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Sales & Marketing Advice for Printers

Chinese New Year began January 31, so if your sales and marketing resolutions have fallen short so far, is here to assist. There is not much luck involved with selling printing (or anything else, for that matter), but 2014 is considered a lucky year in the Far East: The Year of the Horse kicks out the Year of the Snake. As the Chinese say, “A good horse never turns its head to eat the grass behind,” so look ahead to the remainder of Q1, not back.

Bill Esler, former editor-in-chief of Graphic Arts Monthly and High Volume Printing as well as one of my editorial mentors, used to think that the reason I made such a solid editor in this industry is because of my breadth of experience. “Mark has been on almost every side of the desk,” he would tell people by way of introduction, citing my varied experiences in corporate communications (with RR Donnelley), technology public relations (with Edelman Worldwide), and print sales (with CPI, no longer in business).

Having sold commercial printing for nearly five years in the cut-throat Chicago metro market, I’ve cultivated my share of marketing and selling advice over the years. The sales VP at the $25-million sheetfed shop for which I hawked used to stress the consultative, yet cliché approach of getting to know your customers. “If we needed you to just hand out equipment lists, we would have hired chimpanzees,” he would often tell his sales team during weekly pow-wows. “Don’t quote and pray” was more caution than advice, as was his warning not to add a job to monthly totals until a signed purchase order physically was in our hands.

Pearls of Wisdom

The best, most timeless advice I received was from an actual customer and is number one on’s list of the Top Ten sales and marketing tips for 2014:

1. “Take away my pain,” Nance Lopotko used to advise me. Lopotko, manager of print procurement at FTD Group (Florists’ Transworld Delivery), was a demanding print buyer at direct-response agency GSP Marketing in Chicago at the time. “V, make my job easier,” she would plead, giving examples of former print vendors who did not heed her advice. Her ink-on-paper knowledge was so impressive that our manufacturing VP and the Komori 40-inch lead operators welcomed her to conduct approvals press-side at the console as opposed to the customer viewing room. I focused on killer customer service, which included driving downtown to bring color-critical proofs in person along with a bit of hand-holding, but fighting rush-hour traffic was a small price to pay for the kind of trust that was building. What account manager wouldn’t want the chance to requote a job deemed “too high” at first look? That’s what Lopotko let me do, eventually, but it didn’t happen over night.

2. “Sell high wide and deep in every account,” shared Joe Rickard, president and founder of sales and sales management training/consulting firm Intellective Solutions. “This is a piece of advice I received when I started as a sales rep. It means that salespeople need to build relationships and trust beyond the buyer,” said the veteran of Sharp Electronics and Xerox, who started Intellective Solutions 12 years ago to focus on helping graphic communication companies improve their sales effectiveness. “Gaining access to as many potential influencers who hold titles below, equal, and above your buyer within the same account or department allows the salesperson to gain valuable information and support, he explained. “But equally important, it is protection against the possibility of a buyer moving to a new job and leaving the salesperson with no person to call on.

“Everyone in sales has experienced losing business when a great customer left for a new job,” Rickard continued. “A new decision maker taking over the buying role makes the incumbent salesperson vulnerable to competitors. Having established relationships throughout an account minimizes the possibility of losing top accounts to competitors. This is great advice for anyone in sales.” (Editor’s note: Read Joe’s “Sales Clinic” column in Quick

3. Be consistent. “All of the best marketing advice I’ve received can be summed up in one word: consistency,” said Steve Johnson, founder, president, and CEO of Copresco, a provider of digital on-demand book, manual, and publication printing services in Carol Stream, IL, near Chicago. “Creating a newsletter? The hard part isn’t the first issue; it’s the second, third and fourth. Preparing a mail campaign? Make sure you have the at least two follow-up mailings in the can before the first one drops.

“Advice such as, ‘It takes at least three exposures before the prospect even notices you’ and ‘just when you are getting sick of your message, the client is finally hearing it’ have kept my marketing campaigns on track when the temptation to slack off creeps in,” Johnson added. “Right now, I’m working on volume 25 of our flagship monthly newsletter. That’s not 25 issues, that’s 25 years. This newsletter didn’t get results on the first mailing, or the second, but boy, does it get results now!” (Editor’s note: Read Steve’s “Johnson’s World” column in Quick Printing:

4. Take your career seriously. “I can’t honestly say that the best advice I got was advice as much as it was an observation and a warning from a boss,” admitted Kelly Mallozzi, a coach, mentor, and consultant at SuccessInPrint “I was going through a time in which I was personally very distracted and allowing those distractions to affect the quality of my work. From the day that he warned me that my job was in jeopardy, I vowed to work harder than I’ve ever worked before. I decided that my job had to come first, and I needed to start acting like a serious professional.

“The reason that this event was so significant for me was that it informed all of my behavior from that point forward,” Mallozzi said. “It forced me to look in the mirror, decide that there were some things about myself that I did not like and really needed to change, and propelled me forward to make those changes. The results were that I took my career much more seriously, and I came out better for it on the other side. I cultivated some great relationships, which I don’t think I would have been able to do if I had stayed on the path I was on. Some of those relationships gave me the connections to start my own business, and here I am today – a published blogger, coach, speaker, and mentor. The moral of the story: Work hard, be serious, and succeed.”

5. Put your customer first. “The biggest single aspect I’ve learned comes from the fact that it’s not always about the product as much as it’s about the client,” added Mike Philie, senior VP at the National Association for Printing Leadership (NAPL). “Being client-centric in a product-centric industry, I believe, can be very valuable, continued Philie, who brings nearly three decades of graphic communications experience in the areas of sales, sales management, and executive leadership, including presiding over a commercial printing firm as well as holding senior level sales management roles. This advice circles back to my former manager’s consultative selling approach mentioned in the introduction, above.

6. Try the three Ds. What about preparing for a sales pitch? Master negotiator and author Ron Shapiro noted that using choice words is the key to effective communication. “I use a simple, systematic approach that I call the three Ds: draft, devil’s advocate, and deliver,” Shapiro told readers of Southwest Airlines/Airtran Spirit magazine (January 2014 issue). “Start by writing out every point you want to make or feeling you want to express. Next, find a friend or associate who can objectively suggest revisions. Finally, practice—preferably with another person,” he concluded. “By doing so, you’ll not only prepare yourself for questions that might arise, but you’ll increase your comfort level, allowing you to communicate with confidence.”

7. Are customers bullying you? “My best advice is pretty blunt,” said Dave Fellman, president of David Fellman & Associates, a sales and marketing consulting firm serving numerous segments of the graphic arts industry: “Don’t be afraid of your customers! I bet you think you’re not, but lots of evidence says that you are. For example, are you willing to charge premium prices for the premium quality and service that you (hopefully) deliver, or do you quote lower prices than you really want to, hoping they’ll be willing to pay? If they apply price pressure, do you defend your prices, or say ‘let me see what I can do’ and then lower them? If you have difficult customers, do you talk with them about the things that cause problems for you, or do you continue to let them to disrupt your business? ‘Bad’ customer behavior can often be changed. But you can’t be afraid to engage! And while we’re on this subject, are you afraid of your employees?

8. Ensure no surprises. “‘Don’t call me the day the job is to be delivered and tell me it’s not going to be delivered until a later date,’” a client once told Lincoln Chin, my friend and former CPI colleague who is now an independent print broker in Chicago with more than 25 years of print selling experience (including a couple years at Innerworkings). “‘It will be the quickest way to lose my business!’” While managing customer expectations really is nothing new, a friendly reminder of its importance never hurts. Another iteration of this philosophy -- “under-promise and over-deliver” – is a selling maxim of many an organization.

9. Sales is life. In his mid-2013 book entitled Eleven Rings: The Soul of Success retired professional basketball coach Phil Jackson quotes many philosophers. During his storied career as head coach of the Chicago Bulls and Los Angeles Lakers, Jackson won more championships than any coach in the history of pro sports. The news media dubbed him the “Zen Master:” an intellectual with an interest in Eastern thought who advocated Buddhist meditation to manage the titanic egos of Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal, and Kobe Bryant.

There are several business lessons to be gleaned from Jackson’s prose, including “everything changes,” words uttered by Soto Zen monk and teacher Shunryu Suzuki to explain Buddhism. The always-thoughtful hoops coach added that “those words … contain the basic truth of existence: Everything is always in flux. Until you accept this, you won’t be able to find true equanimity. But to do that means accepting life as it is, not just what you consider the ‘good parts.’ ‘That things change is the reason why you suffer in this world and become discouraged,’ Suzuki-roshi wrote in Not Always So: Practicing the True Spirit of Zen. ‘[But] when you change your understanding and your way of living, then you can completely enjoy your new life in each moment. The evanescence of things is the reason you enjoy your life.’”

10. Give us your best. Think about the most valuable piece of sales and/or marketing advice that you have ever received, then share it with your peers who follow MyPrintResource on social-media platforms via our Facebook for Business, LinkedIn, and Twitter feeds.

Number 9 is some deep thinking, but taken collectively this and the other eight points given here offer good advice as the ever-evolving printing industry forges ahead in 2014. Happy selling!

9 Bonus Tips

“These small bits of wisdom come from many places and, together, can form a solid foundation for anyone trying to move people to your way of thinking – which is selling,” said Philie, who leads NAPL’s Business Advisory Group:

  • Always try to know why you won or lost a project.
  • Know who else, besides the person you’re meeting with, will influence the decision-making process.
  • Bring a lot of ideas. Every once in a while, there will be a good one.
  • You’re not trying to get an order; you’re trying to win an account.
  • Alvin Toffler gave us the concept of “learn, unlearn, and relearn.” In an industry that is transforming, that proves to be invaluable.
  • Focus on how the client makes money with the products/services that you provide.
  • Without a plan, you are bound reinvent the wheel each day.
  • Know how your client “wins” by selecting you as a supplier.
  • Check your ego at the door when dealing with your support team.
  • Ask yourself daily, “What am I doing to get better?”