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.

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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.


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.