewis next tried a small IT consulting outfit referred by his CPA firm. The firm's owner sent her assistant to service Lewis' computer systems and, says Lewis, the assistant's abilities, already adequate, increased over time. "Things he fumbled when he first came to us he was able to do quite capably after a few years." Problem is, one day Lewis called the firm for service and someone else showed up. "He didn't know anything. He couldn't even set up and configure on our network the new laptop I'd bought."
    After the consulting firm's owner even came out for a few service calls, says Lewis, "We received a bill for $1,700 and things still weren't working right. It was clear to me in talking to her and her new assistant that neither of them understood the issues. They were just fishing around in the dark. My philosophy is you shouldn't send a bill until everything's working right."
    Yet, there was a happy ending after all the pain. Lewis stumbled onto a local vendor called Data World that fixed a hardware problem and let him know they also did consulting. Ever since, Lewis has been pleased with the services he's received from Greg Hatfield, a Data World employee. "So far, he's the most intelligent and articulate person I've met in this business. And he's got depth behind him-people who perhaps don't show well, but know a lot," says Lewis.
    So how do you avoid Lewis' earlier experiences and get the right IT consultant the first time out? We asked advisors who've learned the ropes to share their secrets. We also went right to the source-IT consultants-to learn how to separate the good, the bad and the ugly.
    Tip #1 from John Brown, Brown Financial Advisory, Fairhope, Ala.: Get a reference from a bigger player.
    "Call a friend who works for a company large enough to have its own full-time IT consultant. Ask if you can contact that person and get recommendations from him or her." Taking this approach, Brown found the consultant he now uses, a student. "He understood our network from the get-go. He had a little trouble setting up Centerpiece but worked through it. At $20 an hour, we didn't mind the time. Also, he is very appreciative to be working with us, which is a big change [from consultants we've used in the past]."
    Tip #2 from Bob Keats, Keats, Connelly and Associates Inc., Phoenix: Use your family contacts.
    "Choosing the right IT person is every bit as complex as choosing a wife, and probably just about as critical in the success of your financial planning business. I find the general practitioner model from the medical profession works best for us. The IT consultant we use needs to have a working knowledge of computers, software, telephone systems, printers, copiers and PDAs to be most effective, with most of the training coming on the job as it is nearly impossible to hire someone with that kind of experience."
    Keats' is a relatively large advisory firm. "We have 22 employees now, but made a commitment to a full-time IT person when we had ten employees about eight or nine years ago. Our IT guy came to us from a family connection, and we've had him nearly five years. He's a nerd but he's innovative-always scanning the horizon for new technologies to make us more effective in our mission."
    Tip #3 from Gene Balliett of Balliett Financial Services Inc. in Winter Park, Fla.: Use your family.
    "My present IT guy is the same mainframe programmer and systems analyst I stole from Dun and Bradstreet in 1983-my son. He networked our PCs and Macs many moons ago, when the very idea was considered way out of the box." Balliett recommends advisors hire a full-time IT specialist if they can, "Preferably someone in the family who's willing to work 24/7, especially to meet challenges that others cannot comprehend."
    Tip #4 from Mary Gibson, CFP,
San Juan Bautista, Calif.: Find the
highest scorer.
    Gibson found and talked with a number of local business owners with IT issues and needs similar to hers. "I asked what IT consultant each one used and whether they would hire that person again. When two IT companies were consistently named, I interviewed them and went with the company that best fit my needs." (This approach, by the way, works well for finding all types of experts in your local community, be they CPAs, attorneys, etc.).
    Interestingly, our IT experts' advice sometimes confirms and sometimes contradicts what these advisors have learned. Kay Conheady is a financial advisor with Apropos Financial Planning in Rush, N.Y., but before starting her advisory firm she worked as an IT consultant for 15 years, so she knows both worlds. Max Barnett owns and manages Maximus I.T. Solutions in Albuquerque, N.M.
    Readers can take some comfort in the fact that Conheady's and Barnett's advice overlaps to a great degree. According to Barnett, finding a qualified IT consultant by word of mouth, or referral from a trusted party, is helpful, but look to the consultant's Web site for confirmation. "A quality Web site provides evidence of professionalism," says Barnett. Another indication of quality, says Conheady, is a local IT consulting firm with a five-year-plus track record. "A local company [with tenure] will be eager to maintain a good reputation in the area."
    "Specialization is the key to finding the appropriate agents to implement technical solutions," says Barnett, whose own company is departmentalized into fields of expertise consisting of employees and subcontractors with specialties in Web design, software development and networking. "This allows the right person to implement the right solution for you," Barnett explains. Conheady agrees, adding, "Know which individual employees of the consultancy will be assigned to your project and check their resumes, and interview them personally."
    Of course, this implies that the consulting firm you hire has more than just a handful of employees. "I wouldn't even meet with companies that have only one or a few employees," says Conheady. "I would seek a company that has many employees, because that increases the chances that the various specialties your business needs will be represented."
    Both Conheady and Barnett agree that you should seek a fixed price for the work you require. "Fixed-price contracts are more difficult to execute profitably," says Conheady. "If a consultancy has a track record of success with fixed-price contracts, this suggests they have truly expert people on staff." Barnett agrees. "Agree on a price up front. And while you're at it ... negotiate. Try to pay on a project basis and not hourly. If you can define your required outcome and the consultant is willing to commit to a clearly-stated cost, 'nickel-and-diming' will be a thing of the past."
    "Bid out your IT project or consulting needs," says Conheady. This process can tell you a lot about the quality of an IT consultant, she says, because the consultant must know what your needs entail and, therefore, must ask questions about your operation. Says Conheady, "They will only think to ask about the things they know about and have dealt with before. The more thorough their questions, the more depth of experience they have. Thoroughness is an indicator of success working in a fixed-price arena, as well."
Notice that neither Conheady nor Barnett have mentioned anything about credentials. In the financial planning arena, a CFP certification isn't a guarantee of a successful engagement but, without one, the planner may never land the client. And so it is with IT consulting; while IT credentials aren't unimportant, they're not, in and of themselves, predictors of a successful relationship.
    Nonetheless, says Barnett, you should expect certain certifications, such as the CompTIA A+ certification or Microsoft's MCSE certification. In the end, though, there's no substitute for professional experience. He adds, "Don't believe that hiring a 'quick learner' to master the technical setup of your business is a good idea just because he might be less expensive. Also, the difference between experience and professional experience is extremely important. Just because the kid next door is an experienced hacker doesn't mean he's going to be a reliable business associate."
    The choice is yours-trial and error or informed decision. Using the common-sense advice of our experts, you should be able to cut several years off your hunt for the right IT consultant. 

David J. Drucker, M.B.A., CFP, a financial advisor since 1981, now writes, speaks and consults with other advisors as president of Drucker Knowledge Systems.