Canon brought its “Success with Print” educational series to New York City on June 7 with a seminar that drew about 30 metro area customers and prospects to its offices in midtown Manhattan. The session was one stop on a 15-city tour supplemented with webinars and other resources aimed at helping printers locate new growth and profitability in a market where these opportunities are becoming increasingly hard to find.

Like other graphics systems manufacturers, Canon understands that equipment sales alone won’t assure customer loyalty—printers now expect their vendors to be ready with consultative advice about making the most of the productive capacity they’ve acquired. Canon responded by creating (in 2008) its Essential Business Builder Program (EBB), a business development initiative for owners of its imagePRESS digital presses. EBB was augmented last year with the launch of RevGen, a 12-week mentoring plan for the same audience.

The “Success with Print” seminars focus on encouraging printers to use some of the newer graphic technologies—cross-media solutions, color management, Web-to-print (W2P), and variable-data printing—for greater competitive advantage. Tuesday’s session, part pep talk and part tutorial, was a mostly brand- and product-agnostic overview of best practices in these applications.

The program began with a general presentation on business development by Joseph P. Truncale, Ph.D., president and CEO of the National Association for Printing Leadership (NAPL). Staying out of the “commodity trap,” he said, means asking a set of “structured questions” about the long-term potential of every customer—not just the high-value key accounts, but the unproductive ones that may be more trouble than they’re worth as customer relationships.

Every printer has at least one client fit to “drive over to your competitor and drop off,” said Truncale, adding that the strategy for dealing with such accounts must be to “grow them up or move them out” before they drain more profit.

Truncale said that NAPL’s Key Account Accelerator Process™ helps printers maximize relationships with existing customers by triaging their accounts according to significance, strategic value, and profit potential. In group A are “team sport” accounts offering exceptional opportunities for growth in revenue and share-of-customer. Contributions by B (“solo sport”) accounts are average, but still worth retaining. Those in the X category have little or no potential to contribute meaningfully to a printer’s business.

Good customers want ideas for driving their own growth, and being ready with answers, said Truncale, is one of the most valuable “business enablers” that a printer can have. He recommended stimulating the dialogue by asking customers:

• If you could fix or improve one thing, what is it, and what would fixing it do for your business?

• How long has this situation been an issue or an opportunity?

• Is anyone now assisting you with it, and with what results?

• What is the cost to your business of missing this opportunity?

The open-ended conversation that ensues, according to Truncale, may identify potential that can be developed not just in one customer, but in others in the same vertical market. “It’s about taking a tactic and exploding it into a strategy,” he said.

Once a key account has been identified, said Truncale, ask more questions to determine whether the relationship is being managed as it deserves. These include:

• When was the last time a meaningful conversation took place with this customer?

• Is there a plan for growing the relationship?

• Who will take the lead in carrying out the plan?

• What could be accomplished by investing more effort in accounts like this one and less in the underperformers?

“If you’re not reaching your potential with your best relationships, plan now to build on these relationships to create unique, lasting value,” Truncale urged the group. “Anything you do on purpose, you have a better chance of accomplishing.”

Rick Littrell, president and CMO of Magicomm LLC, asked them to reconsider print’s place in the “new, connected world” of cross-media communications—a world, he said, that still represents a “puzzle” to most marketers.

In a properly integrated marketing campaign, he asked, “What is the right number of touches? What do you lead with? What do you follow with?” Printers, he contended, are often better suited to answer media-mix questions than marketing agencies because of their experience with using digital technologies and working with multiple file formats. Their “technical mentality” positions them equally well to help their clients with database management, Littrell said.

But, in order to serve in these roles, printers have to develop a marketing mentality as well. As Littrell put it, “You need to start thinking of your digital press as a marketing tool, not a production tool.” Internal skill sets and capabilities—solution selling, market research, copywriting, and customer relationship management (CRM)—also must be built up by printers who want to grow their business in cross-media markets.

Acquiring marketing-related skills creates opportunities to do more for customers and to reap commensurate rewards. “Agencies get paid for project management,” Littrell said. “Why can’t we?” As the developer of the RevGen program for Canon, Magicomm guides the mentorships that Canon hopes will equip imagePRESS owners to provide these high-value services.

Standards-based color management as a “consumer protection program” for color production was the theme of a review by John Thorburn, a color specialist for Canon. In color printing, he said, the overriding question is, “Which CMYK is it?” Each printing process introduces variables, as do file formats, PDF preparation routines, and the behaviors of RIPs. Although achieving consistent color across all methods of output in a print shop is a complex task, said Thorburn, many of the most important steps can be carried out in the prepress applications and utilities that printers routinely use.

EFI’s Chip Boettger described W2P as a “24/7/365 web presence” that lets printers make money from services that they never made money from before. He said that printers with full-service W2P capability can speak to their customers about “outsourced document production,” “collateral management,” and “inventory print-on-demand conversion”—using terms, in other words, that marketing-savvy media buyers understand and respond to.

But Boettger cautioned printers who relate to their customers in this way against forgetting which business they are in. W2P services are not interchangeable with marketing services, and “if you have a print engine, you are not a marketing services provider,” he said. “Don’t get trapped into calling yourself something you’re not.”

On the other hand, Boettger said, there’s nothing wrong with learning how to “talk like a CMO (chief marketing officer), not like a printer,” when dealing with customers to whom W2P services are likely to appeal. He also urged printers to sell W2P as a value-adding relationship and to price it accordingly. “Sell the cost of the campaign, not the cost per piece,” Boettger said, noting that the W2P solution the plant is using—such as EFI’s Digital Storefront—should be tied tightly into its MIS for best results.

Sean Sullivan of Printable Technologies recommended variable-data printing as a way out of the commoditization trap. But, he reminded the group that those who wish to sell VDP to CMOs have a limited window of opportunity in which to do it. The average tenure of these executives at Fortune 500 companies, he said, is about 18 months.

Selling personalized graphic communications, said Sullivan, means working with the customer to define the need; determining who in the customer’s organization has the authority to make the project happen; learning how much of a timeframe for completion there is; and finding out how much money has been allocated to the project. One way to promote VDP is to provide “compelling samples” consisting of work previously done for the customer, but enhanced this time with variable images, PURLs, QR codes, and other elements that highlight the capabilities of the process.

Marketers like the measurable ROIs that VDP can bring to their print campaigns, Sullivan said. Given the availability of ready-to-use VDP solutions from Printable Technologies and other providers, he added, printers should be able to dispel the “myths” that personalized printing is too costly and that data specialists are needed to make it work.