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The medium and the message

Sep 1, 2010 12:00 AM

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I've been around more than the majority of AMERICAN PRINTER readers. That leads me to feel trepidation about writing this column, so let me provide a word of warning: It isn't intended as a discourse about “the good old days.”

The good old days weren't all that good

At least, they weren't better than the present. There always have been recessions, employees who won't work overtime, customers that don't pay their bills, and unresponsive suppliers. Gutenberg had to fold a business because of poor cash flow. The archives of industry publications and trade association newsletters have articles about price competition that are relevant today and ask, “How much worse can it get?”

The introduction, affordability and use of technology is nothing new. In my lifetime, there has been the shift from letterpress to offset printing; the evolution from hot type to cold type to photocomposition to electronic typesetting; and development of the electrostatic copier, variable-data output and sophisticated computerized management systems. Yet we've lost something along the way.

Sadly, the development of a new technology and its applications doesn't necessarily imply its superiority. Twenty-five years ago, school districts linked their superiority to the early adoption of computers in the classroom. In 1984, a Philadelphia university boasted that it was the first institution to make purchasing an Apple computer a condition of enrollment. None of this created better-educated students without instruction and monitoring of usage.

The personal touch

In the graphic arts industry, we have a community of customers that we glibly call “buyers.” In more than 90% of the cases, they are not full-time buyers. While they prefer communication, usually they have strong likes and dislikes about the vehicle. Some like e-mail and some hate it; the same is true of in-person visits, phone calls, faxes or mail. Why not ask them, then respond to, their individual preferences?

Most readers will agree that thank-you notes can be important when used judiciously. However, there are instances in which an expression of appreciation communicated by e-mail is offensive to some recipients, who prefer a handwritten note. It's the difference between a message of, “I cared enough to save a few minutes,” and, “I cared enough to send the very best.”

Speaking of handwritten notes, I recently saw a cartoon in which a job applicant handed an interviewer his resume. The interviewer said, “An ‘A’ in penmanship? What's that?”

The few handwritten notes I receive from those under the age of 45 or so are all in block letters, not script. I blame the education system more than the writers.

This brings us to the subject of software that checks spelling and is assumed to replace the need to know how to spell. The software can miss errors, such as accepting “see” when the writer intended to type “seek,” which changes the meaning of the phrase.

Some printers use spellcheck as an excuse not to proofread customers' files. Others use it as a reason to promote proofreading services. In the latter case, proofreading for spelling accuracy and sense — done well — provides elevated value.

Reach through the clutter

Advertising clutter is rampant. It's growing worse by the minute as marketers use electronics and other technology to reach potential customers, thereby exacerbating the challenge. In this scenario, the law of physics that postulates, “Every action creates an equal and opposite reaction,” has application to marketing and, indeed, all human interaction.

One-on-one customer contact training often is overlooked. Even in smaller businesses, including many graphic arts companies, there is no program to welcome new customers other than successful completion of a job “to show them what we can do.” There is little recognition or use of the power of human contact to address the buyer anxiety typically associated with a buyer's decision to change suppliers. A call from the CEO, the customer service representative or even the delivery person prior to delivery of the first job can't be duplicated by e-mail or some other software program.

I want to acknowledge that electronic communication has made great contributions to the effectiveness and efficiency of our respective businesses. However, it is not a panacea. Too often, recipients use it to avoid 1:1 communication. My concern is that “the human touch” is under-utilized as a device to establish and nourish relationships.

The advice to “know thy customer” isn't confined to information about this year's sales volume, paper stock preferences or weekend plans communicated via e-mail. All that is valuable, but good old human contact shouldn't be disparaged.

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