I remember it well . . .it was 1968. I was in New York at the time, on my way to Washington, D.C. to meet with friends who had just served a Peace Corps stint in Africa. My husband and I were still undecided between Africa and Latin America for our Peace Corps service.
On the drive from New York to D.C.-unbeknownst to us-Martin Luther King was assassinated. In darkness, we arrived in D.C. to find chaos. Flames and fire clouds were all around us, looting was rampant, and roads were blocked at major entries into the city. We eventually made it through, and ended up staying for a week with our friends to participate in marches and witness the construction of the first "tent city" of thousands of protestors camping out on in our nation's Capitol. It was my introduction to the power of numbers, and the imprint of one on the lives of many.
This past weekend, I attended the PINC/PIASC joint conference roundtable entitled "Are Your Next Jobs Coming Over the Internet?" As you might expect, it was a lively discussion. Moderated by the very knowledgeable Noel Jeffrey, Editor-in-Chief of Print On Demand Business, the session was largely attended by printing company owners, with sponsoring association key executives. A rep from Impresse.com was also on hand.
After presenting a broad overview of the varying functional levels these e-commerce services provide-from online RFQs to full-bodied communications and production systems-the floor was opened to a Q&A forum.
The first question was a big one: "We've built our success on building relationships with clients. We offer value-added services, not just the lowest price. Aren't these services compromising the value we bring to clients?"
Answers were inconclusive. But not because people didn't have opinions. They did. One participant, a technical documentation printer, is currently using two of the services as tools to enhance job ordering/reordering and communications links with its high-tech and financial clients. Others, mostly commercial printers, had used some of the services as lead generation tools. Most of them were not impressed with the service. Posted specs lacked necessary information to enable an accurate quote. Few jobs matched their capabilities. And they weren't privy to who else was quoting on the job to determine if they'd be competitive.
The next question drove the debate deeper: "Why should we even consider dealing with these Web-based services? Supposing we see a job posted and recommend a different stock that will save the buyer hundreds or thousands of dollars. What protects me from the buyer using the same online service to shop that suggestion around?"
It was clear that most online quoting services offer no such protections. But as George Lithograph's Henry Aguirre, who is also PINC's Board President, pointed out, there are none now. There will always be clients who shop jobs for a better price, regardless of who supplies the added value.
"These online services are competitors," complained another participant. "They're pitting us against each other, but on a national playing field in which we're not all equal." This is true. (I also suggest we start thinking global playing field.) Of course, not all printers are equal, nor are overhead costs the same for all printers. California printers must comply with some of the country's strictest and most expensive OSHA and EPA standards. A printer in the Midwest with a press in his garage can bid on the job, and win it if price is the client's only concern.
But what's changed? Ever since we've been in business we've always had to deal with low-cost bidders. We remain successful. Why? Precisely because we do add value to the print-procurement process, and the majority of buyers don't buy on price alone. The final question was a huge one, raised by Hatcher Trade Press' Stephen Sprinkel. "Why do I have to make a decision now? I've researched and I've experimented with several of these services, and I don't know one that's addressed the issue of integrating with existing production systems. Until I find a Web-based solution that can interface with my production processes, the jury is still out on their value to me."
Don't worry, given the speed of Internet innovation, solutions to this will be here in the blink of an eye.
The success of e-commerce printing solutions resides in these services' ability to meet the varying needs of buyers. Some may survive by simply offering a quoting service to help buyers who are mandated by their bosses to find the best price. Other services will succeed based on their ability to expedite purchasing in enterprise-wide buyer environments. Still others will rise to the top because of their understanding of the production process-from sales through prepress-and the need to integrate front-end communications with production management systems already in place.
But the success of these online services is contingent upon your participation. Your success has been based on sustained relationships with clients. If these services are to survive they've got to support these relationships, not supplant them.
It's also worth remembering that most of these are start-up companies, jockeying for the position of "best," and they depend as much on the printer as the buyer in the equation to claim the award. Without you, the next round of venture capital funding is in jeopardy. Without you, the promise of "free money" to employees and shareholders is as worthless as a pocketful of Beta Max stock certificates.
Use It Or Lose It
The point is . . . get involved! Don't wait for winners to magically appear, because the winners may not address your needs. If you think a service is playing the commodity game, don't participate. Focus groups and surveys confirm that few printbuyers decide on price alone. Other factors hold equal value in a client's decision to choose one vendor over another. Examples? Meeting delivery deadlines is more important with direct marketers. Enabling last-minute a/a's is more important to high-tech customers. ISO quality assurance is more important to the pharmaceutical industry. And color quality is more important than price to retailers who are selling high-ticket items like cars, top-of-the-line cosmetics and clothing.
If a service can't provide RFQs that give you enough information to prepare an intelligent quote, don't use it. Or, if your real goal is to generate leads, work with a service to help you do it. It's no wonder the majority of these services have chosen to concentrate on quotes as their primary function. Focus groups and phone surveys we've conducted for printers over the past 10 years justify the fixation . . . slow estimates remain printbuyers' number-one complaint!
If a service can't integrate with your existing production management system, but you like it for its communications functionality, tell it so. Become a partner in its development. Help make it a win-win solution for you, your client and your e-commerce partner.
E-commerce printing isn't another flash in the pan. It's here to stay. These e-commerce entrepreneurs come from both buying and print production backgrounds and they know there's a need. Already, thousands of buyers are using these services. We can't afford to hide our heads in the sand or take a wait-and-see stance.
Evaluate these online services as you would the purchase of a new piece of equipment or the hire of a new sales rep. What value do they bring your clients? What efficiencies do they add to your estimating, sales and customer service processes? How easily can they integrate with your existing production management system?
Talk to your trade associations. There is power in numbers. Since these start-ups need the participation of successful, reliable printers, negotiate for the benefits to you. Most important, get informed, assess these services' value to you and your customers. And put them to the test.
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.
© 1999 Charlotte Mills Seligman