Deepening customer relationships

With relationship marketing and one-to-one tactics on the lips of most marketing moguls, it's not surprising that the commercial printing industry is getting in on the game. Then again, it's almost old hat for many printers, who over the last several years have had to adopt sophisticated new technologies to help them exchange and handle client information, and integrate it into their more traditional services.

With relationship marketing and one-to-one tactics on the lips of most marketing moguls, it’s not surprising that the commercial printing industry is getting in on the game. Then again, it’s almost old hat for many printers, who over the last several years have had to adopt sophisticated new technologies to help them exchange and handle client information, and integrate it into their more traditional services.

And it’s been a challenging exercise, says Marc Fortier, general manager of Transcontinental Printing, from a financial standpoint, as well as from a personnel standpoint – finding and keeping a new breed of print experts to capitalize on the new market opportunities.

‘But it’s a wonderful opportunity – when you’re faced with technological advancements and market dynamics that force you to reinvent yourself,’ he adds.

Printers, who were once more like order takers, have morphed into strategists, fostering interactive relationships with clients and acting increasingly like consultants.

‘Clients are looking to us to take on more of the piece of the pie. We can differentiate by offering more,’ says Karl Broderick, VP of commercial/publication/direct sales at Quebecor World, adding that direct-to-plate (eliminating film by digitizing the process) has had one of the greatest impacts, as has the ability to capture data and manipulate it.

‘Customers are getting information, but we have to help them get the right information. We become marketers more than just a commodity printer – that’s the biggest thing for us,’ he says, citing work for clients like Chrysler. Broderick says the auto manufacturer distributes its magalogue to customers with customized copy like: ‘Here’s a special on shocks! Based on the age of your car, you are due for… Here’s a coupon and by the way, here’s the nearest service station to your home… and here’s a map.’

It is as much about the integration of data as it is about producing, confirms Ed Strapagiel, senior VP with Kubas Consultants in Toronto. Over the last 10 years, printers have added data processing and manipulation and database management to the mix of print services, ultimately to help marketers be more efficient and achieve greater response rates, he says.

Now, advertisers can leverage capabilities like digital imaging, target marketing techniques and personalization, like putting the name of the target in several places on a direct mail package, using four-colour variable imaging and variable text – where a group of recipients gets paragraph or graphic 2-B instead of 2-A – to tailor images and messages to a particular segment or target.

‘A lot of the technology for this is pretty much in place. But the loose areas are almost non-tech things, more managerial in nature – particularly things like the quality of data, updating databases – all the human work stuff. It’s not the hardware or the software, it’s the peopleware,’ he says.

‘Working directly with a printer is crucial to get details right. Technology and computers are finicky – databases, columns and files have to be perfect. Printers know this, and also know that a comma in the wrong place might delay the whole job, so they’ve put effort into various systems and pre-press and database management to have that capability in-house,’ says Strapagiel.

‘They’ve built on that to the point where they can now offer full services in all areas. So now, instead of just sending proofs to the printers, advertisers are working with them right from the start.’

For its part, Transcontinental’s Yorkville Printing division has formed a whole group of people – called creative engineers – to work directly with the sales reps to help them collaborate further with clients. Fortier says it was in response to the changing role of the account manager, who has moved from dealing with the print buyer, to dealing with the marketing personnel, to dealing with the creative personnel.

‘Now, they take a part of advising on the technological capabilities. We have to change our marketing approach to an educational strategy. We have to educate our sales force first of all, but also educate the marketplace on exactly what we can do,’ he says.

But it’s also a learning process for both parties, says Broderick, adding that it’s moved from a one-way flow of information to a scenario where the two can put their heads together to come up with innovative solutions, or new products or versions.

The Internet has also helped deepen those relationships, he says, by allowing printers to communicate with customers online via electronic dockets and real-time job or shipment tracking.

‘They’ll have the same level of information that our internal people would have, which shortens the communication span and brings them [clients] even further into the fold,’ says Broderick.

Given that the economy is ‘headed for softer times,’ Strapagiel suggests printers are going to have to be even more prepared to advise clients on how to do things better and cheaper. In the longer term, however, there’s only so much money printers can cut out of the system, he warns.

‘The next step is looking at what’s being printed as an investment – is it worthwhile to go to two-fold instead of three-, or add more color or whatever. Printers are going to be in a position where, if they want bigger contracts and bigger printing jobs, they’re going to have to come back to advertisers and advise – saying for example, ‘don’t cut this or that, because it will be offset by loss of response.”