For a complex purchase of office equipment, an outside expert may be just what you need. Here's how to find one.

For Patrick Daulton it was an important purchase. The president of C.I. Title Inc., in St. Paul, Minn., bought five personal computers in 1985 to automate his company's accounting department and the documentation of title searches it performs for mortgage applicants. Because Daulton didn't know how to turn on a computer, let alone how to buy them and wire them into a network, he hired a consultant who had helped a friend select printers for his office computers.

It was a big mistake. After spending $5,000 in consulting fees plus $10,000 on computers, Daulton discovered the consultant was inexperienced at networking and had purchased the wrong hardware. In retrospect, Daulton says he should never have relied on the recommendation of a friend who had used the consultant for a much simpler task, nor should he have spent as much in consulting fees relative to the price of the equipment.

Let Daulton's mistake serve as ample warning: Finding the right consultant on office technology requires as much care as hiring a key manager, even though the relationship may last only a few days or weeks. But in many cases the effort will be worth it. A skilled consultant can help you save money by recommending a system that is appropriate for you now as well as able to accommodate your company's growth. He or she can perform a variety of tasks: recommend the most appropriate hardware and software, choose a vendor, negotiate a price, install the equipment, and train staff to use it.

Because of the cost involved, small companies should consider hiring a consultant only for the most complex purchases. It would be unwise, for instance, to use a consultant to assist in the purchase of a fax machine, a handful of computers, or off-the-shelf software for which reviews and recommendations of colleagues are available. On the other hand, if you are making a particularly large purchase or installing a complex telephone system with many advanced features, a consultant can be of considerable assistance.

If you want need help, keep in mind consulting is an unregulated business in which anyone -- good, bad, or downright ugly -- can hang out a shingle. To find the good ones, do your homework. Key factors to consider follow.

Get recommendations from colleagues who have bought similar equipment. Patrick Daulton didn't make the same mistake twice. When he ventured back into the market, he was careful to target referrals from peers who had installed computer networks for billing functions. Because he needed someone to develop customized software, he also narrowed his search to consultants who had experience doing so.

If you can't find adequate referrals from colleagues, try calling a local computer users' group, whose members meet to share their knowledge. Your accountant or banker may know clients who have hired consultants for the same kind of work. Some office technology consultants belong to professional trade groups, such as the Society of Telecommunications Consultants, in Boca Raton, Fla. These groups can tell you the names of members in your area.

Make sure a consultant knows her business. The best way to assess an expert's expertise is to check references. Questions you should ask include: Did the consultant solve the problem you hired her for? Did her initial estimate match the actual cost? Did the products recommended do what you expected them to do without any major bugs?

Don't expect a consultant to be an expert on everything, warns Ellen Braun, general manager of the computer services bureau at Serif Press Inc., in Washington, D.C. "It's not possible to be an expert in database programming, office automation, and networking," she says. "A firm may have people in each of those areas, but when it starts sounding too good -- that an individual consultant is an expert in everything -- that should put up a red flag."

Make sure a consultant knows your business. Your consultant need not be an expert in your industry, but she must understand the operations that the new computer or phone system will support. A small publishing company, for example, will use its computer system much differently than an accounting firm or a retailer, and those distinctions may lead to different purchasing decisions. Even two companies in the same industry may run their operations in such different ways that they require unique solutions to their needs.

Only by asking lots of questions can a consultant begin to understand the needs of your company. "The best consultant is one who listens and asks questions, not the one who tries to impress you with all the dazzle," says Ray Boggs, director of small-business and home-office market research at BIS Strategic Decisions, a market research and consulting firm in Norwell, Mass.

Check that the consultant is independent. Many consultants have relationships with vendors or dealers who give them a cut of the business they bring in. It's usually best to avoid these people and to hire consultants who serve only one master -- you.

How can you tell if a consultant is independent? "You have to worry that if someone is charging you very little, she possibly has a financial arrangement with a vendor or dealer," notes Boggs. Don't be afraid to ask a consultant to disclose all the firms with which she has relationships. You can even ask her to sign a clause in the consulting contract that indicates she won't benefit from your ultimate purchase.

Take the time to prepare. You should know your company's special needs and problems before the consultant arrives. If you're buying a new phone system, poll your employees to find out what they like and dislike about your present system and what upgrades would help them most in their work. If you are bringing new computers into the accounting department, make sure your top finance person is closely involved in the discussions; otherwise, you may not know to ask, for example, whether the accounts receivable program you are considering for purchase can also generate invoices and track accounts.

It's more important to understand how the technology will be applied than the technology itself. Even so, any effort you make to learn about the equipment will pay handsome dividends. Spend some time with buying guides put out by independent publishers. Skim product brochures available from vendors. Or choose from among the many offerings listed in the "Resources" column in this office equipment guide ( [Article link]).

Know what the consultant will cost up front. Avoid paying by the hour if all you want is a product or system recommendation. In such cases, with a beginning and end to the assignment that's easy to define, you're better off paying a flat fee. If you need the consultant for more open-ended help, such as setting up the system, writing software, or training staff, then hourly fees are appropriate. When consultants do charge by the hour, make sure you include a "not-to-exceed" clause.

Such a clause would have saved Patrick Daulton a lot of money. Daulton donated those five computers he bought (and never used) to a local school. Chastened by his first experience, he nevertheless hired another consultant. "The only way I could compete with the bigger companies was if I could eliminate steps in our paperwork and impose good controls to avoid errors," says Daulton. "I couldn't do that with canned software, so I had to find the smartest consultant I could to write a customized program."

Daulton says his investment of $200,000 in hardware and software over the last five years has paid off: Before his high-tech initiation, Daulton's company had 52 employees and $1.2 million in sales. Last year, sales reached $2 million -- with less than half the staff he had before.

Jayne Pearl is a business writer and editor living in Northampton, Mass.


Make sure the prospective consultant knows much more than just the technical aspects of the equipment. He or she should understand the business applications that the equipment should support.


Your prospective consultant should:

* Have experience with the specific equipment you want to buy.

* Understand the operations that the new equipment will support.

* Not have financial ties to a dealer or vendor.

You should:

* Understand the specific business applications.

* Solicit input from employees who will use the equipment.

* Spell out what the consultant's services will cost.

* Check references carefully.