Let’s have some resolution, please

April 23, 2011

Nope, it’s not what you think.  This entry’s not going to be about Congress or any other assembly of wishy-washy, slimy political creatures. That’s not the lack or resolution that concerns Poor Richard today. It’s a different lack of resolution . . . image resolution.

It’s been a while since I’ve approached anything even moderately technical. Honestly, I’m almost convinced that there’s no one out there who really gives a flip about the finer points of the printing art. This topic’s pretty basic, though, and has major implications for the quality of any printed piece.  It’s like this: you can’t take a bad steak and cook it on a good grill and make it a good steak.  The quality of the grill has nothing to do with the quality of the meat.

The same occurs with images plucked from the internet.  And it is a shame, because the images are so, so readily available. Our customers just can’t resist them . . . and then they get upset with us when we tell them that the images won’t work.  One more time . . . images plucked from the internet will rarely work for print.

Why?

cross-eyed girl

Let’s take a look at this freckle-faced, cross-eyed girl.  She’s cute, isn’t she?  Poor Richard plucked this picture from one of the image libraries to which he subscribes.  It was downloaded at 300 dpi, the optimum resolution for print.  That means 300 dots per inch.  To oversimplify a little, when we convert an image for printing, the information is carried in dots.  When we print, we’re actually putting dots on paper.  When you look at a printed piece of paper, your eyes and your brain are fooled into thinking that you’re seeing a whole spectrum of color, instead of a bunch of dots. When you print a photograph on paper using 300 dots per inch, it looks pretty good.

Now, let’s make it a little more complicated.  When we’re talking about digital images, the dots are really pixels.  Now a pixel is more of an electronic term than a printing term.  When you’re looking at your computer screen, the color images you see are comprised of pixels, little dots with varying intensities which fool your eyes and your brain into thinking that you’re seeing a whole spectrum of color, instead of a bunch of hyperactive dots.  Because of the way your computer screen works, fewer dots are needed to fool your brain than on paper.  In fact 72 or 96 dots per inch works pretty well.

If you spread the dots out, the picture gets bigger.  The cross-eyed girl above is roughly 4.7 x 7 inches at 300 dpi.  Measured in pixels, that’s 1414 x 2121 pixels. Because your computer screen measures something like 1024 x 768 pixels, the photo is actually too big for the screen.  If we spread the crosseyed girl’s dots out for the computer screen, she can be as big as 19.6 x 29.5 inches.  So, we can lose some dots (downsize the image) she’ll still look cute on the internet.  Plus, the file size is smaller, which means she’ll appear on the screen faster.

Image areas

Let’s look at it a little bit differently.  We’ll draw a couple of boxes over the little girl’s nose.  The light blue box represents 1 square inch at 300 dots/inch.  The green box represents 1 square inch at 72 dpi.  Here’s the point:  there’s a lot more information in the blue box. In fact, there’s enough dots there to describe a whole nose, an upper lip, and a bunch of freckles.  In the green box, all you get are the freckles.

To take things a little further, I can certainly lose some of the information from the blue box and the nose will still look good on screen.  But I can’t get more information into the green box.  The simple explanation is that if I increase the size of the green box, I basically just make the dots bigger.  Actually, it doesn’t really work that way, but the effect is the same.

One eye

Ok, so let’s just look at an eye.  If we only look at one of them, they don’t look crossed, but that doesn’t have anything to do with resolution.  Let’s assume that we’ve sized this picture for the screen at 72 dpi.  That means that if the size of the eye was 1″ on screen, it would measure 72 x 72. Basically, we’ve moved the green box over the little girl’s eye and captured that image.

eye at 72 x 72

This is the eye at 72 x 72.  The eye above will give you a better idea of clarity. It looks okay on your computer screen, right?

What if we want to print the eye?  To get the information needed for a clear print, we need the dots to be closer together.  If we move theme close enough to get 300 dots per inch, the size of the image shrinks.  In fact, it shrinks to about 1/4 inch, probably a little small for anyone to notice, even if the image does print clearly:  reduced from internet

But, if we try to increase the size, things just get worse.  Because we can’t really increase the information, we just stretch the dots and the image becomes blurry.  This is essentially what happens when a photo intended for the internet is used for print.  The resolution isn’t adequate and it blurs out.  Depending on the image, edges can become jagged, and you might see pixelization (boxes) in the image.  The photo will look crummy and embarrass your printer, who is supposed to know better.

The last question: Can’t you fix it with Photoshop?

Yes and no. Photoshop and other photo editing programs use interpolation algorithms that basically multiply dots instead of stretch them.  These formulas can gauge the variations of color in a line or  radius from the dot that is being multiplied and actually create gradients or ranges of color rather than exact duplicates of the dots being multiplied.  This can certainly help if it is absolutely necessary to enlarge an image, but the process is an educated guessing game.  The image editing programs guess what information might be there, and the results can be unpredictable and inconsistent.

Synopsis and conclusion

Downsizing is ok. You can always make a big photo smaller.

Upsizing isn’t. The bad steak and good grill aphorism applies.

Listen to your printer.  Sometimes, we really do know what we’re talking about.


Opening Pandora’s box

January 3, 2010

It’s been a while since Poor Richard has written about proofing (see Just Do It . . . I Trust You!). At the printshop behind the red awnings on Poplar Street, we generally follow Poor Richard’s Rule #1: Proof Everything. When we fail to follow Rule #1, it is usually because the owner decides to make an exception, allows one of our customers to convince him that they do not need a proof, and gets totally burned in the process because something goes awry or does not meet the customer’s expectations.

If the CIA was really intelligent, they would store all of their Top Secret, classified, very sensitive documents in the basements of printshops across this great nation. Because we see so much text come past our eyes, printers don’t really read much of it.  At Gralpharaphics (name changed to protect the delicate sensitivity of the franchise), we used to do internal proofs of hard copy prints for much of what went through the shop. We were looking for low resolution graphics and the general composition of each piece ; whether it would fold correctly and if there were font errors.  Today, for much of what we print, preflight software will indicate many of the technical errors and our internal proofing process is focused more on how the piece will finish (through bindery) than the general composition. In short, we don’t read for context and we don’t always catch spelling errors.

The phone call of the month for December was from a customer that had discovered a typo in a brochure we had printed for them . . . in September. In fact, it was an exact repeat of the same job printed for them about a year before.  And that job was a redesign of a file that came to us in .pdf format sometimes shortly after Adobe Acrobat was invented, opening the possibility that the misspelling could potentially be over a decade old.  Naturally, the customer wanted the job reprinted . . . for free.

We checked the proofs. Sure enough, there was the typo buried plain as day right in the middle of a long paragraph in the center panel of the inside of the brochure. It stood out dramatically in 11 point Times New Roman; so evident that the customer missed it totally when they signed off on the proof.

Who has the responsibility? Proofs do place the onus of responsibility for the final appearance and accuracy of each printed piece on the customer. This is customary in the printing trade and spelled out clearly in the proof policy that our shop sends with every proof.  While some customers may see this as a catch, printers consider it a necessity. Even if we could completely check everything we print for absolute accuracy, this would not compensate for the vagaries of syntax, composition or customer taste. There have been many occasions where Poor Richard or one of my associates has corrected grammar or spelling only to have it uncorrected by the customer. Likewise, the design or composition of many of the projects we print may be more pleasing to our customer than to our unrefined tastes.  This really is the critical point for most printers: the project must meet the approval of the customer. The signed proof signifies that it does.

Back to the problem of the month. Another of Poor Richard’s rules that falls pretty near the top of the list (like #2 maybe) is this: Customers are important. These days, they’re also pretty darn hard to come by.  We understood the customer’s problem and offered to help them with the reprint.  Mind you, this is not customary practice among printers. Margins are very tight in our business and printing at cost is spinning the wheels at best and at worst a missed opportunity for profitable use of time and equipment. Nonetheless, customers are important. We offered to make the correction and reprint at a discount.

After the correction was made, the competent Gralpharaphics team followed Poor Richard’s Rule #1 and sent the customer a final proof for approval. At least, we thought that it was final. The proof was returned with a request for another change.  Technically, this request crossed the fine line between correction and revision, but the change requested was minor and we chose not to sweat it. That’s when we opened Pandora’s box. We made the revision and sent another proof.

The proof response came back with a Microsoft Word file attached. We were now well beyond correction and decidedly in the realm of revision.   Poor Richard tried not to reach the conclusion that the customer’s stated need — to correct a typo — might not have been their actual objective. Without questioning the customer’s motives, we explained that the discount had been offered to help with a correction. The scope of the revisions requested had essentially changed the project from a reprint to something like creating a new brochure.  We would have to charge for the additional layout and prepress time incurred for the changes.

There are times when Poor Richard is able to predict the future before it even happens. I could see this spinning out of control even without a crystal ball. The conversation was polite, the customer didn’t really understand, and the project was placed on (permanent) hold.  Chances are that we lost a customer. Bummer. Not good.

Because we’re a small business in a small market, we’ve never had the luxury of dealing only with professional “print buyers;” folks whose expectations are to some extent shaped by their understanding of and interest in the art of printing. We have had the privilege of working with some very nice folks, many of whom wanted to learn a little about print as we produced their projects. I think that there was a general appreciation among our customers of the value of the tangible product we created and of the work that went into it; but now this appreciation may be fading.

The last 18 months of struggle have brought a sea change to the printing industry and to local printers like the shop on Poplar Street.  While we continue to compete with one another for business, we also compete against a host of other choices for communication. Increasingly, our customers’ expectations are molded by the other choices. It’s no problem to correct a typo on a web page. It doesn’t require a reprint. The fact is that we have fewer customers who are interested in print and they are much less willing to deal with the complexities involved.  Price and speed have become more important and many customers are actually less concerned with quality than ever before. To paraphrase Robert Heinlein, “they don’t want it good, they want it Wednesday.”

This presents a real challenge to folks like Poor Richard. The old rules of printing (like proof policies) seem necessary to me. It is important to do things right and because almost all of the projects we produce are essentially custom made, there has to be some understanding between printers and our customers.  We can’t sell labels produced for Jim Bob’s BBQ Sauce to his competitor Billy Bob.  If Jim Bob doesn’t want the labels, they’re trash.

How do we adapt? As our customers become increasingly less patient with the print process, it is tempting to just bend the rules and take our chances.  Waive the proofs, forget the rules, just print it and hope it’s right. Throw Pandora’s box wide open.

If we do that, how long will it take for the snakes inside to bite us?


Very Cautiously Optimistic?

November 26, 2009

It’s Thanksgiving, and Poor Richard is thankful for a day off. It’s been over a month since I’ve written here. And it’s been a busy span of time. Poor Richard is very thankful for that and for the good customers who have provided work for all of us at the printshop behind the red awnings on Poplar Street (name withheld to protect the very delicate sensibilities of the franchise).

Crossed FingersMy fingers would be crossed if I had time to cross them.  I’m thankful that our business has been able to survive through this so far, and if business doesn’t tank again in the first months of 2010, we’ll probably pull through OK. OK doesn’t mean unscathed, though. We’re operating with fewer employees that we had when the company first opened in 1998. There is little time to work on the business for working in the business. Because our bank essentially bailed out on us early in the year, there is no money for investment in new technology or new talent. Assuming that the recovery has begun, it’s still going to take a long while to make up the lost ground of the last 18 months.

Last week, Mr. Obama’s administration stealthily held a small business forum to discuss “small business financing issues.”  The forum was announced to the public on November 16, two days prior to the date of the session and received resounding condemnation from at least one group (American Small Business League) representing small business who were neither notified of the event nor invited to attend.  Hosted by Treasury Secretary Geithner, the forum did not generate much excitement or much in the way of reporting after the fact.

That’s because nothing happened. Poor Richard managed to find the agenda for the meeting on the Treasury Department web site.  There’s nothing new there. The efforts of the SBA to open up credit for small business have been lacking and the banks have not been cooperative.  A change in the tax code to allow a 5 year carryback of losses may inject some cash into small businesses next year; but for those who have already failed it is too little, too late. At least 7 small business owners (bios listed on the Treasury site) were invited to the forum and the transcript of Secretary Geithner’s remarks contained several weighty statements, like the following:

“We need banks to be working with us, not against recovery.”

Little was reported in the press or on the internet from the day-long forum. According to a New York Times blog, most of the discussion centered on the needs of banks and their reluctance to get involved with small business.  They also stated that the Treasury Secretary and the SBA Administrator took careful notes. A report from Small Business Trends concluded that, “many lenders contend that small-business loans are too time-consuming and too small to be worth their while.” Hmmm . . .

The small business sector has long been our country’s engine for job growth and for innovation. Guess what? Small businesses are where large businesses come from. Hewlett-Packard started in a Palo Alto, CA garage. Ford Motor Company was launched in a converted wagon shop with a $31,000 investment.  In typical years, small businesses create over 50% of the new jobs in our economy.  In years like the last one, we try to preserve jobs for the folks who depend on us. The economic engine has choked down.

Nonetheless, small business owners are a fairly optimistic group. We have to be. None of us  are really looking for a bailout. Nor do we place a lot of trust in the machinations of government. Our businesses are made or broken by the decisions we make and with the risk we assume.  We have to be optimistic, tenacious, and now cautious. Many of us will come out of this with a healthy distrust and dislike of the banks who were anxious to provide funding for growth in good times but not so willing to help us survive when times got tough.  We will be less inclined to assume debt to finance growth and we will be careful about how debt is assumed.  Many of us will need to repay debt generated during the recession before we expand again.  It may take some time for small businesses to re-start the engines that produce growth and new jobs.

I suppose that I shouldn’t find the administration’s dispassion toward the small business sector particularly surprising. It makes as much sense as taking over GM with the stated goal of restructuring the  company to produce economical and fuel efficient vehicles and then promptly shuttering the Saturn division (which made economical and fuel efficient vehicles). But perhaps the worst really is over and we’ll make it on our own.

Maybe I should find time to cross my fingers.


Re-inventeration

September 6, 2009

Square-wheeled trike. Thanks to Jeff Atwood at www.codinghorror.com.

Square-wheeled trike. Thanks to Jeff Atwood at http://www.codinghorror.com.

If one happens to be a small business owner, especially if one happens to be the owner of a local printing company, the idea of re-inventing one’s business is probably pretty far up on the agenda these days. This is primarily because much of the business we all once enjoyed has suddenly just disappeared, as if by magic; or possibly due to the re-inventing of a much less cooperative economy.

Re-inventeration, a new word which Poor Richard thinks he has just coined, is the process of re-inventing something.  Of course, the whole concept is preposterous.  If something is invented the first time, does it really make any sense to try to re-invent it?

And it’s complicated. Re-inventeration is frought with Catch-22 scenarios. For those who have not read Joseph Heller’s famous book, the Catch-22 was the ultimate bureaucratic boondoggle.  Catch-22 (the book) told the story of Yossarian, a WWII B-25 bombardier and his squadron, as they were forced to fly increasing numbers of bombing runs over Italy.  The squadron commander, Major Major, literally embodied the concept of Catch-22. It was possible to schedule an appointment with Major Major at any time; however, one could only actually see Major Major if he was not in.

Similarly, if one was deemed insane, it was possible to get discharged from the Air Corps. Because Yossarian’s desire for discharge was deemed very sane, his insane behavior was considered by his superiors as a natural expression of his  true sanity. Catch 22.

Not unlike Yossarian, Poor Richard is struggling with the Catch-22s of the re-inventeration process at his downtown Macon Gralpharaphics shop (name carefully disguised to protect the sensibilities of the franchise). The first Catch-22 is simply time.  Business is down, we’ve cut back on staff, and more time is spent working in the business than on the business.  Without more time to work on the business, we’ll never be able to grow the business back to a point where more folks can be hired to work in the business; relieving the requirement for the owner to fold brochures until 2 am and allowing him to use his brain once again.

The next and more worrisome set of  Catch(es)-22 have to do with scope, the literal definition of the business. Behind the red awnings on Poplar Street, we’re taking jobs that we probably wouldn’t have looked at a couple of years ago.  A lot of these are small and risky.  The risk is that the expense in time and effort to produce the small jobs will exceed the revenue that results. Catch 22. The potential benefit is a new customer who might actually bring us a profitable job one day. Poor Richard is not sure how this one is playing out.

The low hanging fruit has been picked. We’ve responded to economic pressure on mainstay product lines by adding more products. In our case, we’ve added wide format printing and reprographics to subsidize some of the losses in conventional offset printing.   These were natural additions – similar products and services to what we were already doing. They didn’t disrupt the production process much and they added little in the way of expense. Unfortunately, they did not add enough revenue to compensate for the decline in conventional printing; and these product lines are also facing economic and competitive pressures. Catch 22.

So what’s the next step? Poor Richard has written before (with misgivings) about the current buzz-phrase in the printing industry. The latest rage is for printing companies to become marketing service providers. (See Poor Richard’s post Measuring Value). Our little company  is moving in this direction slowly but steadily, unsure of all of the implications, but with a sense that it is inevitable – there just aren’t many other areas of opportunity left.

Becoming a marketing service provider is full of Catch(es)-22. First, the whole notion takes us out of the realm of producing tangible products and into the area of shaping content. We’re no longer working with machinery that prints, cuts or folds stuff; but rather with electronic means of communication and the disciplines that go along with them – CSS, XHTML, Purls and a bunch of other acronyms. The competitive cost of entry into this business is low relative to the cost of a new printing press, which means that the pressure to keep ahead of the technology curve will be steep. Worse, the marketing service provider notion requires a new skill set that takes time to learn.  In our case, that’s the owner’s time that is in very short supply. Catch 22.

Second, the whole idea of shaping content laps over into creating content.  Printing companies are pretty good at shaping. We do layout work, color correct photos, even occasionally light editing for our customers. This is different from creating the content, an area we have generally avoided because of time limitations and a focus on keeping the machines running.

It’s just a little too hopeful to think that we might make money only by implementing marketing services — integrated direct mail and e-mail campaigns, for example. Most of our customers simply lack the time and resources to develop the content for this kind of effort, so it appears inevitable that we will be required to do some development work for them if we want to sell the services.

Hopefully we can do this without stepping on the toes of our agency customers and triggering yet another Catch 22. Ideally, the agencies might find it helpful to use our shop to implement integrated direct mail and internet campaigns for their larger customers. Our challenge will be keeping the focus on implementation (and measurement) of specific marketing services without getting customers confused about what we can do (and want to do).

Creating content, even on a limited basis, is a big step for a small printing company; but it is still a lot different from the conceptual work that our agency customers do. We can make that statement, but will our customers understand it?  Another Catch-22.

Poor Richard supposes that re-inventeration, like change, is necessary and unavoidable; but he hopes he’s not re-inventing a square-wheeled tricycle.


OK, Let’s see if we can get this straight

July 8, 2009

“My sorority is sponsoring a beauty pageant,” says the well spoken young lady at the counter, “we’d like you to do the program for us.”

“And we’d love to do the program,” says Poor Richard, because this is exactly the kind of job that the printshop behind the red awnings (Gralpharaphics . . . use of real name discouraged by the franchise) does really well.

“Can you give me an idea of how much it will cost?” asks the young lady.

It’s a very reasonable question. We discuss paper, whether the booklet will be in color or in black and white, and who will be doing the layout. Everything’s coming together smoothly until Poor Richard asks the devastating question, “and approximately how many pages will it have?”

The sorority president opens her mouth and all of a sudden she’s speaking Chinese and Poor Richard is speaking Latin! Neither of us understand the other. Finally in exasperation, she holds up her fingers. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven . . . counts Poor Richard.

“Es tut mir leid, aber Bücher mit sieben Seiten kommen nicht,” exclaims Poor Richard. Booklets don’t come with seven pages (or if they do, p. 8 is blank).

“Jeg er redd JEG ikke gjør det oppfatte i det hele tatt,” responds the young lady in Norwegian. She doesn’t understand at all.

“Animal, vegetable, or mineral?” I ask with a smile on my face.

It happens all the time. A customer is counting sheets and I’m counting pages. I get 16 and she gets 4. Let’s see if we can get this straight.  We’re going to look at a quickly designed sheet with four pages on it.

page

Single Page

So, here’s Page 1. We’re going to assume that the finished size of our little folding document is the size of a standard sheet of paper, 8 1/2 x 11 inches.  That means that a page measures 8 1/2 x 11 inches.

A page is printed on one side and in many (but not all) publications is assigned a number.  Page numbers are very convenient if you wish to use a table of contents or list topics in an index at the back of a book.  They’re also extremely helpful to the folks who operate the bindery equipment that puts booklets together. It’s their responsibility to make sure that Page 5 follows Page 4 and is succeeded by Page 6.

Our illustration uses only one sheet, but the same principles follow in a larger booklet, which by definition has more 8 pages/2 sheets or more. Typically, a booklet is stapled or saddle stitched in the center. Because there are four pages to a sheet and all of the sheets collate (nest) together and are folded to make a booklet, this means that arranging the pages on the sheets is an art unto itself. This arrangement is called imposition. The sheet size for an 8 page booklet with a finished size of 8 1/2 x 11 is 11 x 17. Two pages are positioned side by side on each side of each sheet. 4 pages are positioned on each sheet (2 to a side). In an 8 page booklet, page 1 and page 8 would be positioned on the same side of the same sheet. Page 1 is the front page and page 8 is the last. On the inside of the sheet would be pages 2 and 7. This arrangement is called a printer’s spread and is probably a little further on up the road than we want to go in this post.

Inside Spread/Reader's Spread

Inside Spread/Reader's Spread

So, back to our illustration. Here are pages 2 and 3, which take up the inside of the sheet.  In a booklet, these would be the center spread and because the pages are in order, the spread is called a reader’s spread. In a booklet with more than one sheet, the pages in a reader’s spread would actually lie on different sheets. The center spread always contains two sequential pages on the same side of one sheet. This is a good thing to know for designers, because it’s always safe to place an image across the pages on the center spread.  It might not work so well on other pages where the alignment of the sheets may not be exact. Confused yet?

OK, two pages on one side of a sheet. Now let’s look at the other side of the sheet.

Outside Pages/Printers Spread

Outside Pages/Printers Spread

You’ve seen Page one earlier in this post. In our example, page one is backed by Page 2 and Page 4 is backed by Page 3. Four pages to a sheet.  In a booklet, fronts and backs will always be sequential, but left and right facing pages (on the same side of the sheet) will only be sequential on the center spread. Now you understand why the sorority president was speaking Norwegian.

Here’s the good news . . . you don’t have to worry about imposition. Deliver your booklet to your printer in page order (1, 2, 3, 4, etc.) and let them worry about setting it up for print.  We’ve done it before and we’ll usually get it right.

Here’s what you should remember from all of this . . .

  • A page is what you read. One side finished size. One half of one side of a sheet.
  • 4 pages to a sheet in a booklet
  • Tell your printer how many pages, not how many sheets.
  • Use your fingers and get an interpreter if necessary.

Finally, page numbers are good. When you’re thoroughly confused you can just check the page numbers to find out if everything is in order. Verstanden?

Isn’t life grand?

Insincere apologies to Brian, Todd and the memory of Alfalfa.


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?

salesman


Measuring Value

May 6, 2009

My customer’s “tweet” says, “We’d like to know why creativity and concept development have no value in the ad world.”  Poor Richard knows what’s behind this one.

We used to call them “take the cake” episodes. When I was a teenager, my friend’s mom used this expression a lot.  I can still see Mrs. K, hands on hips, very exasperated with something that her daughter, me or one of our other friends had done.  Drawing a deep breath and pushing her eyeglasses up her nose with the back of her right hand, she would exclaim, “Well! doesn’t that just take the cake!” This was followed by a perfect military turn and usually a slammed door as she left us to contemplate the consequences of our misdemeanors.

We had a “take the cake” moment today. Brian, our production manager, received the customer at the door. He had come to inquire about business cards . . . not unusual.  Specifically, he had come to inquire about business cards we had already printed for his company. The cards were designed by an agency we work closely with and were produced for them. He wanted to know our price to produce the cards, because he felt he had been charged too much.

We already knew that there was some dissatisfaction with the original run of the cards.  His cards had originally been produced them on our house 80# stock and then we’d been asked to run them again on a heavier and nicer stock. Brian, wisely reasoning that it was better for me to get into trouble than him, excused himself and ran for the back where Poor Richard was actually about to cut the second set of cards.  Brian briefed me on the situation, but I don’t think I really grasped what the fellow had come for. I grabbed a sheet of the uncut cards and headed for the lobby.

I went to the front counter and introduced myself, handing my customer’s customer the sheet of cards and explaining that they would be ready very shortly. He examined the cards and stated that he didn’t realize they were being reprinted.  He objected to the size of a line of type and proceeded to ask again how much the set of cards would cost.  He stated an amount that he had been charged by the agency and that he had been purchasing printing and cards for years and thought the amount was excessive.

I explained that while our price to the agency was less than the dollar amount he had stated, it is quite understandable  that an agency would charge for the work they do.  Our customer, the agency, created the design, did the layout, provided the proofs and handled the details of printing. It should be expected that they would add a charge for their work to the cost of the actual cards. I also tried to assure him that he was working with a talented and capable group and that they had done a great job with his design.

The conversation remained polite, but just went off track at that point.  My customer’s customer explained that he had gone to the agency needing a name and logo for a new company, website work, and consultation for search engine optimization. He had ended up with a name, a logo, business cards and other such stuff; when all he had really needed was the website work. In fact, he had created the website himself for $50 and had received a lot of compliments. He fished a few times more for the price of the cards.  He didn’t say it outright, but it was evident that he felt he had been taken for a ride.

I tried, but I don’t think that I was successful at dealing with the real problem. The problem was not the price of the cards, but their perceived and actual value. Our customer’s customer perceived some value in the cards he had received, but little in the work that went into them. Even though he was unable to create the name and do the layout, he didn’t assign any value to those services. I’ll also guess that it took a little time on the part of the agency to get him to come to a decision.  He didn’t assign any value to that time, either.

Poor Richard has a lot of respect for the agency in question.  They are a good customer of AlphaGraphics and also friends of mine. They understand marketing and the current trends. They are practical folks. They know what works. I think they understand the budget constraints of small business.  And they are very creative, very patient, very kind people.  Their creativity, expertise and their patience all have value and they rightly charge for it. If I had to bet, it would be that their customer received much more in value than he actually paid for.

There is a move afoot to convince printers that we should become “marketing service providers.”  This sounds good at first, because content is moving online and the volume of print is dropping dramatically. That means that many of us are no longer making money. We need something to hang our hats and our hopes on. But we also need to define what the new phrase really means.

Poor Richard has written before on the difficulties of trying to integrate creative design into a production environment (see The Trouble With Printshop Design).  If being a marketing service provider means taking on customers like this one, printers will fail miserably and many will go ballistic in the process.  Most of us are production people at the core. We like machines, gadgets, and ways of getting things done.  The value we create now is mostly in tangible products. It is conceivable that we could get involved in handling customer data and doing the implementation of some aspects of a marketing program, but  printers in general are not good at conceptual work.  Most of us don’t like it and we don’t have time for it.

I empathize with the exasperation my customer expressed in the Twitter post cited above.  Most people don’t do well with ideas. Very few people think them through carefully before implementing them. Even fewer measure their effect after implementation, then correct and try again.  These are the things that a good creative agency does well, if their customers will let them. There is great value in this capability and it can be measured by the return that their clients reap as the result of a well conducted marketing campaign.

I guess it’s necessary to explain and re-explain the value proposal. Value is created when a vendor provides something for a customer that the customer cannot do or does not want to do himself (or cannot do correctly or efficiently by himself). The customer chooses to pay the provider for the value of the service or product. In this case, the customer got confused. He thought that he was buying a product (business cards) and didn’t assign a value to the conceptual and design work necessary to create them.

lemon-on-scaleIt’s not that the concept and the product aren’t related.  Concept and product aren’t apples and oranges.  I guess they’re oranges and lemons, but one has to precede the other.  My customer’s customer perceived his agency as a a project shop.  He thought he was buying the orange and assigned no value to the lemons that were a necessary part of the package.  Poor Richard is sure that my customer’s customer received good ideas and practical suggestions from the agency he chose. He suspects that much (if not all) of that proposal was ignored and that the agency ended up developing “stuff” rather than engineering a marketing campaign.  And the value the customer assigned to the “stuff” was not equal to the time and energy that was spent developing it.

I’m very sorry that my customer is exasperated. They don’t deserve to be. Poor Richard was a little exasperated, too. I quit cussing a few years ago, but I thought of Mrs. K.  As the gentleman left the shop, I pushed up my glasses with the back of my right hand and exclaimed “Well, doesn’t that just take the cake!”  Executing a brisk military turn, I marched off to the back of the shop. If there’d been a door to slam, I would have.