Death of the Salesman?

June 21, 2009

These days, Poor Richard is getting older faster. I was young until I was 40, zoomed through middle age in a short 10 years and will be 50 this year. It’s tempting to say that 50 sure seems old to my 30 year old mind, but I’m afraid that the brain is aging, too.  Fer’ instance, there was a time when I could keep up with everything going on in the digital world . . . the latest microprocessors, the emergence of the internet, graphic and web design software and tools and all of the cool “killer apps.” That’s all left me in the dust. (Now I have to call my friend Mark Strozier at  The Brainstorm Lab, who has given up sleeping, but still knows everything).

But that’s not what this post is all about. I’ve written before about the massive changes that this recession is producing in the printing industry (see Poor Richard’s post Obsolete). Budgetary pressures have accelerated the transition of the publication of content from paper to the internet, and the rapid change is difficult for printers to cope with. Yesterday, I came across a discussion on Linked In that presents another dimension both to the difficulties that printers are facing and to the age and perspective gap that is becoming increasingly obvious to Poor Richard.

The discussion was posted by Jim Gross, who is an Account Executive Consultant at Image Printing Solutions in LA.  I’ll quote the post verbatim, since I’m not sure that a link will work:

Death of the Salesman – The Internet versus the human element.

The play “Death of a Salesman” tells of the tragic downfall of Will Loman. Loman’s flaw comes down to a lack of self-knowledge and obsession of greatness without adapting to change.

Today, the salesman’s world is rapidly changing to internet services so your clients can search for best prices or gather information for purchasing decisions. One main reason is avoiding the interaction with the dreaded salesman. Are you and your industry next? When is the last time you used a travel agent?

It has become an acceptable practice to purchase vacations, computers, cars, clothing, insurance, mortgages and other services daily with our computers.

The printing world is continually moving toward this trend with end-users reaping the benefits of faster service and lower prices. Manufactures, distributors and brokers are fighting to keep business at a profitable margin. The internet is making our industry into a commodity and the expertise of the salesman has been reduced to, “what is your best price”.

23 years ago a sales trainer at Uarco named Larry Dilly said there are only 3 things you need to know about the printing industry, “BETTER, CHEAPER, FASTER”. These words hold true today.

What is next for the print salesman? Promoting clients to go to your website for pricing and uploading artwork? If yes, then you will be the next Willy Loman.

The salesman of the future must be able to sell programs to companies and be viewed as a consultant with value while embracing the better, cheaper, faster of internet capabilities.

We are in an industry where both right and left brains must function equally. For printing is where conceptual ideas are turned over to mechanical engineering that produce works of art.

Poor Richard finds Jim’s message disturbing, a little confusing, and definitely thought provoking. A few observations:

  • In a pure commodity market, “better, cheaper, faster” trumps everything else. My experience is that very few products are purely commodities, regardless of the desire of some of those who purchase to make them so. Even lumber, which is defined as a commodity, has product attributes that are deemed better or worse by the buyer and other transactional attributes (delivery, for instance) which vary seller by seller.  With printing, each product is different. And even if the process of producing a piece may be similar from one provider to the next, quality and service aspects may vary widely. The low cost producer may not be able to produce “better” or “faster.”
  • Selling printing, at least for small and medium printers, has always required a consultative approach. Even in the days when it was given that all companies used printing, buyers varied in their knowledge of and comfort with the process. Today, it is rare that we deal with a professional “print buyer.” Most of our customers have to deal with printing only once or twice a year. They need all kinds of help to get their projects done. This is an opportunity for a proactive and creative salesperson.
  • Poor Richard could maintain that printing was not conducive to sale from Internet providers and that the implied comparison of our industry with the travel industry  is invalid, but this would only be a denial of reality. Just as Orbitz and Travelocity have taken a large bite from the business once held by local travel agents, so the gang run printers and VistaPrints of the web have appropriated business that once was the domain of the local printer.  Just as travel agencies have specialized in services and capabilities that are not easily replicated by the internet travel sites, so must printers do the same.

Defining and explaining the value that his company provides is and always has been the mission of a good salesman. Nonetheless, the comparison to Willy Loman is troubling. Poor Richard has read and seen Arthur Miller’s drama. While Loman was essentially overcome by his own ego and delusions of grandeur, at the core he thought he was right. The inability to recognize reality was at the root of his problems. His refusal to act on the basis of reality ultimately did him in.

It’s scary to think about Willy Loman when you’re approaching 50, especially when the world is changing so rapidly. I am hanging on to the hope that there is value to the human element and to the aspects of my business which can’t be commoditized. At the same time, it is folly not to look for opportunities amidst the change; essentially new ways to provide products and service that will be assigned a value by our customers.

Willy Loman?  Naaah . . . Mark, can I borrow your energy pills?



June 15, 2009

SQUELCHEDSo maybe I’ve crossed the line. I never intended this blog to belittle or to  be demeaning and certainly not to frighten off a customer who might consider coming into our printshop. The phone call I received from the franchise just a little over a week ago led me to believe that I may have done all three. It was from the new marketing director, a person I had never encountered before. She began by asking questions about the blog . . . what was it’s purpose?

I explained that it was mostly for fun, partially therapy, and that I occasionally write about something that is substantively related to printing.  The marketing director didn’t beat around the bush, but explained that the franchise was concerned with a negative tone toward customers and about the adverse impact it might have on their brand. She also stated that the franchise would do whatever was necessary to protect their brand. I understood that part clearly.

We didn’t argue. I did ask if she had read the blog and didn’t receive an answer that indicated she was very familiar with it. Mostly I listened and ultimately concluded that the best way to make sure that the franchise was not threatened was simply not to ever mention them in my blog again. This is admittedly problematic, since our printshop is usually recognized by the franchise moniker (begins with A, 2 syllables, second syllable is “graphics”), but I guess I’ll have to live with it.

Mind you, it did occur to me that marketing directors were supposed to be about marketing their business, not squelching such efforts. It also occurred to me (and I even mentioned this to the nice lady) that whatever recognition the brand name has in Middle Georgia is largely due to the efforts of my company.  That’s probably all irrelevant, though.  Besides,  the franchise has never really been very good at marketing.  Operations, yes . . . marketing, no.

So, I have a quandary and a conundrum. How can I continue to blog about my printshop without mentioning the name? I guess it will just have to be a game.  While I won’t mentioned the name A_____G______s any more, many of you will know where I work. Poor Richard might also mention the printshop behind the red awnings on Poplar Street. Or perhaps we’ll take a lead from the artist formerly known as Prince and just use some mysterious glyphs, like this, Ω&♣ζ±. Or maybe we’ll take a cue from Scooby Doo and call it GralphaRaphics.

I hope that many of you will continue to frequent Ω&♣ζ± and visit us at the place with a more recognizable name on the red awnings. To anyone who has been offended, I do offer my sincere apologies; and also the consolation that it probably wasn’t you that you thought you were reading about.  To my good customers, I offer continued thanks and the promise that we really, really do appreciate the business you do with us.

Finally, Poor Richard recommends a strong dose of humor to all of those who occasionally read these paragraphs. I really hope that you don’t take it all too seriously . . . I surely don’t.

Signing off from the printshop next to Grant’s Lounge in lovely downtown Macon!

–Poor Richard