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Beat the Clock with Innovative User Service Programs

New Growth Opportunities for Shops and their Customers

By Thomas Franklin

Time is money may be the oldest cliché in history, but it’s no less true because of its age. If anything, in this on demand world it is truer than ever. For a print service provider (PSP), ensuring your printer is running 24/7 is critical. This becomes more important in the grand format print market. End users utilizing these massive pieces of machinery—in which they have made huge investments—need extra help to prevent unnecessary downtime.

"In my business we have two flatbeds, and they run for 12 hours a day, every day," says Ashur Mooshiabad, president, M2 Graphic Displays. "The only time they stop is to change the media."

Rather than fall prey to the vagaries of scheduling and be at the mercy of unexpected breakdowns, many purchase insurance in the form of an extended warranty. Basic versions extend free warranty protection received at the time of purchase to an additional one to three years. The protection is the same but prices vary by contract length. Typical plans offer no more than four years worth of protection in total.

Some vendors, such as Hewlett-Packard (HP) and EFI/VUTEk recently went further, offering multi-tiered service plans bundling not only repair, but printer training, on-site maintenance, and even color management. HP Scitex VisionCare, for instance, bundles the usual support and repair with an annual maintenance and color management specialist visit at their premium level. Customers who opt for different tiers can enjoy discounts on these and other services as well, in addition to phone and on-site help.

In January, EFI/VUTEk announced a comprehensive overhaul of their support services, sidelining an ink contract for a more robust Enhanced Service Plan (ESP) that enabled the company to hire more field engineers and better regionalize its support operation for faster, more reliable on-site response.

Prior to ESP, "We’d get calls from a number of customers on a regular basis," with no pre-set mechanism to assign priority, says Bart Kulesz, VP, customer support, EFI/VUTEk. Now, he says, the company provides customers with predictable support based on their own choices.

"We also see, with our UV and QS customers, that they’re asking us to perform maintenance or do repairs, rather than do it themselves," shares Kulesz.

EFI’s improved service offering certainly motivated John Rhodes, president, Colorchrome when he purchased his VUTEk QS3200. The Atlanta, GA-based firm provides a range of services, from outdoor banners and vehicle wraps to fine art prints, drum scans, and full service finishing. A 20-year plus printing industry veteran, Rhodes discussed EFI’s support response times with the vendor prior to the debut of the ESP. Today, as he waits to take delivery of his ESP-protected QS3200, he notes that service and support are vital to the decision making process.

"I don’t cover all of my equipment with a warranty, but when it’s mission critical, very complicated, or if the parts are expensive to replace, it makes sense," Rhodes says. A quarter of a million-dollar piece of hardware that drives a deadline-sensitive business can’t be down, he says, or it could take the business with it. "We get jobs with two or three days to turn them around, we can’t be late."

What to Expect
Though basic programs differ, there are a few general ground rules. Most wide and grand format printers come with a standard one-year warranty on parts and service included with the purchase price. This out-of-the-box warranty generally protects you from malfunctions encountered during normal operation—although they rarely cover the printhead, and typically won’t protect you from damage caused by third party supplies. Though the vendor covers phone support, parts, and labor incurred during repair, you may pay a technician’s travel expenses.

Problems that result from inadequate or improper maintenance of a printer, or the use of third party supplies, are not typically covered in original warranties. This means higher repair costs.

Once an original warranty is up, you’ll continue to have access to a technical support line to troubleshoot problems. This is typically available during normal business hours, five days a week. To get an actual technician to come to your shop you are on a more costly time and materials basis. This minimal amount of service is something more PSP’s are starting to counteract by instituting an extended user service program once their original warranty expires.

Businesses value extended service programs’ protection, despite the extra expense. According to Tim Greene, director, wide format research, InfoTrends, roughly 60 percent of inkjet printer owners buy extended warranties or service contracts to protect their investments. "It’s worth it," Greene notes, adding that it is "extremely important that end users do the manufacturers’ suggested maintenance program" as failure to do so "would add costs and cause downtime."

The real drive behind warranty purchases, especially extended services for wide and grand format printers, is uptime, says Kulesz. Without warranty protection, getting a service technician out to your shop in a timely manner is usually a case of "who yells the loudest," jokes Kulesz. With an extended service contract, "you’re not negotiating. It’s an entitlement."

Roland DGA Corporation, which offers a two-year warranty standard on nearly all of its wide format printers, sees after-sales support as a testament to a product’s reliability. "It says we’re behind the product, and behind the purchaser," says Rick Scrimger, VP/GM, Roland Color Products Division.

Without warranty protection, "you’ll be exposed on a high priced piece of equipment. It’s a matter of protecting your own investment," suggests Steve Urmano, marketing manager, Mimaki USA, Inc.

"It’s about ‘peace of mind.’ When you’re in the commercial print market place, you can’t be down," agrees Karen Serrano, wide format product marketing manager, Xerox Corporation. She continues, "You can buy the product, but you need the support to keep it running."

Indeed, one of the drivers behind EFI’s ESP was forging a closer relationship between the company’s field staff and their customers, says Kulesz.

Out of the Box
If you’re buying your printer through a dealer, it’s important to ask what services the dealer provides directly, and what the manufacturer is responsible for. It’s likely the dealer will be the first point of contact for initial service calls and for general troubleshooting. Once you extend your warranty, you’re more likely to deal directly with the manufacturer.

Canon U.S.A. Inc.’s CarePak plan begins once the one-year free warranty expires. Prices range between $1,250 for a one-year plan and $3,000 for a two-year option, depending on the model. CarePak users get free telephone and on-site service or referral to an authorized service facility. Printheads are not covered.

Durst Image Technology US, LLC has an innovative Web-based service program that aids customers on a 24/7 basis. Customers have the option of working directly with Durst telephone support technicians or independently to troubleshoot their problems and avoid printer downtime. Durst plans to add a preventive maintenance module to the program that alerts users to upcoming equipment checks and other tasks. The add-on will initially support Durst Rho 600 and 800 flatbed printers. Durst also offers several variations of service contracts under Durst Service. Customers can decide which program is right for them based on equipment operators, production demand, and geographical location.

EFI/VUTEk overhauled its extended warranty protection and is now offering the three-tiered ESP. The company is also adding employees with the goal of having field engineers within 100 miles of 82 percent of its customer base by the end of 2008 in North America, says Kulesz.

The tiers are differentiated by response time. A critical plan promises an eight-hour response, the proactive plan promises 16 hours, and the essential plan delivers a 24-hour response. Pricing is currently set on an annual basis at 15, 12.5, and ten percent of the list price of the printer for critical, proactive, and essential plans, respectively. Purchasers qualify for a discount on ESP pricing if they add additional years of coverage. Included in the price is one seat at a printer training session.

Epson offers a one- or two-year Preferred Plus warranty plan, which must be ordered during the first year of the free warranty period. The Preferred Plus plan extends the service offered under the free warranty for one or two additional years. Prices vary by model but aqueous printers start at $725 a year to $2,695 for two years. The plan includes on-site response with a one business day turnaround time and the right to exchange if the printer cannot be repaired.

HP Scitex products purchased directly from Hewlett-Packard (HP) are offered with three tiers of extended service in the HP Scitex VisionCare plan. The top tier—premium—includes remote and Web-based support, parts and labor, a 40 percent discount on printheads, a 40 percent discount on HP’s uptime kit, twice a year printer maintenance visits, an annual training session, and an annual visit from a color management specialist. The mid-tier—value—discounts labor, printheads, and the uptime kit at 30 percent. Members receive only one yearly printer maintenance visit and a 40 percent discount on a color management visit. The entry level—remote care—provides discounts from ten to 20 percent on all the services offered in premium care. The firm also assumed warranty responsibility for NUR printers following the completion of the acquisition this February.

HP Designjet owners can choose from 12 hardware plans and four premium hardware/software support options. Choices include a six-hour call-to-repair offering or a next business day service. Prices vary by model.

A one-year warranty on parts is offered through Mimaki USA, Inc. while the dealer provides a one-year warranty on labor. For UV products, Mimaki offers a parts and labor warranty directly. The warranty can be extended in one-, two-, and three-year increments for a maximum four years of coverage. Prices are typically between ten to 15 percent of the printer’s list price with discounts available for longer contracts.

Mutoh America, Inc. just began offering an extended service for its wide format printers. Each model comes with 12 months on-site parts and labor. Prices vary, but discounts are available if it’s purchased within six months of printer ownership. The extended warranty offers the same benefits as the standard year warranty in one-, two-, or three-year blocks. Benefits include a goal of a 24-hour response time, a one printhead per year limit—Spitfire products have a three-head limitation, and travel costs are included.

Roland DGA Corporation offers a two-year warranty that comes standard with its wide format printers—except the Heatwave SP-300VS and SP-540VS. After that customers can purchase extended warranties under the Passport Customer Care Program, ranging from between $999 and $4,999 depending on contract length. Whereas most manufacturers require an extended warranty to be purchased during the original warranty period, Roland will sell an extended warranty after the product has fallen out of its original warranty, provided an inspection of the product can be performed, says Scrimger.

Océ North America offers both a standard and a premium warranty, both for a year. A premium package includes support for up to two printheads. Both standard and premium warranties offer a one hour call back period and on-site help typically arriving between four and eight hours of a service request. After the warranty period, you can purchase a monthly maintenance contract with coverage for printheads or without. Prices vary by equipment. On the Océ Arizona 250 GT UV flatbed printer, for instance, it costs $1,369 a month including a printhead or $1,000 without.

Xerox Corporation offers a fee-based full service maintenance contract for up to three years from the date of purchase. Plan prices vary by printer model and whether a RIP is included. Eco-solvent printer service plans, including a RIP, can cost $3,600 while mild-solvent pricing for a year with RIP support cost $4,320. They are paid on a monthly basis.

Xerox Corporation’s top tier of service offers 24/7 phone support for 349 days a year plus a national engineering team that can be on-site within eight business hours. There are also options for a two or four hour on-site response.

Help Needed
Nashua, NH-based BIGraphics, Inc. purchased extended warranties for three HP Designjet 9000s and a ColorSpan DisplayMaker 72 UVR. It’s a decision, Dave Merrick, founder, BIGraphics, says he does not regret.

"The reason I bought the warranty for the HP printers is the simple fact that they’re solvent," he explains. "Solvent is just very tough on printers." Fortunately, he has not called in for added service on the Designjets. Although, he admits for peace of mind alone the added warranty protection is worth it.

Merrick feels the same about the extended warranty protection on his ColorSpan. Unlike the HP Designjets, which have "adequate backup," Merrick’s firm possesses no backup for the ColorSpan and its flatbed applications. If it went down, business would grind to a halt. And, indeed, he called on the services afforded by his extended warranty to ensure the ColorSpan stayed up and running. "It was definitely worth it," comments Merrick.

Every time Merrick considers adding a new printer to his shop he evaluates the current manufacturer’s warranty. When the original warranty expires he debates if he will opt to extend to a user service program.

"I continually ask myself, ‘Do I think a printer is reliable enough that I’m willing to take the risk to maintain it and put myself on a time and materials basis?’"

When shopping for a wide and grand format printer, "support does matter," says Merrick. "It’s key, I would only consider a product if it has a good service program readily available."

For Chino Hills, CA-based M2 Display Graphics, buying extended service contracts for their Océ Arizona 250 GT UV flatbed printer and Océ 9090 eco-solvent printer was a no-brainer. "It’s like life insurance," says Mooshiabad. "I don’t plan on it dying tomorrow, but it’s good to have a policy."

Mooshiabad shares that his decision to purchase extended service stemmed from a previous experience, when out-of-warranty equipment broke down and repair costs skyrocketed. "Now, my people can pick up the phone and get issues resolved quickly." He was particularly keen on extending the service agreement on the Océ Arizona 250 GT UV because "a printer of that high quality needs to be well maintained. I bought the first unit they delivered to the U.S. It was new technology and I wanted to be protected," he confesses.

Mooshiabad used the entitlements in his contract for several minor issues, but says he has no major problems with the printer. "Everything we encountered, Océ was aware of and helped," he shares. "We really haven’t had to make any major service calls, at the same time it feels good to have the extended warranty," he adds.

Make or Break
Hardware vendors are realizing the importance of extended user service programs to the PSP. "Service has to advance in the same manner as the equipment it supports and that requires a fresh way of looking at one of the most critical aspects of the vendor-user relationship," explains Tim Saur, senior VP of operations, finance and service, Durst Image Technology US, LLC.

It isn’t enough to focus on how to initially please the PSP when they are deciding to purchase a printer. The vendor in today’s graphic arts market must focus on the aftermath of the sale—whether it be one, two, or three years down the road.

"We realize that our customers sell what comes off that printer," says Anne Lafayette, director, service business development, Océ North America. She continues, "If it goes down, so does their business."

In this scenario, the old adage—time is money—could not be truer. Fortifying a printer’s life expectancy, as well as a business’ life expectancy can depend on the simple act of signing up for any of the extended user service programs offered by the aforementioned vendors. A printer’s life insurance policy, coupled with regular maintenance, can provide extra peace of mind for the sign shop owner.

Jun2008, Digital Output

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