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What print buyers really want

Jan 1, 1999 12:00 AM

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On the surface, it would seem that print buyers crave creature comforts. Why else would so many printers set aside special lounges for them? While buyers are grateful for comfortable leather couches, color televisions, and good food and drink, most would gladly sacrifice these luxuries for just one thing: the peace of mind that comes with a job well-done. How do you deliver the goods? We asked printers, designers, print production coordinators and consultants to share their ideas.

'What I look for in a print rep is someone who can work with me,' says David W. Puelle, partner and creative director at Via Marketing and Design (New York City). 'Someone who can become an integral part of the job upfront, suggesting how to max out a sheet size or working with the imposition to minimize paper waste.' Puelle adds that nothing is more frustrating than a print rep who promises more than a plant can deliver. 'A rep either won't say anything upfront or promises, 'we can do that, it looks great, what beautiful design.' But if it gets difficult on press, the rep will say, Well, you know we probably shouldnt be bleeding off all four sides, or, If it had been 1D2-inch smaller, we could have cocked the sh eet coming through the press and gotten rid of the ghosting problem. The very first step for the printer is to make sure the job works both in terms of visual effectiveness and the customer's budget,' adds Stephen Davidson of Davidson & Associates, a New York City-based graphic arts consultant. 'To do that, he or she has to understand what the buyer is trying to communicate--it's the printer's responsibility to be an advisor both in the educational as well as manufacturing process.

'It's not just taking the specifications and saying here it is. The printer should suggest alternate solutions--maybe the choice of paper isn't the best for a particular job or there's a more economical way to do the job. The printer's responsibility to the buyer is to make sure this communication takes place before a job goes on press.'

The exec brings a unique perspective to the interaction between printer and buyer. His 32-year career in the graphic arts has included stints as a production manager, buyer and salesperson--he's also an instructor with the Assn. of Graphic Communications (AGC) in Manhattan.

Davidson further emphasizes the importance the internal staff plays in troubleshooting jobs. 'The salesperson's job is to get the order. The planning of that job, establishing the idiosyncrasies of that job, fall into the hands of the organization's internal professional planners. You try to catch these things very early in the planning stages of production and invite the buyer to be part of the process in making it work. You try to preplan all jobs, but that doesn't always happen.'

Rich Colbary, vice president, graphic arts training division, Graphic Arts Training Council (Los Angeles), agrees that avoiding problems on press is a group effort. 'When a job comes in for a quote, the estimator has to look at the specs and interview the sales rep to ensure all the information needed from the client is on the input sheet. If the sales rep did not get all the information the first time, he or she will have to go back to the client. Once the estimate is complete, production management or an internal scheduler works out the schedule, including any outsourcing that needs to be done. You start from the back of the job--finishing--and work forward. That's how you avoid problems, by scheduling honestly and realistically.'

Rick Schildgen, president and owner of CL Graphics (Crystal Lake, IL), identifies his plant's daily production meeting as a crucial element in the early stages of any job. 'Each department gets an opportunity to look at a job to see if there are any problems. We encourage our production people to speak up.' Schildgen also says as a smaller shop, the $1.5 million printer is more accessible to its customers than some larger operations.

'After pricing and quality, I'm looking for print salespeople with strong project management skills,' submits Shelly Pomponio, Via's Columbus, OH-based production manager. 'They need to be able to understand my project and be able to communicate it to their people. An inside coordinator or production support person, someone who can answer a question quickly, is very helpful.'

'You have to have your act together,' concurs Russell Schoenherr, senior vice president and director of sales at Lake County Press (Waukegan, IL). 'Our job is to know what designers want to see on paper as well as what's driving a job. It could be cost, scheduling or distribution--you have to address the client's priorities.'

The northern Illinois printer is 'a high-impact printer producing a wide array of products for a diverse client base,' according to Shoenherr, who estimates the $34 million printer handles 8,000 jobs annually for 400 customers. New sales hires are given extensive training in all areas of the plant. 'They work on the trucks, in the warehouse and the bindery. Plus we send them to classes at the Printing Industry of Illinois/Indiana,' relates the exec.

Hoi Chu, a designer and also owner of HLC Group (New York City) and a longtime client of Davidson's, says he lets printers know if any difficulties are anticipated. 'We can pretty much tell if something will work. If we think we might run into a problem, we alert the printer,' relates the designer. 'Of course, from the printers' point of view they'd prefer we avoid any kind of problem. If you were to design jobs based on their preferences, you couldn't do too many things! Ultimately it comes down to knowing the trade-off. We can accept that trade-off--we just would like to know about it in advance. There are certain things we just do not do because we know it would present a problem.'

Chu acknowledges, however, much of his wisdom has come with time. 'I have been in business quite awhile and probably know a lot more than somebody just out of school. They will try to do the impossible. We get guys who come in to show us their portfolios and you'll see a three-point rule bleeding on the edge or around the page. That's impossible--you can't do that unless you were to hand-cut each one.'

Diplomacy also must be exercised during the planning stages of a job. This is especially true when dealing with a variety of different people on behalf of the same client. 'You involve both the designers and print production coordinators,' advises Davidson. 'You have to appease the designers by giving them the results they want, but it also has to work for the coordinators, too. If the buyer wants eight colors, but the budget only has room for four, you have to approach the situation very gingerly. Without being condescending to the designer, you have to say that the other colors, no matter how beautiful, are unrealistic.'

Davidson suggests cushioning the blow by offering alternatives. 'Maybe you could get the other four colors by reducing the paper from a No.#1 to a No.#2 sheet. Or, maybe you could put an overall coating on the sheet rather than a varnish to free up a cylinder.'

Whatever you do, counsels the exec, avoid alienating any of the parties involved. Even if the director of marketing knows nothing about printing, he or she is the one who establishes the budget. Davidson further notes that 'nobody wants to work with a printer the designer doesn't like--no matter how close the buyer or print coordinator is with that printer. If the designers don't like the printer, my God, will they be difficult on press. Believe me.'

Whether buyers are onsite for a presscheck generally is determined by the complexity of the job. 'Sometimes checking a sheet in a conference room is okay,' relates Kate Palladino, an account exec with Enock, a New York City-based marketing communications firm. 'But if a job is complicated or very finicky, or colors are very important, I'd rather be there and tell the operators inch by inch on the sheet where to bring up color and check for registration and hickeys and all that kind of stuff.'

In a perfect world, all of the careful planning and preparation done by the printer and customer would result in effortless presschecks. But we've all heard the horror stories about P.F.H.s--i.e., Presschecks From Hell. How do jobs go so horribly wrong? Anyone who has spent the wee small hours of the morning moping around a pressroom waiting for an operator to hang new plates on a job that went sour knows there's no simple explanation.

If the client exhibits unusual loupe techniques, however, this is definitely a bad omen. One printer relates the story of a young man on a presscheck who apparently was new to the industry--he startled the sales rep and press operators by studying the press sheets through the wrong end of the loupe. Another printer tells the tale of a client who brought his own loupe--a tiny model that dangled from his watch. 'Uh-oh,' the printer recalls thinking. 'It's gonna be one of those nights.'

Still another industry veteran vividly recalls the customer who marched in for a presscheck armed with a 20x loupe. 'You are frightening my operators,' the printer told the customer. 'They think maybe you're a proctologist with that thing.'

Even though such situations can be exasperating, most successful printers take a pragmatic approach. 'We stress that customers are not problems or obstacles,' relates Lake County's Schoenherr. 'We remind our employees that these are the people who sign our paychecks.'

What buyers expect during a presscheck should be established long before the first press pull. 'The printer should have the same quality standards as I do,' explains Pomponio. 'I want a printer who shares my level of pickiness.'

Adds Puelle, 'So many judgement calls are made on high-end projects. I love it when I go for a presscheck and I don't have to do anything. I want to work with printers who are one step ahead of me, picking up on something seconds before I point it out on the sheet. Nothing is more uncomfortable than being on press with a printer who can't seem to get where we need to go.'

'We've made a study of presschecks,' reports Shoenherr. 'It's our goal to satisfy the customer with the first sheet.' Reps that consistently conduct efficient presschecks work with those who lack the experience or confidence. The exec stresses the power of positive thinking. 'If you go in thinking every presscheck is going to take five or six sheets, guess what? It will--that's what it's going to take.'

'Part of it is showmanship,' agrees Davidson. 'It's positive showmanship, though. Nobody is there to make somebody unhappy--what purpose does that serve? Happy clients come back.'

Should the presscheck be conducted press-side or in a special viewing room? A strong argument can be made for each. 'Sometimes you've sacrificed your schedule, come hundreds of miles, you're stuck in hotel room for a week and you're not allowed in the pressroom,' complains Puelle. 'You are stuck in the color room with your rep who you see every day anyhow. I'm not interested in being wined and dined. I love to be around the operators, smelling the ink and listening to the press run. Some are surly, some are friendly, but these are the guys who really understand the ink. I'm interested in what's happening on a press sheet good or bad, because it helps me become a better designer. I've learned more from operators than I have from reps.'

Pomponio notes that while she enjoys talking to press operators and hearing their suggestions, for some jobs she prefers to use a viewing room. 'With drying powder, I like the viewing rooms. It's easier if they bring the sheet in.'

Some printers utilize viewing rooms for presschecks to avoid stationing crowds of people around the press console. Lake County Press tries to combine the best of both worlds. Its viewing rooms, complete with windows, are located inside the pressroom so visitors are out of the crews' paths, but can see everything.

While it would be tempting to heave a huge sigh of relief upon completing a presscheck, most buyers won't rest easy until they see the final delivered product. Some have learned from long experience that errors can still creep in--and usually where they're least expected. 'We were doing a cover with a complex diecut,' remembers Pomponio. 'We got a sample and signed off on it before it was sent to an outside bindery. Then we got it back and the alignment was off. It turned out the printer never sent the sample to the bindery!'

What do you do when bad things happen to good printing? Be honest, is the advice of Roger Stief, estimating manager of Pride Graphics (Leola, PA). Stief, who has experience in the pressroom as well as in customer service and sales, says this perspective helps with 'damage control.' 'Our policy is to be upfront with the customers. I usually can tell why something went wrong on press or a stitcher or cutter or folder. Rather than saying 'I don't know why there's tracking,' I can check to see if the oscillating form roller is working. When I see a problem, I can tell clients right away what it is, rather than putting them on hold or calling them back.'

Colbary also urges a timely and honest approach. 'Management should empower CSRs or whoever is handling the work to respond to a problem,' advises the trainer. 'You're obligated to tell the client right away, and when you make that call, have a solution in mind. You're there to help them, not stress them out. Giving bad news without any hope is not recommended.'

'We don't want any work going out that's wrong or not up to our quality standards,' adds Pomponio. 'The best printers feel the same way we do.'

While most printers will fess up, apparently some won't. 'The thing that definitely kills a relationship is when a printer screws up and refuses to admit it,' says Chu. 'We have blacklisted printers because of that. We had a printer do a heatset offset job for us that was a very thin perfect bind. The grain was run incorrectly during binding, everything was wrong--the cover was buckling and wavy--but the printer vehemently refused to admit it. From that point on, the relationship was poisoned. We can't deal with something like that.'

'Mistakes are made,' acknowledges CL Graphic's Schildgen. 'It's what you do about it that counts. If we make a mistake, you are going to learn more about us than if everything goes well.'