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

June 23rd, 2013 · by Isaac Seliger · 1 Comment

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 This system was originally made by AT&T, then Lucent, and eventually Avaya.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 While they have largely been replaced by VOIP systems, Partner Mail remains very reliable and valued in the used market.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