In Computers We Trust

Building Trust - GET IT???

                                 Building Trust – pun intended.

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I’ve recently been mulling over the possibility of starting a computer-related consulting gig in my spare time. And as with any decision to enter into a particular market it’s important to understand the answers to some basic questions:

  • What value can I offer?
  • What differentiates me from everyone else?
  • What business activities are worth my time?

That last one might seem a bit egocentric at first glance, but with a new addition to our family set to arrive in May, it’s probably the most important consideration given that “spare time” will quickly become a scarce if not altogether non-existent commodity. But even beyond that, what type of consulting work would be worth the effort to me? Remember, this isn’t going to be my day job or a significant portion of income. Rather, I’d be more apt to describe it as a self-funding hobby.

Moving back to the first question: “what value can I offer?” This is a question that has evolved with my skill set and experience over time. When once I would be limited to basic hardware and software troubleshooting, I am now able to address (humbly) some of the larger questions in technology such as ecosystems, trends, and usage recommendations. As a result of my enthusiastic fascination with all things technological (as clearly exemplified by the weekly podcast I’ve been co-hosting for almost 4 years now), I have at the very least spent a lot of time thinking and pontificating about these issues. The hope is I’ve marginally increased my expertise – and can offer a wider range of consulting services.

But the second question, “what differentiates me from everyone else?” has persistently escaped me. Maybe I’m just really good at playing devil’s advocate, but the challenge in a relatively ‘flat’ world of technology (where physical location means little) is that you’re competing with essentially the entire world for customers on the Internet. How ’bout them odds? The chances are high that someone else is out there already doing it better, faster, or cheaper.

And that’s when I started to think about how any local IT shop can afford to operate in a world of online computer stores like Amazon.com and NewEgg.com or local chains like MicroCenter and Best Buy. What differentiates those tiny local IT competitors from the giants? Well, it would be disingenuous and intellectually dishonest to claim THE answer to such a question, but I can pose AN answer for A reason for their continued existence: TRUST.

Perhaps a better (although less catchy) title for this post could have been “Who Do We Trust With Our Computers?” And while I find myself as a male stereo-typically drawn toward car analogies for this, it’s not far off. Why do less car-savvy people (like yours truly) generally dislike having a car repaired at an auto-body shop? One reason is that it’s usually never inexpensive. But another is that it’s hard to understand or at least independently verify the accuracy of the diagnosis and have a ballpark estimate for what the cost of the repair and parts should be. Or even that something actually does need repaired! In many ways, you’re at the mercy of the mechanic repairing your car for an honest and truthful diagnosis.

Especially as cars have become ever more computerized, it’s becoming difficult for even car enthusiasts and tinkerers to know enough to provide a second opinion. And it’s difficult to achieve an economically efficient outcome (by which I mean neither side getting a huge advantage) when there is asymmetric information (one side has more information than the other). The car repair shop knows how much the parts and labor cost, and what repairs are actually necessary from the raw diagnostic data. But for a lot of consumers (ok, maybe I’m projecting a bit here from personal experience) their ability to make informed decisions on what they should reasonably pay for or what parts they should have repaired is quite limited.

As with a trusted mechanic, a lot can be said for the relationship and trust established that the mechanic will offer an honest and truthful recommendation for repairs and not over-charge for parts or labor. It’s not easy to achieve this level of trust, but once established it can become a powerful engine for future business and new customers (on referral). Please understand that I’m fully aware this is not some grand revelation at all: small town businesses have been relying on this approach probably since the dawn of commerce.

But while car repair shops have been around since automobiles were first introduced at the beginning of the 20th century, computer repair shops have had relatively little time to soak into the fabric of modern Western economies. That said, the mechanism by which trust is established and made manifest in the success of a business can be identified as a factor in the continued existence of computer repair shops. Notice I’m not saying the “flourishing of” or “booming industry of” computer repair shops. There’s a lot of other factors that have made that business a lot less fruitful than in the past (online support, technology-as-services, consumer electronics-ization of computing devices like smartphones and tablets). But for those that remain and continue to do business, trust likely plays an important (and unsung) role.

The other meta-issue with computer consulting is the Internet is a sea of potential scam artists and spammers. Ask anyone about his or her opinion of the value that spam, spyware, or ostensibly “free” applications have brought to our online and computer-based experiences, and the frustrations will be quickly forthcoming. Installing an application from the Internet has become a veritable minefield of fake and misleading links. And with the barrage of phishing scams and fake antivirus programs that are trampling over each other to try to install themselves on your computer, it can become analogous to giving someone counter-intelligence training to outsmart and out-maneuver these attempts. Knowing which email messages, error messages, and download sites to trust is a big challenge by itself.

So, what does this discussion yield for my own considerations of a future consulting business? I think there’s an important kernel in the role of trust in economic transactions with substantial asymmetries of information, such as with computers. When consumers have no inkling whether they are being given accurate information or are being taken advantage of, the ability to establish trust in such a business could provide a much more stable and mutually rewarding relationship. Granted, trusting someone with an economic self-interest in maximizing profits always has moral hazard potential, but what if that hazard was put directly in the spotlight at all times to negate most of that risk?

And that’s really where my current attention is drawn for an ability to differentiate in computer consulting. Trust. That’s not the sort of business model one would necessarily want for a full-time occupation or start-up (since the target market is tiny at least to begin with), but for a side gig that meets the original three questions? Well, perhaps it’s just the right fit.

  • What value can I offer?
    • Trusted advice on computer and technology-related needs that places accuracy and honesty of recommendation first and foremost.
  • What differentiates me from everyone else?
    • Separating margins/sales/vendors from the incentive to provide accurate advice. Rather than a consulting service that you might happen to trust, it’s a trusted service that provides consulting. Just semantics, right? Not really. While the first version (consulting service that you trust) is only established after at least one (usually more) iteration of business, the second version (trusted service that provides consulting) makes trust the differentiating factor and initial lead into business transactions: you wouldn’t ask for technology consulting if you didn’t already trust them.
  • What business activities are worth my time?
    • Circling back to this question, I think the foundations of such a trust-first, consult-later approach would necessarily (and by design) limit the potential clientele to a range that would provide meaningful and (hopefully) positive business interactions. Time spent not earning a regular paycheck or sleeping better be pretty darned worth it to take time away from family.

So, would you prefer a trusted computer consulting service enough to choose it over something like the Geek Squad? Let me know, because this isn’t just a rhetorical question!

And yeah, I’m back to blogging again after a long hiatus (again).  🙂

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