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Tips for Tech Buying at a Small Business


For 20 years I've been a bit of an idiot when it comes to buying printers, expecting good performance on a lean budget. But now I'm smarter. And older. And balder. I've learned the right things to do when buying technology for my business. Just watch.

For starters, with my new printers, I'm going to expect to get what I pay for. For example, why do box seats at a baseball game cost more than the bleachers? Why does a BMW cost more than a Honda Civic? It's because good things just cost more. Same goes with technology. I can't expect a $159 printer to be the workhorse for my company. Same as why I shouldn't expect a free online project management app to be my company's primary business tool. Most technology I know doesn't work very well to begin with. The rule of thumb in buying technology, like anything else, is you get what you pay for. Expensive servers have more memory, hardware space, and processing power. Expensive databases can handle more data and more people at the same time. And pricey printers can handle more print jobs and produce better quality output than their cheaper counterparts.

Not that the more expensive products are more reliable. They're not. Most software vendors I know consider a product to be reliable if it works well 95 percent of the time. Thank God these people are not building airplanes. Cell phones have been around for 20 years, and I'm still dropping 10 calls a day. Cars have engine trouble. Network connections inexplicably slow down. Workstations lock up. I'm a naïve fool if I think my new printer will work 100 percent all the time, no matter who makes it.

Some Good Guidance

Any good buyer of technology will tell you this: make sure to have a good support system in place. All technology needs some kind of human service backing it up. When I bought the last printer, the guy at Staples offered me an annual service contract. And, being the idiot that I am, I said no, considering it just another way "Corporate America" rips off the hard-working business community. This time, I'll listen a little more closely. And when I purchase a new application or hardware, I'll make sure there's support for that, too.

When I buy that new printer, I'm going to have an exit strategy in mind. That's because all technology has a lifecycle. And the smart guys I know who buy technology have a good idea how long their technology will last. A friend of mine replaces the laptops his sales guys use every two years, whether they need it or not. That's because he's learned that laptops, particularly the low cost ones he buys, generally start having problems after two years on the road. Things deteriorate. I've learned that smart business owners don't wait for things to break.

Given the activity in my office, I think two years is a good run for a sub-$500 printer. Other technologies should last longer. A good Customer Relationship Management or accounting application should run 5 to 7 years. A server can go 3 to 5 years. A wife who keeps a clean house and makes good meals should last 30 to 40 years. A husband who thinks this way about his wife would last about 10 minutes. See? Everything has its lifespan.

I've been perusing the Internet looking at replacement printers, and I've found out another thing about buying technology: don't rely too heavily on user reviews. Tech stuff tends to get more attention on the Web than nontech stuff. There are too many websites with too many crazy people offering their views. I can't rely on other people's opinions all the time. Those like me who post comments online are but a small, statistically unreliable sample.

Where to Get Feedback

The best place to get reviews of smaller technologies, such as printers and workstations, are the such popular sites as Consumer Reports, PC Magazine, PC World and CNet (CBS). And the best place to get feedback on a business software application or service? Try the big job sites, such as Monster.com and CareerBuilder.com. Use the application's name in your keyword search, and you'll see companies listing jobs for people who have experience with it. That would lead you to believe the company is using the product. Call there and ask for someone in the department likely to be a user. Then ask that stranger how they like the product or service. People love to give their opinions—and you're getting the opinions of someone who wasn't fed to you by the vendor.

Another great place to see how well that potential technology works? Try the vendor's "forum" or "community." Most tech companies have them. Usually these forums can be found in the company's support section on their website. But many can now be found on Facebook or LinkedIn. Access is generally open to the public.

Finally, I need to understand the long-term costs of my purchase. I need to expect that even though a new printer may cost me only $299, the manufacturer will gouge me another $50 to $75 per month for inkjet cartridges. Or when I buy a new software application, the vendor will strong-arm me into renewing its annual maintenance, so I get "updates" and "support" and the ability to "purchase more licenses in the future" if I need. Can you believe this? It's true. A one-off purchase is rare when buying technology—be ready for a commitment. Smart technology buyers figure their costs over multiple years to calculate the equipment investment's true return. You should do the same—even for a cheap printer.

Gene_marks
Gene Marks, CPA, is the owner of the Marks Group, which sells customer relationship, service, and financial management tools to small and midsize businesses. Marks is the author of four best-selling small business books and writes the popular "Penny Pincher's Almanac" syndicated column. He frequently speaks to business groups on penny-pinching topics. More penny-pinching advice from Marks can be found at www.quickerbetterwiser.com.

Steve Ballmer, Power Forward
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