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Adventures of a graphic-arts consultant

Sep 1, 2003 12:00 AM

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This is my 20th year as an admitted graphic-arts consultant. While others may dispute my contention that it's the best job in the world, few would disagree that the job is teeming with variety. Through the years, I've been urged to write a book of my strange and wonderful experiences and observations. In the absence of time to write that best-seller, here is a sampler of my more memorable moments as a hired gun.

During my first months of consulting, I was heartened by an invitation from the president of a large, respected sheetfed printer in the mid-Atlantic area to visit and discuss a consulting project. It turned out to be a short visit. The mission articulated by the president was simple and unequivocal: “Fire my brother-in-law. My wife would divorce me if I did it. Figure out how to do it and give me a price.”

Consulting in the graphic-arts industry more often than not involves family issues, but this episode was unprecedented in terms of a profound interest in a quick, clear resolution!

Hoping for a hot tub

It is my practice to conduct individual, confidential interviews with key staff members at the start of an assignment to understand the company workflow, culture and other organizational issues. At one point, I was interviewing a salesperson at a printer in Scranton, PA, and asked him to describe the organization's strengths and weaknesses. His response was simple, profound and applicable to many companies. “We have one great strength,” he said. “Our great strength is that our customers don't know our weaknesses.”

In the early 1980s, I had a consulting assignment at a New Jersey printer. The progressive owner had decided that the era of good-old-boy salesmanship was coming to an end and had added a young, aggressive woman to his sales force. When I asked this new salesperson what steps the company might take to differentiate itself from competitors, her response was swift and decisive. “Install a large hot tub into which I could invite customers and prospects,” she said.

I repeated the question several times. She wasn't kidding.

The hot-tub suggestion was unexpected, but I was actually more surprised at the reaction of an attendee during one Northern California Graphic Arts Sales Foundation seminar. I had suggested that written appreciation be extended to customers that pay bills within terms. The suggestion would normally have ranked at the top of the list of non-controversial ideas.

This attendee had been silent until this point, but upon hearing the idea, he loudly interrupted. “Did I hear you right?” he asked. “I'm supposed to thank customers who pay bills on time? That's sucking up to customers — and I won't do it.” He slammed the seminar handouts on the table and, visibly angry, stormed out of the room.

Somebody say ‘Amen’

Profitability U., a series of Saturday programs in basic business skills that we held in the mid-1990s for quick and small commercial printers, has its share of stories. We once held a seminar in northern New Jersey at a hotel with two large meeting rooms. The hotel staff didn't warn us that on the other side of the flimsy room divider was a regional competition of gospel singers. It was refreshing to occasionally make a point and be greeted by a chorus of “Amen”s.

Another Profitability U. program was held at a Tampa hotel that had lost two guests the previous evening, due to a gas leak. Most of the seminar registrants attended, but several were not reassured by the hotel's insistence that the problem had been identified and corrected. These anxious folks insisted that the windows and sliding glass doors be kept open during our seminar.

Under normal circumstances, that would not have been a problem. The temperature that day, however, was in the mid-40s, as were the winds in advance of a tropical storm. Never before have I conducted a seminar with attendees wearing four layers of clothing and the drapes flapping for eight hours.

Modern-day marketing

All of this is trivial compared to the experience of a distinguished colleague at a West Coast Profitability U. seminar. The model of decorum, he was betrayed by 20th-century technology: The elastic in his undershorts snapped, mid-presentation. It's an experience he'll always remember, if only because the rest of the staff won't let him forget it.

And among the most memorable moments of my consulting career was a 1983 session at Graph Expo. Seven of us sat around a table, discussing the relevance of marketing to the graphic-arts industry.

Since then, I've presented programs at most Graph Expo trade shows. Today, there's no question about the relevance issue. “Marketing” as a term has matured into “business development,” a term I much prefer. Technology has raced ahead of the ability to sell it and to utilize it to its full potential.