By Carro Ford Weston October 18, 2005 -- For some printers, an online business environment is simply a storefront to ingest jobs. For others, it's still a dream described in a software brochure. For a few, like PrintingForLess.com, online is everything. "Without the internet, we wouldn't be where we are today," declares PrintingForLess.com Director of Marketing Amanda Webber. Physically, PrintingForLess.com is based in the small town of Livingston, Montana, yet its customers span the country. "We regularly work with graphic, web, advertising and marketing service companies, and most of our clients are small- to medium-sized businesses with 20 or fewer employees." "In 2002, we were the tenth fastest printing company in the US, and we've been on the INC 500 list several years in a row," First One Online Wins PrintingForLess.com says it was the first to offer online printing services, launching the website in March 1999, when the printing market was in a downturn. The founders realized there was a gap in services for do-it-yourself print buyers. "Online services for the prepress market included file server space, graphic designer education and information store fronts for local printing companies, but no simple services for print buyers," says Webber. "Print buying was traditionally time-consuming, difficult and not customer-driven. It involved meeting with a sales person to choose paper and other options, waiting sometimes days to get a quote, and then find out when they could fit your job on press. Printers also had their own requirements for how they would accept artwork. "Digital files needed to be created with expensive, professional-level software applications. It was not easy, especially for do-it-yourself businesses." Recognizing this opportunity to revolutionize print buying and eliminate the pain points for less-experienced customers was the first step for PrintingForLess.com; learning how to process electronic files from non-traditional software applications was the next. "After two months of research and development, we decided to launch the site and see what would happen next. The rest is history." "We learned we could actually teach the technical aspects of the job easier than teaching experienced pre-press technicians our customer service approach," Today, the company is solid proof that the online model can be successful. "In 2002, we were the tenth fastest printing company in the US, and we've been on the INC 500 list several years in a row," says Webber. "Now with over 120 employees and a $18.5 million run rate, we are looking forward to our fourth appearance on the Inc 500 list and more record-breaking sales." Bringing the World to Montana Not everything has been easy about achieving this glowing success. "Hiring was a challenge, given our speed of growth," she notes, and their off-the-beaten track location. Being in Montana and outside the mainstream printing world limited their ability to recruit printing industry professionals, but with this came a valuable lesson. "We learned we could actually teach the technical aspects of the job easier than teaching experienced pre-press technicians our customer service approach," says Webber. Training remains a priority. In 2003, PrintingForLess.com started "PFL University", a paid 16-week training program for front-line staff that focuses on technical skills, customer service and sales. "As we grew, we needed scaleable systems to manage our workflow and customer interactions," explains Webber. "Keeping track of where orders were in the process was a challenge and a limiting growth factor. We knew we wouldn't be able to provide real-time answers to customers' questions about their orders without a technological solution." PrintingForLess was breaking new ground with its online services, and had to develop much of the technology themselves. Today the company's custom system allows customers to select product and delivery options, get instant pricing, upload files and order all from one page. "Our state-of-the-art customer database and paperless workflow system enable us to not only track orders and customer communications, it made our successful team system possible," she says. Keeping the Personal Touch PrintingForLess.com now extends its online service environment beyond printing to span the broadest definition of production workflow. It spans order placement, proofing and revisions, and split shipments. It also accommodates changes in specs like quantity, paper, ink, coating, folding, shipping method and address; and provides real time order status and tracking. Customers can even cancel a shipment. In spite of the near total online automation, PrintingForLess.com has not eliminated the personal touch. In spite of the near total online automation, PrintingForLess.com has not eliminated the personal touch. "We manage and track our customer's personal and business information in great detail. This allows us to effectively customize our 'extreme customer service' to each individual's needs and preferences. With almost 70 percent of our business coming from repeat customers, we highly value those business relationships. Even with an online storefront, we are proud to be human once you open the door. Not every online company can say that. "Not only have our internal efficiencies in automation and online capabilities given control back to the customer, the personal experience each employee gives is rewarding and fun," said Webber. "Empowerment is key to success. Our employees have the information they need when they need it to handle any situation with a customer. Every customer, big and small, is treated as the small business next door. After all, we are one too."