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It's all about customer integration

Dec 1, 2009 12:00 AM

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The old joke about the print shop of the future might be not far off the mark: “There will be only two employees: a guard and a dog. The dog is there to prevent the guard from touching anything.”

Indeed, for some printers, their level of automation and web integration has meant that files received from prequalified customers can enter the print production process, move through prepress, press, bindery and shipping with human intervention only needed at select points — usually to OK the job so it can move to the next stage. Sometimes even that function is automated.

So, one possible future scenario might be the completion of the revolution that began with desktop publishing in the 1980s — the “disintermediation” of print production.

Disintermediation: a lesson from the past

The rapid adoption of desktop publishing technology in the 1980s and 1990s was a process of customer-driven disintermediation. This involves the removal of intermediaries in a supply chain, or bluntly put, cutting out the middleman. Instead of going through the traditional manufacturing channels, which have some type of intermediary (such as a typesetter, scanner operator, paste-up person, film stripper, etc.), designers could now go from concept to production art directly.

The drivers were greater creative control, faster turnaround and, perhaps more importantly, reduced costs and/or greater profitability. The traditional print shop effectively became, from the creative's point of view, akin to a laser printer — just another output device at the end of an Ethernet cable with no outside intermediary involved in the final output. With the advent of the Internet and Wi-Fi, even the cable has disappeared.

Most prepress trade shops either went into denial and then receivership or tried to find niche applications that desktop systems could not yet accommodate. The number of prepress trade shops was decimated.

Print shops, for their part, adopted digital workflows to give their customers a more direct interface with the shop. The role of prepress became somewhat like that of a hospital triage unit: sorting/preflighting incoming files to determine which could enter the print manufacturing process and which needed intensive care and assistance to make them press worthy. As page layout applications reach their limits of desktop functionality, disintermediation, enabled by more reliable PDFs as the standard file interchange format, will increase. Increased adoption of and/or replacement of conventional presses by digital presses, especially inkjet presses, will further fuel disintermediation.

Inkjet presses are a direct analog of the inkjet printer found on the creative's desktop — minus the intermediating mumbo-jumbo of ink/water balance, impression pressure, halftone artifacts, etc.

Unfortunately, the impact for many printers has been, and continues to be, an increase in commoditization and an inability to differentiate them or provide any value other than being an access gateway to their presses.

Reintermediation: bringing back the middleman

“Reintermediation” is the opposite of disintermediation. It is the reintroduction of a value-based intermediary between end users, print buying customers, the supplier and the print shop.

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Reintermediation is the idea behind some printers redefining themselves as marketing services providers (MSP) because it attempts to introduce a value-added service back into the print production process. Many graphic equipment vendors tout becoming an MSP as being the path to survival and future success. Unfortunately, a manufacturer's mindset is quite different from a marketer's. It's why printers are so notoriously poor at marketing themselves, let alone their customers' wares. Also, advertising agencies, design studios and marketing companies represent a large portion of many printers' customers. Biting the hand that feeds you might not be a good business strategy — unless you can afford to lose that business. Reintermediation by becoming an MSP doesn't make sense for most printers.

Are you a customer collaborator?

Unlike the MSP transformation that can put the printer in conflict with its existing customers, customer integration enhances the print buyer experience. It does this by changing the role of print service provider into a customer collaborator — a true partner and consultant that has expanded its services to deliver on each print buyer's unique needs for each specific project. It's a business model that is focused on providing greater value to customers rather than trying to derive more revenue from manufacturing more products.

Customer integration leverages the print sales professional's ability to collect customer and job data, and uncover broader print buyer issues. Prepress, in concert with the pressroom, helps proactively develop solutions from an expert standpoint. Printers who think in terms of customer integration will, for example, have established several presswork standards they can offer customers, to better tailor presswork to customer needs. They also try to find things that are easy for them to do but hard for their customers to do. They focus on getting their manufacturing operations more efficient and effective. Rather than go after new business, they explore and mine their existing customer base and learn how to translate their equipment, personnel and systems capabilities into meaningful value propositions for their customers. They host educational seminars for their customers so they will be seen as a solutions provider. They also understand that the craftsmanship in prepress and in the pressroom will no longer be the black art of print manufacturing but, instead, the craft of understanding customers' print communication requirements and enabling the print shop to deliver on those requirements.

Would you like more value with that?

Sales can then extract and interpret from prepress and the pressroom the strategies required to align the printer's production system to deliver the appropriate solution. Sales then endeavors to make buyers realize their payback, the value proposition that they derive from the printer's uniqueness.

Sales can sell more of the value of the solution, which in turn gives the print buyer more effective print communication pieces while helping the printer maintain its margins along the way. As this process develops over time, the salesperson gets to know the account intimately and learns how to shape the printer's solutions so that they evolve with the print buyer's needs and always form the right fit.

With tighter customer integration, buyers tend to lose objectivity — personal factors can overwhelm objective decision making. As print buyers become dependent on the seller's systems, they are less likely to look seriously at competitive offerings. Competitive sellers find it harder and harder to seriously penetrate the print buyer's organization and decision making structure and therefore make fewer calls to buyers whom they feel are locked-in to steady vendors. Buyers also become lethargic, waiting until the last minute to submit less specific requests for quotes, which, in turn, makes it more difficult for competing printers to respond with an effective, competitive proposal.

Sales and marketing, here we come

As print manufacturing systems become more automated and reliable, the role of prepress and the pressroom will change. As these departments pioneer and implement new production, workflow and systems options designed to enhance the print buyer's relationship with the print shop, their responsibilities will evolve from manufacturing and crisis management to more of a sales and marketing function.

Gordon Pritchard was Print Quality Marketing Manager for 11 years at Creo/Kodak. He has had articles published in trade journals, co-authored a TAGA paper on halftone screening, and authored BRIDG's guide to halftone screening. Contact him at

Gordo's gold

Gordon Pritchard writes the “Quality in Print” blog, which he describes as “business, technical and fun ideas and information for commercial printers.”