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Feb 1, 1997 12:00 AM

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The nature of the quick printing business obviously has changed significantly over the past 10 years or so. The bread-and-butter of the typical shop no longer centers around the self-service copiers or the random jobs that just happen to come through the front door.

Today, the quick printing industry has evolved significantly from these humble beginnings, with many shops moving beyond printing's version of the convenience store. Thus, sitting back with your feet up waiting for the next customer to drop by isn't a formula for success in today's competitive marketplace.

Fortunately, owners and managers increasingly are realizing the need to get out from behind the counter and into the field, actively foraging for new business while logging important "face" time with current customers. However, can a small shop justify hiring an outside salesperson (or salespeople) dedicated exclusively to selling?

"The answer to the question of whether a quick printer should hire an outside salesperson actually is two-fold," offers David Fellman, president of David Fellman & Associates (Cary, NC), a sales consulting firm that deals extensively with the quick printing industry. "The first part is, yes, somebody deinitely should be out selling, such as the owner. However, should a firm hire someone to exclusively go out and sell? That depends on sales volume."

According to Fellman, firms with annual sales of less than approximately $300,000 almost certainly cannot afford to pay a salesperson. Firms falling in the $300,000 to $600,000 range may be able to justify outside sales, but the owner should be handling the task. In this range, the sales hire should be an entry level person who will not command too large a salary. Finally, he stresses, any quick printer selling more than $600,000 certainly can and should hire an outside salesperson.

Indeed, if a quick print operation is to grow continuously, it is almost essential to have outside sales. Although some may be content to remain "mom and pop" shops and are happy just to make a decent living, those firms that truly want to remain competitive have to pursue clients.

A good example of the impact outside sales can have on a business comes from Pat Leamy, president of EconoPrint (Madison, WI). This progressive firm now employs nine outside salespeople, a fact resulting in no small part from a study a local business professor conducted for the firm 16 years ago.

"The professor had us do a dateline reviewing 10 years of our annual sales. Then he asked us what we did every year in terms of promotions, store additions, equipment purchases and outside sales," Leamy recalls. "Once he completed computing all of these elements, the professor determined that the factor providing the greatest return on investment by far was when we hired a new salesperson. We were stunned, because the return was even greater than when we opened a new shop or started a major radio ad campaign. We decided right then to cut back on our advertising and reinvest the money in people."

Despite the fact the many quick printers are beginning to recognize its importance, relatively few currently have outside sales (approximately 20 percent in Fellman's estimation). Actually, a much higher percentage has at least tried to succeed with an outside salesperson, but unfortunately experienced more than a few problems.

Sometimes, the problem simply was with the individual. However, the most common downfall of the quick print salesperson seems to be the fault of management. That is, management failed to provide the proper direction or tools to help the salesperson perform.

Bill Ternes, president of the Great Copy Co. (Ann Arbor, MI), openly concedes management's failure in his firm's problems regarding salespeople. Great Copy currently does not have an outside salesperson, but has been through three in the past six years.

"We did not create enough internal support or provide enough tools, such as printed promotional material, for their use," Ternes confesses. "We also didn't provide them with some sort of portable pricing system or a specialized external order form."

Perhaps most eye-opening was that Great Copy didn't realize how much time working with salespeople requires. "Unlike a counter person, who immediately helps ease the workload, a salesperson has an ongoing need for support, direction, encouragement, etc. We expected sales would be fairly self-controlling as the other people in our shop, but we found out differently too late," observes Ternes.

One quick printer, located in Lexington, KY, hoped to minimize the need for management support by hiring an experienced pro who, it was thought, could hit the ground running with little guidance. The firm had been teetering on the edge of hiring a dedicated outside salesperson, going back and forth on the issue for several months. However, the printer was very reluctant to bring an entry level person on board to learn the ropes, having witnessed several competitors in the area experience a lengthy learning curve.

Thus, this $800,000 shop decided to explore hiring a salesperson from a nearby larger commercial printer that had scaled back its operations. The person was a known entity and had a good demonstratable track record with his previous firm.

Unfortunately, that success did not necessarily translate to the quick printer's operation. "He was a very good salesperson who certainly knew printing and how to sell," recalls the quick print manager. "However, he also brought along some baggage in the form of large company attitude. In his last job, he had established many ongoing relationships and, in fact, could count on several jobs coming in on a consistent basis. Thus, he had lost much of his 'get-up-and-go' spirit over time, and really didn't display the hunger or ambition to go out and call on smaller, less sexy clientele.

"Although he was able to bring in some business from his established connections, most of the work wasn't really profitable since we weren't capable of doing the bigger stuff," he adds. "In retrospect, we probably should have realized that he wouldn't fit here."

Unfortunately, many quick printers also tend to have unrealistic expectations regarding their salespeople. Owners expect that, once on board, these people immediately will strike gold and bring in loads of new business. However, when this doesn't happen right away, owners often give up on the salesperson and are soured on the entire outside sales concept.

"So many companies are bitterly disappointed when their salesperson doesn't bring in $30,000 a month right off the bat," Fellman relates. "That is just plain unreasonable. We tell owners that, if they can get $100,000 in new business from a new salesperson in the first year, they are doing very well. However, we also stress that it will take time to reach this goal, and that in the early stages no money may be coming in at all. You have to give your people time to build relationships to get the ball rolling."

Dennis Tarczy, president of Mad Hungarian Printing (Columbus, OH), firmly believes in giving salespeople the opportunity to get their bearings before passing judgment. Tarczy has two outside salespeople.

"Some quick print industry people say that outside salespeople can do wonderful things for a firm in a very short time, but that simply isn't going to happen," he stresses. "It takes time to build sales. In fact, we don't even measure a person's sales in the first six to eight months. We worry more about how many calls they make, if they are good calls, are they following up and are we getting quotes. If the salesperson is working hard, coming in early and staying late, eventually they will sell."

Another reason many quick printers are reluctant to hire outside sales: loss of control. According to Leamy of EconoPrint, small print shop owners feel especially vulnerable when they let someone new take over accounts.

"The owners have built up their business themselves for so many years, so to turn those precious accounts over to a relative stranger is a difficult thing to do," he offers. "The danger is, if that salesperson leaves to go to another printer, he or she might just take a lot of your accounts along. That can do a tremendous amount of damage to a small operation."

Indeed, it is a long-standing practice in the quick print industry is for owners to handle all of the outside sales themselves (that is, those who realize they have to do it at all). However is this a feasible strategy?

"Some owners are very good at sales. However, it all depends on how well they organize their time and how much time they are willing to put into it," notes Terry Doland, owner of Express Printing and Graphics (Mountain View, CA). "Unfortunately, there is a real danger that owners may spread themselves too thin. Many owners don't believe their time is worth much, but it truly is worth an awful lot. If they spend too much time on sales and neglect to manage their business, or vice versa, the entire effort could spell disaster. They really should look into hiring somebody to handle sales full time."

So, is it possible (or advisable) to look within your own firm for a potential salesperson? Can a production person or a front counter rep with intelligence and an outgoing personality be molded into a top-notch seller? According to Fellman, the answer is yes.

"The typical quick printer would be better off starting a current employee out as a part-time salesperson than going outside the company," Fellman stresses. "These people are known entities, and they also have important knowledge to bring to the table.

"There are four major elements of the printing sales knowledge base: product knowledge, market knowledge, operational knowledge and selling technique," he continues. "Every employee in a typical quick print shop, regardless of their function, already has some degree of knowledge in each of these areas. The only thing they may lack is selling technique. However, you definitely can take most of these people who are reasonably intelligent, dress fairly well and present a clean appearance, and teach them. It is not brain surgery."

However, once the decision is made to allow an inside employee to go out and sell, management must be committed to letting this person concentrate exclusively on his or her new role. "Too often, a person is sent out into the field to sell, but is invariably called back inside to help with office functions with business gets hectic," points out EconoPrint's Leamy. "A manager must isolate their salespeople, keeping them outside all the time. They must be allowed to concentrate fully on sales, not producing in the store."

Determining whether to bring an outside salesperson on board is a challenge most quick printers are facing today. Deciding to take this step will require total commitment on the part of owners and managers to ensure salespeople have the tools and supervision they need to succeed.

If the right choices are made and the proper care is taken, a dedicated salesperson can transform a mom-and-pop shop into a steadily growing graphic arts company.