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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 This system was originally made by AT&T, then Lucent, and eventually Avaya.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 While they have largely been replaced by VOIP systems, Partner Mail remains very reliable and valued in the used market.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.

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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 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.

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Tools, Grant Writing, and Small Businesses: How to Buy a Digital (Networked) Copy-Printer-Fax-Scan Machine

Buying a copy machine is harder than I thought.

It became a necessary task when Seliger + Associates decamped from Seattle to Tucson and decided to replace most of its aging office equipment. I got tagged with the assignment. This is the first of several posts on my experience.

You’ll end up spending a lot of time researching equipment, especially if you have the specific requirements we do: Mac OS X support, hydra-headed capabilities (print/copy/scan/fax), fast speed, low supply cost, and great tech support/service. This post is designed to share some of what I learned in hopes that your process won’t be as arduous as mine.

I would love for this post to be shorter, but, alas, it’s just not very easy to explain the “how” and “why” with sufficient depth and detail in a small space. But for people who really face the networked copy machine problem, as I did, the guide should be incredibly useful. It’s broken up into sections to facilitate using whatever pieces you find most relevant.

1. Why go Through This Process?

The cost of copy machines that met our criteria was in the neighborhood of $3,000 to $10,000, depending on whether we went color or black and white. That made it very much worth our time to shop with care for reasons that, if they’re not obvious, mean that you probably won’t care about the rest of this post.

In addition, copy machines have a million little features that make comparison shopping difficult. Envelope feeders, for example, can make an enormous difference in the utility of a machine. If you have to get up and manually insert an envelope once a day, or even once a week, you might have your work flow disrupted for 15 minutes, leaving aside the couple of minutes it will take you to walk to the machine and back. If your time is worth virtually anything at all, the more efficient, right machine is worth finding and buying.

2. How Big Networked Copiers Are Sold

If you buy, say, a computer, you go to Apple’s online store, or Dell’s, or whoever’s, pick your model and accessories, give them your credit card number, and wait for your iMac to show up. Network copy systems don’t work that way: you want buy a particular company’s product, but there is usually more than one “channel” through which the devices are sold. The channel you buy from affects who provides the service and the price you pay. Sometimes the companies provide direct purchase options, but you’re more likely to have to deal with local vendors. Either way, you’ll probably need to get on the phone and make some calls. In this respect, buying a new copy machine is more like buying a new car than buying a computer. You’ll also find that you can lower prices through negotiations, taking me back to the car shopping analogy. Try asking Apple for a discount because a Dell notebook is cheaper.

Service contracts are essential, as is how the service is provided. Large copy machines are incredibly complex and tend to shake themselves apart over time. So you’re not just buying a machine—you’re buying the company and service arrangement that go with it. It’s sort of like getting married: you get the mother-in-law and crazy Uncle Joe in the basement along with the bride.

3. Where to Find Manufacturers

Manufacturers of digital print/copy/fax/scanning machines include Xerox, Lexmark, Kyocera, Ikon/Ricoh (now the same company), HP, Toshiba, Konica/Minolta, and Panasonic. If you go to the website of each company and begin drilling down, you’ll find a “contact us” page that’ll deliver you to their local vendors (or deliver their local vendors to you). You’re often better off calling the local dealers rather than waiting; some of the on-line forms I filled out didn’t elicit responses for weeks. So much for working at the speed of light or “Internet time.”

If the companies offer a national contact line, call and then ask for local vendors. That will sometimes yield unexpected and useful results for your geographic area.

4. Narrowing the List

We ruled out a few of the companies based on reputation: many of the vendors we talked to who displayed grudging respect for their competitors thought Kyocera weak, and the Kyocera vendor in Tucson didn’t seem particularly on the ball. We also eliminated Toshiba relatively quickly using those metrics. The obvious contenders were Xerox, Lexmark, Konica/Minolta, Ricoh, and Canon. Unfortunately, there is no equivalent of Consumer Reports for small- to medium-sized businesses, so you’re stuck basically evaluating machines on reputation, advertised features, and price.

If you’re in a relatively big market like Seattle, or a really big market, like New York, you’ll be able to find a couple of sufficiently large vendors for each product. If you’re in Tucson or similar city, you’ll probably find only one or two. In Tucson, I found a variety of vendors, including Arizona Office Technology, IKON Office Solutions, Inc., Digital Business Systems, Copygraphix, Inc., Action Imaging, and a few others.

5. Our Criteria, Including OS X Support

We wanted a networked, standalone machine that would print in black and white, scan in color, copy, and fax. It should be fast enough to produce proposals, but speed wasn’t our main criteria.

We do little color printing, and although vendors promised color printing for “only” $500 – $1,000 more, that capability wasn’t worth the cost for us. We’d rather get a standalone color printer like a Xerox Phaser 6280N, which we ended up buying, or its equivalent. These will cost about $400 – $500. Even a standalone photo printer would probably do this trick, but vendors will try to upsell you to copy machines that print in color. If you don’t do a fair amount of color printing, I don’t think it worth upgrading, particularly because supplies for color machines are much more expensive than black and white.

In addition, all of our office computers are Macs, so OS X support was vital—which I’ll elaborate on in tremendous detail below. This counts. When I walk into a copy vendor, what would really be nice is for them to install whatever software and drivers they need on my MacBook and use it for the demonstration. That would impress me. Almost none of them could or would do it.

6. Further Narrowing the List

Once I had an approximate list of vendors, as opposed to companies, I began getting price quotes. Most salespersons will first want to jawbone you, which can be somewhat useful but isn’t nearly as interesting as the bottom line. In short, you’ll spend between 20 minutes and half an hour on the phone or in person with each vendor, during which time you’ll describe what you want and which, if any, other machines you’ve looked at. Expect to spend close to a full day on this if you want genuinely competitive bids.

7. Warning: Vendors Will Try to Waste Your Time

Much like buying a car, if you walk into what is in effect a dealership for copy machines, they will want to give you their whole sales spiel. Don’t be afraid to say, “No,” “I don’t care,” or “I don’t want to hear it.” For us, copy speed above about 30 or so pages per minute is fairly unimportant, but that didn’t stop vendors from telling us over and over that their machine goes to 50. That’s wonderful, pumpkin, but not of great interest to us.

They’ll also want to sit down and discuss their quotes in detail and give you more marketing materials. This is useless unless you have competitors’ quotes and specs right there. Try to avoid this to the extent possible.

That being said, going in can tell you some useful things. In the case of the attractive-on-paper Lexmark unit, it told us that their envelope feeder wasn’t adequate. We want automatic envelope printing capability, and once we figured out the Lexmark didn’t really have a solution, the machine was an unlikely buy.

8. Attention Companies: Show Me OS X Support

When I type in “Xerox OS X” into Google right now, the first result is “Mac OS X 10.4: Some Xerox printers may require newer PPDs.” “Canon OS X” gets me “Mac OS X 10.5: Canon inkjet printer cannot scan.” Ricoh is slightly better—”Ricoh OS X” gets me Products&Solutions | Compatibility of Mac OS X | Ricoh Global, which is a slight improvement, but it’s still just a product page. “IKON OS X” brings me a bunch of stuff about telescopes, and so on. If you’re a big vendor, you might want to create a dedicated OS X page that promises you’re going to have compatibility and support.

Contrast that with Microsoft’s approach: if you type in “Office OS X,” the first page up is a friendly one directed at the great team for Microsoft Office 2008 for Mac. “Google OS X” brings me Google Software Downloads for the Mac.”

If I’m praising Microsoft for doing something right, you can be assume that your tech company is doing something terribly wrong. I should be able to type “” and find all sorts of whiz-bang stuff about Xerox’s awesome Mac support, which they have, but apparently are too dense to advertise. That would give me vastly more confidence than vendors who say, “Oh, yeah, we have PostScript Drivers.” In this class of machine, everyone does. Tell me more.

Only one company is smart enough to have figured this out: Lexmark. Google “Lexmark OS X” and you get Mac OS X — Lexmark United States. Nice. That’s exactly what I want. If only they met the envelope tray requirement.

9. Why Does OS X Confidence Count?

We can usually solve low-level problems that yield their secrets through Google searches of error messages and the like. At our still-low level of technical sophistication, problems are more likely to occur will be in the class of those Frederick Brooks describes in The Mythical Man Month: “The most pernicious and subtle bugs are system bugs arising from mismatched assumptions made by the authors of various components.” In the case of complex machines like the ones we’re looking at, those can and have been fiendishly difficult.

This has been a problem in the past. The worst thing that can happen to end users of these kinds of systems is a blame-game problem: Apple tells you to talk to Ricoh, and Ricoh tells you to talk to Apple, and no one wants to solve your problem. If you, a copier vendor, say that you will make sure your machine works with the latest version of OS X, damnit, come hell or high water, I’m going to buy your machine over a rival’s. If you promise to solve all my problems, regardless of who is at fault, I’ll be more likely to buy your machine.

10. Service Contracts Count Too

If you lease machines, service will often come with the lease. If you buy a machine, you’ll usually get a service contract that covers virtually everything: parts, diagnostics, etc. In some cases, the service may be “hidden” in a cost/copy charge. This means you have to factor service into the price and also decide if you want a stand alone service contract or a cost/copy charge. If this isn’t confusing enough, most of these machine, such as those sold by Xerox, actually come with a one-year warranty. But that won’t stop some vendors from trying to charge for service from day one. In addition, if the vendor is going to provide the service, rather than the manufacturer, you’ll probably want to go with a slightly larger outfit than a slightly smaller one: if the vendor you buy from has two people servicing machines, and one has a baby while the other gets appendicitis, you’ll have trouble getting your machine serviced.

In addition, if you buy a machine, remember to add the cost of your service contract to the bottom line when you compare buying versus leasing.

11. The Contenders

We picked the following machines for final consideration: the Xerox WorkCentre Pro 5225, Xerox WorkCentre Pro 5632, Xerox WorkCentre 4250, Ricoh Aficio MP 2050, Ricoh Aficio MP 2550, Canon imageRUNNER 3225, Konica/Minolta Bizhub 282, and Lexmark X654de. They all hit the major feature requirements. Some of them had better local vendors than others. I did the best I could getting apples-to-apples bids from each of them and learned a lot about copy machines in the process. Some important questions to ask that I didn’t know to ask at the beginning:

* How many local technicians do you have?
* What is the interest rate on the lease? Please include that in your bid.
* What is the probable fair market value of the machine at the end of your lease?
* What does the service contract include?
* Which phone number do we call (national or local vendor) when something breaks? Can we call both?
* Do you use old parts in new machines?

Those questions all came from conversations. I could never have learned that I needed to ask them from looking at websites.

12. Our Decision and Rationale (With Photos!)

We went with the Xerox 4250X, upgraded to four paper trays, because we previously had a Xerox digital machine for over ten years with excellent Mac support that worked reasonably well:


Also, this machine has the ability to print up to 50 envelopes from a standard paper tray, eliminating the need for a dedicated envelope tray. But if we’d gone through this process two months prior, we might’ve picked the Lexmark; our original Xerox quote came to $7,625 for one of the bigger machines. By asking a lot of questions, we ended up paying several thousand dollars less for a machine that actually better meets our needs. Xerox and its vendors have evidently figured out that premium pricing in a weak economy isn’t a brilliant move and were willing to negotiate on price.

The Lexmark was also a strong contender, but it looked a bit like an alien device had been mounted on a paper tray, and it couldn’t take a dedicated envelope tray and couldn’t print envelopes from the standard trays. The physicality of the Xerox was probably the best of the machines we saw. It cost less than the larger machines; although it can’t do color, it has the other features we need. The display is bright and easy-to-use, it prints at 45 PPM, and duplexes. Incidentally, the machine it replaced, our trusty DocuCentre 432 cost about $25,000 in 1998, while the new 4250X, fully configured was less than $4,200. That’s what I call good deflation. And the user interface is far easier to use:


Once we decided on the 4250X, the next decision was where to buy it. Xerox has three distribution channels: buying directly from Xerox, from an authorized reseller, or from a so called “agent.” In Tucson, the reseller is Arizona Office Technology (AOT), a wholly owned Xerox subsidiary and a fairly large company, while the agent is Tucson Copy & Xerographics, a mom & pop operation.

Both Xerox Direct and Tucson Copy had the same price, with service through Xerox central. AOT was considerably higher in price and does their own service. Based on our years of experience with Xerox, we like the idea of getting service and tech support directly from Xerox. This is particularly important for Mac users, as one can actually get to a knowledgeable engineer that specializes in Macs by calling the Xerox “800” support number. There are lot of guys & gals with toolboxes who can fix copiers, but, when it is a software or driver problem, you want someone who can find the right person at Apple or Microsoft to resolve it. We also like paying less for equipment and were charmed by the small business aspect of Tucson Copy, so they got our business.


Nonprofits and small businesses of up to about 50 employees probably face the exact same problems we do is selecting equipment. Larger offices and institutions tend to have purchasing managers who are dedicated to handling jobs like these. Now I understand why. We only needed to buy one networked copier—I can only imagine what buying and deploying 10 or 100 would entail.

But many if not most of our readers who are with nonprofits or small public agencies are probably going to face the same frustrating problems I had in trying to balance efficiency, productivity, cost and the like. The last time we faced these issues, I was too young to work for Seliger + Associates and the word “blog” hadn’t even been coined—so Isaac had to go through the process of searching and sorting office equipment systems on his own. My big hope is that this series of posts saves readers some of the pain I’ve gone through.

And picking office machines like this is a pain, but it’s a worthwhile one. The top bids we received were close to $8,000. The machine we eventually picked costs closer to $4,000, as noted above. Some of the vendors were willing to drop their prices to match competitors, provided we could show those vendors real bids. So, buying a digital copier is pretty much like buying a Honda, without to give you information on pricing and reviews. I wish someone else had written this article before I started the process so that I could’ve read it.