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?

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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.


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.


Diagnosis Charges

March 9, 2008

Doctor with Clipboard“He wants to speak to the manager,” were the words I heard. I looked through the glass into Brian’s office. His eyes were rolling just slightly and he had that sardonic half smile that he wears when one of those, “you’re the owner, you have to deal with this” events happens. I almost think he enjoys it.

“This is Richard, may I help you?” I said to the as yet unidentified voice on the phone. The voice introduced himself as the new general manager of an organization we’ve done occasional business with over the years.

“You’re doing some business cards for us,” he stated, “and I need to talk to you about these charges.”

I was familiar with the job and the company. Sharon, our salesperson, and I had visited our contact at the company weeks before. The company has gone through a lot of changes in recent years. We printed a newsletter for them at one time; letterhead, envelopes and other “stuff” that organizations use. Our contact has always been friendly, but the attitude of the company had changed. Most of the print had been eliminated to cut costs. They had reverted to “do it yourself” with the newsletter. What little was left was handled from a corporate office in Atlanta. All that was left for local production was the business cards. Disappointing, but easy enough; at least, that’s what we thought at the time.

It took a while for the order to come in. Sharon had to answer lots of questions. Estimates were prepared and presented. You will note the word “estimates.” That’s what printshops should provide, not quotations. It is only possible to provide a hard quotation for a static set of specifications. When the specifications change, so do the costs and so should the price.

On AlphaGraphics estimates we always include a special caveat. The language goes like this:

“Prices are for production only. Additional charges will apply for layout, design, or file modifications required before printing.”

We do not estimate design or layout charges because it is absolutely impossible to predict the amount of time a customer may require from us to achieve the finished layout that they desire. We simply keep a log of the time required for the job and charge accordingly. We regularly explain the caveat and offer our advice to keep layout and design charges at a minimum. Our advice is frequently ignored.

For instance, we may suggest that a customer provide us with a digital logo and a rough sketch of a business card design rather than try to prepare it themselves. Often, more time is required to unscramble a file from an inexperienced designer than to put it together from scratch. Or we might suggest that it’s best not to proof by committee. Everyone involved will feel compelled to make changes, increasing the confusion, and requiring more time for changes and proofs before the job is ready to print.

Time is the valuable commodity in a printshop design or prepress office. Prepress is the inevitable bottleneck in any production shop. I’ve written before about the challenges of printshop design (see The Trouble with Printshop Design ). It’s not that the equipment or the employees in the design office are so all-fired expensive, but that the opportunity cost of tying up the workflow can be tremendous. An inexperienced or inefficient designer can hold up a $3500 brochure run and 2 or 3 employees while they are engrossed in the layout of a $50 business card. Prepress time is valuable simply because it’s what keeps the rest of the people and equipment productive.

The time has a measurable value and we charge for it. It’s like going to the doctor. If you go in with a complaint, see the good doctor, and are told that you are perfectly healthy; you still pay the doctor for his diagnosis. You pay him because his time is valuable. If you fail to listen to your doctor, you can run into real trouble. If you fail to listen to your printer, the result can be the same.

We had provided a production estimate with our usual caveat to the customer mentioned above. What started out as an order for 4 sets of business cards had turned into 6 sets. We were told that they would send the art for the card. We received a low resolution logo and a basic layout pasted onto an 8.5 x 11 page of a Microsoft Word file. We received the names to typeset and were later told that two of the cards had a reverse side. Proofs were required . . . 4 of them to be exact. Because the changes had become excessive, Brian sent a revised estimate to the customer showing additional layout charges of $60. The phone call ensued, providing Brian with an opportunity for entertainment at my expense.

There’s no real need to go into the detail of the conversation with the new manager. Suffice it to say that our proviso regarding additional costs was of as little importance to him as the three weeks of indecision which had delayed the production of his cards or the multiple proofs. It was his responsibility to “watch every penny,” and he simply did not understand why there had been a delay or how the cost could change from his original estimate.

“I’ll have to let you know if we’re going ahead with this,” was his concluding statement.

I haven’t scratched the job from the production list yet, but I really don’t expect to hear back from him. I’m not so naive to think that he won’t get his cards somewhere. He’ll probably send the inadequate art off to one of the internet bandits and be satisfied with what he receives because he saved so much money. Or maybe he’ll find another printer who thinks that there’s lots more business to come and will put up with his indecision.

I’m sure that my expression betrayed my thoughts as I hung up the receiver and glanced back through the glass into Brian’s office. I’m always disappointed when a customer is upset. It’s just one of those things that happens occasionally in our business, and it’s never pleasant. Good customers are hard to come by and good reputations are easier to destroy than to earn. We try very hard to do each project well and really do go a long way to diagnose and accomodate the needs of each customer. Like the doctor, though, we have to cover the cost of the diagnosis and of special treatment provided. We have to keep the office running in order to help the next patient.