What Price PC?

Trimming The Fat

While all these expenses may seem staggering, take heart. Many vendors are placing added emphasis on TCO and the ways their technologies can reduce it. Lexmark International, for instance, has printer management software that remotely identifies problems like low toner, which they claim can save companies an average of $734 per printer annually. Features like the Registry in Microsoft's Windows 95 operating system hope to reduce administrative costs by offering easy, centralized access to hardware and software configuration files. There are also new, inexpensive devices such as Net PCs aimed at shrinking your capital and system management costs, just as network computers do. (See September "Business Bytes.")

There are several other strategies you can implement to put a dent in your TCO. Since most technical support budgets are seriously underfunded, this is often a good place to start. First, look into system management tools that help your tech support staff do their jobs more efficiently, says Kirwin. These might include inventory configuration management software to easily gather detailed information about networked PCs or electronic software distribution products that allow you to install software over the entire network rather than on each individual PC. Remote system management tools can also drive down your tech support costs, allowing internal staff to diagnose PC problems from a central location or outside vendors to dial into a PC (with your permission), assess its condition and then fix the problem from afar.

You should also find ways to get the most use out of your tech support staff. Because most small businesses can't afford more than one, or even just one, full-time tech support person, consider hiring part-time help. In many small organizations that lack in-house staff, outsourcing certain technical support functions, such as remote tape backup or custom software development, may also make sense.

Take a closer look at your costs for procuring technology, as well. One way to decrease them is through electronic commerce. Technology vendors can lower your costs for procurement by setting up a system to handle purchasing and inventory management electronically. The downside is that this strategy locks you into using the same vendors. Keep in mind, however, that it's not very cost-efficient to always be calling around for the best price; the best strategy may be to choose one vendor and work with them to find ways to reduce your administrative costs.

When it comes to cutting costs, one of your first instincts may be to hold on to your PCs as long as you can, thinking the less money you spend on new technology, the better. In the long run, warn experts, keeping a PC too long actually raises your costs. Having several generations of hardware, software and operating systems increases the complexity of your PC environment, thus increasing your costs. Not only do you have to maintain technical expertise in older technologies, but you also have to find ways for older equipment to work with the new technologies and develop all your custom applications to support multiple environments.

According to the Gartner Group, upgrading from a Windows 3.x or DOS environment to a Windows 95, Windows NT or OS/2 operating system can reduce your annual costs by about $1,000. Current operating systems have improved memory management features, and their user interfaces are easier to learn, thus reducing employee training time and tech support.

The majority of new PCs are also Desktop Management Interface (DMI)-compliant. The DMI is a standard for remote management of desktop computers and server hardware. DMI-compliant machines communicate their requirements with a DMI management application, making it easier to diagnose and avoid problems. In the near future, don't be surprised if your machine senses its hard drive is going to fail in 48 hours and notifies a systems operator, who can switch out the failing drive before it blows. Technologies like these that forecast problems before they occur can save you money in both repairs and employee downtime.

Standardization is also key. Strive to make all hardware, applications and operating systems uniform in your business. Also, develop standard procedures for buying and retiring technology.

Finally, look at ways to improve employees' technology use. Although it's costly, make sure all personnel receive some type of formal computer training, whether through classroom or computer-based instruction. Because the majority of tech support is usually supplied by co-workers--leading to frequent misdiagnoses of problems and, ultimately, wasted time--you should provide the power users in your office with the training, tools and technology they need to assist other employees. Make sure your "tech support staff" has access to help-desk information. Consider cutting back a few of their responsibilities to make their tech support role an official part of their job descriptions. Because studies show that employees waste one hour a week on personal tasks on their computers (most likely a conservative estimate), be sure to establish policies for the appropriate use of computer equipment, software and the Internet.

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This article was originally published in the October 1997 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: What Price PC?.

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