Tag Archives: phone systems

Small Business Blues: Trying to Get and Keep the Attention of Equipment Vendors is a Challenge

Faithful readers will remember previous posts we’ve written about “Tools of the Trade—What a Grant Writer Should Have” and “Tools, Grant Writing, and Small Businesses: How to Buy a Phone System,” both of which offer advice for finding great equipment. After 20 years in business, I’ve learned the hard way that it’s not always easy for a small business or nonprofit to get the attention of many equipment vendors.

I was reminded of this weird reality once again, as I struggled to get our new main office in the People’s Republic of Santa Monica functioning. The main challenge was our phone system. Over the past 15 years, we’ve had two Partner Mail systems. This system was originally made by AT&T, then Lucent, and eventually Avaya.

When we entered the movie in about 1998, Lucent vended these systems. Originally, however, Lucent refused to sell us a system because our business was “too small.” That’s right: sizism. I had to move up the Lucent food chain over several weeks to find a manager who understood that we wanted the Partner system because it would make up look bigger than we were at the time; it’s unusual for the client to beg a business to sell a product. The whole startup / small-business romance hadn’t saturated the media. Nonetheless Lucent eventually relented and deigned to sell us a system, cost about $6,000—a huge investment for back then.

We made the investment because the Partner Mail system was the gold standard of smaller PBX systems. While they have largely been replaced by VOIP systems, Partner Mail remains very reliable and valued in the used market. Our current system, a Partner Mail ACS 509, was part of the last generation ever made. We bought it new about five years ago for $2,000, demonstrating how the cost of technology has fallen over time. The Partner Mail system serves us well and I saw no need to change when we decided to move the office.

The downside of the Partner Mail system, however, is that it requires a skilled tech to install the interface with the telco landlines, and to program the system and phones, if needed (file this under “obvious foreshadowing”). It’s easy to get caught between the telcos—our old carrier was AT&T and the new carrier is Verizon—and the installer. The system can be installed by Avaya or by an Avaya “partner,” who are small telecom consultants.

When the time came to hitch up the wagons and mosey down the road to Santa Monica, we had to preserve the continuity of call forwarding and “800” service. I decided to use Avaya’s direct employees or contractors, rather than a partner, because I didn’t want to spend the time researching partners. I called Avaya two weeks before the move to ensure that their tech would be in our new office the same afternoon that Verizon got the dial tones working.

The Verizon guy showed up on time and did his thing. Then. . . nothing happened. No Avaya tech. I spent an hour on the phone with Avaya trying to figure out what went wrong. Talking to Avaya is like talking to HUD—the phone reps are bureaucrats, who are uninterested when they learn the caller represents a small business. It turned out that somehow the installation order was held, but no one called to let me know. The process would have to start again, which would mean a two-week delay in getting the system operational. I politely told them to piss up a rope and tried an AT&T 1080 all-in-one system sold by Amazon. That system, however, didn’t have properly functioning voicemail and useless, outsourced tech support.

I returned the 1080 phones and found a local Avaya partner who got the job done immediately. Not surprisingly, it turns there there is an “I hate Avaya” Facebook page, which I have so far declined to friend, but I’m thinking about it.

This also illuminates why most contemporary small businesses are probably better served by VOIP systems, which more companies vend and which doesn’t require tangling with a nasty organization like Avaya.

The Avaya experience reminded me of another negatory experience with a large technology vendor, Xerox, which also happened about 15 years ago. We had an old-world analog Xerox, a stand-alone fax machine, and various low-end printers. Xerox introduced a revolutionary hydra-headed networked digital high-speed copier, fax, printer and scanner, with lots of paper tray add-ons, a finisher and expresso maker.*

I read about this wonder in the Wall Street Journal: it was called a “Docucentre” and code-named “Hodaka,” as the machines were made in Japan. I immediately contacted Xerox sales, who told me. . . wait for it. . . our business was too small.

Another round of phone calls and meetings took place, during which I patiently explained that this device was perfect for a small, document-centric business like ours. The local Seattle reps eventually checked with Xerox central in Rochester and found that, not only would they lease us a Hodaka, but they would make Seliger + Associates the small business national test site for the product roll-out.

We went from “No” to free use of the machine for about six months and overwhelming in-person tech support. It was fun to visit focus group meetings with reps from other demonstration test sites, including Boeing and Weyerhauser. After the test period, we bought the machine at the then-astronomical price of $25,000. About five years ago, we put our Hodaka out to pasture and bought the new version, a WorkCentre 4250. When configured with four trays and a stand, the price came in at about $4,000.

The moral of these tales is simple: a small business or small nonprofit should be ruthless in acquiring the technology they need, even if vendors have to be dragged kicking and screaming to the party.


* The bit about the espresso maker is made up, but I want to see if you’re awake.

Tools, Grant Writing, and Small Businesses: How to Buy a Phone System

When Seliger + Associates moved its intergalactic headquarters to Tucson, we also decided to buy a new phone system under the assumption that prices were relatively low and hiring someone to set up our old system again would prove sufficiently difficult and expensive to justify buying a new one.

Doing so is harder than it looks—just like buying a copy machine, which I explained at the link. Most of us, if we’ve worked in institutions or large business, are used to having a phone magically appear on our desks. But if we’re suddenly in a group of, say, five or ten, someone has to buy the phone system. This time around, that person was me.

There are a few basic strategies that small organizations can use for phones these days: (1) they can use their existing cell/mobile/home phones, (2) they can use Internet lines through outfits like Vonage, Skype, and Google Voice, (3) they can buy a Voice over Internet Protocol (“VoIP”) “box” through companies like Digium, or (4) they can buy a box that works with copper lines through Nortel, Avaya, and the like.

One of the biggest problems is simply understanding the difference among these approaches. Another is understanding the differences between a) the manufacturers of these systems and b) the vendors who actually sell / install them.

We ultimately went with option 4 and purchased an Avaya system that runs through plain old telephone system (POTS) lines. We did so largely because it’s probably the most reliable. In addition, we previously owned an ancient Avaya system and already had the mandatory, very expensive proprietary handsets. Here are the issues with the first three alternatives:

1) It’s tempting for small businesses and nonprofits to use personal phones as their primary business lines as well. Don’t do that if you can avoid it; if you don’t believe me, go read Personal Phone Numbers For Business, Yeah That Was A Mistake… on BigStartups.com. A quote:

[T]hrough the magic of the Internet and networked computer systems, contact information tends to get syndicated to dozens of places when it is first entered. Often it does not get updated when the original source does.

Once you start using personal numbers for business, it’ll be hard to stop. That’s one reason to get an 800 number if you’re facing customers: it will be portable wherever you might move. Our 800 number—800-540-8906, for those of you wondering—has followed Seliger + Associates from northern California to Seattle to Tucson. If you use personal numbers, people will also be able to figure out that you’re primarily using cell phones, and you’ll look unprofessional or amateurish. Also, do you really want to field fevered phone calls from crazed clients at 3:00 A.M.?

2) Consumer VoIP outfits like Vonage, Skype, and Google Voice have problems of their own. Vonage customer service is notoriously terrible. Skype is okay, especially for international calls, but doesn’t transfer calls from receptionist areas to back areas easily, doesn’t have professional voicemail (as far as I know), and has no real customer service when something breaks. Google Voice requires existing phone lines. All of these problems can be overcome, but if the overriding goal is never to have to think about phones, this isn’t the way to go.

3) Outfits like Digium are okay, and its vendors sell boxes that sit somewhere in your office. You plug existing landlines in or set them up boxes with Internet access. These systems are slightly less expensive than the solution we went with, but it was harder to find vendors for this, and we didn’t want to have the same points of failure for Internet access and phones. In other words, even if there is a power outage that takes down Internet service, we still have an option, since phone systems using POTS lines like Avaya will still produce a dial tone at the point where the POTS lines go into the Avaya box.

That left us with copper providers.

Phone systems have a zillion features; look at some of them here, although beware that the link goes to a vendor website. As I said earlier, perhaps the hardest part of dealing with phones involves finding out who sells them: the big manufacturers are Avaya, Nortel, Panasonic, Toshiba, and Mitel. The best way to start getting prices is by searching for “Avaya Vendor,” “Nortel Vendor,” and so on in Google. Then call the manufacturer to find a local vendor. These pages are probably going to be hard to navigate and understand. Once you have a list of resellers, you’ll have to call each one for a quote. Some manufacturers have multiple vendors in your area. You’ll need to know things like:

* How many lines you want.
* How many handsets you need.
* How far you might need your system to expand—will you need four lines, or forty?
* How many voicemail boxes do you need?
* The number of technicians and/or service people the vendor has, along with their location.
* The cost of a 36 month lease, a 60 month lease, and whether it’s a regular lease or a “fair market value” lease.
* The bottom line cost of outright purchasing a system.
* Installation fees.
* The warranty.
* Timing—when can it be installed?

Once you start asking these questions, you’ll be inundated with information and quotes that are hard to compare. You should build a spreadsheet in Excel or another spreadsheet program. Mine has about 30 rows and 12 columns. In addition, almost all of this has to be done by phone: that’s why it will probably take at least a full day of work just to get bids, understand the systems you’re dealing with, and figure out who the vendors in your area are.

If you’ve read this, however, you at least have a place to start and know a few of the questions you’ll want to ask. Perhaps the best thing you can do is ask a lot of questions of your local vendors and preface those questions with, “I’ve never done this before, so explain the choices in terms a novice can understand.” (You can also ask questions in the comments section of this post.) Like car dealers, some vendors will try to upsell you, or tell you that you need more of a system than you think you do. By the same token, as with car dealers, patience and fortitude might be the difference of thousands of dollars. Like a car, you will live with your small business phone system for years, so take the time to get it right.