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Commentary & Analysis

Selling Solutions: A Path for Your Print Sales Team

Customers have challenges; the best way to increase your sales is to provide your products and services wrapped into solutions to your customer’s challenges. Solution selling is an easier topic to write about then it is to execute on. Too many people write about the idea without providing guidance on how to get from where you are today (selling print jobs) to selling print programs or solutions.

By Jennifer Matt
Published: June 24, 2014

Customers have challenges; the best way to increase your sales is to provide your products and services wrapped into solutions to your customer’s challenges. Solution selling is an easier topic to write about then it is to execute on. Too many people write about the idea without providing guidance on how to get from where you are today (selling print jobs) to selling print programs or solutions.

Let’s approach it from a different angle than the traditional approach of “my sales team needs training” – I think dogs need training, adults don’t respond to training because adults have established behavior patterns and simply hearing new facts isn’t enough to change behaviors (especially adults in the sale profession). We generally stick with what we’ve been doing until we are forced to change.

So how might we change the ingrained behaviors of your print sales team to sell more than just the next print job? I love this quote from Buckminster Fuller because it provides us a different approach to changing behaviors.

“If you want to teach people a new way of thinking, don’t bother trying to teach them. Instead, give them a tool the use of which will lead to new ways of thinking.” – Buckminster Fuller

What tool could we give your print sales people to help them think differently about selling print? It should come as no surprise that I’m going to suggest a print software tool. Today most print sales people are using four primary tools to interact with their customers: phone, e-mail, FTP, and their car. There is nothing wrong with any of these tools, in fact there has been great progress on all fronts; mobile phones have been completely re-invented and made e-mail accessible virtually anywhere.  The issue with the phone, e-mail, FTP, and your car is that every print sales person has these tools – there is no real differentiation.

What most print sales people don’t understand or appreciate is that half of the tools are synchronous communication tools. When you choose to use phone and face to face meetings, you are utilizing the most precious resource your customers have – their TIME, because those communication methods are synchronous (you and the customer both need to be present). E-mail and FTP are asynchronous, you can send an e-mail or your customer can upload a file, both of you can do it at the time that works best for you without relying on the other to be present.

I believe that most print sales people are operating on the outdated assumption that their customers want to talk to them, want to meet with them, want to communicate in real-time. Customer’s preferences are changing to asynchronous communication methods because these methods allow them to communicate when it’s most convenient for them. Your sales team is more than willing to spend whatever time it takes to close a deal or do what’s right for the customer, the perspective I want you to see is that sometimes all that effort also creates a burden on the customer because they also have to spend the time and effort.

Print orders vary from one extreme to the other – you can have the simplest sales sheet order to the most complex packaging design order. We have to segment how we handle print orders based on their complexity. We can’t afford to treat them all the same because our labor is typically our largest expense. Again and again I come back to the bank analogy. We have asynchronous tools available to access our money (ATM machines and online banking) – both of which make it more convenient for us as customers to do business with the bank and DECREASE the bank’s labor, a win-win for sure.

To simplify, let’s just assume there are two kinds of print orders, self-service and full-service. A self-service print order can be completed by a customer with no assistance from the printer (e.g. a templated business card, inventory item, etc.). A full-service print order requires some degree of collaboration and potentially project management that results in a procurement event. This is very important; full-service print orders get delivered with the added value of project management, collaboration, and procurement, yet I know very few printers whose customers fully appreciate this added value.

Why? The only thing the customer sees is e-mails, phone calls, file transfers, and office visits – all valuable activity that is in isolated tools; with no tracking, no proactive communication, and no centralized archive of all project activity. There is no visible value delivered when you utilize this isolated set of tools, in fact your collaboration, project management, and procurement activity often gets perceived as customer burden rather than value. We often make print look very difficult to buy.

How do we “get credit” for the value-add we already deliver to the customer (project management, collaboration, and procurement) and provide our sales team with a tool that the use of which leads to a new way of thinking? We start by defining the customer challenges, what is the customer currently struggling with that printers are uniquely qualified to solve? What a powerful question!

Customers are trying to grow their business, they are using print as a communication medium to promote their brand and create more leads for their sales team. As printers, I believe it’s a stretch to say we can immediately jump into other marketing services, I believe the next step for printers is to move into what I call marketing logistics. Don’t let your value proposition end at the loading dock – extend your value proposition by solving some of the following challenges for your customers:

  1. Distribution of marketing materials
  2. Tracking the utilization of marketing materials
  3. Brand compliance
  4. Sharing how marketing materials are being utilized
  5. Version control of marketing materials
  6. Personalization of marketing materials
  7. Marketing budget tracking and monitoring
  8. Purchasing approvals on marketing assets

All eight of these customer challenges can be solved by just about every web-to-print solution on the market today. If your sales people want to provide your customers solutions wrapped around the printed product, then they need to sell the printed product as part of web-to-print program.

As far as the full-service orders go, we are not addressing this market today with enough software adoption. I have discussions everyday with printers who see nothing wrong with continuing to have e-mail as their primary order entry method. The customer burden is high when you use the isolated tools of e-mail, FTP, and phone. The customer wants collaboration, project management, and procurement into a single platform that tracks and measures all the activity you are conducting on their behalf. A platform differentiates you from the common toolset of e-mail, FTP, and phone. A platform allows you to show your work, get credit for your value and move to the option of having more asynchronous tools for your customers if they prefer. There are affordable tools in this space for printers like Noosh’s Group Edition and P3 Software, but you have to first understand why using e-mail, FTP, and your phone is preventing your customer from seeing the value you’re providing.

All the focus for marketing is on the digital side of things, so why don’t you as the printer make everything about the physical side of marketing easier for your customers by taking over the marketing logistics? When sales people “get it” they understand that web-to-print (self-service orders) and some sort of print management platform (full-service orders) enables them to get into the solution sales business. Sales is about solving customer challenges AND being able to show your work. Customer loyalty is about reducing the customer burden (making it brilliantly easy to do business with you).

I was speaking to an “old-school” print sales representative recently. He had just transitioned his top customer to a web-to-print system. Even with the recent success he was not sold on web-to-print. I posed one simple question to him, how has his daily activity changed since the transition? He listed the eight steps his customer used to have to travel through to place an order (four of which involved his direct participation). Now that order entry is being taken care of by your software tool, what are you doing with all the extra time? Selling (one word answer sums it all up). Are you employing order takers or sales people?

Don’t waste money on another sales training unless it is to teach your sales team how to use a new tool, the use of which will lead to new ways of thinking! First define the challenges your customers are having that you are qualified to solve, then give your sales team a tool that solves those challenges, then watch how their thinking starts to evolve and their behavior changes to selling solutions vs. jobs.

Jennifer Matt is the managing editor of WhatTheyThink’s Print Software section as well as President of Web2Print Experts, Inc. a technology-independent print software consulting firm helping printers with web-to-print and print MIS solutions. You can reach her at jen@whattheythink.com.



By Gordon Pritchard on Jun 24, 2014

Trying to be a marketing services provider often puts the printer in competition with their customer based. However, providing project management (marketing or execution logistics and coordination) removes what is for many customers a major headache.


By Jennifer Matt on Jun 24, 2014


Thanks for your feedback. I think printers can evolve into anything they want but like evolution it has to be gradual. Printers are already running custom manufacturing plants which involve a lot of logistics - so doing logistics on behalf of your customers is an incremental and doable extension for most printers.

The most important thing is to learn more about what your customer is struggling with - the more you learn about your customer's business, the more opportunities for you to extend your value proposition.



By Charles Gehman on Jun 25, 2014

Very good tactical advice. I would add that even people who think they are doing solution selling these days need to rethink it. From Harvard Business Review... http://hbr.org/2012/07/the-end-of-solution-sales/ar/1


By Jennifer Matt on Jun 25, 2014

Thanks for the link to the article Chuck, very interesting. I'm a huge fan of the book "The Challenger Sale" which I think this article is referring to a lot of the ideas in that book (also by the Executive Board team).

The knowledge gap between the buy-side and the sell-side has narrowed and sometimes even flipped to having the customer more informed. Sales people can't sit still because the customer is evolving. What I love about the "challenger sale or insight sale" is that your role as a rep is to bring unique insights or learning to the customer - this means you have to use your outside perspective to your advantage and potentially take what you've learned from one customer to the next.



By Kevin Horey on Jun 26, 2014

Great article, Jennifer. Web-to-print solutions are vital to managing and communicating with customers, along with business growth. Xerox conducted a survey with NAPL in the fall “Web-to-Print: The Promise, the Potential, and the Reality” and found that more than half of the printers said Web-to-print had significantly grown sales. – Kevin Horey, Vice President of Workflow and Solutions, Xerox


By Jennifer Matt on Jun 26, 2014

Kevin - thanks for the comment and adding on the evidence Xerox and NAPL are seeing in the marketplace.

Based on my experience the chances of success with a web-to-print system are far greater when sales is involved. This sounds very obvious since web-to-print is a tool for the customer and your sales team is presumably the most customer-facing functional area in your organization but many web-to-print failures have left sales out all together.



By Tyler Ashcraft on Jun 26, 2014

I sold my first online ordering solution 6 years ago and it was not easy. But each one I've built since has been a little bit easier to pitch. The technology has improved significantly and basic systems don;t take quite as long to build.

Once they are chugging away, I almost always request testimonials to use in future pitches. These are invaluable.

I'll say this to the print salesperson who remains hesitant to move in this direction, think of the time you'll have to spend selling while your systems handle the order-taking.


By Jennifer Matt on Jun 26, 2014


Thanks for your comments. Time is the most precious resource for both your sales team and your customer. We move tasks to computers that save time (for both sales and customers). There needs to be consideration of which activities are value-add and which are non-value add, we can borrow from lean manufacturing on this one - if you can charge the customer for it, generally the market sees it as "value-add".

Delegate the non-value add activities to systems that can do it better than you can and that the customer appreciates because their are available 24/7. Then use that time (which you pointed out) to create new sales opportunities. Software can't do the relationship, software can't do the personal connections - save all your sales time for stuff that humans are best at!



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