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Small steps can yield big rewards

Aug 1, 2010 12:00 AM

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During difficult economic times, there's a natural tendency to “play defense” — to cut overhead, staff and investment. That's understandable, but these actions need to be combined with an imaginative offense. That offense need not require out-of-pocket costs. It can focus on systematic gathering, dissemination and use of information about customers and prospective customers to which your organization currently sells.

It's easy to adopt the position that global economic forces have dealt us the bleak short-term challenges and that little can be done in the face of these circumstances. However, it's likely that untapped “jewels” of information reside within most organizations. It's unlikely that there's a “silver bullet” that will cure all challenges. On the other hand, taking some of the small steps discussed in this column could lead to extra business, improved account retention and an attitude adjustment within the organization.

Positive action items

Sales meetings can be depressing. Many turn out to be little more than complaining, finger-pointing sessions. Reps, management, and others leave frustrated and disappointed that little or no change results from the passion of the meeting. (Ironically, this scenario occurs in good as well as challenging times.) Consider the probability that there have been positive developments since the previous meeting. Improve the staff's perspective by starting sales meetings with participants asked to report positive developments and good news. It might not affect the legitimacy of negative developments, but it will help create a more balanced mindset.

Debrief delivery personnel. Drivers, along with receptionists, usually have more direct customer contact than anyone else in a company. My observation is that many people share secrets with a bartender, hairdresser or delivery person that they wouldn't share with their management or “significant other.” Employers should hire delivery personnel based on many of the same criteria used in hiring salespeople and customer service representatives (CSRs). To a great extent, they should be considered sales reps with vans or trucks. In my opinion, they should attend sales meetings, be educated in the presentation of samples, know enough to gracefully ask for work and receive specifications, and be trained to observe customers when on account premises. A recent example: A driver making a delivery observed a competitor's driver failing to unload his van until he first received a check, a sign that the account might have payment problems. At the very least, delivery personnel should be debriefed at least once a week.

A first estimate is an opportunity for management to call the prospective customer and learn more about their business, objectives and challenges — and to thank the prospective customer for the opportunity to submit a proposal. This call can serve as a differentiator.

Debrief customer service representatives. In recent years, the graphic arts industry has developed an elevated appreciation for the contributions of the customer service function. That function is no longer characterized as walking behind the elephant with a giant shovel. However, few companies tap into the full potential of their CSRs. Consider periodic individual debriefings to ask CSRs for their suggestions on improving the working relationship with specific accounts. It's one thing to solve problems as they arise; it's another matter to play offense, volunteering ideas for continuous process improvement.

Lessons learned

It's one thing to get through a week with no known or potential catastrophes. But that doesn't necessarily result in improved operations or relationships in the next week.

Randomly ask everyone in the organization, “What did you learn this week?” The question is applicable to everyone: delivery, personnel, receptionist, billing clerk, sales reps, custodian — everyone. It reminds staff members to think about their respective roles.

Finally, don't hesitate to tell a customer about your organization's ongoing efforts to gather and use information to proactively help them achieve their objectives. Absence of problems should not be seen as an absence of opportunities for continuous improvement. Communicate that your organization might be working on behalf of customers even if there's no job in production.

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