Pitch perfect: the art of selling smart

Sniffing out the main chance and flogging it may be the Sugar way, but it’s not always the best.

Anyone familiar with hit BBC TV programme The Apprentice will know that one of Lord Alan Sugar’s favourite catchphrases is “smell what sells”. His theory is breathtakingly simple: find something the general public wants to buy and then push those products hard. It’s a fairly agricultural approach to selling and in industry sectors where products have increasingly become commoditised it often results in a race to the bottom on pricing and margin erosion.

In the modern business world the most sensible and sustainable sales approach requires smart thinking. You have to be strategic. Smelling what sells will only get you so far. So how do you sell smartly and what do printers looking to adopt this approach need to know to ensure they do it effectively?

One of the major challenges modern print business owners face is there are lots of sales people out there who don’t understand the technical aspects of printing. While this can have its upsides it can also lead to problems, according to Matthew Parker of consultancy Profitable Print Relationships.

“Sometimes sales people are just told to go and sell the press and then the production people get upset because they’re not bringing in the type of work they wanted, but no one has actually helped the sales person to begin with,” says Parker. “However, if you say [to the sales person] ‘we’re looking for these specific types of jobs, go out and sell them and if do you get offered other stuff that’s cool, but just check with us first before you book it’, that’s a much more effective approach.”

Parker adds that usually customers don’t care what kit their print provider has and if sales people delve too far into the technicalities during a sales pitch it can be off putting. He says a far more effective approach is to ‘productivise’ your offer.

“You have to say to your customers ‘have you seen these products, they’re great’. You shouldn’t go in and say ‘we’ve got a B2 press with a fifth colour inline and coater’.” 

Sweat the assets
Communicating what you’re capable of producing is a vital component of smart selling. “The term ‘sweating the assets’ sums this up perfectly and if you have great in-house print technology you will want to use it to the max,” says Mike Freely, managing director at Octink. “That said, in our experience most jobs are often quite diverse, made up of many elements and therefore relying on a trusted and reliable network of outsource partners is also often essential in the successful fulfilment of projects.”

As a result, it’s also important to continually communicate with suppliers and customers. To do this effectively Robert Cross, director of Micropress, prefers to take the old fashioned approach rather than relying on some of the more modern means of communication.
“This could be a sales person sitting in front of the client, a conversation with the account manager or even a mail shot to our clients informing them of what services we offer,” says Cross.

Springfield Solutions’ joint managing director Matt Dass uses similar tactics. His company employs “marketing, our website, social media and printed literature to educate our target audience on the products and services we offer”. He is also fond of face to face meetings – catching up with customers at exhibitions, for example.

Another vital component of smart selling is smart buying. “Buying plays an incredibly important role in our business,” says Cross. “The responsibility for this lies at a very high level within the business.”

He adds that fostering strong relationships with suppliers is a crucial facet of smart buying. “Whilst price is a major factor, we value service, trust and the quality of service or product they provide. In return we pay promptly and remain loyal providing they keep delivering. It’s a partnership,” says Cross.

But smart buying doesn’t just relate to the purchase of items like consumables. It can also refer to the outsourcing of work and weighing up the pros and cons of bringing processes in-house, which can be an incredibly risky strategy given the investment involved. 

“We very much believe in sticking to what you are good at as too many companies fall into the trap of trying to do too much and ending up doing nothing well,” says Cross.

However, he adds that sometimes you have no choice but to bring some processes in-house. “Take mailing as an example,” says Cross. “We need in-house mailing for the quick turnaround magazine work we do. We recognised that this was an area where we needed to be better so employed someone from a mailing house to build that skill level. We now believe our knowledge on fulfilment and postage is as good as what you would get at a mailing house. My advice would be don’t spread your wings too wide and if you do need to expand your offering make sure you employ the right resource to service it. “

Another company that’s brought processes in-house over the years is Grafenia. “Back in the day we were all about print,” explains Peter Gunning, CEO at Grafenia. “Then we found clients were going to a web designer instead of us. So we knew we had to get into web, but that meant teaching all frontline team how to pitch for complex projects. And that’s hard.”

So five years ago the company started building its Nettl system. “It allows printers to get started with web,” says Gunning. “It’s training, sales aids and a co-brand marketing toolkit to help win web work – and then keep the print – what to pitch for and how to win. All by following digital recipes created by our Nettl Geeks.”

Gunning’s experience is similar to that of Gary White, managing director at Northside Graphics, which owns DigitalPrinting.co.uk. He says the company has always taken the attitude that you need to build a market in a sector before investing heavily in the equipment required to service that market in-house. 

“In fact we believe a lot of print firms think this way [too] and it was one of the catalysts to us starting ‘TradeDigitalPrint.co.uk’ which enables printers to buy HP Indigo print at trade pieces without the investment in their own HP Indigo,” says White. “I’m glad to say a lot of printers appear to agree.”

Add value
Exploring diversification through the introduction of new products and services is essential to adding further value to your customer base and growing your business, says Freely, but he cautions: “You need to be certain that a sustainable market exists before jumping into any significant capex. I would say from an Octink perspective people are also essential to making any investment work – training and engagement being essential elements as part of the integration phase of any new item of kit.”

Regardless of whether you’re thinking about bringing some print processes that you currently outsource in-house, or trying to maximise sales through your existing equipment, David Amor, direct mail futurist and chairman at Firstmove, says fundamentally smart selling boils down to “understanding why your customer is undertaking their project and suggesting ways of improving not just the job, but the result that the client is looking to achieve,” says David Amor, direct mail futurist and chairman, at Firstmove.

At the end of the day it’s just smart business sense.

Case study: Ryedale
The last decade has been a tale of two halves for York-based Ryedale Group. In the first five years the company grew its revenue by taking on new clients and over time covering more and more of their needs. However, “in the most recent five years we’ve seen revenues flatten and the sales mix has changed, notably with more outsourced work as certain products change and decline,” explains James Buffoni, managing director at Ryedale. “We are also a seasonal business and have peaks and troughs in capacity.”

Buffoni is a relatively new print boss and has been able to approach the challenge with a fresh perspective. He’s currently in the midst of “reorganizing and refocusing” the company’s sales team.

“We have re-presented margin to the sales team as the lead performance indicator as well as instructions to sell to capacity i.e. by incentivising work away from peak times,” he explains. “Educating clients is a work-in-progress. Our intentions are to draw up parameters much more clearly than they currently are – i.e. clear communication on capacity and turnaround to avoid over-promising and under-delivering. We are in a niche part of the market and our capabilities are not widely offered or perhaps as well-known as they could be. We really value the clients who are prepared to work with us and understand the various constraints although that isn’t always the case. “

He adds that he is happy to outsource new types of work to establish the potential market for these products before splashing out on equipment so that he can bring these processes in house.

As for what advice he would offer print business leaders who face similar challenges to his own, he says:  “When trying to change or improve, if in doubt, bring in the expertise rather than trying to do it yourself. I’ve found print a great industry in which to network and get advice from peers, such as at industry events or through trade federations such as BPIF. There is so much talent and expertise in print and more often than not people are really willing to help if they can.”


© MA Business Limited 2020. Published by MA Business Limited, St Jude's Church, Dulwich Road, London, SE24 0PB, a company registered in England and Wales no. 06779864. MA Business is part of the Mark Allen Group .