April 2001
Great customer expectations
If you think you have an account locked up, you may be headed for trouble
One of the complaints we hear most often today is that customers no longer feel any loyalty. This is expressed by both sales and production staff in graphic arts companies, and my guess is that it’s a universal sentiment among sales-based organizations, regardless of their size or the products and services they offer.

While it is not a new phenomenon for our industry, there is no doubt in my mind that customers are becoming more demanding. In the past, we occasionally heard a sales rep talk of an account that he or she had locked up, or a company refer to safe business. If they were to talk like this today, they would be in for a huge shock.

Is there a root cause for the vulnerability of accounts and lack of loyalty that exists today? Is there anything that can be done to stop the erosion of once-stable business?

If any objective analysis is to be done, we must consider the working environment and the expectations of today’s print buyer. Our customers are busier and have more responsibility than ever. Previously, where there were two or three people performing a purchasing function in an organization, today there might be one. And the scope of that individual’s job description might include design, production, warehousing and distribution along with other functions.

It is obvious that this individual, like many others in business, is increasingly busier and his or her time is at a premium. Consequently, there’s a greater need for more information from fewer qualified suppliers.

In this scenario, it’s hard to imagine how a sales rep faxing over a price for the printed portion of a project does much to help organize and co-ordinate an entire campaign. Not only has the sales rep’s involvement been minimal but, in reality, he has added little value to the process, and in no possible way has he exceeded the customer’s expectations—the goal that every sales rep should strive to meet with every interaction.

We talk about the lack of customer loyalty, but we have really done very little to earn it

Naturally, all sales reps want their customers to be loyal to them. Who wouldn’t? However, the reality is that a buyer is an employee of an organization and is paid to purchase goods or services using a number of criteria, including price. In today’s business environment, if a supplier brings only a price to the customer, he or she has done little to add any real value to the process.

Reality check
I think it’s time for a reality check. We talk about the lack of customer loyalty but, in too many instances, we have really done very little to earn it. And if we analyze the situation further, we’ll find even greater inequities.

Sales reps in this industry are paid in various ways, from straight salary, to salary plus commission plus bonus, to commission only. Whatever method of compensation is used, it is in some way related to the amount of business that a sales rep brings to the organization.

Now, if we turn to the larger picture of lifestyle, it’s probably safe to say that sales reps, like most other people, have certain dreams about how they want to live. Naturally, they want a house, a nice car, fun vacations, the opportunity to send their children to university and, finally, financial security when they retire. This is a fairly impressive list of wants and what makes it even more interesting is that it has to be paid for by customers because, in one way or another, sales reps’ incomes are based on the amount of work they sell.
It appears to me that there is a huge imbalance between the lifestyle we want and the effort we are prepared to make to meet and exceed our customers’ needs.

Think for a moment about the inequity of this situation. We submit a piece of paper with a price on it and in return we expect to enjoy a wealthy lifestyle. This is not realistic and it is one reason why we are not able to retain accounts.

Customers need and deserve more from their suppliers. In order for your company to succeed in this competitive business environment, sales reps should meet with managers to determine what value-added components they can offer customers. One course is to capitalize on the knowledge of your staff and the strong relationships you have developed with other companies, and enter into partnerships or strategic alliances. Draw on those partnerships to offer more services and greater value to your customers.

Everyone knows that good sales reps are a source of information and solutions. With expanded capabilities they will be able to fulfill this role more easily.
When I initially chose to write about customer loyalty, I felt certain that most people would think of the oft-discussed loyalty issue between customer and supplier and the fragility of this relationship. But there is a huge difference between what many printers and sales reps are doing in anticipation of receiving business and the actual effort they are prepared to make to clinch and retain that business.

Remember, even suggesting that you have a lock on an account is more than just tempting fate. Customers today have no other choice than to seek suppliers who bring information, knowledge and commitment to the table. That’s why I believe that, as time goes on, sales reps will begin to service fewer accounts than they did in the past, but will act more as graphic consultants and bring a different level of commitment and knowledge to each project.
Duncan McGregor was president of the former Arthurs-Jones Inc., a Toronto-based, award-winning commercial printer. He led the $5 million-a-year firm to a five-fold increase in sales. He is now a consultant to the printing industry and can be reached at (416) 487-7666.
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