By Noel Ward, Executive Editor December 15, 2003 -- There ain't a whole lot left of this year and whole lot of people in this industry will tell you that's a good thing. We're all looking hopefully at signs of recovery in the economy and in our businesses. A new year of plans and ideas, of hopes and visions begins in just two short weeks. I hope your map of 2004 is already beginning to take shape, because there's nothing quite like a little business coming in to make a new year a little less intimidating. Less bleak. Less scary. I'm seeing  optimism out there from analysts, print providers and vendors, so maybe the beginning of 2004 can best be described as encouraging. Some print providers I talk too are positive about the new year. They see business beginning to improve, especially those who are doing more than just putting ink or toner on a page. I do a fair amount of work with a group of small and medium-sized direct mail and transactional service bureaus and many are adding new business, new people, building new facilities, and bringing on new capabilities, especially in color and in combining print and Internet applications. They see a route to the future that they are defining on their own…and are making their own path. Vendors also seem more positive than they have in some time. More machines are being placed and new orders are coming in. Not in a torrent, mind you, but they are there. Stiff upper lips are giving way to smiles and the retelling of positive wins, rather than statements of hopeful plans. Some of the wins I've heard about show new approaches on the part of vendors and customers alike. With  new applications and workflows, customers are increasingly charting some new territory. Old maps used to have uncharted areas marked as Terra Incognita or wild guesses like, "Here There be Dragons." (Anything to keep the real-estate developers out of the good places.) As we charge into 2004, what terra incognita (or dragons) lie before you? For instance, are you looking to make your first foray into digital color or variable data? Adding new services? Increasing your share of wallet with existing customers and developing new prospects? Whatever course you choose, go prepared and have a plan.  Thinking Ahead For example, if you are making your first move to digital color, be sure to have a solid strategy for keeping the machine busy. The major vendors have realized they must help customers with market development and some have created "tool kits" that can help you stake out some new territory. Whether you use these or not, begin educating your customers about their new choices before the machine arrives on your loading dock. Help them transition pages to digital color, shift from preprinted stock to digital color or add new applications because they can use color. Customers often don't realize just how far digital color has come since they took delivery of the color copier that's been in their office since 1996. Be prepared to show them all you can do. Educate the customer so they can make informed decisions. If you are adding variable data, know going in that it can be a long sales cycle that's likely to involve many people at different levels in your customer's organization. You'll need to brush up on your consultative selling skills and identify where you can best help each customer or prospect. Let them educate you about their business and learn from them while looking for additional opportunities. Be sure to offer ways of testing your new offerings without their having to make a huge commitment. Proof of concept is key in winning more business and it makes you more of a partner with your customer. And speaking of partnering, look for marketing and database companies to partner with when you need to develop and deliver compelling VDP solutions. The old adage that it's less expensive to get new business out of existing customers than to acquire new ones is as true as ever. Never forget the advantages of deepening a relationship with existing customers. Apply your consultative sales skills to finding other opportunities. In fact, these opportunities may be a great way to begin offering a new product or service. And if you begin providing variable data printing, try to gain control of at least some of your customer's data, because it opens the door to an array of new opportunities. As you've heard before, he who as the data wins. Expect the Unexpected Finally, be sure each of your plans has contingencies for the unexpected--a customer going away, unforeseen changes in demand, economic stagnation, and competitors' actions. Like having a AAA Trip-Tik that alerts you to detours, having a Plan B for getting around the rough spots in your route can be the difference between failure, surviving, and really succeeding. As you plan for and follow your route through 2004, also remember that opportunities lie in unexpected places, and some are just over hazy horizons. If you have the pioneering spirit to follow less traveled roads, more power to you. May the arrows many pioneers are familiar with all miss their mark. And if you prefer to follow a trail set down by others, stay alert to new routes and take advantage of all the support you can get along the way. I hope your 2004 will be one of new adventures, opportunities and success. May you all be well and have peace and good fortune wherever your roads lead. And as always, let us know how we can help.  See you out there in the New Year.