The COVID-19 global pandemic has caused a lot of strongly held beliefs to quickly fall by the wayside:

“Working from home doesn’t work for our company culture.”

“Virtual training doesn’t work.”

“We have to be face-to-face to make big decisions.”

“Sales has to happen in person.”

“Collaboration only happens when our employees are in the same building.”

“We are a relationship-based company; an online strategy is for companies doing business with strangers.”

The overall economy and the print industry will come out of COVID-19 looking much different. My fear is that companies who have been “defaulting to print communications” for decades will take this opportunity to think about communication alternatives. In the thinking about alternatives, leadership will look at what it takes to procure print and what they find might push them in the direction of the alternatives.

Buying print isn’t convenient, easy, or labor-free for the print-buying customer.  

Most print procurement happens via email. When I analyze customer service departments, it makes me cry to see email chains with customers that are tens or sometimes more than 100 responses back and forth. Our industry has been doing this for decades; we don’t even see that it's a complete pain in the ass for the customer. We judge our customer services teams by response times: “Our customer service agents are really responsive.” I’m not against responsiveness, I’m against having to be responsive over and over and over again because it takes so many touches to get a job from initial inquiry to the press. Do you know what responsiveness feels like when you get 10+ emails on every order? Harassment!

I think we have measured responsiveness too much and have not measured efficiency enough. It's time to start measuring the number of customer touches per job like a golf score—the lower the better. How can your team reduce the number of touches it takes to get an order from initial inquiry into production? Think of every touch from the perspective of the customer. You are filling their email inboxes with little “to-dos”—you are spending your customers’ time without any notion of a budget or value of their time.

I know what a lot of you are thinking: “My customer emails me all the time; what am I supposed to do?” You are right: you can only control your side of the communication, but you have to take control of what you have control over. This could be as simple as writing down what needs to be captured for a job to be ready to move into production. This sounds so simplistic, but believe me: so many printers we engage with don’t have this captured anywhere and each of their CSRs has a different idea about what is required.

If you list everything that has to be “known” or “agreed upon” to put a job on press, then you can start grouping those things into well-planned communication touch points. Again, this is only organizing your side of the equation. If your CSR team did this together, they would undoubtedly learn from each other. And there is a chance the team will start acting with a little more consistency. When a team member is out - the others can easily pick up where they left off. You don’t have to buy any software; you don’t have to make any infrastructure investments. You just need to ask your CSR team to start thinking about their job from the customer’s perspective. Now a lot of your CSRs agents will say, “Our customers love talking to us.” I’m not talking about the perspective your customers are willing to communicate with you, I’m talking about if their boss monitored how much time they were spending ordering and managing their print business with you—that perspective. The perspective of the people paying the payroll of the people responding to your 10+ emails per order.

I’m sure you’re all thinking of exceptions to why this won’t work. I can’t believe I’m doing this, but I’m going to quote the Twitter handle of a processed meat brand: Steak-umm (a bizarre source of insight during COVID-19).

When addressing a business process, there are always exceptions. A business process is “never that clean.” It doesn’t have to fix everything or address every scenario. A business process is meant to be the default process for the majority of the events. Lots of businesses get trapped in the “if I can think of a few exceptions, then the business process simply can’t be optimized because we need to be flexible!” You know what flexible means? Be prepared to keep throwing people at business process problems (cutting into your profits) and worst of all also requiring more labor time/effort from your customers making you less competitive. It's a lose-lose.

I like to say, the most expensive thing you spend is your customer’s time.

In 2008, companies laid a lot of people off. When talking to the folks who “survived” that downsizing, you hear the same thing: they had two jobs before, then after the layoffs they got another two to give them a total of four. COVID-19 might give each “survivor” another couple jobs. The humans working at your customers were busy coming into COVID-19, but when the dust settles, whoever is left is going to be expected to do even more with less resources. They will be looking for vendors who can save them time.