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Almost two decades ago, Christopher Barber thought computers were going to be the wave of the future. But he had a problem. He didn't know enough about them. So he built one, to teach himself more. Then, the machine stopped working, so he took it to a local computer repair shop.
“The experience was horrible," he says. “They talked down to me, charged me an arm and a leg, and even made fun of me for bringing in the power cable with the computer tower."
That's when he realized what the IT world needed—a customer-first repair service. The result was Cheaper Than a Geek, which started working with customers in 2000 in Crofton, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, D.C. Today's Barber's prime niche is small business with less than 100 employees, who need networks and systems but likely can't afford a full-time IT department.
1. How has your business grown since you started it?
Initially, we provided residential-only support. We have diversified our offerings to include commercial clients as well. There is some natural synergy by catering to both types of clients.For example, we provide empathetic support to our commercial clients based on years of experience being empathetic with technologically-challenged clients. And we bring enterprise-grade IT solutions priced for the residential marketplace based on our commercial experience.
You might be surprised how often there are residual issues the client does not communicate. Following up catches these issues before they fester.
—Christopher Barber, founder, Cheaper Than a Geek
2. What hurdles have you overcome in running your business?
Founding a customer-service-centric company is even harder than it sounds. In addition to the extra time and financial investment to provide a higher level of customer service, many aspects of the IT industry needed to be tackled in a completely different way to accomplish this goal.
There were several facets that need to be addressed. First and foremost—pricing. We adopted a fixed-price model wherever possible, so the client has a concrete cost up front. It's easier on the client, and very disruptive to the way IT was done previously, which was usually an hourly rate that often spiraled out of control, particularly when incompetence was involved on the IT provider side. That's frustrating for the client, because often the cost is a mystery until the end, and the less adept the IT provider, the more the bill is. Flat-rate pricing aligns the IT provider and the client's goals.
Also, client communication is key. All phone calls are answered by a live human, typically within 18 seconds. We have a strict “No Nerd Talk" policy—we communicate in plain English, which our clients appreciate. And we follow up services with a phone call the following week to ensure continued client satisfaction. You might be surprised how often there are residual issues the client does not communicate. Following up catches these issues before they fester.
3. What would you want other business owners to know about starting or running a business?
Make sure you do you homework before starting. There is a lot of competition out there. Really understand your target market. Ask them what they need. Then build a solution that doesn't exist that fits that need. And sell the heck out of it.
4. What has been your most memorable moment as a business owner?
One of my favorite stories involves a client who called in one day and simply stated: “Chris, I need you to save my marriage."
This client's wife was a government employee and subject to periodic background checks. One of these checks was afoot, and they were requested to provide the last three years of their tax returns. The problem was, this client had accidentally disposed of the paper documents, and the computer that housed the digital copies would no longer boot. He had mistakenly told his wife both copies were on hand and later realized he had neither. Long story short, we were able to retrieve the needed documents and our client was able to avoid sleeping on the couch.
5. What's the biggest mistake most small or mid-size firms make when it comes to IT?
Not taking data backups seriously enough. Human error, ransomware and hardware failures claim data every day. You must, must, must have regular, automated backups that are periodically checked to ensure it's all being backed up properly.