It's tempting to acquire office services and products one by one when you start a small business. But researching the mishmash of hardware, software and services can be more confusing, time-consuming and expensive than necessary if you research and piece out purchasing decisions on your own

So, how do you make the best choices? Fortunately, many companies that used to sell one product or service, such as copiers or basic phone connections, are now focused on integrated solutions for clients: an ever-growing range of hardware and software options, flexible and powerful telecommunications, and economical data storage and management services.

Entrepreneurs and small businesses can turn to just a couple of providers to help them choose and take advantage of technology, build in options for future growth and get some expert consultation in the bargain. Work closely with potential vendors during the evaluation process so you can take advantage of their experience and determine if their products and services align with your requirements.

Ben Russert is president and owner of ProSource, which grew from selling copiers in Cincinnati and Dayton 20 years ago to a full-service solutions provider.

"Document technology changed. It's no longer about the machine. Now it is all about providing complete solutions that improve our customers' businesses," he observes.

A common misstep among startup businesses is not fully understanding the scope of the work they're undertaking, Russert adds. "You always want scalability of products and applications to grow with your business as it grows. For smaller companies, it's important to understand what they're trying to do, then make it easy to do in phases, so when they meet goals at one level they can then add on."

Waltz Business Systems, founded in 1892 by Frank Waltz as a typewriter repair shop in downtown Cincinnati, is another example of a local company that grew and diversified into integrated tech solutions.

Now based in Crestview Hills, Waltz services include network technologies, digital printers and copiers, telecommunications and wiring, even business supplies. "Since 1892, we plan accordingly with the changing technology," says Josh Jehn, one of five brothers who own the company, which has been in the Jehn family since 1961. "This saves the clients' money while adding a 'state of the art' feel to their business."

A first stage in any office setup"”from a home base to an office suite"”is deciding on basic office equipment. A one-person shop can manage printing, scanning, copying and faxing with "all in one" machines.

But even small startups might take advantage of more advanced, full-service options. Waltz, for example,  offers "a fleet" of  networked printers and copiers tied into special servers with remote backups. And they have teams that fully wire and integrate phone, internet and network connections for any size office.

Phone communications remain the lifeblood of any business, but never have the technology choices been more varied"”and complicated.

Traditional phone carriers such as Cincinnati Bell are anything but traditional. For basic business phones, dozens of options are on the menu, from "anywhere call forwarding" and voice mail to three-way calling, along with remote access and control for road warriors. Carriers offer all kinds of business bundles in both fixed and customized packages that may include land-line and mobile phones with all the options, internet services, teleconferencing and more. For businesses that may grow into multiple locations, Bell and other carriers offer virtual private networks (VPN). including ones that can be managed from remote locations through the internet.

Bundled telecommunications packages offer cost-effective services that help you manage your communications, with the flexibility to increase capacity and add services. Typical bundled services may include cable, DSL, internet, web-based data storage, e-mail, wireless (WiFi), cell and landline telephone services and dedicated technical support.

"Dedicated technical support, including on-site office visits, can make a critical difference if you have problems," says Lindsay Weisker, Marketing Manager for Time Warner Cable of Southwest Ohio, which offers the popular Roadrunner Business Class package of internet services.

To economize, entrepreneurs may consider using only cellular phones. Many are interested in VOIP (voice over internet protocol) or other internet-based calling options such as the popular Skype and SkypeOut. Many local experts say explore the options, see what may fit your operations model, but be careful about having your business depend solely on still-evolving technology.

Time Warner Cable has been successfully marketing residential VOIP digital phone service, and is working on a VOIP business package. But the launch of that business VOIP system is a few months away, Weisker says. Time Warner insists on taking extra time on research and testing "so it's absolutely the best product possible," rather than rushing the system to market, because dependable phone service is so critical to any business, she notes.

When making telecommunications and network choices, small-business owners should compare alternative routes, says Trent McCracken, co-owner of Spectrum, Inc. As he puts it, do you want to spend several hours per meeting with potentially four or five carriers, explain to each your current setup and future needs, discuss new technologies, then have each carrier come back to use up more hours of your time, presenting solutions using only their products? "Or, you can meet with one company, explain your telecom or network needs once, and have a solution presented once"”a solution that could encompass products or services from a variety of carriers that best aligns with your needs and budget," McCracken says.

He also notes that an individual carrier most likely will not reveal that his product, customer service or billing accuracy isn't as good as a competitor's. "The company presenting several options can provide you the pros and cons of each carrier."

Be cautious about bundled communications and data services, McCracken adds. "Certain carriers may have a great data product, but their voice product is far inferior to their competitors," he explains. "The carrier bundles the services, and presents a less-expensive solution, however, customers may believe they are getting a comparable voice product and later learn after the contract is executed that some of their essential features, like electronic billing, are no longer available to them."

"Rarely would we recommend that a customer implement a VOIP solution only to reduce long-distance calling costs," says McCracken. "There is more involved. You have network costs, local line costs and equipment upgrades or replacement costs. The capital funds spent on the solution can easily outweigh the savings, depending on your volume of long distance calls."

Ditching land-line phones and going wireless-only is growing in popularity, especially among younger professionals and entrepreneurs. McCracken and others say that choice may make sense for residential and personal phone communications, but quality and dependability issues (dropped calls, line static, poor sound, 911 service) can still pose problems for critical business communications, especially for a new company attempting to project a solid professional image.

Demand has been exceptionally strong for help with document management, storage and retrieval.

What should a small business seek when selecting a vendor for electronic storage and data management solutions? "First, an organization needs to identify what they are wanting to accomplish with this solution," says Jenny Price, Business Development Manager of Central Business Group. "Increased security? Faster access? Saving space? Are they concerned with vital record protection in the case of a potential disaster?"

Central Business Group, founded in 1974, is headquartered in Cincinnati and has locations in three states. The company specializes in document management. Central Business Group teams can convert existing records and images into electronic formats. Another option is applying bar-code tracking to all kinds of print materials, making it easy to track them.

Even a new, small business can rapidly accumulate"”and lose track of"”computer files and e-mail. That e-mail lost today could be the documentation that saves you in an Internal Revenue Service audit five years from now, so it's wise to manage that data well from the start. Central Business Group and others offer e-content and e-mail management solutions.

Software for data management is becoming increasingly specialized, yet flexible to various business models. ProSource, for instance, offers software such as Captaris, which offers workflow solutions for a variety of business environments and applications.

The cost of off-site data storage can be prohibitive for some small companies, until you consider web-based data options. Now there are cost effective web-based storage services providing virus and data corruption protection as well as automatic back-up services. Since consistent follow-through is key to backing up the most accurate data, look for companies that let you schedule automatic backup(s) of any selected files and folders to your account.

Some telecommunications bundles also include web-based file storage. While this solution is not full-blown records management, it's a good interim solution until you develop an accurate picture of your company's data back up and management needs.

One "hot" technology is color products that allow you to e-mail large documents, says Josh Jehn of Waltz.  "Color alone is more economical than ever, but the time and money saved by e-mailing from a copier/scanner is worth looking into," he says. "Of course, you can still fax from these products, but the e-mail option is more feasible."

"The smaller the business, the more they count on providers being there to back them up," notes Ben Russert of ProSource. His company created what is called Total Pro Experience, a six-step process that combines analyzing customers' businesses, consultation on solutions and a pro-active service approach that seeks customer feedback "on how they're doing and how were doing for them."

"When working with a company such as Waltz, you primarily work with one individual in determining all of your technological needs," explains Josh Jehn. "Then your rep will work with a team of professionals to come up  with a plan that streamlines your operations in a cost-effective manner. If  you have any issues or additional needs in the future, you will know that your provider will be there to support you." 


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