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Nov 1, 1998 12:00 AM

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Have you been to a Home Depot lately? One consultant suggests that the typical shopping experience at one of these huge home improvement centers provides a wonderful insight into the changing buyer/seller relationship. "When you go into a Home Depot, someone greets you at the door," says Harry Wallace managing director, focused accelerated teams (FAST) at Arthur Andersen. "You tell them what you want. Suppose you need a hammer--the person at the door will provide you with directions. When you arrive at the hammer aisle, you don't want to meet a salesperson--you don't need to be sold that hammer. You want to meet someone who can gave you advice on buying hammers. That analogy applies completely to the buying world today. People want advice and direction--they do not want to be sold."

While all organizations are different, most graphic arts service providers can improve their sales effort by asking some pointed questions. Do employees communicate across departmental lines? Do you know what you do best? Does everybody know? Are you a printer or a printer and a partner? Do you put your customers' interests ahead of your own? Do your customers enjoy working with your company? Even if you are already following some of the advice offered on these pages, you'll pick up a tip or two as you benchmark these ideas against your current sales activities.

Are your internal customers happy? How well does your sales staff interact with the rest of the company? According to Wallace, execs should avoid being so dazzled by the dollar amount of a sale that they turn a blind eye to a salesperson's poor internal communications.

Rich Colbary, vice president graphic training division for the Graphics Art Training Council, agrees. "You need to heal any internal divisions that may exist," submits the Los Angeles-based consultant. "If your sales and production departments don't get along, or the day shift is fighting with the night shift or press operators don't talk with bindery operators, you need to address the problem. Instead of just having a production meeting, have a separate communication meeting with delegates representing each department. Different departments should take turns running the meeting so that you can build communications by learning about the other guys' problems."

Try to get your employees face-to-face in a nonthreatening environment, suggests Colbary. Also, consider conducting an exchange program between problematic departments so that employees can observe first-hand the challenges facing their colleagues. "There's nothing better than a production manager who sees a customer service rep getting beat up over the phone because the production guys blew the schedule," notes Colbary. "That is a real eye-opener."

Know thyself. Your salespeople are only as good as your company's products and services. To paraphrase former NYC mayor Ed Koch, how are you doing? What is your core competency? Could this competency be made obsolete by new technology? What happens then?

"In 1985, I sat down with Bill Schiff and we discussed what we had to offer that others didn't," recalls Scott Barthelmes, sales manager of Schiff Printers and Lithographers (Pittsburgh). "We had a lot of color expertise--but so did many others. So we decided to focus on computer graphics--it became a personal focus for Bill. We decided that would differentiate us." Barthelmes acknowledges that directing clients to the proper internal resource is a key sales function. Schiff salespeople are given a list of names and numbers to help ensure that customer inquiries are fielded promptly. "If a client has a question on scanning, our salespeople know they can turn to Paul Palermo for help," explains the exec. "If it's an offset question, they know Fred McIntosh, our print production manager, is the go-to person. We stress our availability and willingness to stop whatever we're doing to talk to clients."

Barthelmes adds that the company also invites customers onsite for training. "Another big advantage for us is that we have several people here who have taught on different levels at colleges and companies. We invite people to take advantage of that expertise. We have customers come in and sit with our operators from time to time and will sometimes send our operators out on calls," submits the exec. "More than anything, we try to educate customers to a point where they understand the strengths and shortcomings of a particular process. People appreciate that --they respect our knowledge and begin to realize just how much we have to offer. Once you're a respected expert, it's a hell of a lot easier to sell your product."

Be a partner, not just a printer. "Anyone who's in sales should become a consultant," asserts Wallace. "Traditionally, salespeople have been better at glad-handing clients than providing them with information. Today's sales professional has to become a value-added supplier. The only way you can add value is to know your customers' business. The more you know, the better you can serve clients."

How do you become an expert on your clients' business? Just ask them, replies Wallace. "Talking to your customers can unleash torrents of ideas. As most salespeople know, people love to talk about themselves--the key thing is simply to take notes. You study what the customer tells you, take that back to your shop and tell your fellow employees, "this is our direction. We've been given our marching orders by that customer.' "

Greg Campbell, vice president of information technology, George Lithograph (Brisbane, CA), notes that partnering played a key role in the company's decision to create a new division: George Consulting Services.

"We were interested in having print be one of our products rather than our sole business," recounts Campbell. "We talked to our customers and looked at their needs--we could see it would be advantageous to satisfy their needs across different areas. We kept getting requests to go further upstream rather than just being involved in the production aspect of jobs."

New file formats such as XML as well as Internet applications are fueling customer demand for consulting services. "Many customers are interested in repurposing," notes Campbell. "We tell them multipurposing is better--you're doing it right the first time. If you start back at the content creation phase, you can plan for a variety of different uses--you don't have to repurpose."

George Consulting helps customers organize their digital assets as well as streamline all steps of the process from content creation to publishing. The firm will work with customers to promote uniform practices, creating, implementing and updating style sheets, for example. Campbell reports that for some customers George has "established partnerships in which we have our people on customers' sites. They've shown us their content creation process and we've trained them on repurposing. We have good relationships with our customers by throwing our joint resources behind a project."

Ironically, acting as a consultant occasionally results in less print work. This stems from recommending print-on-demand or smaller print runsor even eliminating certain print jobs in favor of CDs or other electronic media. "Some customer are used to working with vendors that don't strategize with them, that are fighting tooth and nail to hang on to a specific kind of work even if this isn't the best thing for the customer," observes Campbell. "We've found that our customers are so excited we can help them change their business that they've given us projects we weren't privy to before. By eliminating some of our print, we have actually garnered more print."

Mandel Co. (Milwaukee, WI) also has enjoyed great success by partnering with its customers. The company was selected by Miller Brewing Co. from a field of 10,000 of its suppliers as a winner of its annual "Partners in Excellence Award." The $13 million sheet-fed printer provides Miller with prepress services as well as large-format digital printing of point-of-purchase displays. "We've been involved in large-format for about 12 years now," relates Michael Danz, president. "We've had a Barco Gigasetter and a Megasetter for four years--maximum output is 63 x 96 inches. We can make one-piece 30 x 78-inch Matchprints. We also have an Idanit large-format digital press."

Value-added services Mandel brings to its partnership with Miller, in addition to its wide-format and color expertise, include information and file management and a consolidated billing and record keeping process.

"Every month we send Miller an update on the volume and types of sales we have done for the company," explains Danz. "You develop an inherent trust because you're sharing confidential information so that both sides can benefit in terms of efficient production and throughput."

Danz also stresses the importance of "willingness to cooperate on all levels." Although Mandel may find itself working with competitors on projects for Miller, there's no room for gamesmanship. "There is constant communication," testifies Danz. "We're far less caught up in the competitiveness that would typically prevail--we're much more interested in producing an accurate product. Ultimately that translates into a more profitable business because there are fewer makeovers and delays. You meet deadlines because you've anticipated so many things on the front end."

Are we having fun yet? People tend to buy things from people they like. While it isn't necessary to recruit your salesforce from the roster of the local Rotary Club, your customers should feel comfortable approaching employees at all levels of your organization. "Every printing company has its own identity--we're known for our humor. Customers come in, even when they don't have any printing, just for a little entertainment," says Jane Weyhrauch, president and CEO of Deluxe Color Printers (Newport Beach, CA). "We don't take ourselves too seriously. We try to do things a little better and make it fun to do business with us."

The $2 million company took top honors in a recent direct marketing and self-promotion competition sponsored by the Printing Industries of Southern California and the Graphic Arts Management Assn. "We won for our funny direct-mail postcard campaign," relates Weyhrauch. "Did we spend lots of money? Absolutely not." Weyhrauch, who holds a master's degree in communications, generally comes up with the concept and the copy and then collaborates with outside creative service professionals to bring her ideas to life. Her mother, stepfather and daughter have starred in previous campaigns, all of which have been well-received by the company's ad agency, print brokers and printer client base.

Color Deluxe's willingness to advise customers is clearly stated in the copy featured on one of its postcards. Recipients are assured that "customer service starts when you walk in the door . . . there isn't a counter and we don't make you take a number. You will be greeted by someone nice and our phones are always answered by Real People . . ."

"Face it," the card continues, "when it comes to printing, sooner or later you are going to make a mistake. That's why we preflight every job that comes through the shop. If we see a problem, we'll let you know before we output film or print the job. We can't promise to catch everything, but we've saved our clients thousands of dollars over the years."

Of course, the humorous approach isn't for everyone. "You don't want to offend anyone," acknowledges Weyhrauch. "After seeing how well humor worked for our firm, a color house we used decided to send out funny postcards, too. They selected a famous statue of a naked man. Their headline was "Guess what just got bigger?' We told them it was in bad taste. They disagreed and would have mailed out 5,000 cards--but the USPS rejected the mailing [on the grounds that it was pornographic]. While the USPS probably went too far, they did these guys a favor."

Weyhrauch adds that she tries to avoid overwhelming customers and prospects with an avalanche of details. "You want to know what size presses somebody has, but not necessarily every piece of bindery equipment, too. Do you really care what kind of shrink wrapper we have?"

The company informs its direct-mail piece recipients that it features "quality Heidelberg and Komori four-color presses to print the toughest jobs and a quality Scitex film department to output the best film." Customers who request an equipment list have a choice --the long version or what Weyhrauch laughingly refers to as the Reader's Digest condensed version.

So there you have it. Remember the Home Depot story. Your customers don't want you to sell them a hammer. They'd like some advice on protecting their thumbs while still hitting the nail on the head.

Let your fingers do the walking. "The biggest opportunity in all of selling is to use the phone more extensively throughout the business cycle--not the sales cycle," advises Arthur Andersen's Harry Wallace. "It saves the buyer time, you're doing him or her a favor. If you could never get face-to-face again with your customers, would that put you out of business? Think about alternate means of communications."

Nothing is free . "You have to be confident enough in your consulting expertise and knowledge to establish value for what you're doing," stresses Greg Campbell of George Lithograph's consulting group. "We had to go through a transitional period of determining what was free and what was chargeable. The first thing we had to do was establish value for the services--for example, explaining how helping customers prepare files properly ensures a smooth production process. Even in cases where we're waiving the charge for a particular service, we let the clients know that this service represents "x' amount of dollars."

Say thank-you. Aside from issues of politeness and decorum, thanking customers often leads to unexpected business. Consultant Rich Colbary recalls a story from his days as customer service manager at Continental Graphics (Los Angeles). "My assistant handled a very difficult job over the weekend. The job went well and shipped on time Monday. On Tuesday, she phoned the client to ask how he liked the job. He was pleased with the work, and as it so happened, was talking to a colleague who needed similar work--he recommended us. We got work from a new client just on the basis of a thank-you phone call."

Appoint a Vice President of What-If. Train your employees to avoid telling customers "we can't do that," or "we don't do that." Teach them to ask "what if we did that?" or "why don't we do that?" "New customers sometimes have some very interesting ideas," relates Campbell. "But for some of these things, they don't know if it can be done or not. That's where we come in."

Swim with the salmon. How far upstream can you get in your customers' production processes? "We're always looking for new and different ways to help our customers," submits Ronnie Hale, vice president and treasurer of Consolidated Graphics. "We hope to expand our level of services by investing capital in new equipment and printing technologies." Digital photography, and asset management are two areas to watch.

Avoid a William Shatner/Robert Stack relationship. When you call your customers, you don't want them to associate you with the host of either "Rescue 911" or "Unsolved Mysteries." Don't limit your contact to crisis situations--take a tip from "Seinfeld" and call even when there's nothing much happening. (Note, however, that the "pop-in" is still an iffy maneuver--it's probably still best to phone first!)