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Dealing with tough times

Aug 1, 2009 12:00 AM


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As this column is written, we're not quite a year into the recession. Some companies with which I'm intimately familiar are doing very well, some are hanging in there, and others have resorted to prayer. The one common denominator is that no one is finding it easy. For what it's worth, here are some observations, starting with a football analogy.

Many years ago, the Cleveland Browns featured a stellar, league-leading defense. All went well until the opponent was stopped and the offense took over. A one-dimensional team didn't succeed at winning championships regardless of the excellence of the defense. Similarly, a successful graphic arts company can't lose sight of the need to play both offense and defense.

Certainly, it's difficult, but both reduced expenses and elevated customer value must be managed. Yes, I'm suggesting that the means must be found to do more with less. In almost every case, steps have been taken to reduce overhead.

However, less attention tends to be paid to the care and feeding of customers. It's especially true if there is a regular flow of orders from accounts. The volume might not reflect historical standards, but the consistent activity can be deceiving. It can be misinterpreted as loyalty when, in truth, the most common buying motive in the case of customized products and services is habit. Few people love their dentist, but they are loath to make a change. The devil one knows is probably better than the devil one doesn't know.

Being liked and valued

Go to bed at night assuming that your most aggressive competitors have called on your best accounts that day. If your company prides itself on a harmonious working relationship between the sale representative and the daily living contact, assume that it's not sufficient to be liked. In the current business environment, it's critical to be both liked and valued — and that usually means ongoing contact with the senior management of the buying organization. The key issue is business relationship characterized by mutual importance. Selling to a Fortune 500 company might be uplifting and prestigious, but it might be a relationship in constant jeopardy if the buying organization believes it has the leverage to demand price and other concessions from virtually any graphic arts company.

Differentiation is critical. No account should be taken for granted. Customers should constantly be reminded of the unique value to be derived from doing business with your firm. Providing acceptable product on time at a competitive price is a point of departure but doesn't constitute a unique selling proposition. This column has hammered away at the notion of competitive differentiation. There's a general agreement to the importance of the concept but I'm often asked by readers, “How do I start the process?”

My response: the majority of readers of this column sell a substantial volume of print and print-related services to their customers. The volume might not be satisfactory or sufficient, but may still be substantial. My experience is that a print company might believe it knows the reason(s) customers buy from it, but might not be conversant with customer perceptions of the company. This has become an increasingly important issue in recent years because technology has leveled the playing field and made it unlikely that the perceived value of the customer/buying organization primarily lies in the manufactured product. The unique selling proposition is more likely to involve a painless, pleasant transaction, ideas for more effective use of the printed matter, hours of operation, detail and speed of invoicing, access to ownership, consistency of performance, or some other aspect of the transaction or the relationship.

Feedback from customers is essential in understanding perceptions. A well-written, well-conceived, customized mail survey can identify many issues and perceptions that underlie buying decisions. The objective is to determine the reason(s) your customers buy from your company, customers' needs and objectives, and their level of knowledge about your company's products and services. You might not like the feedback, but it's critical that you understand the perceptions.

Compelling feedback

Beware of feedback that makes reference to having been served well in the past, “pleasant people,” and “no problems.” These responses basically establish habit as the primary buying motive. More desirable are compelling reasons, such as references to steps and suggestions that have made money or saved money for customers. Customer feedback is especially desirable in the case of new accounts. Two or three months after shipment of the first job, consider asking the decisionmaker(s) about their perceptions that led them to drop an existing supplier to do business with your company.

The information will make you a better, more competent, and more valued supplier.


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