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Searching for a Solution

Commercial Printers Face Digital

By Steve Aranoff & Robert FitzPatrick

The great bastion of commercial printers remains a largely undeveloped market for the suppliers of digital printing technology. This may seem a remarkable fact given the extraordinary advances. Demand is high, the tools are available, and the time for adaptation is marching forward. The Hewlett-Packard (HP) Indigo press was introduced nearly 15 years ago.

Many other sectors of the broader imaging industry have embraced digital printing, including sign shops, photo finishing, fine art, specialty printing, and corporate America. The extensive participation of this latter group of users, in-house printing departments of large corporations, is an ominous sign. It may indicate the printers’ largest customers are moving ahead without them. The great advantage that commercial printers hold—that they already have business relationships and sell imaging products to the largest sector of digital print buyers—could be slipping away.

Despite the printers’ slow response thus far to the digital print revolution, vast reaches of the digital printing market remain undeveloped. What is holding many printers back? A reluctance or inability to embrace change must be ruled out since printers have historically made many changes. In the lifetime of many current business owners, commercial printers have adapted to cold type, digital type, digital color pre-press, and direct-to-plate technologies, all of which required large-scale retooling.

A day spent at a recent HP GO Digital road show event in Charlotte, NC revealed some of the special barriers that commercial printers face. The buzzword—solutions—at this event, offers important insights. "Sell a solution, not a product!," the printers were told by consultants and marketing experts. "Don’t walk in the door with samples of your printing and start talking about cost-per-page! That’s ineffective, inappropriate, and unprofitable!"

The printers came to the meeting looking for a solution to a seemingly intractable problem of their own. It was the inability and unwillingness of their sales forces to learn how to sell digital printing.

Selling digital printing, the printers were told, is an altogether different ball game from what printers have been doing for, perhaps, the last 500 years. The agenda of presentations revealed just how new and different digital printing is.

The HP presentations covered data mining and data base management; new challenges in product branding; the value of variable data printing (VDP) in direct mail; the utilization of personal Web portals for ordering small print jobs; the growth of short-run color applications; and the complexities and advantages of digital print substrates that bear on how digital printing can be put to use.

"Find out where your customers are hurting and show them how you can help," the printers were told. This was followed with lectures about corporate America’s new problems—hyper-competition, over-capacity, the need for targeted marketing, new challenges of maintaining brand equity, extreme pressures to cut costs, relentless time compression, and the demand of investors that companies do more with less people.

Digital printing, such as with an Indigo press, could help in all these areas, the printers were told. In similar meetings, undoubtedly, Kodak, Xeikon, and Xerox speakers, among others, were delivering comparable messages.

The content and the delivery of the HP-sponsored presentations were compelling. However, the audience—mostly printing company owners and upper level managers—repeatedly replied with one equally compelling challenge. That is the attitude, training, and habits of their sales forces.

Typical responses were, "Sounds great. I’d love to be making money on print orders coming in on a Web site; I’d love to get some of the short-run color work that I can’t do now; I’d love to imbed our company with large corporate customers. But how am I going to get my sales force to make these sales?"

A panel of Indigo users offered their direct experience as sellers of digital printing. Several said they, as owners, are doing the heavy lifting of sales. They all had poor experience in motivating or training their sales forces.

A few attendees said they do not believe it is possible to train existing print company salespeople to sell digital printing. They recommended hiring people from outside the industry for this job.

Print has always been a solution to a customer’s problem, but it was the customer who understood how to solve the problem. He or she came to the printer with clearly defined requirements. Costs were readily calculated and compared. The printer’s task was to meet these requirements within the competitive cost parameters.

At the HP event, the printing company owners in attendance seemed to grasp the urgency for taking action. Some bluntly stated that if printers do not enter this market soon their companies face inevitable, and probably fatal, decline. One of the panelists, who was a large commercial printer that had already entered the digital print market said he felt that offset printing would virtually disappear in ten years. He spoke about offset printing, still the mainstay of this business, the way printers used to talk about graphic arts film.

HP, like its peers, has developed an effective program for articulating the new digital print market and the value of entering it with their product. Yet, it is also struggling, as probably other companies are, with its own core message—to sell a solution, not a product.

The printers have a problem. And they are looking for a solution. The main problem is how to hire or to train an industry sales force that can sell digital printing capabilities to print buyers.

The salespeople were driven by volume on which their commissions were based. The prospect of a complex sale leading to a low volume print order was unappealing. As one printer stated, "My sales guys say they won’t drive across town for a $12 commission."

Few sales people, it was noted, understood the potential of the short-run color jobs being repetitive, and eventually producing very lucrative commissions. Some said their compensation plans did not motivate salespeople to build long term relationships for many short-run jobs. Others said the salespeople just did not understand the nature of digital printing and how it solves customers’ new needs.

Is this a problem that suppliers can help printers solve? On the face of it, it might seem outside the boundaries of vendor sales responsibilities. Yet, much of what the printers were told they need to address with their customers—targeted marketing, IT systems, self-service Internet-based print ordering, etc.—used to be thought of as well outside a printer’s responsibilities.

Printers are at the edge of the precipice. They can see the market opportunities thriving on the other side of the chasm. Their equipment suppliers have eloquently explained what it would take to cultivate those lucrative and promising opportunities. They have been told that this is where they belong and their customers are waiting. But no one is helping them build the bridge—an effective digital print sales force—that will get them to that promised land.

Apr2007, Digital Output

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