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"Who Handles What These Days?"
[Column #44, 8/98]

Things used to be very simple. Printers were printers and binders were binders. They all knew what their jobs entailed and no one tried to encroach on one anothers territory. With the advent of multimedia and other specialized printing and binding techniques, however, jobs have become increasingly complex and the line that once divided everyone's responsibilities is gray. Multifaceted projects now go beyond specialty finishing and, among other things, include producing and packaging multimedia, personalization (such as ink jet imaging), mailing, and fulfillment.

In the graphic arts industry, these advancements in technology have not led to an equally progressive way of doing business. We are stuck in the Stone Age where everyone clings to how they have always done things in the past. While, theoretically, there is some logic to this approach, it tends to work against everyone involved.

Today's customers require extensive services and want exceptional quality, quick turnaround time, and the ease of dealing with one person throughout the project. They have neither the time to research outside vendors nor the expertise needed to handle everything. It is no surprise that binders and finishers encounter one of their biggest frustrations when a printer is bidding on a job that requires heavy outside work (a common occurrence today). Because the pay structure for print salespeople sometimes limits commissions to value-added sales (what is kept in-house), there is little or no motivation for salespeople to win these complex projects. This results in printers who see little value in this type of work because so much of it goes out the door and customers who are scrambling to find someone to handle it from start to finish.

In addition, some print salespeople lack knowledge for many of these specialty techniques and are hesitant to offer them out of fear. Even worse, there are salespeople who actually steer their customers away from certain types of services to avoid allowing any portion of the project to go outside. Some printers try to "cherry pick" jobs by only bidding on certain portions of them and forcing their customers to handle the rest. This is a mistake since customers today want turnkey service and often choose whoever makes their life easiest by taking the full burden off their backs. (This is especially true in companies where there is no dedicated print buyer with the time or knowledge to deal with it.)

So, where does that leave all those outside sources (who are staring at "low hanging fruit" and are unable to move) necessary to complete these projects and how can printers benefit from taking them? Two possible solutions would be to offer an incentive for printers to take the jobs and to handle the work with brokers or as joint ventures.

The first solution that binders and finishers (and any other outside party) offer their customers commissions or some kind of incentive program for jobs brought in is complicated. We bounced this idea off a few of our customers and got mixed reviews. First, it could be messy because there are often multiple people working on any given project (salesperson, customer service representative, etc.). The question remains, who gets the commission? Is it divided? And how would you implement it across the board? Another issue would arise if money or any other incentive gift were to be sent directly to the company or given as credit toward future work. Because no individual person (salesperson or otherwise) would directly benefit, he or she would have little or no incentive to land the job. This is a complicated and sensitive issue for outside vendors. I would be interested in any input readers may have to offer on this subject.

On the other side of the coin, there are a few companies who have abandoned traditional thinking and decided to offer everything. (One binder in the South, for example, does trade work and offers services direct.) These companies specialize in one-stop shopping and offer a huge variety of services from prepress to postpress including a wide range of multimedia offerings.

This is not the norm, however, and the typical binder or finisher would be hesitant to add such services for two reasons. First, they would likely lose a lot of business because they would be competing with their own customers for the same work (never mind that printers add binding equipment at will!). And second, the costs involved in adding the necessary equipment and expert staff needed to run it would be huge. These problems have become evident in recent history with the failure of two of the largest binderies in the country. Both were bought by large printers and later resold to their original owners. Many of their customers were uncomfortable with the relationship the binder had with their parent company. Typically, the only postpress houses that have been successful in handling some form of printing specialize in a particular area such as tab printing, Docutech work, and ink jet imaging.

All of this leaves us searching for other ways to approach the marketplace. In many industries, brokers and joint venturing have become the norm, especially where jobs require extensive outside resources. Customers understand their projects will be handled by a series of outside vendors and eagerly unload the responsibility onto another party. Brokers offer the simplicity of dealing with a single source and provide expertise in numerous areas. They also have multiple resources enabling them to secure competitive pricing.

It also works well for printers and binders to joint venture on projects. Printers should develop relationships with their vendors and should capitalize on the expertise of those vendors to win jobs. In many cases, it makes sense for printers to say to their customers, "We have a relationship with XYZ binder and/or finisher. They specialize in this type of work. Let's bring them in and talk about the best way to handle this project." This releases a printer from the responsibility of being an expert on everything (which is unlikely anyway), and provides both the printer and the customer with confidence that the work will be handled properly. In addition, the customer can have direct contact with the binder and still receive turnkey service.

This complex topic evokes emotional responses. The politics involved in landing a given job are frustrating for everyone involved. Printers are not just printers anymore and binders are not just binders anymore. Customers are more demanding than ever. So what do we do to make it all work? Who is doing what anymore? There don't seem to be any simple answers. We need to come up with some creative solutions.

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