A smart choice can help grow your business; a poor one can lead to disasterEditor's Note: Technology Partners is a new monthly column written by members of the\u00a0Information Technology Solution Providers Association.Hear the fan whirring, the belts whining and the engine grinding? That\u2019s the sound of your technology infrastructure getting older by the minute. Most small businesses updated their equipment in 1999 to head off a Y2K catastrophe. By the time they needed more high-powered resources, we were in the throes of a recession.But today, with the economy on the rise and infrastructure growing outdated, SMBs are again turning to technology partners (a.k.a., value-added resellers, systems integrators, channel partners or IT solution providers) to help upgrade their systems and guide them to the best technology choices for the future.\u00a0Picking the right partner is not trivial. A wrong choice can lead to disaster, from damaged data and poorly designed systems to outright theft of prepaid fees. But a smart choice can be key to creating explosive growth for your business, enhancing your workflow, lowering your costs and relieving your IT headaches.To get started in your search, query your friends and colleagues. Call equipment manufacturers and software publishers from whom you purchased equipment. They can refer you to certified vendors in your area. Avoid the temptation to choose an IT partner after seeing a cool newspaper ad, receiving an interesting cold call or by perusing the Yellow Pages.Next, look for these crucial characteristics:Industry know-it-alls. Your VAR should understand your industry, the idiosyncrasies of your business and be able to demonstrate how it\u2019s solved similar problems for other clients like you. This ensures it\u2019s not re-inventing the wheel to solve each new challenge. While specific experience in your market is helpful, it\u2019s not always necessary, even thought there are channel partners specializing in everything from medical to retail and even construction.Technical sheepskins. By earning important technical certifications, an IT organization demonstrates its commitment to investing in itself and its people. Look for certifications on both the individual and company-wide level. Every VAR should be a Microsoft Certified Solution Provider. Individuals should have some level of certification specific to their specialty and\/or in vertical-market software, such as Great Plains. There are hundreds of certifications, even for sales and service personnel. Manufacturers and publishers \u2013\u2013 including HP, Cisco, Citrix and NetScreen \u2013\u2013 also provide them.Gray hair. IT services companies come and go. But those that have built a history and thrived in recent years have earned their good reputations. Search the Web and look for press releases and news articles. Check the firm\u2019s status with the Better Business Bureau. And research public records to find out how often it has have been in court. Finally, don\u2019t be shy about asking the firm to provide proof of its financial stability.Living, breathing references. Take asking for references a step further by making an appointment to meet a reference face to face at his facility. Ask to see the work your potential VAR has performed. Ask the VAR to drill down into the customer\u2019s project and listen to how he speaks to it, from high-level insights to technical detail. Ask about the sales, delivery and post-delivery support stages as well.A fair shake. Carefully review service-level agreements and other contracts to be sure they are fair to all sides. Explore what\u2019s to be included, such as solution performance, uptimes and support response times. It is important to find a comfortable middle ground, where all parties are provided with guarantees for performance and an ability to terminate the relationship if those guarantees are not met. And, of course, all commitments must be in writing.A well-oiled machine. Ask for the details of the VAR\u2019s standard operating procedures and project methodologies. If these systems don\u2019t exist, move on. Make sure you can live with the firm\u2019s current policies and procedures in every department, from logging emergency support calls to accounting and billing. Demand to meet with the highest-level executives. Upfront, face-to-face relationships with the CEO, CFO, CIO and others always help you make decisions and solve problems. Also, ask to meet with all technical people involved with your account, from project managers to application developers.A pretty face. Last, take a tour of the VAR\u2019s facilities. You can learn a great deal about an IT organization by the way it keeps its offices \u2014 and its own technology infrastructure. If you walk in and everyone\u2019s dressed in tank tops and flip flops, beware!Levi is chairman of the Information Technology Solution Providers Alliance. He\u2019s also president of\u00a0 Aztec Systems, an IT services provider in Carrollton, Texas.