by Noel Ward, Executive Editor June 30, 2003 -- I WENT TO THE DENTIST recently to have him look at a tooth that was bothering me. Having been remiss about visiting a dentist for awhile, I selected one that looked promising out of the Yellow Pages, checked out his web site and made a same-day appointment. By the end of the day I had a great lesson to pass along. This particular tooth doc believes in using technology to differentiate his business and better serve his patients. He eschews metal fillings almost entirely because the somewhat more costly porcelain ones he recommends last far longer and do not damage teeth, making them better for his patients over the long term. The premium for porcelain is 15 percent or so, but is a tremendous value for a customer--especially given that many people (like me) tend to avoid dentists. He has also invested in some very sophisticated equipment to help ensure his business, Advanced Family Dentistry, lives up to the promise of its name. A special room in his basement is home to a CAD/CAM system specifically designed for creation and production of dental crowns. It was a hefty investment--over $100 grand--but enables him to provide same-day service for many patients rather than the 10 to 14-day wait when crowns are made in a dental lab. His crowns cost a little more, but it is one-stop shopping, providing convenience and time savings for his patients, and gives him more control over the process. His level of service continues. Every night he calls the patients he has seen that day to make sure they are comfortable and that his work was up to their expectations. So what does this have to do with printing? Not much, except that it provides a great example of how a service business can differentiate itself in a crowded market where all practitioners appear to offer the same service. As such, it provokes a few questions you should ask yourself about your business. What distinguishes your business from your competitors? Printing, by itself, is easily commoditized, so it's vital to differentiate your business. Where do you add value to what you do? How do you help your customer succeed? Do you offer a broader range of services, deeper skill sets, or better support in adopting new technologies than your competitors? What else? I'm not talking about the easy stuff like free pick-up and delivery or longer hours. What do you do that makes you the preferred provider of digital printing services--the one your customers absolutely count on? How are you leveraging technology in your business? Digital printing hardware and software offers some impressive potential for new ways to communicate. How do you use technology to empower your business and benefit your customer? Do you look for ways to leverage the technology you have to deliver solutions for your customers' business needs that they can't get from a competitor? Do you use technology to support partnering with your customers to develop innovative, customized approaches to their needs? Do you educate your customers? Informed customers are better able to make decisions about what products and services they buy. What do you tell your customers about digital printing, variable data, remote proofing and other tools and tricks of your trade? What do you do to show them how the advantages of the technologies you offer can make a difference in their businesses? And do you learn from them, about their needs and how they use printed materials to identify new ways you can help them succeed? How do you care for your customers? Customer satisfaction, in all its guises, is a business imperative. How happy are your customers? And how do you know? Phone calls are cheap and show you care. Once a job is delivered, is it out-of-sight, out-of-mind, or do you or a sales rep follow up with a customer to make sure they are satisfied? Do you provide end-to-end attention to detail so things don't fall through the cracks and your customers can work without worry because your company is on the case? This list can go on, but you get the idea. To many customers, printing is a commodity. Digital printing technology gives you the opportunity to add new capabilities and services that can expand your business. It often means learning new skills and making some investments, but this is where the advantages await. For example, my new dentist didn't know how to make crowns, but he invested in the technology, learned the skill and now adds value to what he can offer--and the difference shows up on his bottom line and in satisfied customers. For a print provider, the equivalent may be investing in mailing equipment, getting deeper into variable data printing, increasing finishing and binding capabilities, or adding more color printing capabilities. The result is a broader and deeper business with a better foundation for growth and profitability. So what are you doing?