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Jan 1, 1998 12:00 AM

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At American Printer, we do most of our research by talking to printers, equipment vendors and industry consultants. For this article, however, we sought out some seldom-heard-from experts: print buyers.

We asked them to share their concerns and experiences with us. What's the key to building a lasting relationship? What extras do buyers expect? How do they deal with cold calls?

Although our modest sampling certainly does not represent the entire universe of print buyers, we think there's a great deal to be learned from their comments. The buyers we spoke with are a diverse group -- several routinely handle million-dollar print jobs, others specialize in medium-to-short-run work -- anything from letterhead to CD packages. (To learn more about the buyers, see page 30, "Tips from Buyers.")

How do buyers choose their printers? Those million dollar jobs aren't easy to win. If you've got the necessary press iron, you may be invited to submit a bid. If your equipment and pricing are acceptable, you may be asked to do some test runs. All told, the qualification process can take years.

Surprisingly, price isn't always the deciding factor when choosing a vendor. Buyers are looking for more than quality work at reasonable prices. Buyers are loyal to printers they can trust -- printers who understand their needs and are there when it counts.

"You've got to treat vendors as well as you expect to be treated," reflects Andrew Rogers, principal, Joslin Lake Design (Chicago). "Otherwise, when you really need it, you won't get the service. Someone we've worked with knows our requirements and can get back to us with a quote the same day -- not two or three days later. That's a valuable relationship."

Many applaud their printers' intangible contributions. As a one-man outfit, Rogers, for example, appreciates his printers' knowledge of the latest technologies. "Because the computer stuff changes so much, we rely on the printer to know how to output our files and get the best results."

Janice Swinney, director of production advertising for Dallas-based Neiman Marcus, also cites prepress troubleshooting as an essential element of a good working relationship. "We use cutting-edge photographers -- a lot of the time they'll be trying tricky stuff in the darkroom. Maybe they'll use a funky kind of paper that's difficult to scan. A separator who realizes this immediately and knows what can be done to resolve the problem is absolutely critical."

Although Swinney's printers don't handle her firm's separations, they do provide her with a preview of the latest technology. "Our printers are test shops for different manufacturers. Often they've had equipment in their shop and are testing it before the general public knows about it. So we get an opportunity to see how it's working."

While all of the buyers are happy with their printers, the group -- with some prodding -- identified some industry issues. Five common themes emerged: Merger and Acquisition Mishaps, Pinocchio Printers, CSRs Who Suddenly Vanish, Delivery Disasters and the Cookie-Cutter Customer Syndrome.

Merger and Acquisition Mishaps--Conventional wisdom tells us consolidation is a good thing. The consolidated printer wields greater buying power, has better equipment, more resources, etc. However, sometimes a little synergy is a dangerous thing. Often, it takes awhile for the two companies to mesh. "Our printer had just purchased another company to do small, two-color work," recalls Rogers. "Not only was the job late, the printer had to do it over. The job was all wrong. Colors varied from piece to piece -- there was no quality control. We went to a different printer to produce the second half of the project."

Bruce Mueller, director of graphic production for Dallas-based cosmetic giant Mary Kay Inc., voices a similar complaint. "We have a situation right now with a printer that was bought out by another company. In the five years since the buyout, the merged company has turned over its staff probably 200 percent. I used to be able to walk into the shop and know everybody from the president all the way down to the guy sweeping the floors. Today, I'm lucky if I recognize five people."

Mueller adds that some mergers and acquisitions bring together companies with completely different outlooks. "Why a publication printer would buy a commercial printer and think it could be run the same way is beyond me. You can't use lower grade inks and plates and get the same results. That includes the employees, too. You can't replace a $40-an-hour press operator with a $5-an-hour press operator and expect the same quality of work. Unfortunately, that's the mentality of some of these publication printers buying commercial printers."

What you can do---If your company is changing, manage the change. Form a transition team made up of employees from your existing organization as well as from the acquired firm. Make sure that everyone shares the same definition of quality work. Do your homework before you do the deal -- compare your firm's corporate culture against that of potential acquisitions. If the two companies don't share the same operating philosophy, you have two choices. You can either walk away from the deal or you can hire David Copperfield. If you don't walk away, you will need a magician on staff to create the illusion you're doing good work.

Pinocchio Printers--No, we're not talking about wooden puppets running amok in the printing industry. We're talking about less-than-truthful-your-nose-is-growing printers. "Printers should convey problems as quickly and be as upfront as possible," suggests Len Kazmer, print production manager for Caremark International (Deerfield, IL). "People understand that these things are going to happen -- what they don't like is when someone tries to cover it up.

"You should be upfront and honest about problems. Sometimes, it's okay with clients if we miss a deadline -- as long as they know about it ahead of time."

What you can do -- Let your conscience be your guide. Dismiss if you must the advice of a cartoon cricket, but remember, honest printers attract loyal customers. "Once we find printers that we trust, we stay with them," reports Rogers. "We don't switch around. Quite often, I'll advise a client that a preferred printer may cost a little more, but it's worth it. We've had clients come back and say yes, it was worth it. So it's a valuable relationship."

Don't tolerate finger-pointing. Mistakes will happen -- but let your staff know that solving the problem and keeping the customer happy is everyone's responsibility.

CSRs Who Suddenly Vanish--Although this may sound like a case for Frank and Joe Hardy, there's no mystery behind the high turnover among many printers' customer service reps. "The biggest problem we run into with every printer we deal with is customer service reps," submits Mueller. "Apparently printers don't value CSRs highly enough. Consequently, they aren't paid very well and the CSRs come and go. You'll get a good one, he or she will be there a year or two, and all of a sudden there's a new CSR. The next one you get may or may not be very good. Consistency at this position is very important because we don't talk to the salespeople very often. We talk to the CSRs."

What you can do--Seek out talented CSRs and when you find them, keep them! If you're losing good CSRs, find out why. Conduct exit interviews and employee surveys--don't forget to look beyond compensation issues. Do your CSRs have opportunities for advancement? Do outstanding performers get the recognition they deserve?

Delivery Disasters--Many shops can print beautifully, but few can follow shipping instructions. Mueller does not mince words on this subject. "Getting stuff delivered is absolute hell," he declares. "This holds true across the board from high-quality printers to low-quality printers."

Mueller says many of the delivery problems stem from printers' diverse client bases. "Every customer has different requirements--some people nit-pick and others don't give a damn how you ship it. Since we distribute to five centers around the U.S., everything has to be packed and marked precisely."

Mueller further explains that because Mary Kay's warehouse is automated, printers are supplied with special skids, width and height restrictions, and instructions for marking cartons. "Even with all this, you cannot believe how many screw-ups we get," says Mueller. "Wrong skids, incorrectly marked cartons, you name it. Anytime there's a change in the printer's shipping department, the learning curve starts all over again."

What you can do--Few employees deliberately set out to do a bad job. Employees who overpack a skid, for example, may have the best of intentions. From their perspective, it appears that they're saving time and space. Show them the big picture. Realistically, it's impossible for your shipping department to get a first-hand look at every client's warehouse. If you have a client with unique requirements, find a creative way to communicate them. Have your sales rep make a video of the job's end destination or take pictures, etc. Above all, let your shipping department know that what they do is a vital part of the printing process.

The Cookie-Cutter Customer Syndrome -- After her definitive Mad Cow Disease show, perhaps this would make a good "Oprah" topic. But while the agricultural world worries about hoof-and-mouth disease, printers should try to stamp out foot-in-mouth disease. It's an annoying ailment spread primarily by print salespeople who believe all customers have the same needs.

"Stop putting every customer into a box," advises Swinney. "People's needs are so varied and expected results so different. Printers need to know what they can sell to who -- which customers will buy at what level. Most printers just do this across-the-board generic selling. Nothing wastes my time more than to have a print salesperson talk to me as though I've been in print for two years," relates Swinney, a print buyer for 26 years.

"Sometimes salespeople's approach to selling print to a large company is a little misguided," agrees Kazmer. "It takes a little more than trying to squeeze the phrase 'value-added' into a sentence. You wish that person could stand in your shoes and understand how diluted those catch phrases have become. I wish salespeople would listen more to my needs and stop trying to sell so hard."

What you can do -- Promote the Snowflake Approach. That is, if you remember that every client is unique and do your best to sell customized solutions, pretty soon you'll have an avalanche of business. (Just remember that nobody likes a snow job.) Do your homework before you make a sales call. Find out what the prospect company does. Don't talk down to your sales contacts -- let them do most of the talking.

Common sense and a great staff are the key to building long-term relationships with print buyers. A thriving print shop isn't built with just bricks and mortar -- it's built with people. You can't overlook the human touch.

"Printers love bells and whistles," relates Mueller, "and the equipment manufacturers oversell the capability of the equipment. They'll tell you any idiot off the street can punch the green button for 'go' and the red button for 'stop' and turn out terrific work. Unfortunately, it doesn't work that way. Printing is still a people business. You can't oversimplify the human factor."

Kazmer agrees. "A piece of equipment has never done me a favor, but people have. So while the technology is important, you also need to know the people behind it."