June 2003
Knowledge is key to your success
What you need to know
about building solid
relationships with clients

In previous columns, I have often discussed the necessity of not only meeting but exceeding our customers’ expectations. It’s a given that if a company harbors any hope of surviving it must deliver very high levels of service, quality and value. Much has been written and documented about the expense of finding new customers and the length of time it takes to replace lost business.
However, we all want to grow our business and to garner more profitable sales for our companies. We want to offer more services and expand our capabilities so that we can grow our customer base. We want to focus on several types of industries so that we can claim to have a certain level of expertise when it comes to creating and delivering printed communications in a particular market segment. We know that even a perceived level of specialization makes it easier to approach new accounts for business and, when orders are generated from these new accounts, it almost always results in more profitable jobs.
Our job as sales reps, with the help of our team at the office, is to execute this strategy. While it’s often said that the sales rep can only sell the first job and the plant must sell subsequent orders, it is still the sales rep who most frequently interfaces with the customer. Let’s look at several everyday situations that can either greatly enhance a relationship or cause such frustration for the customer that he’s forced to consider bringing on a new supplier.

Missing a deadline
is serious, but it’s an
absolute disaster if
the customer is not
warned in advance

Keep clients informed
Let’s start with preparing the proposal. Today we need almost immediate access to information and that, of course, includes pricing from suppliers. While not every request can or should fall into the panic situation, it would be terribly naïve to think that a three- or four-day turnaround is acceptable. Naturally, the complexity of a job and the amount of work that has to be subcontracted will impact how long it takes to consolidate the information. Similarly, if you make recommendations and suggest alternatives to the work, and I certainly hope this is a standard practice, this can also add time to the process. But, you should learn about and understand the needs of your customer so that you can gear up your support team to give him what he needs.

Probably the number-one reason for losing an account is failing to advise a customer that a delivery date is in jeopardy or will definitely not be met. Printed products often align or complement other activities such as trade shows, sales meetings, different advertising media or business announcements. Failure to meet one of these deadlines is serious but it will be an absolute disaster if the customer is not warned in advance that the delivery date can’t be met. No one likes to inconvenience other people, let alone a customer, but if you see the red flag go up on a job in your plant, you are responsible for making the customer aware of the situation as soon as possible. Generally, with some warning, alternatives can be found.

Very few printing orders are produced exactly as the specifications were written. For example, I recently heard of a $25,000 order that, with changes, was invoiced at just under $43,000. Is this really possible? And if so, how does it happen, and what are our responsibilities to the customer? People hate surprises, especially when their contracted price almost doubles.

Now, few situations are as out of control as this example, but it’s probably safe to say that most printing jobs have some extra charges attached to them and that these extras must be identified and forwarded to the customer. I believe that when production changes result in additional charges on the invoice, the customer must be notified within 24 hours and he must receive a summary of where the costs were incurred. I know that many American organizations not only demand this type of reporting but will simply not pay for extra charges if they have not received and approved the documentation for them. The other extremely important reason for providing documentation relating to changes is that it makes processing the invoices much less complicated and you get paid faster.

Proof approval should not be left to the last minute and often just having the proof takes a great deal of pressure off the delivery date. Generally, an approval process is required for signing off on proofs and this can involve a number of people. Telling the customer when the proofs will be ready, and delivering on time, obviously gives him enough lead time to gather associates and set up appointments to proof the document.
Realizing and understanding the needs of our customers is paramount for creating a long-term relationship. Like everyone else in business, our customers have people that they must answer and report to. It only makes sense that if we are seen as their partner and one who is sensitive to and knowledgeable about their business, we stand a much greater chance of becoming their supplier of choice. Sometimes we forget that while we might work for a printing company, it is the customer who pays us and if we and our organizations are not aware and sensitive to the need of our customers, there are many other printers who would be thrilled to show how they can provide the support and the resources to benefit customers.
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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