Archive for the ‘Customer Service’ Category

Tapping into the New Cross Media

Wednesday, December 11th, 2013

It’s a loud, busy world out there. With so much information available, getting your voice heard is a challenge for any company. For mailing, print, and fulfillment providers, cross media marketing is really vital right now.

A well thought out cross media campaign is one of the best ways to communicate any message clearly, consistently, and in a way that’s relevant to the hearer. Keeping up with cross media marketing trends is an important component of your ongoing success – and that of your clients.

Are you having trouble connecting with customers?

Learn how you can use cross media marketing to better communicate with customers by downloading “Tapping into the New Cross Media,” FREE for The Digital Nirvana readers!

Take a moment to read and share this resource at http://ilnk.me/NewCrossM; your customers will appreciate your dedication! Do you have any comments or opinions on cross media marketing or customer communication? I’d appreciate your feedback below!

Increasing Corporate Value

Tuesday, March 27th, 2012

What is your organization doing to improve its value for the shareholders and stakeholders? Companies in general, and specifically those in the print and communication industry, have been working hard to improve profits and increase EBITDA as the economy continues to be depressed. Our industry not only has the economy to deal with, we are also contending with increased communication options and new technologies. Companies have downsized, right-sized, consolidated, and merged. This has helped maintain profits and EBITDA in the short run, but at what cost to the stakeholders – our customers and staff?

It seems to me it is time for a change from the old method of headcount reduction, restructuring, and lowering prices, to an approach that establishes long term stability, acceleratesidentifying and making the right changes for your business, and results in improved profitability. The tools for this new direction exist in Business Process Improvement (BPI) methodologies. By stepping back to look at the whole business,not just one function or production area, and applying the disciplines of BPI, companies can learn how to do more with existing resources in several ways. By eliminating overlappingor redundant efforts that have crept in silently over time,resources are released from non-value-add tasks to be re-allocated to projects like new technology, or products andservices to meet new client requirements. End to end process evaluation also bridges company silos to assure issues are not just pushed from one area to another, and identifies where there are communication and information gaps or delays which canresult in extra efforts and cost to meet client deliveries.

When is the last time you did a detailed review of your process and workflow across the organization?

Hard numbers and real-life cases exist to show that even after significant labor and cost reductions have been made, a structured BPI approach can increase EBITDA, cash flows, and shareholder/stakeholder value.

Part VIII: Social Networking’s Role

Wednesday, August 31st, 2011

Note: This is Part 8 of a 9-Part series based on the book “Business Transformation: A New Path to Profit for the Printing Industry”

Social networking is certainly one of my favorite passions. I truly believe that it can help print, mail, fulfillment, and marketing services providers in many different areas — including marketing, sales, customer support, and HR. However, many companies still primarily view channels such as Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn as ways to simply distribute press releases.

While there certainly is a place for using social networking channels for distributing news, they can absolutely help companies in other areas.

Here are 3 ways that your company may be able to find success through social networks:

  • To Provide Customer Support:We have probably all done it by now. Maybe it was to an airline or a restaurant. Perhaps it was to a manufacturer or retail store. For one reason or another, the company treated us in a way that we didn’t appreciate. Thus, we turned to social networks such as Facebook or Twitter to express our complaint to others. While it might simply feel good to let out some steam, don’t we feel much better if the company does something to react to our public grievance?The same thing could be happening to your business right now. Someone could be displeased with a print job, the time it takes to get a call back from a sales rep, or the lack of information on your website. If those folks complain on social networks, you certainly may cringe. But at least you’ll have the opportunity to know about the complaint and then address it!

    How can you know if someone’s complaining about your business online? There are absolutely tools and services that can help you.  For example, you could use Google Alerts to set up notifications for your company name. You could use Twitter’s search feature. Or you could partner with a 3rd-party.

    No matter what the case, social networks give you the ability to listen to what people are saying and then quickly take action to provide some sort of customer support to them.

    Of course, social networks also allow you to proactively provide customer support. Through your social networking accounts, you could provide links to how-to-guides that provide suggestions and best practices for ordering a print job. You could provide links to other resources and case studies that may inspire a customer or prospect to do more business with you.

    If your customers are on Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks, then you should absolutely be there to provide support when they need it.

 

  • For Finding Leads:This one may sound obvious, but I do not believe that companies are using social networks enough to actively find and connect with leads.One way that this can be done is to search Twitter for terms and phrases that may indicate that someone needs help with a print job. While you certainly could search for variations of the word “print”, you also could look at companies that are exhibiting at upcoming trade shows or hosting seminars. No doubt, they may have printing needs. Social networks may allow you to quickly connect with them.

    Also, LinkedIn offers plenty of opportunities for sales reps to engage with potential prospects across the verticals that they may sell to. If you take the initiative to join and contribute to the Groups that your target audience participates in, you may increase the chances that they’ll turn to you when they need your services.

  • For Finding & Recruiting New Employees: When a printer is transforming their business to offer additional marketing services, they may recognize the need to find and invest in employees that may have slightly different skill-sets than they’ve looked for in the past. You may need someone that has website design skills, that can write prolifically, or that has a passion for social networking! One way to find these people is via social networks.It’s fairly easy to search for students or recent graduates from schools that traditionally produce people that are interested in the graphic arts and printing communities. Once you find them, you may be able to find out what other passions or talents they may have, and then you’ll have the opportunity to engage them in possible employment discussions.

These are just a few of the ways that companies could use social networking to improve their business. If you’ve had any success with these, I’d love to hear about it!

To learn more about my book, “Business Transformation: A New Path to Profit for the Printing Industry”, visit  my book’s website.

Managed Print Services and Print Management Services

Thursday, August 11th, 2011

When do two seemingly similar-sounding service offerings present completely different business models? When comparing Managed Print Services to Print Management Services. These sound the same, and in a certain situations can be used interchangeably, however the industry definitions are quite distinct and different.

Managed Print Services (aka; MPS), Managed Document Services, Enterprise Printing Services, or any other variation on this theme refers to the active management of fleets or groups of hardcopy output devices and by extension the digital output, capture and/or dissemination of data and/or images which are a by-product of such technology, all of which should be a strategic component of an organization’s (enterprise) document management strategy.

Of the many goals this service represents, that of cost-effectively controlling how, when and where organizationally necessary enterprise printing is accomplished rises to the top of the heap. This is closely followed by operational efficiency, productivity, storage, retrieval and security.

Depending on the model employed, this can either be a boon or a disaster waiting to happen for an organization with a widely distributed fleet of desktop laser or inkjet printers, faxes, scanners and small-to medium MFPs (or MFDs) where the task at hand is deemed unmanageable.

The premise of MPS is that through an initial discovery phase, an entity, either internal or external to the organization can root out every localized ineffective, underutilized or overutilized print culprit, assess their individual efficiencies or inefficiencies, and implement wholesale positive change in the way the organization manages how they print on an enterprise level. This is accomplished through mandates, decommission and installation of appropriate devices, actively monitoring usage, and in some cases, outsourcing or shifting higher-quantity work to devices or outsourced facilities utilizing appropriate cost and time-effective technology.

That’s the simple explanation and it sounds great in theory, however in practice the promise may not ring so true. Just about every OEM and/or their regional resellers offer one flavor or another of this kind of service. They all tout amazing savings with the ability for the organization to concentrate on their core business activities without having to worry about managing documents. Their profit motive should be seriously considered with a cost-benefit analysis. Quite frankly in some cases it makes sense.

For the organization that does not consider enterprise document management to be strategic to their core mission, the out-of-sight, out-of-mind approach MPS provides may seem perfect. After all, the provider of this service will always do what’s in the best interest of the organization, right?

This wholesale technology alignment/replacement strategy can even extend to in-house services where “copy” centers are present organizationally or departmentally. An adept MPS provider can be very convincing, again where enterprise document management is not considered mission-critical, with reasons why they should outsource this service.

Quite frankly, this may be true where an organization doesn’t have (or anecdotally doesn’t believe they have) the economy of scale to dedicate staff to research, identify, negotiate and implement the best solution for the best interests of the enterprise, or where little or no fiscal oversight or responsibility is required or deemed to be necessary for this segment of the organization’s business for whatever reason. What a perfect customer to have! On the other hand, a well managed operation will always know where their true, fully budgeted costs are for all facets of their hard-copy output needs, and this extends to knowing what is best printed when, and where.

Depending on the complexity of the enterprise this could be all encompassing enough to include micro-run desktop-applicable printing (both monochrome and color) where local office printers or MFPs are appropriate technologies, to medium-to-large production runs (also either monochrome and/or color) where CRDs (central reproduction departments aka copy centers) are more appropriate for given run lengths, to print runs which have no business being run locally and are outsourced by the individual department or the enterprise to either an in-plant possessing the appropriate technology or to an appropriate outsourced facility.

This is where Print Management Services (which for some reason I’ve never seen the complete acronym used for, so we’ll just call it PM Services) comes in to the picture. Now not only does the enterprise have the opportunity to “control” costs through either internal or external service providers for their enterprise document needs, but they can extend this process, again either internally or externally to encompass all printed material including digital printing, offset printing, wide format, apparel, specialty, novelty, etc.

PM Services, like MPS, can be implemented by an external service provider who purports to have the resources necessary to answer any need within a certain scope of work, or by an internal (in-plant) resource, without the organization necessarily having the ability to produce everything in-house while keeping the faith to serve the organization’s core mission.

In either case the PM Services provided for should be in the best interests of the organization. Not based on the service the provider has available. The question then comes down to how the enterprise decides what is best for their needs. It is only in rare cases that an outsource vendor can provide all of the services most medium-to-large enterprises require, so multiple service providers are the usual order of the day.

The best approach however is to integrate all the document needs of the organization under one roof, even if it means outsourcing some services while retaining others. True MPS on the one hand, which can include printer and MFP fleets, CRDs and print centers, and PM Services which can encompass high-speed digital, conventional sheet-fed and web offset, and all of the other print-mediums out there, in a perfect world should be centrally controlled from a cost-and-operational efficiency procurement standpoint with capable internal enterprise-level oversight and expertise in place.

It is only then that the organization, whether we’re talking about you specifically, or your customer, can effectively manage (or have you help manage with integrity and trust) what arguably should be considered a strategic, core, mission-critical business activity.

Paper Legality Laws; Coming to a Continent near You

Wednesday, June 22nd, 2011

Over the past few years, discussions surrounding how legal paper sourcing decisions are made by print buyers have received less and less attention from the press. This doesn’t mean that the issue has melted away; it merely means normalization of the process has relegated it to the board room and to the senate committee. However that could change based on worldwide activities of a similar fashion. In other words, the race is on.

In a mere 22 months if you print on paper anywhere in the European Union (EU), there will no longer be a choice. Verified legal timber product sourcing, including pulp and paper, will become law.

Regulation (EU) No 995/2010 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 20 October 2010 lays down the obligations of operators who place timber and timber products on the market – also known as the (Illegal) Timber Regulation counters the trade in illegally harvested timber and timber products through three key obligations:

1. It prohibits the placing on the EU market for the first time of illegally harvested timber and products derived from such timber;
2. It requires EU traders who place timber products on the EU market for the first time to exercise ‘due diligence’;
3. Keep records of their suppliers and customers.

The Regulation covers a broad range of timber products including solid wood products, flooring, plywood, pulp and paper. Interestingly though, not included among a few other products such as rattan and bamboo are recycled products and printed papers such as books, magazines and newspapers.

The EU has chosen their battles just as the US has with the now familiar US Lacey Act. By excluding printed matter (for now) but including pulp and paper, the EU’s Timber Regulation leapfrogs Lacey in that European printers will no longer be at will to purchase paper without regard for legal harvests, specifically aimed at imports as of March 2013.

The Parliament of the Commonwealth of Australia Illegal Logging Prohibition Bill 2011 is still in the consultation phase, but is written so vaguely that if passed in its present form, is sure to create a (common) wealth of issues. For now, we have to take a wait and see approach. Taking their Bill with a grain of Aussie salt, I wouldn’t expect to see it passed anytime soon.

As a side note in its “Comments from the Government of Canada on Australia’s Draft Illegal Logging Prohibition Bill 2011”, the Canadian government is not amused. On May 6, 2011 the Secretary of the Senate Standing Committees on Rural Affairs and Transport wrote; “In particular, Canada is concerned that the Bill may lead to a requirement (whether explicitly stated or implied) for Australian importers to conduct risk assessments (or the ‘timber industry certifiers’ to do so on their behalf) on any unprocessed or processed timber products imported into Australia. Such a requirement would be particularly onerous for complex processed products made of timber sourced from multiple suppliers…” (like paper merchants and printers).

Which brings us back to the Lacey Act and its implications in the paper and printing industry here in the US. For the time being it seems like no movement on implementation pertaining to US-based paper mills and printers is imminent. That said, with all of the activity on other continents, one has to wonder.

A Reality Check on Electronic Bill Presentment and Payment

Monday, March 7th, 2011

For the past decade, consumers have been moving many of their day-to-day activities to the Web. Millions of people have adopted communication technologies like instant messaging, e-mail, and social networks to engage with each other in a virtual way. Online shopping is more prevalent than ever, and is becoming even more diverse. Moreover, people are using the Web to manage all of their financial activities, from managing investments and checking accounts to paying bills.

With this general increased Web adoption, many analysts, journalists, and technologists have predicted that we would see a huge shift in the move to people receiving and paying bills entirely online (and thus, the reduction or elimination of paper-based bills and statements). It makes sense; consumers are moving many common activities entirely online, and organizations are looking at ways to curb costs (with paper bills and statements being an obvious target for cost reduction). Has this shift actually occurred?

Last year, InfoTrends set out to investigate current state and future opportunities in the area of Electronic Bill Presentment and Payment, commonly referred to as EBPP. In a study entitled The Future of Electronic Bill Presentment and Payment in North America, we surveyed 1,032 consumers on attitudes and adoption of electronic presentment and other online transactional activities, as well as 123 billers in areas like banking, financial services, healthcare, insurance, telecommunications, and utilities. In addition, we conducted 15 in-depth interviews with key stakeholders to get a clearer picture of the changing market dynamics of EBPP. Some key findings include:

  • Despite predictions of a massive online shift, adoption of electronic presentment by North American consumers is approximately 11% of total bills and statements. InfoTrends estimates that over 26 billion recurring bills and statements are delivered via the postal services and paid through traditional methods each year; these traditional methods result in a cost of (conservatively) over $16 billion per year in printing and postage alone.
  • While there are many driving factors for electronic presentment, it is clear that, by and large, consumers prefer to receive printed bills and statements over their electronic counterparts. The printed copy acts as a physical record back-up, as well as a physical reminder to pay a bill on time. While there are e-mail and text message equivalents to payment notifications, the printed copy still cuts through the clutter more than any other channel.
  • Cost reduction remains a top priority to drive billers and payment processors to adopt and promote the use of electronic presentment. Delivering information to multiple channels, especially in the growing mobile space, is also another top priority that is catalyzing the shift to electronic presentment.
  • There are notable differences in adoption of EBPP by billers depending on the industry. Financial and telco organizations have the greatest level of electronic presentment adoption, while healthcare has not taken to EBPP as quickly. We find that these differences can be dependent on the demographics of the customer base, as well as regulations in certain markets and marketing initiatives companies may be pursuing.
  • In spite of the printed copy’s solid standing in general, consumers between the ages of 18 and 24 are more likely than other demographics to receive and pay bills by electronic means exclusively. Many in this age group are comfortable performing many other activities natively and exclusively online, and also may be influenced by other factors, such as environmental impact perception of turning off paper-based communications.

What does all of this mean? For billers and payment processors, it means flexibility. Organizations need to provide consumers with the ability to receive communications in the preferred medium. That means offering a holistic set of communication preferences to customers that include print, Web, e-mail, mobile text messaging, mobile Web access, and mobile application access. This variety of options need to be delivered with a great customer experience across each channel.  Not only can all of these channels be leveraged to provide straight transactional information to the consumer; they can be used as a customer touchpoint for educational, informational, and promotional purposes.

Even though electronic presentment only currently comprises 11% of all bills and statements, InfoTrends predicts that adoption will increase and reach 22% of total bills and statements in North American by 2014. As noted, the 18 to 24 age group has the most significant adoption of electronic presentment; as that group matures, it is likely that they will only become more comfortable with electronic delivery and payment. Furthermore, banking and financial services institutions in particular have been making a more concerted push over the past few years to get customers to switch to electronic presentment. Again, these efforts are f0cused largely at cost reduction, although promotions to get consumers to switch to electronic presentment have included messaging around being environmentally friendly.

While many institutions are using sweepstakes, incentives, and other promotions to get people to move to electronic presentment, some have begun charging fees to customers to receive printed statements, which we feel could be a factor in speeding up EBPP adoption. Nevertheless, there remains a negative perception by consumers of companies instituting these fees, so they will have to battle that perception to have this shift take hold. There are also new “digital mail” services popping up like Pitney Bowes’ Volly, Hearst Corporation’s Manilla, doxo, Zumbox, and others. These services, while in their infancy, offer the chance for consumers to consolidate and manage all their bills electronically in a centralized interface, which may also play a factor in shifting consumers to adopting electronic presentment.

As consumers diversify the channels they use to interact with businesses, those businesses need to be proactive in delivering flexible access to that information from print through mobile and more. While billers and payment processors are focused on reducing costs with electronic presentment and print suppression, they need to strike a balance with customer preferences and demands. There is still a significant base that prefers printed and mailed  communications, and that base cannot be ignored. If you’re interested in learning more about the full EBPP report, please contact Matt Swain.

Our Customer Metrics May Not Have Changed But Our Customer Relationships Must!

Friday, January 28th, 2011

In Dr. Ronnie Davis’ latest PIA Economic and Print Market and Flash Report,   he points out two interesting marketing metrics.  First, our largest single customer accounts for nearly 19% of our total business and our largest 5 customers provide nearly 40% of our business.  And second, over 60% of printers in the US have a market focus of less than 100 miles.  So we continue to be an industry that does business fairly locally and where we rely on large accounts which are close to our manufacturing facilities.  But while our customers may still prefer to be near their print suppliers, how they want to manage their print communications and what we need to know about them is definitely not as it once was.

We all know the importance of having great customer service.  But today great customer service also means providing an easy way to store, design, change, order, and pay for print communications material with an online web-to-print capability that is easy for our customers to use.  I recently spoke with a VP of Sales and Marketing at a large NE printing company.  He said that they want their customers to call or email them about everything.  Ordering online was anathema to them as it eliminated the contact with their customers that they so religiously sought out.  But customers today, whether local or not, want to simplify their lives, reduce unnecessary communication, speed up the production process, and see results quicker.  Providing an online print products management solution for your best customers is part of the new definition of great customer service.

Second, in the past it was enough for us to understand the nature of the jobs that our largest customers wanted us to print: sizes, number of pages, stock, frequency, delivery requirements, etc.  Today we need to know not only what they want to print but why.  We should be learning first about the industries that our customers are in and second about how our customers do business in that industry.  How do they generate revenue, who is their competition, who are their customers and how do they find more of them, what is the nature and purpose of their marketing communications, etc.?  By becoming an expert in their businesses, we are then in a position to be not just an order-taking sales person but an advisor in providing the print and marketing solutions that we offer. 

While the metrics about our customers may not have changed, how we service them and what we need to know about them certainly has.  The companies who are growing today are those that recognize this and have developed the technology and the sales mindset to make these adaptations.  Their 5 largest customers have recognized this also and are providing them even more business than ever.

Requests For Proposal: End the Madness!

Wednesday, January 19th, 2011

Many of my posts originate in my head as rants, are subsequently doused with antacid (and some form of sedative) and thoroughly edited down to civilized business speak. Today I think perhaps I should just “let ‘er rip!”

Let’s face it, most participants in the RFP process (from either the Issuer’s or the Responder’s perspective) don’t profit from it. You would think that the Issuer would always benefit but, in fact, they usually only achieve cost savings in trade for:

  • A slow and expensive buying process that takes focus away from day-to-day operations and revenue generation;
  • A “new” solution that typically mimics what they currently have (state of the art 1980’s solution) at a lower cost than they are currently paying;
  • Damaging relationships with current vendors, and potential new vendors through a, let’s just say it, dehumanizing process of on demand hoop-jumping.

Except in very rare cases of extremely well-crafted and needs-driven RFPs (those where a new solution or approach to a problem is being investigated, where current service levels are unacceptable or where there are major opportunities to consolidate vendor relationships) the sole beneficiaries of the RFP process are the procurement professionals themselves. The way most procurement operations are incented causes them to treat every possible purchasing relationship as a commodity and drive it into a box that can have an SKU and a price code slapped on it. And when you think you’re in the box buying business – everything starts to look like a box. This process also does not take into account how much it cost to build “the box” in the first place or how much it will take (in time and distraction as well as dollars) to build “the box” somewhere else.

And another pet peeve …

I can’t tell you how many times recently I’ve read that print is a commodity. Paper may be a commodity – but print is not paper. Print is a process – particularly any kind of variable print. Personally, I like to buy the best, most innovative, most reliable process I can get. “Print” may look like a bank statement or a personalized direct mail piece when it hits the mail – but, I prefer to work with a company that has a robust customer-self service and reporting portal and a top-notch postal management solution rather than one that lets me burn incense and pray while trucking my mail to a comingler in another State. But, maybe that’s just me.

Issuers reading this are saying to themselves “but wait – I have to save money. I have to squeeze X% out of all my vendors every 3 years.” Quite frankly, if that is your only goal, the RFP is probably the least effective way to get it. If you’ve been doing a sizable amount of business with a vendor for at least 2 years, that vendor should be able to come up with at least 6 ways to save you money. In many cases, saving you money may lower their revenue but actually boost their profit. I often see suppliers trying to save their customers money and they can’t get anyone’s attention. I’ve had to row that boat myself a time or two. If you’re thinking about issuing an RFP – make sure you really understand what you’re trying to accomplish and consider whether the RFP is the best way to achieve your goals.

Many suppliers have strong opinions on the RFP topic. John McMahon, VP at Madden Communications had this to say:

“If a current client takes you to an RFP and you’ve been unable to sell your way around that, face the facts and understand you’ve already lost. Don’t respond. If you compete on price you’re already dead. RFPs force you to compete on price – you should be dragged kicking and screaming into the RFP process.”

I don’t  agree that you shouldn’t respond to ANY RFP from an existing client – but, I do agree that you should be kicking and screaming first. Sadly, due to the formerly referenced box jockeys, your client may be REQUIRED to go to RFP no matter how much they like you. So, what’s a poor supplier to do? Here’s my top 10:

  1. Be measurable and get measured! Work with your client to develop a weighted scorecard for the services you provide and get them to complete it quarterly.
  2. Meet with your client every quarter to review the scorecard and discuss ideas for improvement (even if you have a perfect score.)
  3. If your scorecard is not perfect, make sure to respond in writing with a timeline and approaches to remedy any problems – or to document that you have already taken corrective action.
  4. Get acknowledgement of corrections from the client and the speed with which corrections were made.
  5. Don’t be afraid to talk to clients about service issues that stem from their side. However, you should also come to the table with proposed solutions (and documentation.)
  6. Be proactive! Come to the client frequently with ideas for improving processes, cutting costs or delivering better reporting or invoicing detail.
  7. Communicate broadly. Use personalized emails, blog posts and/or direct mail to let many people at the account know about regulatory changes, tips and tricks for using tools, or sources of information (like TheDigitalNirvana right?) that will help them do their jobs better.
  8. If you have a significant improvement to offer, consider doing the work at a discount or for free in exchange for a contract extension of 6 months or a year. Don’t ask for too much – but keep nudging the ball a little further out and tighten up the relationship more and more through value.
  9. Make sure your client knows about all of your capabilities. I’m not talking about feeds and speeds, I’m talking about services. Clients tend to remember the last thing you did for them and forget about everything else.
  10. When you talk to your clients about services – don’t talk about what you do – talk about how you can help them. You may not sell more print – but you may take on more of the process from the customer. That will embed you firmly in the client’s organization and dramatically increase your value.

With a little effort, any company can do what I’ve listed above. If you do, your client may still issue an RFP – but you will be in a much better position to win it if they do.  Face it – you don’t win with existing clients through sales. You win through service.

An Economic View from a Different Perspective

Monday, December 6th, 2010

For this post, I’m offering my own unscientific perspectives based on a unique window I get to peek into through – my experience actively consulting with or for organizations of all sizes and in all sectors of the industry. This includes everyone from pulp and paper mills to paper merchants to printers to print brokers and finally, print buyers.

My travels take me from coast to coast and north to south here in North America working with over 100 clients in 200 locations per year. From ten-employee in-plants to billion dollar corporations, there are common themes that seem from my perspective to permeate every facet of the paper and print-space.

Necessity may be the Mother of invention, but it’s also the Mother of reduction, the Mother of consolidation and ultimately, the Mother of efficiency. The past few years of recessionary behavior has proven to be a Petri dish of sorts that prove this hypothesis.

Common to every nearly enterprise is the realization that certain functions have had to be reduced or eliminated in order to survive. On the M&A level this means economy of scale and centralization of management, marketing, accounting and human resource functions. Within the same organization, lower level elimination of redundant or non-value added positions has become the norm. I’ve walked in the door of many a facility where “ring the bell/buzzer/phone” for front desk service is now in force where before, the duty of the receptionist was just that; to receive.

If there is a front desk person it is frequently a CSR or AR/AP employee whose new workspace happens to be visibly at the front door of the establishment. The same goes with many other positions where value is perceived as being intangible and can therefore be eliminated and delegated internally to the wearers of many hats who are any enterprise’s new survivor class.

The other trend I’ve seen is that along with staff reduction coinciding with the amount of work coming through the door, where say a full 3 shift operation has been forced down to 2, a new and interesting problem has arisen. When the workload is steady, which is a lowered expectation these days, the available labor pool is being tailored to be able to handle the volume, however now there seems to be more of an optimistic trend among print buyers and advertisers.

It’s what I call the “loosening of the purse-strings syndrome.” As the economy and consumer confidence levels elevate slightly, print buyers are a bit more confident and optimistic. Over the past six to twelve months, my clients, generically now have the problem of not having labor available for those spikes in volume when they occur. In a way this is a good problem to have, since they now feel like they have weathered the economic storm and are now emerging as a more efficient enterprise through all their tribulations.

In some markets an interesting phenomenon is taking place. Where similar facilities with similar capabilities and equipment have either survived or failed, there is a glut of skilled labor. In some cases these spikes are handled by employees working for more than one company-  not that this hasn’t always happened to some degree. It just seems that now there are a lot more skilled operators willing and/or able to be engaged on-call. The problem here is that this is usually more of a mature labor pool, so with regard to longevity, an arrangement such as this is not self-sustaining. No one seems to want to be so optimistic as to ramp back up to former levels, so this conundrum will continue for the foreseeable future.

I don’t pretend to be an economist. I’ll leave that job to Dr. Joe. That said, I do ask the same basic questions wherever I go. How’s business? Have you had layoffs or reductions in the past year and if so, by how much? Have things stabilized? Are you bringing staff back on? Are your customers a bit more optimistic? Are you?

Of course the answers vary, but on average they are: tolerable; yes; yes; yes; yes; yes. It is encouraging if anything, that there is a pervasive optimism out there. In my book optimism equals confidence. Confidence equals risk-taking, albeit cautiously, risk-taking equals spending. Spending of course raises the economic tide overall, and a rising tide lifts all boats.

So ultimately in the printing industry, especially in the areas of growth such as digital printing and integrated media, I’d like to believe that because of all this spending on infrastructure, equipment and new labor, i.e. emerging skill sets, are about to take a quantum leap based on the demand for printing in our brave new world. A renaissance if you will.

To move forward and be the cause of change, mills, merchants, printers and brokers must again refocus their marketing efforts on a now more optimistic print-buying public, who will have a bit more money to spend as long as they are convinced of the ROI once they have been educated, again, by their vendors of the benefits of print.

So, in the end, you can talk about GDP, unemployment, print shipments and the calculated risks of either doing or not doing something to change the game all day long. All I’m saying to sum this all up is that anecdotally, we seem to collectively be climbing out of a casualty-ridden hole, a bit wiser, a bit stronger, but non-the-less gun-shy. In many cases the casualties have been necessary. It got rid of some of the low-ballers to hopefully create a more level playing field where the survivors can compete fairly on a level playing field, charge a fair price and continue to continue on now that the ball is rolling again.

What do you think?

Vic Barkin

The First Rule of Internal Auditing

Monday, November 1st, 2010

This is an open letter to all the wearers of many hats out there.

If your organization happens to be ISO, SGP, FSC or SFI certified, or even if you’re not formally certified to anything, but still subscribe to some type of formalized quality management system framework, you may think this article’s not for you, however hear me out before you decide.

If your organization doesn’t formally subscribe to a quality management system of some type, this article’s definitely for you as the benefits are infinite. It ultimately saves the organization time, money, effort, money, energy, money, resources, money and money.

Quite frankly, like so many other things, the 80/20 rule applies here. In this case, eighty percent of the organizations I visit do not implement internal audit (IA) protocols for their processes, and of the twenty that do, eighty percent of them have no clue how to do it correctly.

Regardless of whether there is an external certifying body that requires it or not, the only way to truly validate conformance to any process is to impartially audit it. Like a financial audit, process auditing is a skill using a rules-based approach. The key is to ask the right questions in a consistent, controlled and meaningful manner in order to discover any underlying nonconformities which may either consciously or unconsciously exist.

The first step is to be able to measure any process from a procedural perspective. No standard? No measurement. No procedures? No control. Anything can be evaluated, verified, validated and/or measured. A procedure can be as simple as how to answer a phone to how to produce a job by breaking down each component part, to how to measure customer satisfaction. It can be statistical, empirical or documentary.

Also, let’s not confuse process or product development, realization, verification and validation with internal auditing. Management and staff directly involved or affected by or from any process activity should always be involved with the procedurally-related activities pertaining to that process. That’s not what we’re talking about here.

Internal auditing is an intermittent activity that should be planned to be enacted at least annually to evaluate every process in the enterprise. Some processes which are more critical than others should be internally audited more frequently, sometimes quarterly, and of course immediately upon reoccurring issue identification such as multiple product non-conformities or customer complaints.

Management needs to ensure that objective guidelines are established based on procedural requirements. Any procedure can be turned into a question for these purposes. A procedure stating that “All Author Alterations shall be reviewed by the CSR in charge” can be turned into the question “Have all AA’s been reviewed by the CSR in charge?” In this way a manageable set of questions applicable to the process can be asked in an objectively interpretable manner.

Audit sampling is also an important aspect of meaningful IA’s. They should be random, yet should represent the breadth of range of the products involved. In cases where a repeatable process is in play, a smaller sampling which is representative of the overall volume is sufficient. Where more variables exist, the audit sample should be larger. It could be as much as 20%. Some auditing standards also use the 8/10 of the square root of the sum total rule. As an example, if you have 1000 unique orders, you would internally audit 25 of them.

Now let’s talk about internal auditors. They should first and foremost be “detail oriented”, articulate and diligent. There’s another term for this kind of person in general use, but this is a family-oriented column. Second and equally as important is that the internal auditor should have no responsibility within the process or system being audited. Case in point is that the CFO of an organization is a prime candidate to perform purchasing department IA’s (unless of course one of the hats the CFO wears is that of purchasing manager). The last point is one of objectivity. With a well-crafted internal audit checklist in hand, internal auditors should be able to validate any process in the organization impartially and with total objectivity. “Just the facts, ma’am”.

Once the IA has been completed, any non-conformances should be expressed in the form of a corrective action request (CAR). CAR’s should reference the specific procedure along with a description of the non-conformant issue(s). From there, management should investigate the causes by performing a root cause analysis (RCA). RCA’s in their simplest form ask why, five times, just like when a child asks why the sky is blue.

And finally, once the IA’s, CAR’s and RCA’s have been completed, it’s time to put together an action plan along with a resolution timeline which is followed up on my management. For issues needing immediate attention due to systematic failure, the timeline should be rather short. For procedural non-conformities which do not directly affect the outcome, a longer period of time is acceptable, but no longer than to be part of the review process during the next scheduled IA. In all cases the CAR should be re-evaluated and either formally closed or elevated.

These are the tops of the waves. IA implementation is just one tool in a total quality management/ continuous process improvement program. Implemented effectively, the end result is always an improvement over the status quo.

Doing More for Less: Mystery of the Vanishing Profits

Tuesday, August 17th, 2010

In today’s competitive environment, most of us are faced with three major factors impacting our profits: more capacity than work, aggressive pricing to get the sale, and our client asking for additional features or benefits after the project is booked.

In the typical scenario, sales works hard to bring in opportunities, and estimating cuts the price to a minimum profit margin to try to secure the work, and if you’re lucky you close the deal.

But then the fun really begins as you start to work on the project and realize there is more to it than you thought. Maybe a lot more. 

It may start very simply and innocently – changing a few words in the copy, a couple of line-break changes for better layout, and the next thing you know you’ve happily agreed to move the mail date up by three days.  Whatever the request, the result is the same – you do the extra work, (incur cost), to keep the client happy, (loyal?), and it eats into your narrow profit margins even further.  If you do not have a detailed activity-based cost system, the total impact of small, incremental changes, or even larger ones, could go unnoticed.  At the end you look at the financials and wonder where the profit has gone.

One way to change the trend is to implement a Statement of Work, (SOW), for every project – even small ones.  Make sure the statement of work reflects all aspects of the project: data, composition, print, finishing, distribution and reporting.  You will get push back that this is too much work and slows down the sales process, but in fact we have seen over and over that making the effort up front can significantly reduce delays in the contracting and production of the project, and the clarity it provides saves time, (cost), for both you and your client. 

The statement of work would be provided to or reviewed with the client to confirm that you and they are in agreement as to the scope of the work.  Ideally, the client and you sign off on the SOW when the pricing is finalized and the purchase order is provided. Track the actual work performed against the SOW and make sure the changes are documented so they can be considered in repeat or similar future work.  Communicating to the client the changes and additional work being performed can minimally be used as a way of creating good will and improving the relationship, but can also be an objective way of identifying and communicating additional costs.  You decide in advance of discussion whether these are costs you wish to pursue with your client.  Most importantly, you know that the work and costs exist. 

This may seem simple and obvious but we have found time and time again that even if there is a Statement of Work process in place, it is used inconsistently or steps are left out.  Most often, the closing review of a project is left undone, as we have moved on to focus on the next project.  So the next time you wonder where profits have gone, take a look at your SOW process.

Fonts – More than just a Pretty Face

Tuesday, June 22nd, 2010

Today on “All Things Considered” on National Public Radio (NPR), Patty Murray of Wisconsin Public Radio reported that the University of Wisconsin, Green Bay has switched the default font on its e-mail system from Arial to Century Gothic in order to save money on printer ink. The university was primarily targeting local printing by students

While the Century Gothic font is proven to use less ink (or toner) than Arial and several other fonts, it is also wider and therefore can take more paper, thereby undercutting any savings. The story also referenced (incorrectly) that Century Gothic is more efficient than using an Ecofont. The folks in Green Bay apparently weren’t aware that Ecofont makes a variety of typefaces. Naturally, Ecofont was immediately on the wires with a rebuttal “Why Ecofont saves more money than Century Gothic.”  

Ecofont www.ecofont.com purports to save up to 25% on ink or toner without a loss of legibility. According to the literature, the Ecofont software works with your existing fonts and “during printing Ecofont ‘shoots’ holes into the letters that you have typed.” It is  intended for PCs and workstations versus production printing – but there may be production parallels.

Printer.com decided to take the analysis a bit further and test 9 different fonts for their respective ink and toner usage. The most efficient font cost 30% less than Arial in supplies costs and the least efficient cost 10% more than Arial. That’s a potential 40% swing in cost based on font selection.

Many of us are subject to the constraints of corporate brand identity standards and can’t randomly change the fonts we use, but where there are a variety of fonts to choose from it would be worthwhile to conduct your own tests on relative ink / toner usage. Where brand standards are not an issue, printers would do well to have font efficiency guidelines available as a benefit to their clients – particularly if printing on toner devices. In addition, corporations trying to push electronic adoption should consider investing in Ecofonts for your customers so that they can save money when they print information out at home. Perhaps this can be your next incentive for those who sign up for e-statements or other e-presentment. They might even thank you.

Problem or Opportunity? A Key to Customer Loyalty

Tuesday, June 15th, 2010

We all slip up from time to time–as individuals and as a company. We are human, and sometimes we simply don’t execute as well as we would like. Is this a problem or an opportunity? Well, let’s take a look.

If problems or omissions occur, it can strain a customer relationship. When they occur, we have a fundamental choice to make. We can press ahead to correct the situation or concern, deal with the issue head-on and resolve it–or not. The simple fact is that you build more trust and a stronger customer relationship by the way you handle tough situations. It can be the glue that makes a good relationship stronger, and we all know the value of a strong and valued customer relationship.

As many survey results reflect, it is not always the best price that causes customers to buy from you (and to continue buying from you), but the overall result that they achieve throughout the relationship. That includes dealing with challenges and everyday problems.

While we never wish for problems to occur, when they do, we can look at them as opportunities. They are both an opportunity to learn and to prevent from happening again and an opportunity to demonstrate our value to customers. If you strive to be the kind of company that is loyal to its customers, true to its values, and takes responsibility for your actions, customer loyalty will grow. Your customers will likely tell you that the most important thing you can do when an error or omission occurs is to move proactively to correct it and to apologize and accept accountability for the error. Then, put measures in place to ensure that it doesn’t happen again.

So what is the answer to the question, “When something bad or unexpected happens, is it a problem or an opportunity?” The answer is that it’s both. It is how we deal with the situation that makes the difference in managing customer relationships.