5-Point Guide To Buying A New Microscope For Your Lab

Have you ever noticed how painful it can be to purchase a new microscope? It would be hard to miss – this can be a frustrating process. A lot of scientists and students consider the new microscope hunt quite scary for a variety of reasons. It might be that you’re worried you won’t get the right microscope and that you’ll regret it, or you may find that dealing with salespeople, in general, makes you kind of uncomfortable.

But remember, salespeople are just human beings like you and me, and if we can treat them as such, the whole process of searching for a new microscope tends to go more smoothly. I actually used to be in sales and am now a core director. So it’s fair to say that I’ve seen both sides of the equation, so to speak. You can follow these 5 tips when buying any capital equipment, not just microscopes.

1. Determine how you will use the new microscope

Before you even call up your salesperson or tap that “contact-me” button online, think about which experiments you’ll be using this microscope for. Will you only be using it for transmitted light applications to check how your cell cultures are doing? Or do you just need to quickly check the fluorescence on it before you go to a core confocal microscope? Maybe you’re going to need a microscope just for your lab, and you have very dim samples, in which case you want high transmission objectives along with a very sensitive camera.

These are all things to take into account. If you’re not sure which features you need, look at different papers that feature the kinds of experiments you want to perform with your new microscope. Specifically, check out the materials and methods section of these papers. If the methods aren’t clear, shoot an email to that professor. They are often more than happy to help you out. Having a clear idea of your needs will make the whole experience feel less like shopping for a used car.

2. Openly explain your budget to the sales team.

Be open about your budget with sales personnel. This might seem counterintuitive when you are trying to get the best deal possible, but honesty is the best policy here. If you tell the sales team you’d like a confocal microscope, but you fail to mention that your budget caps at a value well below that of a standard confocal, you are wasting everyone’s time.

Sales personnel may be able to suggest an alternative that would work well for your experiments, but if you are set on a particular microscope, and that microscope isn’t within your budget, you may as well be upfront – keeping your budget hidden will not lower the price of the unit. On the other hand, you may find that your ideal unit is simply one of the higher-priced options on the market, and that lower-quality units can be purchased at more affordable price points.

In that case, you should just get a unit that is within your budget, right?

Wrong. Communicate with the company that you like, and tell them that their product is your favorite but that your budget is restrictive and that you can’t get more money for this microscope. You might be able to work with them to take out some features that you don’t need right away, and they might even offer you the product at a discounted rate. With this in mind, just think about what features are field-upgradable. That is, what has to be done in a factory, and what can be upgraded post-purchase?

Maybe you need a specific chamber to do your experiments, and it will be best integrated if you do it immediately. But if there’s one objective that you think you might need but not right now, you can leave that objective off. This strategy will allow you to get exactly what you want and to upgrade as you see fit once you have enough money post-purchase. The most important thing is that you’re getting the microscope that will do everything you need right now. If one company cannot offer a microscope that does all you need within your price range, work with salespeople from their competitor to get what you need.

3. Write down a list of microscope preferences to share with the sales team.

Have a list of likes and dislikes based on your experiences with other microscopes. Maybe in graduate school or a postdoc position, you had experience with other microscopes. Maybe you like only a certain type of joystick for your motorized stage, or you really hate it every time a certain failure occurs in “XYZ” software.

Share these preferences upfront with a salesperson. In sales, we refer to these as “pain points,” and the sales team wants to make sure that these points can be addressed for you. So if you have a list of things that you really like and really don’t like, this will make it much easier for both you and the sales team to get you the exact instrument that you need.

4. Be open about your timeline and how soon you need the new microscope.

Another thing to share with the sales team is your time table. Why is this important? Some instruments may take a long time before showing up at your door. In cases like these, you can tell them, 

I would like to make the decision by the end of the month. If the PO gets in within 2 weeks of that, would I be able to have this system on-site by [deadline]?

If the sales team can’t guarantee what you ask, then maybe it’s best to talk to another microscope rep who can get you what you need when you need it. For example, when we were looking to get new microscopes for our microscope teaching lab, we knew that we needed to have them in place by the beginning of January. That way, by mid-January, we would have them ready to go for the class. That was a very hard deadline, and we had to buy from a company that could meet it, even if it wasn’t our favorite model.

If you are buying a confocal to gather specific data before a grant deadline, then you need to let the salespeople know that, too. Sometimes, if you need to get a little data sooner rather than later, salespeople can get demo instruments brought in, allowing you to push that hard deadline back. So if you discuss the deadline upfront, the process will be less stressful.

5. Instead of having the demo brought to you, visit the demo facility 

Imagine you are demoing a system (you should always demo), and that it’s a high-end system – think $100,000 or more, specifically with a laser. If you have fixed samples, then go to their demo facility or a similar place that performs installations. Why do this? Well, when the microscope comes in, it’s in a crate, and it may have been jostled around.

A service engineer may spend a day setting it up, and it may seem okay, but if the shipment didn’t come in when expected, they may have been rushed to align the lasers and perform other setup work between the last demo and the arrival at your doorstep. You could end up testing a system that performs worse than what you’d have if you purchase it.

In the case of a new microscope, they will spend the time they need to make sure everything is aligned and up to date. If you can go to their demo facility, you will test equipment that has been maintained meticulously and will be much more like what you will get out of the box. Additionally, it will be more cost-effective for the manufacturer to pay for your travel and travel expenses than to ship the microscope and have it installed at your lab. So, going to the testing facility won’t cost you anything. It can be a nice couple of days, and you’ll be working with the best machine setup.

Bonus Tip – Sales Procedure

This tip doesn’t really fit in a normal category. Sales commissions often erode if discounts are given past a certain point in time. As a salesperson, if the best you can get is a 2% commission on a high-end instrument, and you give out a 10% discount, this will deduct not only from the full amount of the commission but the percentage the salesperson can get from selling you the product. This encourages salespeople not to give those discounts unless they have to in order to close the sale.

There are ways for salespeople to get around this: For example, you might get a special deal if you buy before a certain date. Often, this date is the end of their fiscal year since managers need to ensure a certain number of sales within their region. Therefore, the managers can provide discounts that will not affect the salesperson’s commission. In this case, it is a win-win for the customer and the salesperson. 

Other non-eroding sales features might include a trade-in program, where if you send back 1 type of microscope, they will give you a large discount. Or there might be a so-called “no-demo” discount. If you’ve already used a machine, such as a microscope that was in your postdoc lab, and you want the exact same model for your new instrument.

You can negotiate a “no-demo discount.” The company didn’t have to ship the microscope or pay for your travel, food, hotel, etc., so they can afford to give you a considerable discount, and the salesperson doesn’t have to take a commission hit. Now, I’m not saying don’t do a demo; I’m saying that if you already know exactly what you want – because you’ve used it before – you can ask for those discounts, and it won’t be painful for the salesperson because won’t affect the actual percent-commission they’re getting for the purchase.

Conclusion

Purchasing a new microscope can be uncomfortable, but it doesn’t have to be. Clearly describing your research goals, purchasing timeline, and budget will take some of the mystery out of the process. If you don’t feel that the sales team has your best interest at heart, don’t work with them, because they are the group that will support you after you have purchased your microscope.

I had a sales rep that spent ten minutes explaining the numerical aperture to me even though I managed a microscope core. I went elsewhere for my equipment purchase. As the customer, you are in control of the buying process, so make sure the microscope company can meet your expectations.

To learn more about buying a new microscope for your lab and get access to all of our advanced materials including training videos, presentations, workbooks, and private group membership, get on the Flow Cytometry Mastery Class wait list.

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Heather Brown-Harding
Heather Brown-Harding

Heather Brown-Harding, PhD, is currently the assistant director of Wake Forest Microscopy and graduate teaching faculty.She also maintains a small research group that works on imaging of host-pathogen interactions. Heather is passionate about making science accessible to everyone.High-quality research shouldn’t be exclusive to elite institutions or made incomprehensible by unnecessary jargon. She created the modules for Excite Microscopy with this mission.

In her free time, she enjoys playing with her cat & dog, trying out new craft ciders and painting.You can find her on twitter (@microscopyEd) a few times of day discussing new imaging techniques with peers.

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