Don't Assume Your Print Buyers Have All the Answers

I was amused with the San Francisco Chronicle headline that read "Microsoft catches scent of new wireless market." It suggests Gates' decision to invest millions of dollars in new partnerships, starting with Intel, and to amp up R&D to create a design specification for PDA and cell phone manufacturers was as simple as sticking his nose in the air to catch the waft of a trend. On the contrary, we can be sure the software giant spent hundreds of thousands of dollars researching the viability of the move.

Which leads me to the point of this column . . . research. How much do you know about your customers? And, equally important, how much do your customers really know about their own companies? I think you'll be surprised to learn that in many cases the answer is very little.

Interesting findings

We recently conducted customer surveys for several clients in a range of industries, including printing. Using a mailed questionnaire and/or phone survey, we polled actual customers of the companies. In addition to the standard customer satisfaction questions, our clients wanted to know companies' buying patterns and trends to help them project their own expenditures in the upcoming year(s).

Across the board, surprisingly few customers could answer the broader, trend-related questions. Even more shocking, few (with the exception of those from small companies) knew how much their companies spent in total print procurement or marketing dollars. Also, few were able to answer even more basic questions like: "What other department(s) in your organization buy printing?" "How many print providers does your company use?" or "Do you expect the volume of your printing to increase or decrease?" or "Name the other types of printing your company purchases?"

What does this tell us? First, we cannot safely rely only on information we get from our customers, particularly if it's limited only to feedback from sales reps. Second, we need to devise strategies to gain access to executives in customers' companies so we can get answers to these critical "big picture" questions. Third, we have to use every means at our disposal to find out about our customers' businesses, including their vertical networks from supplier to buyer.

Tapping all the resources

Few reps have the time or inclination to get this information on their own. Since many reps wear both sales and customer service hats, they, like their customers, are usually focused on the project at hand, the job on the floor. This data collection, therefore, has fallen on the shoulders of management, who need to acquire it from a variety of sources.

Understanding industry trends is an important first step, so make inquiries of your customers regarding the publications they read. Bacon's Media Directories (www.baconsinfo.com) is another good way to track down magazines and broadcast media by industry. There are also online versions of most of these to which you can subscribe, and which condense features into headlines, making it easier to sort through.

My company researches and writes quarterly industry intelligence eNewsletters for several printing clients. We started the program when we worked with a large law firm here in the city whose attorneys needed current and regular updates of trend news in their various practice group areas. Every week we would submit synopses of relevant news along with a statement of their impact on each industry.

Our industry intelligence eNewsletters follow much the same procedure. In consultation with the client, we identify the top four industries to research. We collect data from the many online and printed publications to which we subscribe. We cull through the information, prioritize it, then compose the info into short segments. Each incapsulated industry newsletter is no longer than a page in length.

The material provides sales reps not only with important information about their customers' industries, it also gives them ready-made fodder for their own personalized eNewsletters. Of course, the caliber of the news is critical to the success of these eNewsletters.

Go to the top

Certainly, the best intelligence comes directly from those who have access to the most information in an organization; i.e., the C-level executive. While that person may be the print buyer in smaller organizations, highest volume customers more likely will have multiple buyers who report to a manager who reports to a VP who reports to the C-level exec.

The hierarchical corporate structure makes it nearly impossible for print buyers to have the trend spotting information we seek. So another strategy has to be employed. One-to-one executive interviews have been used successfully by some printers to gain access to the top.

I found this interesting "Tip for Printers" on the www.printbuyersonline.com website:

"If you are a printer and have complained in the past that you couldn't get face time with your clients or prospects, now is the time to seize the day. Instead of calling up to ask 'Do you have anything we can quote or you?' (which too many printers are doing), ask 'Can we spend some time together to research your projects and see if there are ways to reduce the turnaround time and/or costs of your projects?' If you do a good job with providing meaningful advice and consultation, it is likely to pay off immensely for both you and the print buyer."

However, there are some cautions to be aware of before proposing an executive interview. Most importantly, you don't want to alienate your buyer. Don't go behind the buyer's back, but rather involve him/her in discussing the purpose and mapping out a strategy for the interview. Over a decade ago, financial printers discovered the value of selling cost reduction strategies to their legal and financial clients. In the throes of putting an IPO together, attorneys and bankers would unwittingly run up hundreds of thousands of dollars in catering and entertainment expenses and then go into sticker-shock when they saw the bill. As much to prepare clients for hefty billings as to secure the business, savvy financial printers would develop detailed cost analyses showing how their facility, technology and location would help cut all, not just printing, costs. For years tech-doc printers, too, have caught a senior exec's ear with a proposal to lower total procurement costs.

As the above print buyer's statement implies, commercial printers need to devote more time to acquiring information about their customers. This data will help elevate the sales call into a worthwhile investment of time for both parties, and will enable greater penetration into the organization for cross-department sales..


Charlotte Mills Seligman is president of Traversant Marketing Communications. The firm specializes in planning and executing integrated marketing programs for printing and allied graphic arts companies, with nearly two decades of expertise in the industry. Previous columns and issues of the company's Ti Monthly e-newsletter are posted on http://www.traversant.com. Inquiries should be directed to (415) 357-2929 or charlotte @traversant.com.

© 2002 Charlotte Mills Seligman

February 2002
Print & Graphics
Col #35, 2/02
Printing Journal
Col#35, 2/02
Know Your Customers
By Charlotte Mills Seligman

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