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

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Relationships

May 30, 2009

relationshipsThe older gentleman was not seeking a relationship. He had called earlier for pricing on a book. 250 copies perfect bound with 160 pages. Finished size was 8.5 x 7, a little different, but not unheard of.  Like many of our customers these days, he had no real knowledge of paper . . . something nice but not too expensive. Brian provided an estimate for the job and felt good about it.

A couple of days later, the gentleman called back. “How much would it be just to do the binding?” he asked.

Now, in better days the answer to this question is “Sorry, we’ll pass.”  Binding someone else’s printing provides opportunities for all kinds of problems.  There is a need for setups and waste . . . meaning you have to explain that if the customer brings 250 book blocks and covers, the binding equipment is likely to eat a few. Covers have to be cut a certain way for perfect binding and space has to be allowed for the spine. There’s the problem of trim and margins and where the page numbers go . . . all things we look at when we print a book. All things that a customer who has never printed a book before doesn’t know.

But Brian liked the fellow and we certainly needed any kind of order, so he said “yes” and tried to explain all of the complexities that the old gentleman would need to know. Brian also asked why we wouldn’t be doing the printing.

“Office Despot beat your price on the printing,” was the reply. “But they couldn’t do the binding.” was the part he didn’t say.  Besides, when getting the lowest price is the object, the details don’t matter, do they?

We have been fortunate to have some really wonderful customers over the years.  For instance, the consultant, whose books we have shipped all over the US.  She works with government agencies and is really suffering from budget cuts now, but we’d do anything for her.  Or the school that seems to understand just how tight things are right now and sends checks almost instantaneously after jobs are complete. Or the construction company that is always in a hurry, but so very pleasant and easy to work with. Or so many more . . .

We’ve had a few customers that have strayed and come back; and lately, with the bad times, we’ve lost a few.  Some have disappeared altogether – out of business. We lost the educational establishment that was so devoted to the local community that they sent all of their printing to the low bidder in Atlanta. We’ve also lost a couple that have trimmed printing out of their budgets altogether.

The one that hurt the worst was a long-term account, a non-profit. We never did all of their printing, but for years we did the bulk of it and we supported them with fairly frequent donations.  I was worried a little when management changed a couple of years ago, but we continued along for awhile. One day, I received a request for pricing on all of the items we had printed for them.  I was led to believe that it was budget time and that numbers were needed to prepare for the next year.  I was naive . . . they were going out for bids and I missed it. We lost most of the business.  Shortly thereafter, Poor Richard received a request for donations for the following year.  They wanted a relationship, but not the kind that works for everyone involved.

Back to the gentleman and his book. Poor Richard grumbled and tried to make sure that the i’s were crossed and t’s were dotted. Both Brian and I had the same conversations with the customer.  First, we tried to convince him that it would be much better if we were allowed to do the whole job. He had already committed to Office Despot. All of their specs were the same, he said, but the price was cheaper.

Then, we tried to go over the details and repeatedly emphasized that we would not be responsible for waste or misprints. The old gentleman said that he understood.

When the job came to us, it was not a surprise. He delivered exactly 250 books. The quality of paper was poor and the quality of print was mediocre. Best of all, the book blocks had been miscut. Page sizes varied by about 3/8″ within each book. We pointed this out to the gentleman and did the best we could.  We did not put the finished product in Alphagraphics boxes.  The old gentleman did not complain, but he did not receive a good value for the money he spent on the project.

It’s difficult not to worry about the state of things  . . . of business in general, the printing business in particular and our business in specific. Poor Richard still maintains that printing does not make a good commodity. Too much detail is required and every project is different. The products of printing turn out best when printers and customers work together, when they have a relationship.

Poor Richard is decidedly old school . . . I like dealing with people. I prefer to buy things from salespeople and whenever possible from local businesses. It’s difficult to have a relationship with a website or WalMart.  I enjoy the relationships we maintain with our customers and I try to make sure that they are mutually beneficial. And I still believe that even in a depression, value trumps price every day.

But perhaps Poor Richard is idealistic . . . or naive. It’s tough turning 50.


Buttering the Bread on Both Sides

February 22, 2009

It’s happened again . . . same story, but a little different this time. In July 2007, Adobe, with indeterminate brilliance, decided that it would be advantageous to link the print dialogue in Acrobat directly to FedEx/Kinko’s (see Poor Richard’s post On Which Side is the Bread Buttered?). The rest of the industry screamed and threatened and Adobe backed down.

This time around, the culprit is Hewlett Packard (HP), who on January 27 introduced a new web-to-print site called MarketSplash (see HP’s press release).  As a standalone site, MarketSplash really doesn’t represent much in the way of an additional threat to brick and mortar printers (like us), who are already under so much pressure that one more straw on the camel’s back will hardly matter. The site will go head-to-head with VistaPrint, the web-to-print leader and compete very well. In fact, with some creative marketing from HP, MarketSplash could blow VistaPrint out of the water.

Being of a curious nature, Poor Richard had to explore.  MarketSplash, like VistaPrint, is template driven. And, like many/most of the online printing sites, business cards are free.  So Poor Richard decided to order some. I found a template that I liked, featuring Albert Einstein; and created a business card for a new company I had conceived only 30 seconds before, the Incomprehensible Services Company.  Poor Richard, needing a title, is now the Chief Conspirator of Incomprehensible Services.

I was actually impressed by the design template.  The default font sizes were a little small, but the design tools offered enough for customization of a rudimentary layout. Joe Consumer will be able to operate this design tool without getting himself into too much trouble.  I was also generally impressed by the quality of the layouts that were featured. A proof is approved online. The free cards are all double sided, with an advertisement for MarketSplash on the back.  Here’s a screenshot of the proof page . . . I hope HP doesn’t mind.  (If you do, let me know and I’ll zap the image.)

Marketsplash Proof Page for Incomprehensible Services Company

Marketsplash Proof Page for Incomprehensible Services Company

The quality of design can be attributed to another HP acquisition, a company called LogoWorks. Purchased by HP in 2007, LogoWorks offers inexpensive design work online.  Like MarketSplash, LogoWorks targets small businesses who are looking for a low cost alternative to ad agencies and freelance designers. Custom design from LogoWorks is also included as an option on the MarketSplash site.

After reading this far, you may be asking, “So, where’s the problem?”

There are a couple:

  • First, even though HP is not the first to offer a web-to-print site with low prices, they are going into competition with part of their customer base. This is admittedly a weak argument because HP’s desktop color printers were among the first technological developments to erode a segment of conventional printers’ business. (Home offices and the smallest of businesses were the first to go to self-printed business cards and letterhead).
  • Like Adobe, HP picked the wrong partner. They have teamed with Staples Office Supply for overnight delivery of product. While the geographic distribution of Staples’ centers certainly makes sense, the assumption that they will have the capability of quickly producing and delivering a quality product is open to question. To HP’s credit, they are open to “co-branding and licensing of the MarketSplash platform” to other retailers.  Poor Richard has no clue what this actually means.

Conventional printers may re-evaluate our purchasing decisions, especially when it comes to high end digital presses. HP has been the market leader with their Indigo line.  The quality and capabilities of these machines are impressive and many printers the size of our AlphaGraphics (including us) had planned to migrate to this machine as leases for our existing digital equipment run out. HP also has a strong presence in the wide format arena. But HP does not have the market share in our industry that Adobe Systems has. Also, unlike Adobe’s software, there are good alternatives to the HP products. HP’s decision falls squarely into the category of “calculated risk,” and the potential return may well outweigh the consequences from agitating bothersome printers like us.

Can brick and mortar printshops compete? The answer unfortunately is “yes” and “no.” If it’s a question of price, the answer is a definite maybe.  We won’t be giving away business cards, and we’re really not interested in selling 100 of anything for $39.95, but by the time you add freight some of the other items are not so cheap. The online printers convey the impression of low price, though, and it is sheer folly to say that the web printers have not eroded the low end of the customer base.

Repeat letterhead and envelope orders from small companies were profitable “bread and butter” business when our AlphaGraphics started. That business has virtually disappeared as correspondence has gone online and as a result of the VistaPrint – type alternatives. Freelance designers also once represented a good base of business for postcards and flyers. They began funneling these products to gang run printers a few years ago, similarly attracted by cheap pricing (See Poor Richard’s post Caveat Emptor). It is not just a little ironic that LogoWorks and MarketSplash actually represent direct competition to the freelance market segment, though the freelancers themselves may not realize it.

Especially in this economy, conventional printing companies are competing for a larger share of a rapidly shrinking pie. Many of us will not survive. Most of us are hanging on by our teeth and clawing with our fingernails. For those of us who will fight through these rapidly changing times, it will mean finding new ways of doing business, new products and services, and working harder and more closely with the customers we have left.  Local companies have the advantage of proximity, of reacting quickly to customer needs, and the ability to provide expertise to those who still value it.  Poor Richard thinks (hopes) that the ability to survive and eventually succeed again will still be based on that value proposition.

It will be another 6 or 7 days before Poor Richard receives the cards for his imaginary venture. They’ll be shipped by an unnamed ground transportation company. The order represented a $13.95 value, charges graciously waived by MarketSplash, and my cards will be printed on a medium matte paper. I’m anxious to see what that is, too. Be assured that another post will follow!

Postscript

Got the cards about five business days later.  They came Express Mail (USPS). The printing quality was good, but not exceptional. Digital color on an 80# Matte cover, with an advertisement for MarketSplash on the reverse side. The freebies presume that more profitable orders for other items will follow from satisfied customers who have received their wonderful free business cards. I’m sure that that is a valid assumption, but I wonder where the breakeven number falls.

Even with streamlined ordering, there is a real cost to print, cut, package and ship the stupid things.  I’d figure between $10 and $15/set in a really efficient production operation.  If one in four customers actually order another item, that’s $40-$60 in additional sales required before a margin is achieved.  A low volume business model must turn high volumes to make a profit. This is  a combination traditionally not compatible to a specialized and detailed business like printing.

Poor Richard confesses that this may be the business model for the times we’re in.  It’s not a model that will be conducive to the kind of business that good local printers have traditionally done. I regret that and I think that one day the customer’s we’ve lost may regret it too.


Obsolete?

December 20, 2008

Lately, I’ve been feeling a little like the buggy manufacturer, who, annoyed at the loud and noxious belches of the new automobiles in the street, comments, “Those things’ll never make it . . . they scare the horses!”

The folks at the Alphagraphics franchise are going to be upset, but I’m going to say it anyway, “Printing on paper is  becoming obsolete.” Two items I encountered last week have led me to this conclusion:

First, I heard an article on NPR about the Detroit Free Press (Detroit Newspapers Cut Back Home Delivery). Citing cost and profit pressures, they’re phasing out print to and going to 3 days a week for their print publication. Their emphasis will be placed on their web presence.

Then, bumbling around online, I came upon the proceedings of an event called The Inbound Marketing Summit. This event was held in September in Cambridge, MA and was all about new marketing techniques — internet, social networking, and how businesses (even small businesses) can grow by attracting people who are interested in their products to their websites.  This, I guess, is opposed to old marketing that targets just about everyone and tries to drive them all into a place of business, even when they don’t want to go there (like Poor Richard at the mall at Christmastime).

I haven’t finished going through the site, yet, but videos of all of the breakout sessions are available.  The first video I watched was both exciting and frightening.   The title of the session was “R U Ready? Leveraging New Technologies to Propel Your Business,” presented by a gentleman named Greg Verdino.  I’ve embedded the video at the bottom of this post if you’d like to watch it.

With college aged kids, the fact that I’m no longer in the mainstream is brought home to me regularly. I just didn’t really understand how far out of the channel I really am.  At one point during the presentation, Verdino identifies the audience by their generation names. “I’m an ‘Xer’,” he states, “how many GenY’s are out there? Millennials?” He didn’t ask about my generation. I’m a Baby Boomer . . . ergo out of touch.

Sure, I’ve been blogging for a while. I’ve got a Facebook site and I’m playing with LinkedIn.  I’ve even tried advertising with AdWords . . . didn’t get very far. I’m really not even scratching the surface. But, until now,  it had simply never occurred to me that these forms of communication were really going to take the place of print on paper.

For my generation, it’s still natural to pick up a book or a magazine or a newspaper. I do like to look at the mail. As a printer, I enjoy the feel of paper. I feel more comfortable reading print on paper.  While my children read books, their information comes from the Internet.  Email was a major innovation for my generation. Verdino comments that email is not considered reliable by the new generation entering the workplace. They prefer to communicate through their personal network. And printers wonder why we’re not printing letterhead and envelopes any more!

Am I worried? You betcha.  It’s difficult to reinvent a small business whose livelihood is dependent upon a pretty significant capital investment in machines that print on paper;  especially in a recession that has reduced the volume of business (and consequently human and monetary resources) dramatically. Is print dead? Not yet, but it really is changing a lot.

I am certainly hopeful that there will be a place for the local printer . . . at least over the short to medium term. A lot of the commodity stuff has already been gobbled up by the online, gang run printers (See Poor Richard’s post Caveat Emptor!). Most good local print companies really enjoy working with our customers and much of our business comes from folks who either don’t have the time or the expertise to take their chances with the online print service providers. We have become, in essence, custom shops, specializing in projects that need to be handled correctly and quickly — projects that get lost in larger operations.

Many of us have expanded our range of services.  At our AlphaGraphics, we mail, we print signs, we put together packages and kits  and we fulfill orders for certain customers.  We also take on the occasional “crazy order.” That’s the one that we really don’t know how to do until we finish it, but figure that it’ll work out in the end.  These services are keeping us afloat, but we haven’t found the “next best thing” to replace print.

And yes, there will always be printing presses of some sort. We still use trains, too, but they aren’t the preponderant form of transportation that they were in the latter half of the 1800s. You can even find a horse and buggy for hire if you look around a bit.  What I really need to figure out is how to take this horse and buggy in a new and different direction without going broke in the process. Ideas anyone?

Here’s Greg Verdino’s Video:

Vodpod videos no longer available.

more about “Learn How to Leverage New Technologie…“, posted with vodpod

Price, Price . . . the Printer’s Lament.

June 12, 2008

In my previous life (BA -before AlphaGraphics), I sold lumber. Worked for a great company out of Perry, GA that sold treated lumber and other stuff to retail lumber yards all over the Eastern US. We actually marketed lumber, which was a little difficult. You see, it’s really kind of hard to differentiate the #2 2 x 4 you sell from the #2 2 x 4 that everyone else was selling. We ran a really tight business, with excellent customer service, and we always did what we said we would do.

In the midst of the Spring busy season, there was a game that was played. There was alway an item or two in short supply that the customer had to have on the truck. One competitor or another would always lowball this item to get the truckload order. We’d hear, “I had to place the order with ABC lumber because they were 10% less on 2 x 10 x 14 and that’s what I really needed.”

“How were we on the rest of the stuff?” I’d always ask. Usually we were pretty much in line. Frequently, we’d follow up to find that the truck had arrived from the competitor without the “most needed” item.

Here’s the point: It’s easy to price low when you don’t deliver.

Times are tough in the printing world. The market is changing rapidly and mid-sized printers are having identity crises. In Middle Georgia, the summer doldrums are compounded by the weak economy and an ever accelerating shift away from print. With the overall market shrinking, competitors are flailing away and the waves are getting rough.

Two weeks ago, we lost a nice bit of business from an old account. We had printed and delivered their letterhead and envelopes for several years, since they shut down an in-house shop. Here’s the short story: New purchasing agent, Out for bid, taken by an Atlanta printer.

The service requirements for this account are stringent: online ordering and proofing, 3 day turnaround, direct delivery to the end user, small quantity orders. It was not unusual for us to deliver a box of business cards. We had imposed a minimum of 500 cards, but were requested to change this to 100 for the new contract. We bid the contract at what I thought were very competitive prices for the level of service requested. We lost the bid to a company in Marietta, GA; roughly 2 hours to the north of us. The average value of a delivery to this client was around $180. I’m not going to draw the conclusion that the new supplier will not meet the terms of the contract, but I question that they will profit from it.

Last week we printed some letterhead and envelopes for a non-profit. It was a new customer for us . . . one of our old contacts changed jobs and gave us a call. I love it when that happens. After the envelopes were delivered, we were requested to provide pricing for a small quantity of “wallet flap” remittance envelopes. They asked for quantities of 1000 and 3000. We regularly print these envelopes and they occasionally give us fits in the small presses. I price the envelopes accordingly and fairly.

I emailed the envelope estimate and didn’t hear back from them for a week. On Monday, Brian received a call from the customer. One of our competitors had undercut our prices substantially . . . if we would match the price, we could have the order. Two of our folks have worked recently for the competitor in question. There are two presses in their facility–a 40″ Komori 6 color and an antique Ryobi that no one will run. Their business is built around long runs – real estate magazines and such. I am skeptical that an order for 3000 envelopes is going to get a lot of attention when it gets into the workflow. I explained that we would be happy to print the envelopes for them, but declined to match the competitor’s pricing. Why work for nothing?

Customer 3 came in today to ask if they could put some promotional postcards on our front counter. They’re a new business downtown. I recognized the postcard immediately . . . muddy printing, low resolution art, and UV coating. We told him we could do a better job for him next time. He paid $200 for a zillion on from Niftyprint.com. He got what he paid for.

The last customer in today’s story seems to be a really nice guy. He’s setting up a new office in a smaller community to the south of us and had heard of Alphagraphics from one of his associates. We printed his business cards last week. This week’s project was to be a trifold brochure. The graphic designer is associated somehow with the business he’s starting, but the individual offices can purchase their own printing. I like that. We provided pricing for several permutations of the brochure, small quantities printed 4/4 in digital color. Because he had wanted a heavier, “more substantial” card stock for his business cards, I suggested an 80# cover stock for the brochure.

A day later, I received a call asking for revised pricing on larger quantities. I responded accordingly.

The next call was familiar. The designer has a printing relationship and can provide the brochure for a lower price. Could we match it? This time I asked for the exact specs. 4/4 with bleeds printed on 80# text. After revising the estimate to match the specifications, we were right in line. Only one problem . . . the customer didn’t want a flimsy brochure. We revised once more for 100# text. This one worked out OK.

Here is the point: there is a value attribute in every transaction.

Lumber is universally acknowledged to be a commodity, but the value in the transactions my company undertook had to do with integrity and dependability. We delivered what we promised and took care of any problems that occurred. Regardless of the price promised, a product that is not delivered (or not delived on time) has no value whatsoever to the buyer.

There are costs associated with the value provided. These costs have to be recovered in the price of the product to enable the supplier to provide the product to the customer. In addition, the provider must make a profit in order to survive.

The lowest cost provider is not always the provider of greatest value. In printing, if the quality of the product is poor, the cost to the customer in terms of lost opportunities and poor impressions can be far in excess of the price they would have paid for a quality product in the first place.

Finally, it is necessary to understand what you are purchasing. The printer you want to do business with will help you make a good purchasing decision. He’ll help you choose the correct value and price for the product and impression you want to produce.

In times like these, the universal inclination is to pinch a penny until Mr. Lincoln screams. Businesses like mine are balancing on the edge, trying to keep our businesses alive and meet our customers’ needs without compromising the standards of value that they (our customers) have come to expect. Please take value into consideration when you make purchasing decisions. Think about the companies that you want to be doing business with when times get better. Times are tough, but buying cheap may not be the best choice.


Bang the Drum Again

March 2, 2008

Drummer.gif

What exactly does it take to get the message across, anyway?

I’ve been beating this drum for a long time and I’m getting tired of it.

Karsten-Denson is closing and I’m bummed (Longtime Macon Hardware Store Closing – Macon Telegraph article). One of the remaining memories from my boyhood, Karsten-Denson managed to survive all of the bad years downtown only to close now. An old-timey hardware store, they literally sell everything from lock washers to rabbit traps. Times are bad. They can’t hold on.

Beautiful wife got an email today from a shop that was once located in our small town’s downtown shopping district. It’s a Christian concern called Go Fish that imports handcrafted items from the Third World. The idea is simple and good. Go Fish establishes relationships with craftsmen/artisans in developing nations, enabling them to support themselves and their families. The goods they purchase are sold by franchisees in the U.S., again allowing them (the retailers) to support themselves and their families. It’s capitalism at its best. Everybody wins . . . and the message of Jesus Christ is communicated in the process.

The store moved from sleepy Perry to Warner Robins, a larger community 15 miles north of us. Presumably, the goal of a move to a higher traffic, more visible location was an increase in sales volume and profitability. But apparently this has not ensued. The tone of the email was not so much desperate as disconsolate, citing the economic downturn and urging former customers to visit the shop.

Bang the drum . . . when will we learn to support local businesses? Small retailers, hardware stores, and even printshops comprise the backbone of a local economy, especially in smaller communities. Look around in your community. It’s the local businesses that are really engaged. They sponsor local charities, events and Little League teams, sometimes even when the owners don’t make much for themselves (See my previous diatribe Why We Need Small Business).

With the economic slowdown, times are hard for these folks. (Yes, you can read that “us folks”). Should we not especially support a business that is engaged in the community and trying to benefit others? I am sorry, but Wal-Mart just doesn’t fit my image of the American dream. We were once a nation of entrepreneurs, farmers and small businesspeople who innovated, created value and exported it. We were thinner then, too.

Now we’ve become obese. Have we squandered all of our energy and creativity on a junk food binge? I seems that our ability to innovate, create and to work hard has been supplanted with the desire to consume the most we can at the cheapest price without concern for the consequences. Is it really better to enable exploitation in China for the sake of a cheaper price than to foster a cottage industry in Peru? And what happens to the hardware store, to the small businessperson here in Smalltown, USA?

We are in a recession, even if our President refuses to utter the word. Poor Richard is very suspicious of the theory that supposes we can spend our way out of debt. Our current consumption binge is not sustainable, even and especially when our own government prints and distributes more money to add to the fodder ($600 per taxpayer, no less). The dollar is in decline, a sure sign that the countries that support our debt are tiring of our unwholesome appetites. We do not need to spend more, we need to spend better. We need to consider where the money goes. If we do not reassess our priorities now, the system will crumble.

“Follow the money,” is the old adage, usually alluding to some sort or questionable or even criminal behavior that can be traced back to the source throught the money trail. Reversing the sequence works as well, though. Small business represents the last bastion of the great American ideal: innovation, creativity and hard work. If we follow the money we spend forward, spending it where it will help a local business, our regional economy or a cause we support; we can encourage activity that is beneficial to the economy in the long and short run.

Bang the drum . . . bigger and cheaper is not always better. Forget Wal-Mart. Invest in your own backyard. Support your neighbor. Buy local.


Ganz schoen wutend (missing umlauts)

November 1, 2007

I’ve really been trying terribly hard to avoid this rant that has just been coming on for a few weeks now. And it’s still possible that it might be partially deflected through the use of humor or sarcasm, but hopefully not too much cynicism. It all started with the ad I ran for a graphics person. I wrote my standard advertisement, describing the job, stating the qualifications, the work environment and inviting qualified candidates to apply. I used a local job board that has worked pretty well in the past.

This time it didn’t. The first resumes that came in were from carpenters and sheet metal fabricators. Here’s a sample from the responses I received (verbatim):

General Laborer Mainly Construction Carpentry ,Concrete ,Metal ,Roofing & Highway Construction As well as Residential work well enough to be a Choosen Laborer Which Means if the company wanted to send some to win a contract that was I.Which earned me Advanced Wages ,Pay for Mileage & transport and also Lead.

One should never accept pay in lead. It causes brain damage.

Qualified responses like this were accompanied by resumes from airframe mechanics and a couple of welders. I briefly considered using the same job board to advertise for a sheet metal fabricator, working on the theory that if the ad for a graphic designer produced sheet metal resumes; well, you get the drift.

So, I advertised on CareerBuilder. I wrote a clever, upbeat advertisement this time. Here’s how the ad went (verbatim again):

We need:

  • 1/3 Artist
  • 1/3 Computer Geek
  • 1/3 Generally Nice person

Actually, we’d prefer it if you’re 100% generally nice. As a graphic design/prepress specialist at Alphagraphics, you are allowed to:

  • Play with computers
  • Create layouts for brochures, business printing, and occasionally very strange projects
  • Interact with our customers
  • Manage the workflow of files to all of the printing devices in our business

It’s a pretty neat job, especially if you’re interested in learning the technical aspects of graphic design and printing. The working environment at AlphaGraphics is enjoyable, but fast-paced. If you’re ruthlessly efficient and can laugh while you work, please apply.

If you need a serene, quiet workplace where you can work in isolation with Mozart playing softly in the background, please talk with our competition.

Compensation for this position will start between $9 and $13/hour, depending upon your level of experience. Benefits including health insurance and retirement are available after a preliminary training period.

Requirements
Here’s the serious part:

We’re looking for a career-oriented individual. That means that we want you to be serious about what you’re doing and we’d like you to plan to stay for a while.

You should have a working knowledge of the Adobe CS Suite (InDesign, Illustrator, Photoshop, Acrobat) and be comfortable working with both Mac OS and Windows operating environments. This is a good position for a talented designer who is starting out, but you need to know the software. Additional knowledge of Quark Express, and the Microsoft stuff is also helpful.

A college degree is not absolutely required, but some college or very related work experience is very strongly recommended if you apply for this job.

You will be expected to communicate calmly with customers and your co-workers, occasionally in the midst of mayhem. If you can juggle and chew gum while on roller skates, we’d like to talk with you.

We do require references from your previous employers. We’re looking for an individual with some solid work experience under their belt. If you’ve changed jobs every six months, don’t apply.

In my naivete, I thought that this was a pretty clear description of the position and of the type person that we wanted to hire. And in fact, the resumes did seem, at first, to better fit the job description than did the respondents from my first effort. There were not sheet metal fabricators or airframe technicians and many of the resumes claimed to represent individuals that had actually seen and operated a computer. My initial enthusiasm quickly waned as I began sifting through the resumes, scheduling interviews and actually talking with those who had applied for the position.

After 1 1/2 weeks of interviews, I now have a better appreciation of exactly what it takes to find a job in the 21st century. Here are Poor Richard’s conclusions:

  1. It is not necessary to read the job description in the advertisement. In fact, it might not be necessary to read the advertisement at all. This would explain why sheet metal fabricators and convenience store personnel are perfectly comfortable sending an application for a job for which they are totally unqualified.
  2. It is not necessary to know or keep a record of the jobs for which one applies. This explains the vague response, “Who?” when the applicant receives a call from the prospective employer. It is also perfectly acceptable to have a profane or rude voice mail message resident on one’s phone, prepared just in case a prospective employer calls. “Leave a message and I might call you back,” is not the attitude that I value in someone who might potentially talk with one of my customers.
  3. It is not necessary to return a voicemail from a prospective employer who calls not once, but twice.
  4. It is not necessary to actually show up for an interview that has been scheduled.
  5. It is completely unnecessary to be able to actually use the prerequisite software to qualify for the job. One must only assert that, “it is not a problem for me.” This explains the candidate who lists graphic arts or design as an area of educational concentration, but cannot figure out how to open Adobe Illustrator on a Mac.
  6. It is not necessary to have references from previous employers, even when the prospective employer explains that this is a prerequisite. It is also not necessary that the previous employer actually remember who you are. (Seriously . . . one seemingly promising candidate provided a reference and name of a supervisor who vehemently denied ever meeting him. I considered this to be problematic).
  7. Compensation parameters listed in the job description are to be totally ignored, as is any requirement for a stable work history. This explains why mid-level managers earning $55000 a year would apply for a job that pays an hourly wage of between $9 and $13/hour and why lots of young people who have experienced 6 or 8 jobs since graduating from college in 2005, now want to experience the position we are advertising.

It is perfectly acceptable to think that the job sounds kind of fun and expect the prospective employer to hire you and actually pay you while you “try it out,” notwithstanding that his investment in time, payroll and training all goes out the window when the “next best thing” comes along.

I studied for a bit in Germany in my college years. There is a great German phrase that describes someone who has reached and fallen over the precipice of frustration. That individual is said to be “ganz schoen wutend,” missing the umlaut over the u if I recall correctly. It is one of those phrases that really cannot be adequately translated into English. It means something like “entirely and exceptionally furious.” It is descriptive of the degree of frustration I have experienced recently.

After exactly 5 weeks of searching, I finally have two viable candidates for the design position. Perhaps I can hire one of them . . . if they show up for the final interview.