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Adventures of a graphic-arts consultant, pt. 2

Oct 1, 2003 12:00 AM

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In my September column, I related some of my adventures as a graphic-arts consultant. Consulting for graphic-arts companies has its share of difficulties: out-of-town travel nearly every day, family issues at client companies, and the challenge of staying current with technology and industry developments. Boredom, however, is not one of the difficulties — “strange and wonderful” doesn't begin to describe some of my experiences!

I knowingly became a party to one episode to prove a point. It involved a salesperson who vociferously resisted weekly call reports, claiming they weren't read and served no purpose. The owner of the company was equally adamant, insisting that he read all sales reports and found them valuable in managing the sales representatives. I had reason to doubt the owner's claim. I suggested to the salesperson that he make copies of one week's call reports and submit the same report every week until “found out.” I offered to accept the blame.

The salesperson successfully made his point. Fifty weeks went by before the owner realized that the rep had been submitting the same report every week for nearly a year.

Management and mismanagement

Probably the most extreme example of bizarre sales management involved a large Northeast web catalog printer. The president asked me to meet with him about a pressing problem: Salespeople were disloyal, selfish and didn't operate as a team. I drove to the company the week between Christmas and New Year's Day to find the president in his “annual negotiation with salespeople.”

The policy was that all accounts reverted back to the company at the end of every year. The president then held individual meetings with every salesperson in order of seniority, making deals on compensation on an account-by-account basis. I observed haggling (“negotiation” is too polite a term to describe the process) over a fraction-of-a-percent commission on one account. The problems with this scenario are too numerous to describe in a 750-word column. Suffice it to say that company loyalty and selflessness were the least likely outcomes. This printing company is now out of business.

A Midwest printer took an interesting approach to a problem experienced by many graphic-arts companies: tension between the plant and the sales organization. In this case, the managers of the bindery and the customer service department were at each others' throats. The conflict was public. The dilemma for senior management was that each manager was dedicated to company objectives and was technically proficient.

The solution: The company president made a surprise visit to the offices of the two managers with empty cartons. Each was asked to place the contents of his desk into the cartons and was told that he was being transferred to become manager of the other department for at least 90 days, effective immediately.

The tour of duty lasted a couple of months beyond 90 days, but the transfer was effective. The two managers were forced to communicate on a daily basis, and they were in the new positions long enough to force them to truly learn the other's business.

Color problem

Many years ago, a call came from a midsize sheetfed printer claiming to have a severe sales problem. (Incidentally, it is my experience that companies seldom have a sales problem. The problem is usually a symptom of some other management or marketplace issue.)

Upon interviewing the salespeople and customer service representatives, I was told, “We used to be known for our vibrant, sharp color, but our presses are getting older and the color is washed out.”

The next step: a Pantone book roundup. Every employee was asked to surrender his or her swatch book. The books in the pressroom hadn't been replaced in almost a decade and were seldom stored. The color had, of course, faded — but the printing company regularly accepted the specification for a Pantone color without demanding an initialed swatch. The printer had several problems, but the capability of its presses wasn't one of them!

Different strokes

Finally, here's a story that illustrates the differences and frustrations among salespeople in this difficult sales environment. At a sales seminar in Baltimore, I opened the program by asking each attendee his or her burning issue, the most challenging obstacle to sales success.

One sales rep replied that he was relatively successful at getting an opportunity to bid on work and, in fact, was fairly successful at opening new accounts. He had difficulty retaining and developing those accounts, however. His conclusion: Buyers have no loyalty.

The seminar attendee seated next to him, answering the question about his burning issue, said that he was frustrated by his inability to open new accounts. “Buyers are very loyal to their existing suppliers,” he explained.

Different strokes for different folks. That's rule No. 1 for a graphic-arts consultant.