Posts Tagged ‘Work’

The #1 thing you need to keep in mind when buying equipment is to clearly identify and communicate your needs before starting the process.

There, that is the punchline, read on if you want to learn a little more about my perspective. I have been involved in equipment purchases from the customer and sales side. They have been as small as mini-microfuges for the lab or multiphoton systems for live animal imaging. I have purchased systems without thinking through what the criteria were clearly and I have worked with customers to determine their criteria.

Too often the ideal criteria are murky for the large equipment grant, joint purchase, start-up/new PI purchase, or institutional purchase. When I have been on the sales side this is irritating becasue I can’t even tell you if my system is the correct one if you don’t know what you want to do. There are some people that take advantage of this and discuss your needs in such a way that, Lo and Behold, their system becomes the best possible option for you. Occasionally, this might work out for both parties but too often the result is a piece of equipment that has unnecessary or missing features.

What should the first steps in the buying process be then? I would suggest the following:

  1. Identify wants and needs. These are different. Lots of people “wanted” a multiphoton back in the early 2000s but not nearly so many needed one.
  2. Convert needs into slightly more generic terms. “We need a spinning disc to image yeast bud formation” becomes “We need a highly sensitive, live cell imaging system with incubation control.” Don’t lock yourself into the technology you know or that one person suggests.
  3. Rank the needs by impact. This is difficult. It requires you to look at what resources you have, how they might be modified or upgraded to suit some needs, and what is truly missing. It also requires a dispassionate person to look at the overall impact on the facility that meeting different needs will have.
  4. Reach out to every supplier you can find with a list of needs. This list should not specify features “point scanning confocal with GaAsP detectors” but needs “live cell imaging system capable of imaging yeast bud formation without bleaching”. Let the vendors bring you the best match to your needs.
  5. Let the vendors know how much funding you have. What! I can hear your saying that the vendors will just try to squeeze every penny out of you. Maybe. But, just as likely is that you hide the funding level from them and they demonstrate a system to you everyone loves, but that you cannot afford (I will be writing about this next).
  6. Do a demonstration that measures your needs. Plan this out well in advance, maybe way back at step 2 or 3. The demonstration should test your needs, not the system. It is great that the system makes coffee, but you already have a coffee machine, you were looking for a food processor – right?
  7. Measure the equipment demonstrations versus these needs. You have done your homework, now stick with it. Don’t let your head get turned by some really cool feature that will impact no one or a software package that you don’t need or the promise of a “free” system that will be thrown in with the purchase of a lesser system. Stick to your list of needs and see which system quantitatively meets them best.
  8. Negotiate in good faith. You gave a budget, your vendor should have brought in and demonstrated a system that will meet that budget. You chose their system as the one that would meet your needs and fit your budget. Want to negotiate, sure, this is ‘Merica after all. But, keep in mind that you are about to join a parntership with this vendor and you don’t want to start that partnership with a fight.

So, there you have it. Those are my thoughts on large equipment purchases. Each one could be its own blog post, but please tell me what you think and what you would add.

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First off, I don’t think I have blogged two days in a row since those halcyon days of political blogging in the late ’00s. Maybe this will start a new habit for me, maybe not. Yesterday, I wrote about the satisfaction that one gets from making eyes pop with a new and better way of doing something. There is no better feeling when you are working on the commercial side of science. I thought it would only be fair to treat the other part of this emotional roller coaster and one that is much harder to deal with – making your customer’s eyes burn with anger. Here are three examples that are somewhat specific to equipment sales, a brief description of mistakes made, how I handled them at the time, and lessons learned.

  1. We don’t do that anymore.” Early in my sales career I found that our organization promised a manual tweak to an instrument for our customer. Once the system was delivered and installed and it was time for the tweak, those of us in the field were informed by the office that we didn’t provide that service anymore because of the implications of new FDA regulations. There was anger and righteous indignation. We did as much of the work ourselves that was allowed and then found a third party vendor that would finish the tweak. Lesson Learned – try to ask for clarification internally about any process or promises with which you are not familiar and that are not written out clearly in the quote. If you are a customer know that anything quoted is under contract, but anything promised is possible or probable, but not certain. Priorities change. Economics change.
  2. What do you mean it won’t scan that fast?” I walked into this situation where a previous sale had been completed without a demonstration – not my sale. It was insinuated that the system would scan a sample at a certain frame rate. The system arrived and it would not do that frame rate under normal conditions. Eyes burned with hatred, venom was throw, spittle was spittled. At me, because I was the guy who showed up. After walking through what they were looking for, I showed them a super-secret hidden feature that could be activated in the .ini file that would allow for faster scanning at a lower resolution. They were only looking for intensity data and not images so this fit their needs. Hugs were exchanged, backs were slapped. Lesson Learned – try to know your product inside and out and if you don’t, then have some good people on speed dial. If you are a customer, see the result you want or talk to someone who is doing the same type of work.
  3. He doesn’t work here anymore.” The downside of having a great support person is that they don’t always stay with the same company. People want to recruit them away. In one case, we made a sale that was at least partially based on an awesome application specialist, who then left the company before the system was installed. It happens, but it is never a fun conversation. There isn’t much you can do except to put the customer in contact with whoever will be filling in the gap while a new person is hired. Lesson Learned – the goal for company and customer should be a clear path to independence with some occasional technical help around complicated experiments or analysis. Don’t ignore the technical expertise of the company that is selling you the equipment, but don’t rely on it long-term either.

Going through this list reminds me of an article at HBR about character traits shared by top salespeople. One key trait was conscientiousness. Make sure expectations are clear on both sides. Don’t risk confusion after the sale because you don’t want to rock the boat during the sale. Rock the boat, make sure everything is in the open.

In my field, we do a lot of large group sales. I am currently working on a sale in which there are at least 10 to 15 stakeholders. How do you satisfy that many different people? In my own life, I just recently switched to AT&T fiber. I felt like it was a good decision because I would save some money and get faster Internet speed. But, it hasn’t worked out that way.

We still have our Time Warner Internet and router running. I’ve been using various website speed tests on a bunch of different computers in a series of different locations. The result is that I get better Internet connection through the AT&T fiber and router when I am near their location, but as I move away it gets worse. But, my wife’s new MacBook Pro gets much better connectivity through the old router. If she comes within site of the routers, then the new router works better. But, she works for an online education company and needs fast Internet. There are places in our house where we used to get connectivity and now don’t. The router placement was suggested by AT&T.

What do you do when one of the buyers in the deal is unhappy after delivery?

  1. Take an honest look at your assumptions. Whether a buyer or a seller, it’s important to be honest with yourself about the assumptions you made during the sale. I had spoken with my neighbors and they raved about how great their connection speed was with fiber. I assumed that we all had equal connectivity at the time. Maybe that’s not true. I might’ve had much greater connection speed before AT&T fiber, than they did.
  2. Ask for a service visit.  Life isn’t perfect and neither are products. It might be that some settings are incorrect or some other changes could be made to improve the speed. Ask the company to come in and make sure everything is working properly.
  3. Determine if there are modifications they can be made to solve the issue. When I was selling for a previous company I walked into a situation where a past sales person had made some promises that the new equipment didn’t meet. But, I was able to show some other functionality isin the system that met their needs. It wasn’t exactly what they had been promised, but it delivered nearly identical results. Do you have a better router AT&T?
  4. Have a non-emotional discussion about returning your item. Sometimes, things just don’t work out. If that’s the case then you have to think about returning the item that you purchased or taking back the item that you sold. He doesn’t have to get emotional

I was a selfish scientist. Now, at the time I did not know I was a selfish scientist but instead a person who wanted to surprise others with a completed package of results. That did not happen very often, but what did happen was that I locked people out of my day-to-day science. Collaboration was not something I valued, instead I was “independent”. Starting with my postdoctoral fellowship at Duke I began collaborating mentally but not physically. There were many long and interesting discussions about what interactions might take place during embryogenesis, but no collaboration on experiments to prove it.

My first real experience with collaboration came at Coastal Carolina University when I co-taught an MAT course on Reproductive Biology. It was fun, thinking and planning out how to teach this course, what materials to use, who would teach what lessons. Not long later I ended up at UNC-Chapel Hill as Core Director at the UNC Neuroscience Center. This is where  my interest in collaboration really grew, but in a unique direction. I was writing and spearheading equipment grants and in the process of finding new grants I came across several opportunities that weren’t right for me, but were for two or more faculty members at UNC. I found great joy in connecting faculty members to these grant opportunities.

After my transition to sales, I have found that collaboration is the norm. If you are a customer and you are not collaborating with your sales professionals then you are missing out on an opportunity. If you area sales person and are not collaborating with your customers to find the best solution, then you are doing it wrong.