It’s a familiar refrain. The customer tells you they consider their suppliers to be ‘partners’. Yet when it comes to the crunch, their priority appears to be screwing you down in price to get the job done for the lowest possible cost.
This makes delivering healthy profits quite a challenge. One print boss, speaking on condition of anonymity, says mournfully: “No matter how much added value consultation I put into our company’s efforts, we’re coming up against the same old problem: price. And this is not just with the usual suspects, but also with long-term partners with whom we have contracts, who tell us they are having the same price pressures in their supply chain, and therefore cannot absorb any of the paper price increases we’re taking.”
Is there a way around this? In the face of client cost-consciousness, what can be done to protect or even fatten up margins?
The answer may lie in positioning your business as having a consultative (as well as executional) role. But, as the anonymous industry source points out, it’s not necessarily easy to establish your credentials as a partner with the expertise to add value.
“Things have changed since the last recession and to be really successful a print company now needs to be more than just a provider of basic print products,” says BPIF sales and specialist services director, Chris Selby. “Consultative selling means working closely with your customer at various levels within the business to get under their skin and understand their business, goals and objectives.”
While selling on value is an easy statement to make, says Matthew Camacho, we all know from experience that it is harder in practice. Camacho is a Director of PIP Associates, a leading independent sales and management training consultancy. He says the first step is to work hard to establish your business’s points of difference. These might be obvious, such as technical capabilities you have that others can’t match. However, these are often more subtle points such as service capabilities, reliability or reputation.
“Think hard and objectively,” advises Camacho. “Why do customers work with you now? What do they value? If you were a customer to your own business, what would you value about your offer? If these questions are hard to answer, don’t be afraid to ask your best customers. This can be tricky – if your best customers can’t answer the question, that’s a concern – but done well, this offers you another opportunity to discuss your strengths as a business with key customers.”
Worth the effort
Although this might sound time-consuming, Camacho believes it is worth the effort. Once these points of difference are established, you have something around which your business can build value.
Simon McKenzie, managing director of signage and graphics company Hollywood Monster, asserts it is important to use investments in technology to expand product offering. With the company’s machines costing around £500,000 each, it is paramount get a return on investment. “More often than not you buy a machine because of better print quality, white inks, slit cutting and many other opportunities,” he says. “If you explain to your clients old and new what can be achieved with new technology it gives you an advantage to upsell and gain more work from your competition, whilst giving your customer a wider choice on creative solutions.”
Moreover, he adds, the firm has a “great success story to tell”. This is woven into the consultative selling process via endorsements from leading customers, which include some of the world’s biggest brands.
“We are always open and honest with our customers,” says McKenzie. “Even if we have an issue, we make the client aware and make a plan together. If you are honest and truthful with your customers, the relationship will flourish with mutual respect.”
Andy Kyle, head of creative print solutions at Marstan Press, believes the first step is to create the right profile. The aim is to show customers “we are not just another commercial printer”. Instead, the business is positioned as having expertise in creative, added-value solutions combined with a genuine interest in understanding the needs of each project.
“Ideally, you’d like your customer to see you as an extension of their organisation and that needs time and trust as you have to truly understand the demands of the market your customer is in – not what you’d like to sell them,” says Kyle. “Sometimes you have to be there waiting for them with the right solution. We constantly talk to our suppliers about new processes and materials, or old ones coming back into fashion, and potential alternatives. Then we engage with our customers so that they can share in that knowledge.”
Paul Newton, director at print consultancy Print Strategy Europe says that while historically the business relied on organic recommendation to help with referrals and opening new opportunities, in more recent years it has built an internal marketing team to drive growth. “We constantly improve our website, updating aspects daily and use every social media tool available to help with our reputation and spread the word of our customer testimonials, case studies and sample images,” he says.
Matthew Parker, director of Profitable Print Relationships, has written a guide on how to stop print buyers choosing on price. In his view, it’s essential to build trust long before starting the sales process. “This means effective content marketing: through social media and being at events and in spaces where your desired clients hang out. Be the expert whom they will turn to because they know you understand what they want.”
When developing a reputation management/customer endorsement strategy, it’s important to focus on the most appropriate channels. Parker believes Trustpilot is typically more relevant to printers that focus on online ordering. However, he feels a good set of case studies is far more valuable. “But this means understanding what results the client has achieved as a result of using your services,” warns Parker. “It’s not about a PR agency writing a release where a customer says what nice people you are.”
Ideally, a print business needs to develop a clear sales and marketing plan based on what it believes are its USPs and where it wants the business to be in the future. Thereafter, it needs to agree how to describe the business and make sure every employee and every client understands this message. For example, the message might be expressed as something like: We are a marketing services provider, specialising in print.
“They need to build a good website which is not just a ‘brochure’ for the business but can add value for the customer, use social media to death and network with as many contacts within the customer as possible,” advises the BPIF’s Selby. “Most importantly, they should exploit their existing customer relationships by having more strategic conversations – for example, if the MD met with the key customer once a year to understand what plans the customer has and then describe his/her plans for the future, that would go a long way!”
Avoid the tech talk
On the question of how important it is to sell the capabilities of your kit, Selby urges printers to “avoid this like a curse” as most customers do not understand or want to know the technicalities of print. The days of the highly technical and knowledgeable print buyer have long gone, he argues. “If a printer has a USP from some unique equipment, that’s different. They shouldn’t say, ‘my machine prints this cool thing,’ but ‘we can print this cool thing’ or ‘we can solve that problem for you’ or ‘we have an idea which could improve communications with your customers’.”
While concurring that larger customers will be impressed with a rating from the likes of Trustpilot, Selby thinks all printers should measure client satisfaction and publish the results, with this being especially true for their existing customers. “For example, simply providing the customer with a monthly report that says, ‘we produced 120 jobs this month and 100% were on time and 100% were on quality’ goes a long way to add value.” A live count of the number of jobs produced displayed on the corporate website may also be helpful in building trust.
There’s certainly a widespread feeling that many companies in the print sector have been slow to respond to changing client demands and have failed to position themselves as strategic partners. To help print companies develop their sales and marketing expertise, BPIF Specialist Services has put together a set of support services. This includes a Sales Excellence Programme for companies of 30 staff and above, a Business Development Programme for those with under 30 staff, a Client Management Programme to help companies successfully integrate large new accounts and a Sales and Marketing Excellence Programme.
“Printers are generally out of synch with the clients in the 21st century,” says Selby. “Very rarely do clients understand the technicalities of print and therefore do not care about machines. They only want to know, ‘how can your services help us be more successful?’ In some respects, printers need to learn from the print managers and sell a ‘managed service’ and use customer-centric employees to engage with clients. The service should include savings reporting, workflow technology, fulfilment and artwork. Oh, and print!”