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.

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Let’s Talk

April 13, 2009

telephone

8:30 AM

“Need Pricing! Please Respond Quickly!” reads the subject line of the email.  Thinking that this might just be the order I’ve been waiting for all week, Poor Richard quickly opens the email in Thunderbird.

“My boss wants to do some postcards. How much will 1,000 be?”

“No clue,” responds Poor Richard’s brain as his eyes scan the rest of the post for more information, or at least a phone number to call.  Phone number found, fingers are dialing.

“Hi, you’ve reached the voicemail of (let’s call her Nancy Jean . . . don’t think I have any real customers called Nancy Jean) Nancy Jean, I’m not able to come to the phone right now, but if you’ll leave a message, I’ll get back with you just as quickly as possible.”

“Nancy Jean, it’s Richard at AlphaGraphics.  I received your inquiry by email.  I’ll be happy to get you some numbers on the postcards, but I’ll need some details.  Specifically, if you’ll let me know the size you’d like, whether they will be in color or black and white, coated or uncoated paper, who will be providing the art, and whether you’d like us to mail them.  Let me know and I’ll get back with you as quickly as possible.”

On to other things.

9:45 AM

“Need Pricing! Please Respond Quickly!”

“Haven’t I seen this before?” says Richard’s brain.

“Got your voicemail. Let’s do regular postcard size in color. Thanks, Nancy Jean.”

“Just quote something,” says Poor Richard’s brain, “maybe it’ll turn into an order. We need an order.”

The fingers follow instructions and produce an estimate for 1000 4.25 x 6 postcards on gloss cover. Still hoping beyond hope for something like a real job, the fingers include pricing for mail services. Because Poor Richard’s brain still has no clue about the design of the postcard, the fingers include the standard AlphaGraphics caveat:

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

“Nancy Jean,” says Poor Richard’s brain,” what that means is that I still don’t know what you want to do or what will be required to do it.”

It’s 10:00 am when Poor Richard clicks the send button.

12:15 pm – lunchtime. Check the email.

“RE: FWD: Need Pricing! Please Respond Quickly!”

“Richard, can you help with this?” writes Nancy Jean, responding to her boss’ terse notation:

“Nancy Jean, you’ve got to do better than this!”

Poor Richard’s fingers dial once again.

“Hi, you’ve reached the voicemail of  Nancy Jean, I’m not able to come to the phone right now, but if you’ll leave a message, I’ll get back with you just as quickly as possible.”

“Right,” thinks Poor Richard’s brain. “Nancy Jean, I’ll send you a couple of alternatives that can reduce the cost a little. If you’ll please call me to discuss, I’d really appreciate it.”

Poor Richard’s fingers add color one side and black ink two sides to the estimate and press the send button. It’s 12:30.

3:00 PM – done with bindery work downstairs. Let’s check the email.

“RE: FWD: RE: RE: FWD: Need Pricing! Please Respond Quickly!”

“Can we do something bigger?” writes Nancy Jean.

“Isn’t 4.25 x 6 a little small for a postcard?” writes her boss. “How much would a bigger card cost?”

“Bummer,” says Poor Richard’s brain, now beginning to realize that this is likely to turn into nothing.  Poor Richard’s fingers revise the entire estimate for 5.5 x 8.5 cards. The postage estimate is revised to reflect the cost of mailing a larger card.

“Nancy Jean,” types Poor Richard’s fingers, ” here are revised estimates for larger cards. If you could please call me to discuss, I’d really, really appreciate it. We’d certainly like to help with your project and if you could call to discuss the project, I’m sure that we can find a way to make this work for you.” The fingers click send.  It’s 3:15 PM.

5:30 – Poor Richard is thinking about going home. Last check of the email. Sure enough . . .

“RE: RE: RE: FWD: RE: RE: FWD: Need Pricing! Please Respond Quickly!”

“Richard, we really need to get these postcards in the mail. Can you call me in the morning?”

8:15 AM the next morning. Poor Richard’s fingers are dialing.

“Nancy Jean, may I help you?” comes through the receiver. Poor Richard’s brain becomes momentarily hopeful again.

“Hi, Nancy Jean, this is Richard at AlphaGraphics. I’m calling about the postcards we corresponded about yesterday.”

“Oh, Richard,” says Nancy Jean, “we really needed to get those postcards in the mail yesterday. When we couldn’t get all the information we needed, the boss decided not to send them. I’m sorry.”

“Thanks for thinking of us,” says Poor Richard’s mouth.  Poor Richard’s brain isn’t working at all. “Please let me know if you decide to try again. And if you’ll let me know the budget, we’ll try our best to find a solution that will work for you.”

“Richard, you know my boss doesn’t work like that,” replies Nancy Jean. “Hope you have a good day today!”

“Nuff said,” says Poor Richard’s brain.

“Bye,” says Poor Richard.

Poor Richard’s fingers hang up the phone. Time to check email.  Maybe there will be an order there . . . we could really use a good order.

It’d be a lot funnier if it wasn’t true.