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Profitable Print Relationships, And How to Achieve Them

Ultimately, printers with the right sales messages will create more powerful, profitable businesses. Will you choose to be one or not?

By Matthew Parker

Lower! Cheaper! Prices slashed! We've all seen these "attention" getters...

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  • Have you seen how many supermarkets always sell on price? It seems that they think they can only get customers by being cheaper than the competition. The trouble is that now most people choose their supermarket only on these messages. That is bad news for the supermarkets.

    Buying on price is also a big issue in the print industry. Many print companies adopt the same thinking as the supermarkets. They assume that their customers are going to be motivated by price. That means that their sales process is often focused solely on coming in with a lower price than the competition.

    If the customer is led this way by the sales process, then they will end up buying on price. They will not see the value of any particular company. They will assume that all printers are pretty much the same.

    It turns print into a commodity market.

    So how do printers get out of the commodity trap? Here are seven important steps that print companies must follow if they are to engage with customers.

    Print companies that take these steps will achieve far more. They will gain clients who want to partner with them. They will have more control over these clients. Ultimately, printers with the right sales messages will create more powerful, profitable businesses.

    If printers do not have an engaging sales message, they will inevitably end up fighting a price war. They will fail to create worthwhile client partnerships. They will not have any control over their clients. And ultimately, most of these printers will go out of business.

    That's why these seven steps are so important.

      1. Avoid three key words.
      I have heard sales pitches from more than 1,400 print companies. Nearly every single one of these pitches contained three words:
      Surely these are all issues that are important to the customer? All customers want quality, service and good environmental credentials. But they also expect them as standard from their suppliers. These issues do not make suppliers stand out.

      A sales pitch that leads on any of these issues will not engage the customer.

      2. Do not sell printing.
      Many of the 1,400 sales approaches I have received also focused on printing. I am a bit of a printing geek. I like to hear about the latest processes. I like to know what machines a printer has. And I like to know what they can do with them.

      But even I found myself trying to hide my yawns at many of these sales pitches. When it comes to the finer details of print machinery, I am just not interested. For most customers, the situation is even worse. They are not interested in the technical details of print at all. This sort of conversation bores them.

      But many print sales people lead with this sort of information again and again and again.

      3. Focus on the client, not you.
      Most clients are not interested in you. Clients are interested in themselves and their issues. A print salesperson should avoid talking about their own company as much as possible. Instead, they should be finding out all about the client's company. They should be talking the client's language.

      This approach can be the start of creating a much closer relationship. However, it is much more effective if the dialogue is made more personal.

      4. Focus on a target market.
      Many print sales people ignore the idea of target markets. They use the same sales message no matter whom they talk to. Customers can spot when the same pitch is trotted out one more time. It sounds tired and boring.

      Print companies need to tailor their sales messages to specific markets. Use one message for small, local retailers. Use another one for schools, and another still for financial businesses. All of these customers have completely different needs, so they all need a different language. They all need a different sales message.

      If they receive a more personalized message, the customer will realize that they have a print company that is genuinely interested in their business. Their interest will rise, and will continue to do so if the printer understands the challenges that their customer faces.

      5. Focus on the client's problems.
      You will start engaging more deeply with a customer when you start to talk about their problems. We do not go to the doctor for the fun of it; we go to the doctor because we need them to sort out illness or a health issue. The same goes for printers. Most customers go to printers because they need a business problem sorted. They may need to attract more customers.

      Remember that the problem may not be what you think it is. The client problem is unlikely to be about the print itself. You need to understand the real challenges that the client faces. You might start by talking to your best clients about their issues.

      Of course, having a conversation about the client's problems is only worthwhile if you can solve them.

      6. Solve the client's problems.
      Once you know your clients' challenges, it is important to focus on how your company can solve them. At this point it may be tempting to think "I'm just a printer - what can I do?" The truth is that print is still well positioned to help many businesses. Direct mail brings in customers. Signage engages passersby. If done well, it can also be a chance for customers to interact digitally with a company.

      Vehicle wraps may be essential for branding or advertising.

      The key issue is to ensure that a printer does not just focus on selling print. The client will be more interested in how print can help them. It also provides a route to upsell. If a client wants a sign for a particular event, show them case studies. It may be that a particular finish brings in a greater audience. But once you engage with the client and their problems, you still need to differentiate from the competition. Otherwise, the customer may take your ideas and go elsewhere.

      7. Create a unique selling point.
      Customers need to understand why a printer is different. They need a reason to engage with a specific print company. They need a reason to actually choose that company to work for them. What happens if a print company does not have a point of difference? Then it is hard for the customer to find a real reason to choose them. The printer may be passed over, and a competitor chosen. Or if the printer is chosen, the decision may have been made on price alone.

      It is down to the print salesperson to understand the points of difference in their company. They need to make sure that the customer understands these points. Can printers really sound different to each other?

    Continued Below

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    I recently ran a course on sales messaging for printers. In the room were four printers with virtually the same equipment. Three of them were also family owned. They all had very similar sales messages. By the end of the day, all of them sounded completely different. Each of the printers had created different target markets. They had worked out how they helped these target markets. And they had created a new message that would engage these markets.

    Printers who follow these seven steps are steadily improving their customer engagement, however, some skepticism remains.

    Clever theory, but does it really work in our industry?
    The answer is yes. I have had print companies approach me with messages based on this process, and have a much better chance of getting some time with me on the phone as a result. If they do their job well, they will also have a chance to meet. I have seen a number of print companies change their sales message through this process, and have successfully developed the sales they want. It can be difficult, however, for companies to think about how to change their message.

    Let's look at a case study.
    One company I have worked with produces a lot of signage. They had a lot of work from the shipping industry, but never made much of it. Like most of their competitors, they sold on quality, service and price. But they sold in a completely different way when they adopted a more targeted sales message.

    They told me that the big issue for the shipping industry was the cost of keeping ships in port. Occasionally, a ship had to wait for a new health and safety sign. This cost the ship's owners tens of thousands of dollars.

    The printer specialized in making packs of appropriate signs for ships. They made sure the packs were at the port when the ship docked, and they made sure that someone was there to apply the signs. This process made for a very compelling sales message.

    The new sales message was specifically aimed at clients who required short turnaround signage. It focused on the cost of equipment left standing awaiting signage. The printer now offered a service aimed at avoiding these costs.

    By simply shifting the sales message to focus on an industry problem, they won new clients in this area. And these new clients were prepared to pay more for a service from a specialized industry supplier.

    This company followed the seven steps:
    They did not focus on quality, service and environment in their sales message. They could demonstrate capability in all of these areas, but it was not the key point of their pitch.

    They never talked about their presses. They realized that they were not selling print, but a signage service. They talked about the customer.

    They showed that they understood the customer's market sector. Because they had a target market, they were able to understand it and talk knowledgeably about it. They could speak the customer's language.

    They focused on the customer's problems: The high cost of ships in port.

    They showed how their signage solution could solve the customer's problem. This solution was specifically focused around the correct delivery of signs, rather than just the printing of them.

    They created a solution that was not offered by any of their competitors. It made them stand out from the competition.

    This solution may seem to appeal to a small market, but they were also able to sell it to other markets with the same time issues.

    So what do you need to do if you want to follow the seven steps?
    Here are three action points to get you started:

    • Look at the best clients that you have. Choose the ones that work best with you, and use them to create your target market.
    • What are the target market problems? Talk to the clients you already have in this market, and ask them what challenges they face.
    • Have an internal meeting, and start planning a solution based around these problems.
    This will help you start the journey to moving away from price.

    Even supermarkets don't really sell on price
    Some of the advertising is very price driven, but when you are in the store, they are very good at encouraging you to spend more money. Most of their products have a basic option. But the premium versions are often the best sellers. Supermarkets look after their profit margins.

    And so should printers. Follow the seven steps, and you will book more sales.

    Matthew Parker's more than 20 years of print buying experience includes print management, marketing, agency and B2B and consumer news stand magazine environments. He now runs Print & Procurement Ltd. and the website He has also written "How To Stop Print Buyers Choosing On Price" and "How To Make Print More Profitable: The Print Industry Negotiation Handbook." He has also managed purchasing projects in a number of other areas, including outsourced services, web and e-mail services, postal services and transport.

    This article appeared in the SGIA Journal, May/June 2013 Issue and is reprinted with permission. Copyright 2013 Specialty Graphic Imaging Association ( All Rights Reserved.

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