By Barbara Pellow May 31, 2006 -- While there are multiple definitions of marketing, my favorite is to find out what your customers want and give it to them. Yet graphic communications service providers rarely ask customers for input. "Product Strategy" is one of the four major facets (product, price, promotion, place) of marketing. It involves figuring out what a customer wants and inventing or creating, a product/service offering that will give it to him or her in a way that is better than your competition. The ways companies compete and differentiate themselves are changing radically Product definition is a critical starting point in the development of any new product or service offering. Very few companies do a good job at product definition. In an article on product definition, Kenneth Crow, President of DRM Associates, indicated that the biggest shortfalls in today’s product definition process are: * No defined product strategy or product plan * Lack of formal requirements as a basis for initiating product development * Product requirements developed without true customer input * A marketing requirements specification (MRS) that is completed late - after development is underway * Engineering having little or no involvement in development of the marketing specification, thereby lacking a true understanding of requirements * An incomplete, ambiguous, or overly ambitious specification * Creeping elegance, or a constantly evolving specification that requires increasing development scope and redesign iteration The dynamics around product/service offerings are changing dramatically in the graphic communications world. Quite clearly, printers are investing in the latest digital technologies and will continue to do so over the long term. It is also clear that the ways companies compete and differentiate themselves are changing radically. In many situations, product differentiation is giving way to service differentiation and the integration of product-service packages is now the basis for differentiation. With a demanding clientele and climate, the best way to attract new customers and retain existing ones is to fine tune your existing products and services to suit market conditions and changing demands. The best way to develop your offer is to exercise my favorite definition of marketing: find out what your customers and prospects want, and then give it to them. The key to success in our business today is customer focused product and service development and delivery. Graphic communications service providers need to get real customer input. The question is, how? The key to success in our business today is customer focused product and service development and delivery It’s Talking to the Customer and Understanding the Market Graphic communications service providers often forget to talk to people about what they really want to buy as they build out their product and service portfolios. As the digital transformation in graphic communications enables new product and services offerings, someone in the organization needs to be tasked with a "product/service portfolio requirements planning" role. With the myriad of solutions available for content management, marketing campaign management, Web-to-print, digital color, finishing, and workflow, your investment decision process starts with understanding your customers. It means you need to talk with them. When you have a direct relationship with customers, there are tremendous opportunities to gather data about customer needs When you have a direct relationship with customers, there are tremendous opportunities to gather data about customer needs. The challenge is taking the time to analyze input sources and using the information to develop a realistic value-added product and service strategy. Every day, your customers or prospects issue requirements documents, specifications or RFPs. Assessing this documentation on a regular basis and the trends they portray is critical to understanding market dynamics. Your customer service representatives interface with the client base day-in and day-out. How frequently are you meeting with the customer service team to understand the feedback they are getting from customers? Another key source of information for future business strategy is a customer that you have recently lost. Take the time to meet with the decision maker and ask them why they selected another supplier. Finally, mechanisms such as focus groups should be used to ensure ongoing feedback during the product/service development and delivery cycle. Current customers as well as potential customers should be considered and included. Customer involvement is critical to initially defining requirements, answering questions and providing input during development, and critiquing a design or prototype. The Realities Successful graphic communications service providers--large and small--are beginning to understand that the "product/service" offering needs to be well thought out and defined with input from the ultimate user community. Cleveland based Great Lakes Integrated and The Johnson Group in Rockford, Illinois both understood the need for a well-planned product-service solution suite to drive business results for themselves and improved ROI for their customers. Take the time to meet with the decision maker at a customer you have lost and ask them why they selected another supplier Great Lakes Companies has always been a leader in the printing and publishing industry and is a company that has thrived on innovation since its inception in the 1930s and is now at the forefront of Web-based supply chain management. The key principle that drives the implementation of new technology for Great Lakes is customer need. Whether it is the purchase of a new press or a software solution, the core philosophy at Great Lakes is, "Everything is driven by our customers." The development of Great Lakes’ e-procurement system was no exception to this mantra. In 1997-98, Great Lakes Companies established a users’ group of non-competing customers called the "Digital Widgets Users’ Group." Sessions with this group provided the company with tremendous insight into customer issues, concerns and challenges. Chief Technology Officer Dean Hanisko indicated that there were some critical needs that became apparent in this dialogue. "The customers wanted digital asset management. They wanted everything in one place, to maintain brand consistency, and wanted to eliminate the redundancy in image creation, including photos and graphics." The Great Lakes team looked at these emerging customer needs from two perspectives. They identified primary users; the content creators who wanted a solution for maintaining high-resolution images. But of equal importance, they focused on secondary users such as field sales representatives, manufacturers’ representatives and agents that needed documents and images for PowerPoint presentations and proposals --the actual consumers of content. The result of their analysis of customer needs was the introduction in late 2000 of an ASP (Application Service Provider) system called AKSESS, a powerful Internet-based solution to create and manage marketing and brand building resources. Whether it is the purchase of a new press or a software solution, the core philosophy at Great Lakes is, "Everything is driven by our customers." Another example is the Johnson Group, a family-owned printing enterprise founded in 1957 that is committed to serving its customers with superior quality, service and fairness. Although the company has now grown to include multiple locations and clients across the nation, the family still has a renowned passion for quality and an ear for voice of the customer. The firm has a staff of more than 150 people focused on evolving and embracing new technologies and enhancing partnerships to accomplish a simple objective: becoming a full service provider to its customer base. Revenues have climbed to in excess of $25 million. The Johnson Group started looking at digital printing over two years ago. According to VP Rynn Johnson, "We watched the market projections for digital printing and thought it was essential to test the opportunity with our customer base before investing." As opposed to guessing what its customer base wanted, Johnson actually surveyed current clients. In the survey, customers were asked if they had requirements for static short run printing, mail merge or full variable data imaging. Johnson also queried customers relative to any digital printing they were currently doing and the volumes being produced. Customers were asked for samples as well as test files. As opposed to guessing what its customer base wanted, Johnson actually surveyed current clients The Johnson Group is conservative and wanted to ensure reasonable demand before making an enormous investment. The initial investment was in a low-end digital black & white copier. Demand quickly surpassed its duty cycle, and the company also found that customers wanted color. In January 2004, Johnson made an investment in a DigiMaster and a NexPress 2100. Of the customers originally surveyed, seven of ten are driving significant digital print volume. The End Result: Great Products and Revenue Growth New product/solutions start with understanding customer requirements and the business impact a solution could deliver, and then linking them with available technology. Any new offering needs to be based on a marketing orientation attuned to the voice of the customer. Customer input and feedback needs to be gathered throughout the entire solution development process. Customer needs can then be translated into technical requirements or specifications. Ultimately, as you deliver new offerings to the market there are four fundamental questions you need to make sure that you answer. * Who is your customer and what is the customer's problem or need? * How will the product solve the customer's problem/need? * What advantages does our product offer vs. the competition and what advantages do competitor’s products offer vs. our product? * What's most important to the customer in making a buying decision? In order to be successful, graphic communications service providers are under tremendous pressure to enhance their offerings. As competitive pressures continue to commoditize print, it is the product and services mix that is the differentiator of value. Great Lakes Integrated and the Johnson Group have blended technology, services and customer requirements to deliver on the promise of improved ROI to customers. Customer input was the foundation for well-designed offerings that spurred users' enthusiasm, making it easier to sell, support, and market their offerings. When customers are excited about your offerings, it strengthens your brand. Marketing truly is finding out what customers want and giving it to them.