by Heidi Tolliver-Nigro December 8, 2005 -- This column generates a lot of email from readers, and one of the most common questions is "What's next?" Many printers and marketers wanting to get involved with VDP are looking for advice on getting started. Along these lines, I'd like to conclude this year's columns with some perspective from one of the industry's aggressive marketers of VDP -- APT Digital. Salespeople who just want to know the quantity required and how much the customer is willing to pay are salespeople who need to find new homes. At On Demand in May, I attended a VDP seminar put on by Exstream Software, and one of the speakers was Nicolas Brusco, senior vice president of ATP Digital in Manhattan. One of the themes woven throughout the show, and certainly reflected in Brusco's presentation, is the unwillingness of smart companies to wait for their customers to tell them what they want. Rather, they take matters into their own hands and create demand for what they want to sell. Along these lines, Brusco described APT Digital as being "in the business of transforming our clients' businesses, and therefore, our business," as part of its fundamental philosophy for stimulating the market for variable data print. Here are some of the insights into APT Digital's operation given by Brusco during his presentation: 1. When APT Digital began selling variable data print, it changed its sales process The ability to sell VDP requires business development and consultative selling, and sales people trained in traditional selling methods ("Can I sell you some print?) won't necessarily be able to transition from one method to the other. In some cases, Brusco was able to retrain his existing salespeople, but when they proved to be untrainable or disinterested, he replaced them. "Some people are order-takers and always will be," he says. "They aren't interested in what their customers are doing it, how they are doing it, or why. They just want to know what quantity they want and what they are willing to pay." Those, Brusco suggested, are the salespeople who need to find new homes. 2. Work backwards from print To be successful with variable data print, you need to be involved in more of the customer's marketing process than just the printing. Once APT Digital's salespeople begin investigating a customer's business, they start at the front end -- how the customer is developing their marketing ideas. Then, by helping them develop those ideas, or helping them rework their print production to be more cost-effective, they become invaluable business partners, not just printers. One prospect APT Digital visited was creating 400 different versions of a targeted marketing piece and sending its printer 400 different QuarkXPress documents. For example, one prospect APT Digital visited was creating 400 different versions of a targeted marketing piece and sending its printer 400 different QuarkXPress documents. By transitioning this customer from conventional page building to dynamic page building using VDP, APT Digital was able to save them enormous design costs, endless hours of design time, and capture the customer's VDP print business at the same time. This approach benefits both the company and the individual salesperson because it helps to reach more deeply into the customer's organization and retain customers once they are acquired. 3. Don't just be a consultant. Charge for it When looking at APT Digital's operation, one of the biggest surprises people may have is that the company charges for consulting services. Without charging, Brusco says, customers are unlikely to see them as having sufficient value. "We tell the customer, 'We'll assess the problem, assess the workflow, and suggest a solution. And by the way, you will pay us to do that,'" he says. "If they don't perceive us as experts, if they don't see us as providing value, we let them go. We have bigger fish to fry." "If they don't perceive us as experts, if they don't see us as providing value, we let them go. We have bigger fish to fry." If you think Brusco's salespeople have accused him of being crazy, you're right. "When I first started this, they said, 'Somebody control this fool. He's been in business school too long.' But consistently, the larger, higher value clients have responded positively. We say, 'We'll audit this, this, and this. We will only charge you $5,000. They say, 'That's awesome. So-and-so was going to charge us $25,000.' Once we go in, find problems, and offer solutions, suddenly, they return every email and attend every meeting." Although APT Digital charges for its consulting, consultation, in itself, is not profitable. Nor is it intended to be. But it establishes the company's credibility and helps to weed out unprofitable customers. "I can't spend six months to gain a project that will only last a few months," says Brusco. "Ultimately, I want impressions, clicks, fulfillment. I want the print to be a recurring revenue stream. That's why we look very carefully at who we do business with." "Ultimately, I want impressions, clicks, fulfillment. I want the print to be a recurring revenue stream." APT Digital's approach reminds me of a consultant I know, Peter Muir of Bizucate. Many executives who approach Peter about training (often on business development techniques) are surprised to find him peppering them with questions to determine whether he wants to do business with them. This approach is substantially different than the supplier or vendor who takes any business it can get. It reflects a business that knows the value that it brings, charges for that value, and lives up to the expectations that it sets. 4. Don't wing it. Establish a team If you think you can "wing it" without an established project team, allowing your production people and CSRs to figure it out as they go along, forget it. Brusco says that successful VDP applications need a layer of management to keep a project moving. 5. Find your sweet spot It would be nice if every printer could do every project and be equally cost-effective for every customer, but they can't. Every printer has a sweet spot where its equipment, workflow, and skill sets are optimally suited. Find your sweet spot and stick with it. Repeat applications, such as those generated by many Web-to-print solutions, are often the key to VDP sellers' success. "For us, it's finance, pharmaceutical, and travel," says Brusco. "We have an awesome travel application that consistently gives our customers great rates of return. And pharmaceutical and finance companies have similar applications and business models where we can find crossover, as well." 6. Build recurring revenue streams Whether you are selling VDP or any other type of printing, business consultants will tell you that having predictable, recurring sales is the key. You can't make money with haphazard sales activity and spikes and dips in your production cycle. Repeat applications, such as those generated by many Web-to-print solutions, are often the key to VDP sellers' success. "Each month, we have steady work from the same clients, coming in at the same time, in the same way, and when you have this kind of revenue stream, you really start making money," Brusco says. And that's music to any businessperson's ears!