The Sign Connection: Tectonic Changes Facing Our Industry

In June I attended the summer board meeting of the International Franchise Association (IFA). This is one of three IFA board meetings held annually; it is my favorite one as it is held over three days and includes significant time for brainstorming. One morning was spent considering and evaluating the “Tectonic Changes Ahead in the Franchising Industry”. We discussed four topics during this brainstorming session; two of them apply to the wide-format industry: technology as a game changer and access to capital.


Technology as a Game Changer

Certainly, changes in the technology we use to produce signage and manage workflows will impact our industry. At FASTSIGNS, we expect innovation in inks and substrates to improve adhesion on UV printers and offer us a wider range of products we can produce while being kinder to the environment. We expect to see increased textile printing, whether using dye-sublimation, latex, or a new technology. We believe there will be a resurgence of interest in sustainable (green) technology and products. We look forward to increased efficiency with end-to-end workflow solutions combining JDF and PDF workflows and improved color management. Digital electronic signage will have an additional impact on our business; those who see it as a competitor will miss an opportunity to diversify and provide value to existing customers. These new technologies will provide opportunities to sell and produce expanded products and services.

Keeping up with technology is necessary in today’s competitive marketplace. The innovation new technology brings is multifold: bringing added value to customers, efficiencies in production providing better margins, and sustainable (green) opportunities.

Utilizing technology and seeking innovation allow you to become a more valuable partner to your clients. It comes down to the conversations you have with your customers: can you bring them more value, more ideas? Can you get involved with them earlier in the project, providing ideas and consultation—with more chance for upselling and cross selling? The earlier you get involved in the conversation, the more opportunity you have in addition to selling the sign. Can you manage their brand identity or consistency, handle the fulfillment, etc? Can you make the project more integrated or complex, locking out your competitors?

The objective is for the client to consider you as a value-added partner, bringing fresh ideas of how to build their business, solve their challenges, and improve their efficiency, rather than thinking of you only as a sign supplier. Clients are willing to pay more for “mind share” and valuable consultation.

If you can arm your outside salespeople with better technology and innovation, teach them get involved in the conversation earlier, and to think of ways to use the technology to solve the customers’ challenges, the ideas can become more important than the product itself. We need to be able to train our salespeople to think of innovative ways to solve customers’ challenges using technology.

Continuing advances in technology will drive improvements and innovations in business practices and processes. Integrating many (or all) company processes on one platform—or accessible on one platform (integrated browser-based solutions)—will increase employee productivity. FASTSIGNS is developing an integrated system to run and manage our franchise partners’ entire business: from lead generation, to customer relationship management (CRM), to order entry (including integrated e-commerce), scheduling, production, and installation/delivery, to business management and business intelligence. We believe business intelligence is key to driving sales and managing growth. This solution will give our franchise partners and our network comprehensive reporting and forecasting tools, providing business efficiency and stability. Our objective is to help our franchise partners find new customers more effectively, service and support existing customers more efficiently, produce and deliver our products in a timely manner with improved margins, combined with accurate, real-time business intelligence reporting.

Increased penetration and adoption of smartphones and tablets, allowing personalized marketing and customer engagement, are already having a significant impact on business. At FASTSIGNS, we have created over a dozen iPad and tablet sales presentations that our franchise partners and their outside salespeople utilize to display our capabilities and facilitate interaction with prospects and customers. In the future, the use of mobile devices as a primary computing and communication tool will revolutionize business. Placing orders and paying by smartphone are innovations taking place today. Integrating business processes using tablets and smart phones, giving employees instant mobile access to a company’s systems, will bring increased efficiency. Each of us, as players in the large-format market, need to keep up with these game changing technologies or we will be left behind.


Access to Capital

The credit crisis that began during the economic downturn continues. While there has been some improvement, the vast majority of small businesses continue to struggle to get access to capital, limiting their ability to expand, add equipment, new employees, etc. While the administration and Congress have given this issue some attention, at the same time, regulators continue to require banks to increase reserve requirements and tighten credit criteria. This lack of access to capital affects many in our industry, as well as small businesses in every industry, further restricting small businesses’ job creation and economic growth capabilities.

Our industry will not return to its full potential until our economy strengthens. The International Sign Association’s 2011 State of the Industry Survey reports “economic uncertainty” as the most significant issue affecting our industry. The lack of access to capital is one of several key factors limiting our economic recovery. Developing and nurturing the relationship with your banker is key. Alternative sources of funding, from factoring to private individuals looking for a better return on their capital or small business loan exchanges, will become more common in our industry.

Those large-format businesses with access to capital will have a competitive advantage over their competition. This access to capital allows you to acquire needed technology and invest in the hiring, training and development of the innovative staff to help you grow your business.

The companies that pay close attention to these “tectonic” changes will maximize their competitive advantage. I encourage you to set time aside to address these two areas of challenge because doing so will allow you to turn the challenge into opportunity.

At FASTSIGNS, the team is focused on increasing our franchise partners’ profitability and their profitable sales volume. We have developed a robust outside sales and sales management support program as well as sophisticated multi-channel, multi-touch integrated marketing campaigns with measurability. We are about to launch an integrated point-of-sale, e-commerce, and management information system that we believe will revolutionize our centers.

Our franchise partners benefit from our technical team, which provides end-to-end tech support on hardware, software, workflow, and color management as well as unbiased, detailed equipment, ink, and substrate testing and evaluations. We have created an extensive library of custom actions and scripts—to increase efficiency and speed up workflow—and answers to frequently asked questions to reduce the time spent on troubleshooting, problem solving, and training staff.

We are working hard to bring even more savings to our franchise partners; negotiating with vendors on equipment, substrates, supplies, and services using our buying power as leverage. We are providing tools and training to help our franchisees select, train, and motivate empowered team members.