August 2007
What do customers buy?
Do your clients care more about your equipment or your printing ability?
Probably the most challenging job in the printing industry is hiring sales reps. I don’t know of even one company that couldn’t use another good sales rep. Unfortunately, there aren’t really any training courses for learning to sell print. You learn sales in this business through the school of hard knocks—i.e. by going out and getting beat up.

Interviewing sales reps is a real experience. Quite often, you feel like they’re interviewing you. They want to know everything about your company and, though they should do their research ahead of time, most don’t. More than anything they want to know about the equipment you have and the equipment you’re planning to get. And the bigger the better.

If you have a 6-colour when are you going to get an 8- or a 10-colour? How spiffy is your prepress? Do you have the latest platesetter or workflow system? The more expensive the better. What’s your bindery like? Do you have an 8-pocket stitcher? (Not many jobs come in at 128 pages plus cover, but just in case.) Do you have a 5-head drill for special catalogues? (It doesn’t matter that they probably have never sold a job for it before.) The prospective sales rep will probably not even ask if you have any sales report material.

We are an industry that depends on customers who want printed materials, including brochures, even though as printers most of us don’t have any marketing or promotional material of our own. Very few prospective sales reps will ask you what makes your printing company different from anyone else’s. Actually, I have even heard of sales reps who have said they don’t want to work for any company that is unique or different because it might limit the work that they can sell.

Go to many printers’ websites and you will find a list of equipment and or pictures of equipment—usually presses. The only problem is that customers don’t buy printing equipment, they buy printing.

Actually, Lyman Henderson, former head of Davis + Henderson once commented that customers buy the results of printing not printing by itself. Customers are not buying ink on paper but what ink on paper can accomplish. Our fascination with equipment in this industry is reflected in how we try to sell printing.

Yet the really successful companies are known for what they produce or the markets they serve, not for the equipment they have. Davis + Henderson for cheques; Transcontinental for magazines; Friesens for books; The Printing House for quick printing; Pollard Bank Note for lottery tickets and the list goes on. The reality is that most customers don’t know much about printing equipment and they don’t care. They want to know what you can do, not how you can do it.

Special equipment can differentiate one printer from another but in the mind of customers it’s what the equipment produces that makes the difference not the equipment itself. It’s interesting to note how some printers who have the same equipment as other shops are nevertheless able to differentiate themselves in the industry. Both Hemlock Printers and Metropolitan Fine Printers in Vancouver have been able to build a reputation for high-end work, yet each has 40" presses like many other printers.

At the end of the day, printing sales reps are selling printing to customers not printing equipment, even if they think they have the neatest printing equipment in the world.
Alexander Donald is the publisher of Graphic Monthly Canada.
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