the whole shebang

November 15, 2006

Paradigms of the “one-stop tech shop”

Filed under: Computing,IT Jobs — wholeshebang @ 9:03 am

An entry on the blog of Christopher Hawkins, “Suspicious of the ‘One-Stop’ Tech Shop“, concluded with the following question: “Or is my own view that no one small company can possibly do 5 different computer-related disciplines well just a misinformed prejudice on my part?”

I think I can answer that question. I live in a small town (that’s where he’s seen these shops). I’m a technically-inclined person and I don’t live very far from the city, and yet I used such a shop twice myself, even though I’m fully comfortable with the under-warranty service I’ve gotten from Best Buy.

In my case, there is a sports/hobbies shop. I had a printer that would not work properly with different computers and versions of MicroS—-. In fact, it was the 2nd such printer, of a different brand. Neither M$ nor the manufacturer would assume any responsibility or investigate the problems. That’s a long story and neither here nor there.

Anyway, no signs advertise this “side-business” of computer repair, I was actually referred there. The owner attempted to diagnose the problem, but was unable to because the problem didn’t happen when connected to his computer. Totally not his fault. He did not charge me.

After putting up with these problems for a year-and-a-half, 2 computers, and 2 versions of M$, I bought a new printer (a Multi-Function machine) by Brother. Great product, great software, horrible ink (from a usability standpoint). Print jobs are superior. I was a single user who happened to purchase the printer from a website very obviously oriented towards business. Therefore, they never warned me that if you don’t print at least once a month (I actually had problems as soon as 3 days after a previous printing job), your ink will dry into clay-like globs and you’ll have to buy new cartridges. This happens in spite of (maybe because of) the fact that the printer automatically goes into a print-head cleaning routine once a week (scary stuff if you’re sitting next to it and you’re not prepared). I thought they were defective and exchanged them twice. After the 3rd problem, I commisserated with a salesperson at Staples (the only store that even sold the cartidges), and found out that Brother ink is “known for that”.

It’s also known for a crappy “feature” of its interface that is digital and will not let you past the screen that exhorts you to replace the cartridge in question until you actually do. So you cannot simply switch to black-and-white printing. You can’t even trick the printer into thinking you changed the ink by taking it out and replacing it, in order to then switch modes and continue. (The cartidges must have some digital code that makes them unique.) Needless to say, I was not a happy camper. This is now my third printer!

I eventually found a great deal on a “network printer” on eBay. I bought such a printer because, quite frankly, if I was going to spend money and take a chance yet a 4th time, at least I was going to get more paper-size options. For a couple hundred bucks (what it costs for a decent MFM), I got a printer that cost $2,500 brand-new.

Problem: I was ill and did not have opportunity to hook it up and test it right away. When we opened this box and removed the printer (a task that takes 2 people), a little loose spring fell on the floor. Yikes! It seemed to be packed pretty well, but it was not a new item and did not have the benefit of that custom-cut styrofoam, though the box was padded with both sheets and peanuts. UPS left it sitting in the middle of the driveway on the opposite side of the house from the door where it would be seen (we have driveways on 2 sides), and did not even ring the doorbell, and someone was home. This is how they treated a big, heavy box that one would assume to contain something expensive and breakable, and maybe prone to theft, like maybe a TV. Who knows how else they treated it!

It was probably too late to ask for my money back, and considering the size and cost of shipping the thing, I doubted the seller would deal with the hassle. I wasn’t even going to try unless it got to the point the printer was unrepairable or too expensive to repair. At least I still had the invoice, and therefore the seller’s email (“items awaiting your feedback” automatically disappear from the website after a set length of time).

I’ve seen printers/software that had unusual installation instructions before, so I made sure to read the online docs at the manufacturer. I follwed the instructions, which required you to power it up before inserting the ink cartridges. It wouldn’t power up. There was no problem with the electrical outlets. Uh-oh. I had also lost the spring. The power button still sprang out after being pressed, so I wasn’t entirely sure of the missing spring’s function or if anyone would be able to figure out where it was missing from or if it was even related to the problem — could be circuitry, after all. But the seller had advertised that he tested the printer powered up, and that was the only testing he did, so that sounded truthful.

I brought it to this hobby shop again. I asked him to call me if the repair work (or even diagnostic work, if it turned out not to be related to, say, a spring connected to the power button) would be over a certain amount, and to just proceed if it would be within that. He was able to fix it and it was cheap. Satisfied yet again!

I must say, it’s an interesting and unique experience to be walking into a shop that does not sell computers or peripherals and ask for a computer-related repair. It is even odder to stand there while the busy owner is writing down your repair-request information and simultaneously regalling another customer with the benefits of various paint-ball guns.

But then, it was unusual when I was bemoaning my printer problems to someone at a local family-owned store to a customer who was “computer-literate” in the general web-browsing and email-capable meaning of the phrase, and have them recommend a hobby shop as a place to go to repair my printer.

What actually got me to try it out? I’m not particularly far from the city, but I am pressed for time. Plus, big chains usually have set prices for certain things, and do not do diagnostics for free. I’m not even sure how much printer repair Best Buy does. They probably never do network printers. Even being a computer-savvy person, I wasn’t too comfortable walking cold into a “computer repair shop”, especially not knowing if I would get charged both arms and legs by a place that literally makes its living off (possibly expensive) repair work.

Based on a combination of both my repair experience and some generalities that apply to living in a small (but not backwoods) town and working in a business where almost all your customers are “regulars” who want to “give their business to the local owners”, here are my thoughts:

  1. Convenience: If someone can get something done without driving into city traffic and/or getting on the expressway, that’s how they prefer to get it done. Gas = money. Time = money. The kids need to get to baseball practice. Extra kudos if it’s within 1 mile of your house!
  2. Small businesses sometimes do it better: The referenced blog article is basically asking if the presumption that specialists are better is always right. What he doesn’t ask, because it’s often a subconcious bigotry, is if someone who does not do professional advertising and corporate-like storefronts can get it right. This is often a predjudice of city people, or at least “big-city” people. People in small towns simply don’t have this predjudice, no matter what your marketing classes teach you in college. By the time they’ve hit college, they have almost 20 years of mostly good and little bad experiences with “small-time” businesses, so they’re not likely to develop such predjudices.
  3. Owner authority: You don’t have to wonder if you’re talking to an automaton who can not give you an accurate quote. That needs no explaination.
  4. Recommendations: In both small towns and big cities, people give a lot of weight to recommendations from other customers, even more so from someone they know well.
  5. Diversification is not exactly unheard of: I can’t think of any examples right now, but it isn’t exactly strange for someone in one business to develop a side business that suits another side of their personality, or is their “true interrest” (though maybe the less lucrative one). This is true in 2 cases:
    • In cities, in a business where there are enough customers that even a proportionately smaller stream of revenue, if related, and if they can afford employees to cover additional work, adds to the income stream from current customers.
    • In towns, where they don’t have as huge of a client base or a crushing “up” season (assuming the business has seasons), and a smaller stream of revenue, whether related or not might be well-recieved. It allows you to have enough work all year-round to keep the 1 or 2 employees (whom you know and trust) and not go though the process of re-hire if they quit during “off season” for a more lucrative job. (Finding a dependable employee in a timely manner is not a fun task if you have little to no money for advertising and/or too many owner-only tasks to take the time to thoroughly evalutate potential new hires.) So this is not unusual. Especially when you consider that the most loyal of “loyal customers” in a small town is other business owners who “know what it’s like”.
  6. Experts come in all shapes and sizes: If you came to technical skills yourself through any means other than schooling or formal training or even your job, you likewise don’t judge others as not having technical skills simply because that’s not their “day job”.

My experience bears this out. Some people have multiple skills. Some people are great at multitasking. Mutitasking is a skill in itself at any job “dealing with the public”. Maybe this guy began to use computers to find unusual models and parts during the explosion of the World Wide Web. Maybe he often had to repair his own computer. Maybe he had to become an expert at diagnosing problems in the course of using business-specific, not-widely-available types of software that helped him run his niche business better. Then he realized everyone else had problems with computers that puzzled them that he could solve. Boom! An alternate revenue stream is born. Maybe he even worked in tech eons ago before the Web exisited (he’s been in business for decades), and he has no desire to go back to the corporate world, but he has a “world” of skills.

There’s more than one way to become an expert.

It’s also fair to say that in today’s world of convenience, the concept of “one-stop shopping” can be applied to almost anything. Another thing Mr. Hawkins hasn’t considered is that to an un-technical or low-tech person, “Networking”, “System Administration”, “Website Design” and “Web Programming” are all lumped together in their mind as “Computer Stuff”.

Yes, “Computer Stuff”! That mysterious world where people with “special powers” who understand how to convince those mysterious “Is and Os” to just do what I tell them, darn it all!!! In this mysterious world, “nerds” know everything about those Is and Os, (“1s and 0s” depending on level of computer-literacy) and if they don’t, their computer-like brains will figure it out if you give them time!

And the more “computer stuff” they know, the nerdier and therefore smarter they must be!

Hail the nerds!

Or, considering that I’ve spent most of my life in so-called “low-skills” customer-oriented jobs, is the view that a good employee usually knows most if not all aspects of the business, and learns skills suitable to almost any other business, a predjudice on <strong>my own part</strong>?

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