All small business owners have their own visions of what technology can do for them. Some dream of a paperless office. Many want to be able to convert their analog forms (paper) into digital.  Others are looking for ways to keep track of expenses, especially when traveling. And almost all want technology that makes them more efficient and productive.

Well there is actually something that can help you do all of that—and more—scanners. But scanners come in all shapes, sizes and price points.

How do you figure out what scanners will work best for you?

SCORE talked to Paul Robinson, a Senior Product Manager at Brother International Corporation to get the scoop.

Q: How can scanners help small business owners save time, paper and money?

A: The most impactful ways scanners can help you grow is to allow you to be more efficient, more productive and more organized. Using scanners give you the ability to take things that normally take up physical space and put them in a network where they can be accessed at any time by you or designated members of your team. This also frees up physical space since you won’t need to house a lot of file cabinets, which can have a big impact on small and home-based business owners.

And beyond the physical space you save, scanning puts files at your fingertips, no matter where you are, allowing you to quickly access, share and act on information. This has a big impact on workflow and efficiency.

Q: What factors should you consider when shopping for a scanner?

A: It depends on your workspace, work style and location. Scanners range from the truly mobile to small/compact desktop machines to larger multi-page desktop models.

When shopping for a scanner you need to anticipate your needs. Buy for what you need today—and what you think you will need tomorrow. Check out the physical speed of the scanner, the file formats it supports, how portable it is (do you want a scanner you can physically move around?), the file sizes it supports, the image quality, if files are searchable and if it allows you to scan directly to the cloud service of your choice. Some scanners only let you scan to their cloud.

You should also look at the software the scanner comes with to make sure it meets your needs. If you want to scan business cards, for instance, you’ll want something that works with your customer relationship management (CRM) system. For document management, look for the ability to scan and search PDFs and jpegs. If you’re using it to keep track of expenses, make sure it has receipt-scanning software.

Also make sure your scanner has the specific card slots you need. There are options like slots that scan business cards, ID cards, driver’s licenses and regular paper.

Some scanners let you scan to email, to files, and to various clouds like Google Drive, Box, Dropbox, Microsoft OneNote or OneDrive, among others.

If you’re in the market for a mobile scanner, check out the range of mobility. How many pages a minute does it scan? Again make sure it has the software you need. Can you transfer files via Wi-Fi directly or do you need to be connected to a computer. Does the device service all operating systems (Windows, Mac, Linux)? Can you recharge the battery using USB or do you need to be plugged in?

Q: How do you know if you need a heavy-duty scanner or a hand-held one?

A: The mobile scanners scan one page at a time. They work well for salespeople, those who work out in the field and road warriors. The tradeoff is you don’t get a full-feature set.

We’ve created very compact desktop scanners that are also portable. They’re faster (about 18 pages per minute) and perfect for a small office, home office environment.

Q: What new features should we look for?

A: Our compact desktop scanners are innovative and relatively new, introduced at the end of 2013. They can allow you to scan directly to the cloud service of your choice – no PC needed – all via a touchscreen panel.

Q: If you scan to the cloud, can all your employees access the files?

A: Many cloud services let you control the access. By utilizing their permissions, you can give partial access to some employees or provide them access to one cloud, but not another. You own the information and the permissions, and can segregate you data by client or work function, and the restrict access accordingly. But you need to make sure the scanner you buy allows you to scan directly to multiple cloud services and not a cloud owned by the scanner company.

Q: We’ve been hearing about the paperless office for years now. Does it exist?

A: The paperless office is not here and probably won't be here anytime soon. However, we are all trying to become more paperless, and scanning provides that gateway. However, as an example, people are exchanging a lot of information, including business cards, which if your scanner has a single-pass duplex, you can capture notes on the other side of the card and scan both sides in at once.

Q: What features should you look for?

A: Reasonable expectations would include:

  • ADF (automatic document feeder) that can handle about 20 pages
  • Single-pass duplex
  • Speed of 16-18 pages per minute
  • Easy interface, either touch panel or touchscreen
  • Easy to operate and train people to use
  • Wireless connectivity
  • Remote access
  • Flexibility. Make sure you can scan to the cloud services of your choice.
  • Scalability. You want to be able to use the scanner today, tomorrow and in the future. You don’t want to outgrow the scanner.
  • Searchable files
  • Ability to integrate with several operating systems to support multiple working environments
  • Compatible with the way you do business.

Q: What’s the biggest mistake small business owners make when shopping for scanners?

A: They don’t understand the backend process of what they want to accomplish once the document is scanned. You have to understand what you’re getting. Do you have to have a PC to scan? Are you being charged for services (any paid service should be optional and not lessen the utility of the product you are buying)? Is the scanner self-supportive or do you need to buy add-ons