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Why so cynical?

Nov 1, 2007 12:00 AM

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Why do print buyers react poorly when asked to wait an hour to learn about the status of a job in production? The answer is simple: The expectation level has been established by FedEx, which can, within seconds, report the status of a package or envelope mailed to a destination anywhere on planet Earth. Given that capability and a print supplier's touting of computerized, integrated workflow, why does a buyer have to wait an hour to learn job status because a customer service representative is preoccupied with a ritual called “the morning production meeting”?

Marketers of consumer products and services provide customers and prospective customers with customer service contacts 12 or more hours a day. Print buyers' expectations might reflect a similar expectation. Given a short production turnaround cycle and a supplier trumpeting its sensitivity and responsiveness to customer needs, why is a customer's access to customer service representation limited to eight or nine hours on a typical workday?

In the business-to-business arena, the claim of partnership often is code for, “We know you have more money, and we want it.” Customer relationship management (CRM) is paraded as a program to identify and fulfill the special needs of customers. In many cases, it is little more than a sales program.

Cynicism in both business-to-consumer and business-to-business marketing has reached the point at which a seller or prospective seller is guilty until proven innocent. This challenge is magnified in a market perceived as commoditized, in which buyers believe they have many good choices and might not care to invest the time and effort to establish the credentials of a prospective resource.

Combat cynicism

This is the context in which new account development occurs in the graphic arts industry. Simply getting an appointment with a buyer at a prospective account has become the industrial equivalent of winning the lottery. There is no greater punishment than the sincere, conscientious new salesperson forced to build a territory from scratch. Cynicism and commoditization are difficult to surmount in today's account development process.

Perseverance and sincerity no longer suffice. With very rare exceptions, those who follow the traditional pattern of attempting to differentiate their companies and themselves based on product and product knowledge are having a difficult time in today's business environment. Samples, company brochures and claims have lost their effectiveness.

Today, it is necessary to articulate a credible, meaningful, differentiated reason to do business with your company; evidence, rather than claims; and a rationale for a business relationship that goes beyond good product delivered on time at a competitive price by charming, caring, compassionate people. Many academics and marketing executives embrace the theory of author Frederick Reichheld that one question is all a company needs to evaluate the depth of its relationship with customers: “Would you recommend this supplier to others without reservation?” Many large companies now base compensation, in part, on customer responses to this question.

My opinion is that it's somewhat simplistic to use this single question as a critical, even overriding, metric. It does make the point, however, about the power of referrals in a world awash in advertising clutter.

Follow the evidence

Salespeople need to sell from evidence. This could involve referrals and testimonials. Claims about a print company's value as an informational resource should be substantiated by copies of a customer newsletter and printed invitations to prior seminars. Results of well-conducted customer surveys should be carried by sales representatives. Business cards with a rep's home phone number and the name and contact number of the customer service representative are evidence of concern about responsiveness to customer needs.

The typical print buyer hears unsubstantiated claims from would-be suppliers every day. The challenge for a salesperson is to provide evidence. All of us, especially print buyers, are jaded by the daily bombardment of advertising claims.

Few salespeople like role-playing, but managers might want to role-play to better understand the impressions and perceptions created by a salesperson on his or her first contact with a prospect or with a new buying contact at an existing customer. As the saying goes, you only get one chance to make a first impression.

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