Wining and dining clients may now be somewhat frowned upon, in light of the Bribery Act 2010, but customer relations are as important as ever in straitened times
When was the best time to be in print? It’s a question that’s bound to generate lively pub debate among those in the trade. Around the time movable type was invented would surely have to be up there, particularly for those who also fancy themselves as history buffs. But so too would around 10 years or so ago.
For this was a golden age for print, not only because of the healthy profits being reaped by this then apparently irreplaceable medium, but also because of the perks that went with this too. Golf tournaments, lavish long lunches and days at Ascot – all were a de rigueur part of printer–client relations. And, besides being good fun, these events also provided the backdrop to the kind of printer–buyer bonding that would hopefully form the bedrock of lasting partnerships.
But, of course, such extravagant wining and dining of clients is now nothing but a rather hedonistic-seeming memory. Buyers rarely have the time to take out on getting to know their current or prospective printer better, and 2011’s revamped Bribery Act looms ominously over anyone tempted, mid-tender process, to indulge in a decadent lunch. Even those printers with the money to burn on getting-to-know-you events with clients will be finding most buyers reluctant to be treated. And so printers may well be resigning themselves to print’s relationship-building days being over, and wondering just how they will be able to manage accounts in a way that promotes loyalty among customers, in the absence of opportunities to bond.
It is a dilemma that is particularly pressing for printers in view of the argument from most that it is work from long-established clients, retained by really getting to know a customer and their company, that should make up the bulk of their workload.
"Good account management is cost effective in comparison to continually going out to find new business," confirms Canon European marketing director Mark Lawn. He explains that spending time and money getting in front of existing clients, even where entertainment costs are involved, will deliver a better ROI than spending lots of money on marketing campaigns to prospective clients.
But holding on to an existing client is more difficult than at any other time in history, according to some. Certainly, with technology enabling most print businesses to now offer competitive prices, quick turnarounds and good quality, printers can have a hard time offering the client anything, beyond a trusted partnership, that they can’t get elsewhere.
"In the past, you might be thought of as a better quality printer than someone else, but now pretty much everyone can put a sheet down," explains Propeller Print owner Barry Cool. "Someone recently said they were in the US and saw a sign in a printer’s window saying ‘quality, speed, price; pick two of the above.’ Five years ago, that would have been perfectly fine, but now you’ve got to deliver all three."
One way to stop the client moving on, of course, is to adopt the technique of many suppliers to the print business: long-term contracts. However, as many printers will attest, this can backfire. Holding a client against their will is not the best PR exercise. Also, with much of the print work in the commercial sector ad-hoc work, clients would be unlikely to commit long term.
Which brings printers back, many would say, to the importance of building relationships with clients so that when there is work they opt for your business out of choice. No matter the current climate, the best ‘in’ with a customer will be gained through a face-to-face relationship.
"Actually meeting people at a company helps keep us in mind when a job comes up," confirms Ottimo Digital director Nick Lindwall. "People feel more comfortable calling us up if they’ve had a good chat with us the day before."
How you conduct these face-to-face meetings is crucial, both for a successful outcome and to allay any fears from clients relating to bribery legislation or any in-house company code of conducts.
Ruddocks key account director Michael Borman is an advocate of keeping things low key. "We’re based in Lincoln, which is a lovely city with a lovely cathedral, so when we have people come to visit, we like to show them a bit of the city and that works well," he says.
Meanwhile, Propeller’s Cool says it’s important to make it clear that treats haven’t been organised with winning specific contracts in mind. "We do still take out hospitality every year at Queens and we have started to have a few clients gracefully turn us down, and that’s purely because they’re not allowed to be seen to be wined and dined any more," he says. "But many are happy to come along because we always badge it as a relaxed invitation and a thank you. No strings, no obligations, just a quick thank you."
That’s not to say talking print should ever be entirely off the agenda. Canon’s Lawn says it is crucial to make sure that socialising with clients always involves a certain amount of shop-talk. Printers may worry that segueing into this while at lunch or at a networking event will seem crass, he says, but, in fact, as the growing number of buyers unwilling to waste time on what they see as purely social activities shows, customers now very much expect and welcome this.
"Particularly in long-standing relationships, it’s often easier to talk about the weather or the weekend and then go on to say, ‘What do you need us to do for you now,’ instead of asking more in-depth questions about where a client is in their business and what objectives they’re trying to achieve," says Lawn. "But it’s this trusted business partner approach that people in fact want."
Cool agrees that, in his experience, clients won’t be offended by a printer being keen to get down to business – indeed, they often bring it up themselves. "When we have our social days, we very rarely talk about the work, we just focus on getting to know people, but it’s normally the client who will bring work up," he reports.
Steering these discussions not just to the print but to the client’s business as a whole is also a useful method of building a relationship, adds Cool. He says that, by having frequent discursive chats about general issues facing the buyer’s company, the printer will gain an excellent working knowledge of that business and how print or other communication channels might be best deployed.
"None of us here are very good tennis players, but we could recite most of the LTA’s coaching manuals because we’ve really understood their business," reports Cool. "During evenings and lunch breaks and weekends – and this probably shows how sad we are – we’re constantly on the net, looking at what is out there. So we’ll spot a Facebook campaign and come up with a skeleton brief of how it could work for one of our clients. That’s better than a contract – people really appreciate that imaginative proactive approach."
Of course, this is all very well when existing clients will give printers the time of day. However, there are some clients completely unreceptive to any interaction, even a quick coffee. And a printer will struggle to demonstrate that the meet-up will be a businesslike one when they can’t get an audience with them in the first place.
There are a number of ways, say those with experience of being stonewalled, to combat this. Ottimo’s Lindwall advocates dropping into a business unannounced.
"We do try and drop in on people, giving them a short amount of notice, just a call in the morning to say we’re coming," he says. "Sometimes you see it’s not the best time, but people are actually usually surprisingly receptive to that interaction."
Meanwhile, Ruddocks’ Borman says scheduling regular reviews is the best way of getting in front of time-poor customers. "Face-to-face meetings are very important, but they are harder to get now because people haven’t got the time," he says. "To combat that, we tend to schedule two- or three-monthly reviews. That’s a better way of seeing people, because then they’ve scheduled it."
And the best way of ensuring that you’re dedicating enough time to interacting with existing clients, says 21 Colour sales director Philip Cole, is to have separate account managers and sales reps.
"Each of our accounts has someone responsible for its day-to-day running rather than the salesperson," he reports. "I think it depends on the size of the printer as to whether they can do this, but the danger is that otherwise you have salespeople just looking at the next job, rather than making sure everything’s going OK with the ones already under way."
The important caveat to all of this relationship-building advice, however, is the argument that, while this is integral to most printers retaining clients, it won’t be to all.
Dace Print managing director Nigel Dace points out that, for businesses offering pretty straightforward formats, with less room for innovation, this will be less important.
"The service we offer isn’t exactly niche, it’s basic general commercial print, so we do have a lot of clients where we hardly speak to them. It’s just an email order that we print, deliver and invoice," he says.
Here, then, printers will need to differentiate themselves not through getting to know the client but rather the opposite. That is, they will need to really hone those aspects of the business which mean the relationship between printer and buyer is as streamlined and no-nonsense as possible. "My niche product is my service," explains Dace. "I carry the service out very quickly and always meet the deadline."
Manchester Printers managing director Gavin Page agrees that, when dealing with clients who, perhaps justifiably considering the sort of print being ordered, don’t want to engage in a dialogue with their printer, service will be key. "There’s very little customer loyalty now, which is a shame. Basically, it comes down to that key element, service; it’s as simple as that," he says. "So the little things we offer, like a never-late guarantee, do make all the difference."
An effective way of streamlining the service on offer is a web-to-print system, says Grant Ball, production manager at CPS Business Forms. "Our VPress system saves on production time as we don’t have to create the artwork and put it on the system, so we can offer quick turnarounds," reports Ball. "We say they can have it within three or even two working days, where otherwise it would take five to six."
And a client using a web-to-print system is also more likely to stay put because their print should be cheaper and because – most importantly – they won’t want to go through the hassle of transferring this set-up elsewhere.
"It saves them costs in artwork because they’re doing it themselves," says Ball. "We charge roughly £6.50 a business card, which doesn’t sound much but over a year if they’re ordering 50,000 sets, that’s quite a lot. And if they move to another company with web-to-print, they have to set it all up again. They have to get it how they want it," he adds.
But enhancing the core service on offer doesn’t necessarily have to entail investing in web to print. Key to keeping service-orientated clients (and indeed any customer) sweet, say some, will be throwing in little extra services that won’t necessarily cost the printer much, but are invaluable to the client.
This comes in the form of storing exhibition stands for Ottimo Digital.
"People normally do trade shows a couple of times a year so, by offering to store exhibition stands free of charge, it’s off their hands but ready for the next one, so that is quite a nice technique for retaining people," says Lindwall. "There’s no direct cost to us, but it does help them."
For Ruddocks, throwing in a bit of basic design is a perk that could well keep a customer loyal. "I do tend to throw a freebie in here and there," says Borman. "Most of that tends to be on the design side where you’ve just got labour involved, you don’t have to buy lots of materials. So we’ll help out where the basics of an advert are already done and it’s just a case of making a couple of tweaks to the artwork."
There are still those who would warn, however, that, even where there seems to be no harm in throwing in a couple of added extras, printers should ensure their efforts are proportionate to how loyal a customer is likely to be – and how much work they will place. And this applies not only where a printer is striving to provide the best service possible to ensure a client doesn’t go elsewhere, but also where they are bending over backwards to establish a relationship.
21 Colours’ Cole says that his company is careful to prioritise those accounts most likely to sustain the business. "Obviously, certain accounts have a bit more clout than others, depending on how much work they give us," he says. "Unfortunately, we’ve got to work that way. If it’s a top account, they’re going to get top service, so if there’s an opportunity to put the job in a day early then we’ll do that."
"I think a lot of printers don’t prioritise enough and are too concerned with giving every customer exactly the same amount of time and attention," he adds.
Propeller’s Cool adds: "I think most good salespeople and most good business owners will spot that person who will only buy on price a mile off. They’ll demonstrate no loyalty to you whatsoever so you have to be careful not to expend too much time on them."
So, in these more straightened times, some relationships must fall by the wayside. Business owners will need to make sure that they are expending their energies wisely, building strong business, rather than purely social, relationships with those who are likely to value strategic advice and bring future work the printer’s way.
Certainly, there are many customers who will now be unwilling to spend time on the kinds of events printers once relied on to build long-lasting partnerships, or who are unable to partake, due to their organisation’s particular interpretation of the Bribery Act. And there are those customers who won’t really need to build a "trusted business partnership" with their printer, but will stay loyal if the printer delivers consistent, no-nonsense service.
But this doesn’t mean printers should give up on any attempts to get to know their clients and their businesses.
For many, the old adage that ‘people buy from people’ continues to hold very true. And the most important thing to bear in mind here is that people are still most likely to buy from knowledgeable and businesslike people.
Bribery Act 2010
The Bribery Act 2010 came into force on 1 July 2011 and made it an offence to give or receive bribes in business. Here’s how to make sure you don’t fall foul of this new, stricter legislation.
Put a cap on entertaining budgets The act makes it clear that scale is important when it comes to deciding whether hospitality from one company to another might influence the recipient to "perform improperly a relevant function or activity", or rather perform it with clouded judgment. So printers shouldn’t worry about meetings over lunch, but might want to rethink high-profile events that cost thousands of pounds.
Timing is key Avoid treating clients when there is a tender process under way or a large contract about to be put out to tender.
How you badge a treat is important Make it clear that hospitality has ‘no strings attached’.
Put together an anti-bribery policy Putting together an anti-bribery policy specific to your company and training staff accordingly should help avoid accusations of bribery. Remember though that the Serious Fraud Office’s recently toughened Bribery Act guidance states that having a policy in place does not constitute a defence where a ‘rogue individual’ at a company has been found to be in breach of the act.
Remember that UK companies with employees abroad will be held accountable for their actions Printers trading in countries where it is usual to give gifts or payments to facilitate business, such as China and India, will need to be particularly careful.
Take it seriously Due to reined-in entertaining budgets and printers generally already obeying a set of unwritten rules about keeping treats low key and well timed, they could fall into the trap of becoming complacent that they won’t need to alter their behaviour at all. But printers will need to exercise extra caution now, as penalties can include not only forfeiting the value of any contract obtained by bribery, but also up to 10 years in prison and unlimited fines.