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Printing is to health care as

Aug 1, 2003 12:00 AM

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Few analogies are as accurate as the comparison between the graphic-arts industry and the healthcare business.

Both industries buy and sell customized products and services. Furthermore, the customer has little empirical basis for making a buying decision — and he or she won't know the wisdom of supplier selection until it's too late to do anything about it.

The only major difference between the marketing dynamic of the two industries is a somewhat different definition of spoilage.

A Giant dose of anesthesia

The buying decision for both industries can be difficult to the point of being subjective. A patient has little more than a doctor's reputation and referrals from acquaintances as a guide in selecting a healthcare provider. And a patient can only trust that the surgeon did not have three martinis before stepping into the operating room. Similarly, a printer's equipment list can be a good starting point for print buyers, but it has little to do with the expertise and concern for customer needs with which that equipment is operated.

So, what's the benefit that many graphic-arts companies are perceived as offering to their customers? It's a giant dose of general anesthesia. Most print buyers want to deliver their electronic files and then be awakened when the process is completed, without ever having to feel the pain.

Transaction is critical

In both industries, the transaction is critical. Patients base much of their opinions of a physician on length of time spent in the waiting room or a physician's bedside manner, and less on the physician's knowledge of medicine. For example, an acquaintance of mine has built an outstanding reputation that is attributable in large part to his practice of walking patients to their cars after an appointment. Similarly, a print buyer automatically assumes a good product will be produced — printers can no longer compete on print quality alone. The tiebreaker in choosing a printer may be status reports, expeditious billing or some other aspect of the transaction.

Surprises in print buying and health care are not appreciated — by the buyer, the seller or the patient. News delivered early in the process, however, is very much appreciated.

In both industries, information and communication are critical. The printer wants all the job specifications and customer expectations upfront. Anything less jeopardizes the successful completion of a job. Similarly, a reasonable person would not seek treatment from a healthcare provider without first providing a detailed medical history.

Technical expertise vs. bedside manner

While printers argue that customers are quick to change suppliers due to price, both industries are characterized by a general customer reluctance to leave their longtime suppliers — the devil they know is better than the devil they don't. Most printers have a core of regular customers that do business with them out of habit, as long as no grievous problem surfaces.

A final, conspicuous similarity between the graphic-arts and healthcare industries is the so-called “weighted” bedside-manner relationship. The buyer of a simple, routine printing job and the patient seeking relief from a common cold place a premium on the transaction, or bedside manner. It's another matter entirely when the stakes are high, such as a patient with a life-threatening affliction or a print buyer looking to have a new product marketed. In both these situations, the technical expertise trumps bedside manner as the criterion of supplier selection.

While the litany of similarities could go on, I will instead leave you with one dissimilarity the print community enjoys: It doesn't have to deal with the difficulties of insurance coverage and government regulation. The graphic-arts industry gets both the benefits and scourge of capitalism at its best.