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Looking beyond technology

March 31, 2014

To mark the anniversary of this magazine, Katherine O'Brien asked AP readers to discuss changes in the industry during the past l25 years.

Despite the hoopla about technological change during my lifetime, I would argue that changes in non-technological areas and conditions have been at least as significant as changes in technology.

As I told O'Brien, “The most significant change in the industry during the past 10, 20, or 125 years has been — and will continue to be — the altered relationship between buyers and sellers. Product is disappearing as a differentiator. Customers have alternatives and printers must compete on some other basis.”

Ironically, the technological developments others cited in response to the question have, in the long run, provided print-buying organizations with more trump cards than printers. Good technology becomes ubiquitous and relatively inexpensive, falling into the hands of customers. Examples include the office copier and desktop publishing.

This, in turn, leads to a blurring of the once clear-cut definitions of “customer,” “competitor” and “supplier.” In fact, some organizations simultaneously fill all three roles in relating to a graphic arts company.

Recalling the past

Many graphic arts firms fail to learn from history. They believe it's possible to establish long-term competitive differentiation through technology. Early offset technology adopters tried this strategy. So did those who invested millions of dollars in electronic prepress systems. Through it all, buyers' motives haven't changed. Print is a vehicle to achieve some business purpose: increased sales, increased profit, public awareness of a product or service, compliance with government regulation, etc.

Another lesson many technology advocates haven't learned: in this environment of rapid technological change, there is no instance of an organization sustaining a long-term competitive advantage through product or price. The only basis for maintaining a long-term competitive edge is information regarding profitable use of technology. It's been 15 years since the introduction of color variable-data presses, and commercially profitable applications continue to be users' primary challenge.

I'm not dismissing technology. I'm simply making the point that, as remarkable as it may be, it is simply a tool that (a) doesn't fundamentally change buyer motives and (b) empowers customers in the long run as it becomes commonly available.

Why printers lose accounts in 2008

Another question that prompted reflection and soul-searching involved a survey conducted more than 30 years ago by the late consultant Willard Brown. Through hundreds of interviews with print and prepress buyers, he published the 12 most common reasons they severed relationships with suppliers. The research was used for many years in Graphic Arts Sales Foundation training curriculum. I was asked if these reasons for account loss remain valid in 2008.

A review of those 12 reasons provides stark evidence of changes in our industry during the past 10 or 12 years. Those changes are, in large part, unique because the changes are traceable to, or exacerbated by, issues other than graphic arts manufacturing.

Our research indicates that many of the reasons for account loss have little or nothing to do with a particular supplier's competence. Among those reasons:

Competition from other media: The Internet has become the preferred information medium due to its immediacy. Print has become a preferred medium for persuasion and promotion.

The gradual, almost imperceptible acceptance of sole sourcing by many small and midsize buying organizations: This is attributable to several factors, including a realization of the costs and risks inherent in buying from several suppliers, and equipment reliability. Sole sourcing has resulted in account losses by suppliers who failed to “make the cut.”

Late adopters of distribution services account for thousands of companies that suffered account losses.

Supplier accountability has, in many instances, taken precedence over the risk reduction issue.

Communication, information, and buyer education have become important motives in supplier selection. This has been magnified by the growing complexity and volatility of legislative, postal, employment law, pricing and other issues that have direct and important implications in the use and procurement of print. Suppliers that believe their responsibility ends with delivery of good product risk losing accounts.

Social responsibility is becoming an increasingly important factor in supplier selection. This has little to do with the ability to produce good product on time at a competitive price.

Many of the issues that led buyers to discontinue supplier relationships a decade or two ago have been addressed. Technology has eliminated the debate about ownership of film and has helped address the problem of product consistency. Most companies now turn around a quotation in 24 hours. Production turnaround times have been reduced. Let's face it: The buying community has won the battle about “overs.” Reasons for account loss have changed markedly since the landmark study. I suspect a similar study conducted in 2008 would be difficult to confine to 12 major reasons. It would encompass a few dozen reasons.

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

‘The master of industrial marketing’

Dick Gorelick made his AMERICAN PRINTER debut in January 2001, but his byline has been a fixture in graphic arts publications for more than 40 years.

Before joining AP, Gorelick contributed a marketing column to Graphic Arts Monthly for 15 years. “That publication, then under publisher Dick Vinocur, added a marketing column during a period in which there literally was discussion about the relevance of the marketing discipline to the graphic arts industry,” he recalls.

Bob Tursack, CEO of Brilliant Graphics (Exton, PA) credits Gorelick with helping his company “see ourselves as a business that helps our customers make money rather than [just] a printer. Everything we do today, from the way we answer our phones to the way we present finished jobs to customers, has been influenced by him.”

One reader recently dubbed Gorelick “the master of industrial marketing,” an appropriate title. He is the past president of the American Marketing Assn. and Charles Parlin Foundation at the University of Pennsylvania Wharton School.

Earlier this month, the Graphic Arts Assn. (Philadelphia) named Gorelick its Neographics' 2008 Person of the Year.

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