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Marchand--Focus In, Listen Up!

June 1998
Is it important to listen to customers? I have yet to meet the sales and marketing executive who does not think so. Why, then, do so few printing companies create effective venues for learning about their customers' concerns and expectations?

Discussions that take place during the routine conduct of business provide essential information. But these exchanges are not what I have in mind.

The often painful sessions that take place when a printing company has made a grievous mistake can be instructive, to say the least, but seldom offer much insight about a customer's organization.

Sales managers intermittently accompany sales reps on visits to their companies' major accounts—but not many. A smaller number of printing companies expect senior executives to meet occasionally with customers. Important as it is to expose senior executives and customers to one another, these meetings do not enable printing companies to discover where customers are headed in their use of printing services.

The kind of listening and learning that printing companies need in a fast-changing environment can only be conducted when there are no immediate objectives—or, more correctly stated, when listening and learning are the only objectives.

Learning From Customers
There are many ways to learn about customers' immediate and projected concerns. Satisfaction studies are one. Questionnaires and mailed surveys both provide valuable information about a range of topics.

However, all of these vehicles are shaped and restricted by the questions asked. As a result, they limit the opportunity for the surprising discovery that is so often invaluable. This kind of information is best uncovered in live exchanges among customers guided by an experienced facilitator. It is this outcome that makes the focus group particularly valuable for printing companies.

The sessions are simple to set up, easy to conduct, and have multiple uses. They provide essential information for the making of major decisions. Here are six examples.

1) New Technology
During a focus group, if the head of print production for a major entertainment company (an organization with an annual print budget in the tens of millions) were to make the case for bringing e-mail to the desk of every printing company employee with customer contact, would your CEO be more likely to authorize this essential tool for job communications? No? Well, then how about if the same guy said that as of Jan. 1, his company would no longer work with printers that would not work with his staff via e-mail?

2) New Services
If your company adds database and mailing capabilities, will it be perceived by customers as a credible supplier for direct mail services? A Pennsylvania printer used focus groups to discover if it could overcome customer resistance by buying a mail house rather than developing its own capability in this area.

3) Receivables
In two focus groups, a California-based printing company learned that its customers were concerned about late invoices and collection efforts often made a few days after customers receive the invoices. Their corporate and agency customers both wanted earlier invoices—the one to get expenditures into fiscal periods during which they were incurred, the other to be able to bill their clients sooner.

4) Relocation
A focus group conducted for a bindery revealed that its move to a plant just a few miles away concerned its customers. The solution: marketing that defined the distance in miles and time, and emphasized the increased production and the efficiencies the new plant will bring, including faster turnarounds, reduced spoilage and better shipping.

5) New Markets
An equipment manufacturer selling digital presses conducted focus groups attended by printers to learn about obstacles to adoption.

6) Training
A well-edited videotape of a focus group provides reps, CSRs and estimators an opportunity to hear customers describe their concerns.

Few companies hold focus groups only once. Almost invariably, the sessions prove to be of such great value, they become a line in the annual marketing budget.

What major equipment, what additional services or new market is your company exploring? A review of customer needs would add considerable value to conventional cost-justification studies that take little notice of demand. What better place to begin than a focus group?

—Jacques Marchand

About the Author
Jacques Marchand may be phoned at (415) 357-2929. His firm, Marchand Marketing, provides strategic consulting services, positioning and marketing communications to help companies in the printing industry increase sales. E-mail may be sent to jmarchand@marchand.com. Information about the firm's work for clients is also available on its Web site, www.marchand.com.


We Already Know

Mid-sized and smaller printing companies often have superb access to customers. They are usually in close geographical proximity to their print buyers. Long-established friendships often exist between printing company executives and their counterparts in customers' organizations. This can create a false confidence for even the most wary executive.

Proximity isn't enough to sustain a working relationship. And don't depend upon conversations at the club as your main source of market intelligence. You may not lose the customer, but you will lose touch with the markets you serve.

Don't overlook the obvious. Your friends may (or may not) tell you that your golf game (or your company) is slipping. But that's not the purpose for a focus group. Its objective is to put you ahead, not warn you of imminent loss.

The cost is modest. Some form of a focus group is within the budget of every company. Whether through a periodic customer round table or a full-blown videotaped session observed behind a one-way mirror, hearing customers and prospects talk about their needs is a source of invaluable information for good decision-making.

In this age of rapidly changing needs and growing customer expectations, no company can be confident that it's on the right track without input from clients.

—J.M.
 

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