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Are we on different planets?

Aug 1, 2007 12:00 AM

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When I conduct a first customer survey for a client, I ask that the mailing list include every person instrumental in the relationship with the graphic arts company at every active account with sales above a certain threshold. The reaction to that request typically is one of dismay, if not fear and loathing. The problem: Some customers are considered to be magna cum laude graduates of the Marquis De Sade School of Charm.

These customers cause customer service reps to ask for hardship pay. Their responses to surveys are anticipated with trepidation. More often than not, however, these “customers from Hell” complete surveys in an objective, considered manner. They know they are demanding and appreciate a supplier that will deal with them.

The great divide

There have been surprises in virtually every survey for which we have conducted primary research. I'm reminded of this upon reading the results of a three-year study conducted by Strativity Group. It had 9,496 participants and compared employees' perceptions with customers' perceptions of service and satisfaction. The discrepancies are major.

Eighty-one percent of employees believe they exceed customers' expectations — an observation shared by only 33 percent of customers. Seventy percent of employees believe they understand their customers' challenges, but only 38 percent of the customers agree with that statement. Perhaps most significant: 89 percent of the employees surveyed believe they exercise common sense and discretion in their dealings with customers, but only 44 percent of customers concur.

How can such wide discrepancies in perceptions exist? It's easy, especially in an industry in which evaluation of many print products is subjective despite efforts to develop standards and objective units of measurement. The operative definition of “quality” extends beyond the characteristics of the manufactured product.

Change of mind

Most print companies have successfully navigated the transition to the 21st century buyer-seller environment. Even so, there are individuals who view customer requests for special handling of invoices, samples, labeling and job status reports as unreasonable demands and intrusions in the manufacturing process.

To many of these employees, the most desirable customer communicates impeccable job specifications, provides a one-month delivery cycle, never complains and never requests anything that is not covered by a standard operating procedure. That mindset suggests the need for management intervention to address the prevailing culture of the organization.

Like it or not, profit usually is the product of doing extraordinary and non-routine work for customers in a market perceived as commoditized.

Buyers and sellers

I suspect the reason for this disconnect is rooted in two factors. Many owners and managers, while acknowledging and understanding changes attributable to the perceived commoditization of print, might not have taken steps to change the culture of their respective staffs. Many companies, despite the rhetoric of customer-centrism, are organized as job-processing factories. Little emphasis is placed on determining customers' business needs and delivering perceived value outside of the product.

In the meantime, a profound but seldom recognized change has occurred in the buying community. Full-time print buyers are a dying breed. Implications of this trend are important but aren't always recognized or appreciated by graphic arts companies. So-called “print buyers” have other things to do. In most cases, they are less interested in the mechanics of graphic arts reproduction. Avoidance of the process has superseded involvement as a buying motive.

It's not that buyers and specifiers are unconcerned. Suppliers might be selected because customers are convinced that their motives and needs are understood. My research regularly uncovers instances in which customers (or former customers) are disaffected even though product and pricing are not issues. In many cases, the problem is traceable to questions, hassles and surprises that require the buyer's time while a job is in production.

Print buying motives are subtly, but importantly, changing in ways that seldom are discussed. Buyers don't always articulate these changes. A print company runs elevated risks when its operations and business planning fail to accommodate these changes. The chasm between buyers' and sellers' interpretations is undeniable evidence.

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