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Print Buyers – Can't Live With Them, Can't Live Without Them

Printers and print buyers often have a love/hate relationship. Printers complain about price shoppers and buyers complain about high prices. Printers say print buyers can be picky. Print buyers say printers can be sloppy. For every gripe a printer has about print buyers, print buyers have a matching complaint about printers. The fact is that neither one can get along without the other.

Before we get into what print buyers are really looking for in a printer, let's differentiate between print buyers and print brokers. In a nutshell, print buyers either work for a company that needs to buy printing or they work to fulfill their own printing needs. A print broker is a middleman who matches a company in need of printing with a printer in need of a client.

One of the larger and better known print brokering organizations is the franchise ProForma, which claims to have 750 "offices" serving 50,000 clients and racking up $300 million in annual sales. However, they are far from the only print broker game in town. Along with such outfits as the Print Services & Distribution Association and a raft of other Google hits on the term "print broker", I found The Printing Brokerage/Buyers Association International (PBBA) which bills itself as a "worldwide membership trade organization of printing intermediaries: Group buying/outsourcing services; Independent manufacturers' representative; and Value-added resellers." Comments from PBBA president Vincent Mallardi seem to illustrate the love/hate relationship I mentioned earlier.

"Printing buyers have through the years consistently complained about the attitude of most—not many or some—printers. They cannot do this or that, the schedule won't accommodate, etc. The most common current complaint is that they ask for money up-front before even quoting the job. Printing intermediaries filter these annoyances by separating the warring parties and delivering what each wants: a good product and a knowledgeable agent in between. We buy right and sell smart at PBBA."

Two Top Sources

Printers probably know two print buyer organizations best—PrintBuyersOnline.com (PBO) and Print Buyers International (PBI). Both offer significant training and educational resources for print buyers and both are sponsored by major printing industry vendors and suppliers.

PBO was created by Suzanne Morgan and provides "consulting advice and educational services to print buying companies and print suppliers" in order to "support a peaceable and profitable relationship between buying companies, printers, and suppliers." Membership is free and it does not offer any "brokering or print projects or matchmaking between buyers and printers." PBO is funded by "a few industry leaders that see the value of educating print buyers and production professionals." While PBO's emphasis is mostly on the print buyer side, it also welcomes printers and print supply companies "and most anyone from the 'other side'".

PBI was started by Margie Dana as an expansion of her original Boston Print Buyers group. Print customers, designers, and marketers are all eligible for membership which costs $195 annually. Printers, print brokers, paper merchants, mail house employees, and software manufacturers are eligible for associate membership at $295 a year. PBI holds a one-day Print & Media Conference annually, a two-day Annual Print & Media Conference in conjunction with Graph Expo, and a series of half-day Print Buyer Boot Camps. Dana also publishes the weekly "Margie's Print Tips" newsletter and has a LinkedIN group with some 900 members who are print customers.

Buyer Feedback

At PBI's conference during Graph Expo, Dana moderated a brainstorming session where print buyers, creatives, and marketers could talk about their biggest issues and challenges. She says that from the comments at these types of sessions, as well as the continuing feedback from members, she sees several things that are of importance to print buyers when looking to choose a printer.

"Price matters, it always does, it always will," she says. "But the senior-level corporate print buyer is using other criteria to determine who to work with. It's not a consistent checklist across the board, since buyers are motivated by different objectives and concerns." However, she notes that some print buyers sometimes do buy on price alone. She points to non-profits and government agencies as examples. "It's not that they all must, but many do."

"Print buyers are expected to source cost effectively, so naturally they're learning about fair pricing and negotiating," says Dana. "They'd be lousy buyers if they didn't"

How important is a printer's equipment and capabilities? Some of the comments from the brainstorming sessions speak to this question:

  • "We've migrated to digital, so we need to know what kind of equipment so that the print provider can print, ship & distribute."
  • "We always ask for an equipment list and what is done in-house vs. outsourced."
  • "We actually do a print test – our colors are black and yellow – but you'd be surprised at the samples we get in."

Dana also notes that senior buyers usually insist on taking a plant tour. "They'll inspect things like how the equipment is maintained, how clean the facility is, how the people get along. No kidding! They're watching interpersonal cues between sales reps or managers and production team. More and more I'm finding buyers care about this."

An increasingly important criterion for choosing a printer is sustainability, according to Dana, who admits that "to be fair, this is more important to some buyers than it is to others."

References also count. "Great references from buyers they trust are huge," says Dana. "Buyers talk and share, today more than ever before. A good referral is a golden ticket."

The old saw is that if you educate your customers in how to prepare a job right you will pay the price of having to deal with an uneducated customer. Dana says that print buyers really do prefer printers who educate their customers.

Dana says that the fastest way to kill a potential sale is for a sales rep not to do his or her homework. A sales call from a rep who hasn't done his homework is "curtains' for him."

In the end, says Dana: "I guess print buyers want it all—speed quality, great value, and naturally great service. Who can blame them? We get everything else overnight. But you have to break this all down to fully understand what each means. And new buyers have different expectations than savvy ones, but that's for another day."

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