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The differentiation response

May 1, 2010 12:00 AM

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Comedians in the days of vaudeville would ask, “Do you really know if the light goes off when you close the refrigerator door?” Three-quarters of a century later, there's a marketing version of that question — and it isn't posed by comedians. It is, arguably, a life-and-death question. The answer can heavily influence the long-term success of a graphic arts organization.

Here's the question: “Do you, as a manager or owner, really know how your salespeople, customer service representatives (CSRs) and others with direct customer contact respond when asked to meaningfully differentiate your organization?” Forget the argument over whether the graphic arts industry is commoditized. Let's agree that the industry is highly competitive, technology has leveled the playing field so that many competitors can provide acceptable product delivered on time at a competitive price, and that current and prospective customers need to be offered a unique selling proposition — a credible, meaningful reason to do business with your company.

It's difficult to argue with short-term sales performance. But sales reps, CSRs and others with frequent direct customer contact are contributing daily to subtle long-term customer perception. Some might be positive; some might be negative. The fact remains that the success or failure of business development initiatives rests heavily upon the perceptions created or influenced by a graphic arts company.

‘Oh, how you can get stucco’

Let's look at the automobile industry. If you are over age 50, you remember some models that were downright “clunkers.” Some diesel models didn't start in the morning. Early front-wheel drive simply didn't work. Push-button starters and gear shifts with dashboard buttons made a major contribution to the popularity of AAA road service.

Today, there's less concern about reliability (Toyota's recent woes notwithstanding). The salient issues involve per-gallon mileage, appearance, price, dealer reputation, warranty, and treatment during and after the transaction of the sale. It's interesting to read new car model reviews about the number of cup holders, visibility of dashboard dials and ergonomic seats. Young people can't imagine how things used to be and, frankly, couldn't care less.

The auto industry has vestiges of “the good old days” in mechanics who can diagnose and fix virtually any problem. But they are being replaced by operators of sophisticated electronic gear that enable them to quickly and accurately identify and implement the solution without being knowledgeable about the core problem. The local mechanic is a mechanic in name only.

This analogy involves product commoditization. Industry economists would, if they spent time in real-life, industry mainstream small and midsize printing companies, understand that “diversification” is not an accurate word to describe changes in most print companies. It implies a decision to alter or expand the product mix or manufacturing capabilities, then offer it to the marketplace.

‘Who you gonna believe, me or your own eyes?’

Product differentiation is disappearing, and non-product — “transactional” — differentiation is emerging as the major factor in supplier selection and buying decisions. In the days of product differentiation, samples were an important selling tool, and equipment often was the highlight of promotional materials. Today, key selling points include: customer education; daily status reports and notification of shipment; detailed and timely invoices and quotations; the speed and integrity of problem solving; and the sense that the buying organization is an important customer.

Non-product differentiation is difficult to sell, especially to prospective accounts. It's basically a trust-building exercise for a salesperson, and that's time consuming. There's nothing tangible to demonstrate. Trust can't even be accurately defined. It's one of those, “I'll know it when I see it,” things.

Prospecting or account development is no longer simply making an endless number of calls with great samples, an engaging smile, “power apparel,” and a giant dose of persistence. Today, it is a matter of information gathering, a reason to believe there might be a “fit” between the two organizations, and a salesperson who believes he or she is a commercial social worker. Having said that, I'll acknowledge that no two situations are the same and no two buying organizations should be treated the same.

An important key to success is mining current accounts for references and testimonials. Customer survey results can be an important sales tool: evidence of positive feedback and the fact that the company engages a third party to solicit and use it.

Management needs to be aware of the procedures and logic of sales reps in this marketplace. That's especially true in the case of younger, new reps. Their more experienced colleagues might not be the best sales trainers. Managers need to understand how the company is being represented and portrayed. It's a critical issue.

Role playing might be as important as basic training is for a soldier.

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