So, having secured the funding that will see me through the first 3 years of my post-PhD life, now comes the fun part--spending it! That's the easy bit, right? Well, certainly easier than writing a grant and waiting for the outcome. But having spent my PhD years referring sales representatives to my boss' office, and never even catching sight of a budget-holder's account, it was time to wise up to the intricacies of scientific sales teams and academic financial management.
It was on the very first morning of my new job that I realised that my new boss regarded this pot of money as his own ... every bit as much as I regarded it as mine! The implication: Unless it's small beer money I'm spending, I have to clear it with him first. In spite of this, one of the most refreshing aspects of this whole postdoc thing is that I do get to sign my own purchase orders, at least on orders of up to a few hundred pounds. No more delayed experiments just because my boss is off at a conference and I can't get a signature for the stuff I need!
Of course, with this new-found freedom comes the responsibility to spend wisely. What initially seems like an awful lot of money soon begins to drop. This is not surprising as the amounts allocated for large items of equipment usually get spent at the start of a project, and modern science rarely comes cheap!
We first sat down to discuss our new equipment needs during the grant-writing process. It was at that stage that everything was pinned down, or so I thought. In reality, once a grant is funded, it is quite legitimate to request that the same money be used to buy something completely different. This is exactly what we did. Between writing the grant and getting the award, a piece of equipment became available from within the department that precisely met our needs.
It didn't take us long to think of something else to buy instead. We started to track down potential suppliers for the technical kit we needed well before I finished my PhD. A few hours of careful 'surfing' revealed a shortlist of three or four real players in the market, but, at the time, I had no idea which one was the market leader. It was time for some serious homework on these guys. I wanted to see if I could find someone at the sharp end that could tell me whether the machine and the software we needed actually did the job. What's more, I might pick up some feedback on the all-important after-sales service. So, before I made first contact with the companies I started ringing around a few contacts. These colleagues put me in touch with some alleged customers of one or other of the companies, people who were outside of my own field, but who were apparently well respected. After speaking to a few of these end-users, one company soon emerged as the best candidate. Their kit was robust, their software user-friendly, and their after-sales support second to none. Needless to say, other companies didn't fare so well in my little off-the-cuff survey.
It was time to telephone a few reps to see what they had to say for themselves. The front-runner's man seemed like a nice chap. After my initial call he answered my further queries promptly by e-mail. What's more, he was happy to discuss our requirements before even mentioning an on-site demonstration. You can soon spot when you are being given the 'party line'. This guy was genuine. Another rep wasn't contactable and a third offered a quote but could only arrange a demonstration in 2 month's time. We called in our favourite to see what we thought about the product, and the company, face-to-face.
The demonstration was impressive, but not overly slick. We were left with the clear impression that this was a well-run outfit whose people understood science as well as a good marketing opportunity. I found that demos are also a great way to find out what the companies say about each other. They can be surprisingly candid! For instance, I am tempted to believe a rival sales rep who acknowledges the good status of another company that we already rated highly, and a rep can sometimes raise a few interesting questions over the attitudes and reliability of a rival company. For instance, we were advised: 'Have they told you their free help line is only free for the first 12 months?' Yeah, thanks for that!
Now, I'd been forewarned that the financial control people at my new institution would really come down hard on me if I didn't get at least two other quotes before making a decision. We'd already had one, very expensive, quotation from the company that couldn't offer a demo. The only other viable option was the company with the rep who couldn't be contacted. Within days, and without warning, this guy appeared in the lab with his boss, and a car-full of equipment. Talk about a bold sales approach!
I was delegated the unenviable task of enduring three-and-a-half hours of 'sales speak' and a lengthy demo. All we wanted was a faxed quote. Naturally, I played along but only gave the occasional nod of approval. I didn't want to build their hopes up. Unknown to them, the decision was already made. When they eventually left I thought my marathon of false interest was over, but they kept calling back offering additional incentives. Once we had secured our all-important quote I had to tactfully tell them that we'd plumped for one of their rivals. The early bird really does catch the worm! Frankly, I didn't think their product was up to the job. It was certainly a poor second best, and, as for the third company, well, we'll never know; they didn't even know we were 'in the market'.
But before we actually spent a couple of tens of £Ks on this stuff, we felt entitled to scrutinise the successful quote more closely. We asked for some references, which they were happy to provide, and then went in for the kill! 'Can we please have a nice hefty discount?' Well, after referring the matter to his boss the rep did come back to us with a lower price, but it didn't save us much. Worth a try! I mean, what company isn't going to offer a reasonable discount to secure a sale. Especially when they know you've been looking elsewhere. Stress this point a few times during the visit. Just don't let on how disappointed you are with the opposition!
The morals of the tale are: 1) Never believe any literature, however glossy, until you've seen the thing in operation. 2) Play it cool even if you are totally impressed. 3) Always, always make out that you will only go for it if the price is right. And let me say that finally placing that order is a real joy. Remember that these guys usually make a living on their commission. So, go on, make some rep's day. It's just a question of choosing which one wisely!