Worried about cloud innovations that make it easier for customers to self-serve their IT needs? The abundance of cheap tech goods available from super stores at prices lower than what even you can source them?

You’re hardly alone. Partners nationwide have fretted over the rise of the “self-service” business for years. The VAR Guy sat down with Seth Robinson, Senior Director, Technology Analysis at CompTIA, to get some insight to how small business owners can benefit from engaging a channel partner early on. Here’s what we learned.

It starts small

Self-serve IT begins with the basics. It includes all of the computers, printers, scanners and routers customers buy on their own without partner intervention or assistance. The amount purchased this way may surprise you. According to a 2015 report from CompTIA, “Enabling SMBs With Technology,” many of these customers make their technology purchases either from an online retailer or a local brick-and-mortar store. In fact, only a third of technology purchases from businesses with 10–99 employees go through an IT solution provider, VAR or tech consultant. The smaller the company, the greater the tendency toward do-it-yourself (DIY) IT; companies with under 10 employees only purchase 16 percent of their IT needs through the channel.

But as Robinson notes, it is becoming riskier and more difficult for businesses to maintain DIY IT in the long-term as technology becomes an ever-growing part of business and sales operations. IT infrastructure is no longer just about setting up a minimal viable architecture, but now encompasses how operations interact further up the stack. Companies are turning to software-as-a-service (SaaS) applications they can get from the cloud for basic line-of-business (LOB) systems for functions related to accounting, human resources or marketing.

The problem with piecemealing

Making these systems work together to produce business intelligence (BI) and actionable data requires a level of technical savvy many business owners know they do not possess. It’s at this point they typically turn to a professional for system integration. Unfortunately, because their IT infrastructure has been piecemealed and running in separate silos, it can be more difficult (and more expensive) to create one cohesive environment than if it had been architected that way from the beginning using APIs to tie together data from different departments.

The study reveals that many of these self-service customers actually want your support. This is especially true when it comes to higher value services devoted to business analytics, security and business continuity. Your best opportunities, in other words, are tied to providing customers deeper insights and more peace of mind. According to the report, 42 percent of those polled cited data management as a top technology concern, and an equal number said IT security was a high priority.

What they don’t know about cybersecurity can definitely hurt them

The biggest risk SMBs face with self-service IT is security. Robinson points out that some business owners don’t realize the blanket term “security” actually refers to multiple areas of risk. They see security as safeguarding their business operations from interruption by a hacker or bad actor. While data security is part of what is at risk with DIY tech, today’s complex regulatory and technological environments mean companies have to worry about privacy and compliance, too.

These are the truly tricky waters that small business owners may not be equipped to navigate. As the recent standoff between Apple and the FBI shows, there are still a lot of gray areas when it comes to privacy. Someone running an SMB probably isn’t on the front lines of those discussions, but their customers and partners will still expect their data to be protected according to the latest regulations. And once a business begins utilizing the cloud, compliance becomes a critical area of security concern as data begins to cross state lines. The different industry-specific regulations regarding what can be kept on the public cloud, what can stay on the private cloud and what must be housed on-premises can be vastly complex.

IT isn’t optional

Robinson compares IT to more traditionally outsourced functions such as insurance, accounting or legal that should be considered part of the cost of doing business instead of a one-time transaction. “I think about the discussion being one of technology as a vital, necessary piece of the business instead of a nice-to-have,” says Seth Robinson, Senior Director, Technology Analysis at CompTIA.

IT spend for SMBs is no longer about just buying a new server or a new software license. It’s about regular, ongoing investments in security and infrastructure that will safeguard data and ensure uninterrupted operations in today’s environment.

IT specialists need to up their game

IT, says Robinson, is no longer just about the technology. Where channel partners can prove their value best is in providing knowledge that marries business expertise with technological tools to help SMBs reach their objectives. A third party IT solutions provider should be equally familiar with the regulatory environment and individual customers’ processes and goals as they are with technology. “A channel partner has to bring all of that to the table together and make sure that the business needs are being met as quickly and as efficiently as possible, but also that the business is being secured and all the pieces are working together.”

The challenge for companies with limited resources is making the decision to invest in IT as a fundamental piece of business success. VARs, solution providers, system integrators and MSPs may not face as much of an uphill battle here as they might think.