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Are you seeing what they're buying?

Mar 1, 2003 12:00 AM

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Are You Selling What They're Buying?” is the title of a popular Graphic Arts Sales Foundation (GASF) seminar. Some may view the title as catchy, even flippant, but the disconnect between sales presentations and buying motives is common to the point of being epidemic among print companies. Nowhere is this dissonance more obvious than in the case of plant tours by prospective customers or personnel new to the relationship with your company at existing accounts.

Let's back up for a moment and recognize that although the circumstances of every visit are unique, there are some common conditions:

  • The visitors wouldn't have scheduled a trip to your facility without first being convinced your company is competent at putting ink on some substrate

  • There is a predisposition, even a bias, toward your company — therefore, the “sell” needs to go beyond the product

  • It is likely that the visitors have some special needs, concerns and considerations that they would like addressed.

During the past several years, our organization has surveyed tens of thousands of print buyers. We often ask them to compare facility visits to different printers. Printers are usually disappointed by the feedback, believing “our company shows better than the competition.” Why the dissonance between printer expectations and actual customer feedback?

Our explanation, based on experience with both buyers and sellers, is that print companies and visitors have different orientations during plant visits. For example, the competence to successfully execute job specifications is usually not an issue to the visitor(s). A tour that concentrates on demonstrating a printer's ability to manufacture an acceptable product may lack relevance to visitors and, most important, ignore the special non-product needs and values of the visitors' organization.

These may involve deliveries, internal controls, fiscal competence, or flexibility in meeting special invoicing or reporting requirements.


It is customary for printers to take special steps to ensure cleanliness and orderliness prior to a visit. A sign may be erected in the lobby welcoming the visitor(s). Other steps may be taken, usually in the spirit of “showtime.”

I frequently hear an important plant visit referred to as a “dog-and-pony show.” That's unfortunate: It implies that a visit is an occasion for a sales presentation, not an exchange of information about the printer's capabilities and the buying organization's unique needs.

Prior to a visit, ask your guests about their objective. With that feedback, the visit can be tailored to the client. Invite the visitor(s) to explain their particular needs — and deliver that explanation to the line employees responsible for “making it happen” during the course of the average workday, not just to management.

It is axiomatic that the host is concentrating on the cleanliness and efficiency of the manufacturing operation while a visitor may base his/her perception upon the condition of the restrooms. The host may be anxious to demonstrate formal job-processing procedures, while a visitor may form opinions based on employees hurrying around the facility in a mode that appears to be crisis-driven.

A visitor with experience in the procurement and coordination of print is likely to have antennae finely tuned to any sign of conflict between the sales and production areas of the host company. At a focus group I conducted, a Fortune 500 print buyer noted, “Having an important printing job in a company with a sales-production conflict is like lying in an operating room, seconds before having anesthesia administered, and the last recollection is conflict between the surgeon and the nurses.”


Visitors to your facility are devoting valuable time. They are likely to have objectives for the visit — but don't assume that the objectives all deal with your company's manufacturing capabilities, even though print is becoming a commodity. Consequently, a visitor to your facility is at least as likely to be interested in your company's ability to meet its special needs as it is to be interested in its ability to meet product needs.

Prior to the visit, prepare your facility and employees to address how customer needs are handled; the condition of the restrooms; how comfortable your production employees are with customers and prospective employees; and teamwork to accommodate the non-routine needs of customers. These may be much more important to the success of a plant visit than a demonstration of the latest technological marvels. There is a place for both.

The devil is in the details. A visit to your facility by a high-potential customer or prospect is an important event for the company, not just the sales department. Extraordinary potential justifies extraordinary attention by management. Beware of feeding the visitor perception of routine treatment.