American Printer's mission is to be the most reliable and authoritative source of information on integrating tomorrow's technology with today's management.

Customer benefits, now and forever

Mar 1, 2010 12:00 AM

         Subscribe in NewsGator Online   Subscribe in Bloglines

To elicit groans from attendees at a seminar or a sales meeting, simply announce that there will be a discussion of the differences between features and capabilities, on one hand, and customer benefits on the other hand. Someone will say, “We've heard all that before — many times before,” and that will, indeed, be the case. We've all heard that message ad nauseum.

It's amazing to me that while most experienced salespeople, managers and owners can recite the litany of features vs. benefits, our industry continues to churn out promotional materials that have everything to do with the company and little to do with the customer. There's general agreement that the cliché of “price, quality and service” is a hopelessly outdated intellectual relic — a basic condition, rather than a motive, of sale. Yet I continue to see letters, brochures and other selling materials that could have been written 20, 30 or even 40 years ago.

Yes, we're back to the Gorelick mantra of competitive differentiation. No issue approaches its importance in terms of strategy. Unfortunately, many have fostered the notion that meaningful differentiation can be achieved by promoting the latest fad, technology or social movement.

Technology is, at best, a short-term differentiator. If the technology improves effectiveness or efficiency at a justifiable cost, it soon becomes ubiquitous and no longer serves as a competitive differentiator. In fact, the opposite typically occurs. Widespread adoption of a technology usually drives down price — and one of the consequences of lowered cost is adoption by printers' customers. Thus, customers subtly become competitors.

Bigger does not equal better

Another lesson is that the sheer size of a graphic arts company does not automatically signal benefits to the buying community, except perhaps for the novice buyer who believes, “If they're big, they must be good.” I have a theory about the print company that happens to be the industry's largest at a given point in time: For every customer that buys from it because it's the largest, there is at least one potential customer that won't do business with that company because it's the largest.

The key issue comes back to perceived customer benefits. That perception is based on human nature; it isn't a peculiarity of the graphic arts industry. There is symmetry between the benefits perceived and the size of the supplier. That symmetry is based on the concept of mutual importance.

The person interested in building an innovative, custom home is unlikely to engage a tract housing builder for the project. A patient believing that he or she is suffering from a rare and potentially lethal malady is likely to seek out a specialist, not necessarily the community physician who sees dozens of patients with common complaints each day.

A print buyer wants a supplier to whom he or she will be important. The ability to satisfactorily execute job specifications is not the sole basis for a long-term relationship with a supplier. Conversely, a graphic arts company wants an account portfolio to which it can be important. The key issues include the lifetime value of the relationship and access to each other's ownership or senior management. There is a perceived benefit in that pipeline in the case of an emergency or some other extraordinary circumstance.

Be careful what you wish for

Every print salesperson dreams about being the primary supplier to a Fortune 100 print buying organization.

Research by our organization almost 10 years ago revealed many printing companies that suffered during recession had a major percentage of their sales in large companies. There was limited (or no) access to the management and ultimate decision-makers of these buying organizations. Price became the major issue. Online auctions were common. The affected printers were not considered important by these customers, in part because of the belief that their large organizations had the leverage to wrest concessions from most printers.

These days, most print companies are experiencing flat or decreased sales. Even firms with increased sales are not finding business easy to come by; the process might be better, but it isn't easier. An important metric involves the condition of the account base. Flat or decreasing sales never are desirable. And if the condition is attributable to account loss, there is elevated cause for concern. When an intact account base is simply making fewer purchases, there is a basis for recovery when the overall economy improves.

To build business, company size, advanced technology and beautiful product must translate into perceived benefits. And the issues of mutual importance and lifetime value of customers, while imprecise and somewhat ephemeral, must not be ignored. They are real.

It's difficult — if not impossible — to create new sales without first creating the conditions that make people want to buy from your organization. Perceived benefits comprise the critical issue.

Dick Gorelick is president of Gorelick & Associates and the Graphic Arts Sales Foundation. He can be reached at