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February 2001

There is an old saying that a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. That adage can also be applied to commercial printing. A company may have state-of-the-art equipment, a CTP-enabled prepress workflow and veteran press operators, but if its sales staff is unable to sell the finished product, the whole chain will collapse.

Of course, this is not to imply that salespeople are the weak link of a printing operation. On the contrary, since the success of a company is generally judged by sales figures, the importance of a winning sales team is obvious.

One of the biggest challenges for salespeople in any business is to market products and service with which neither they nor their customers are familiar. Newer technologies, such as on-demand digital printing, fall into this category.

Digital printing first burst onto the scene at PRINT 91 when Heidelberg exhibited its GTO-DI direct imaging press. Indigo followed, in 1993, with the introduction of the e-Print 1000, which was touted as the industry's first fully digital, four-color offset press.

According to Louis Nudo, vice president of sales for Old Forge, PA-based Panel Prints, the past decade has seen tremendous expansion in the digital printing segment.

"The digital, non-film type of printing is becoming the every-day type of situation, where a couple of years ago it was the new process on the block and people were still using film to create pictures," Nudo notes. "Now, more and more printers are using digital information instead of creating film and negatives. That's run across the board in all markets, from the P-O-P industry into just about every other industry. More acceptance of this process is causing a much bigger influx in the digital part of printed materials."

Nudo has seen the explosion first-hand. He reveals that Panel Prints went from about 10 percent digital work in 1999 to 60 percent to 70 percent currently.

Digital Specialists
As such, this rapidly changing market requires a flexible sales staff, notes Mark Edgar, vice president and general manager of Corporate Direct in Landover, MD. Corporate Direct, a division of Corporate Press, went digital two years ago and has trained its salespeople to be "digital specialists."

"You need a different type of salesperson, or at least a different type of understanding and background," Edgar opines. "In most cases, you are developing a new market with your customers. We found when we started to get more involved in this, that most of our customers didn't understand what we were talking about."

At first, Edgar was stonewalled by his sales force when Corporate Direct went digital. "I couldn't get some of the regular salespeople to sell it because they didn't see the value in it," he recalls. "They still wanted to sell the 30,000, four-color runs and so on. Now that they're starting to see some of the value of this type of work, though, they're becoming more interested."

Corporate Direct started by pinpointing several people on its sales staff for digital duty. Edgar relates that younger people, who have been exposed to computers and desktop publishing for most of their lives, have a better understanding than "older, streamlined salespeople."

One of the first steps in the process of marketing digital printing capabilities is to educate the sales staff. It is difficult, if not impossible, for a salesperson to sell digital printing if he or she knows nothing about it. That's why many companies hold training programs for their own staff.

"We conduct a seminar every month at our facility," Nudo reports. "It's a two-day seminar with the department heads, and we always spend at least a half day on digital prepress and digital information."

Edgar recalls a salesperson at Corporate Direct that spent seven months in digital training at the company's plant. She was involved in everything from working with the database people to actually assisting the pressmen work on live jobs.

Once the salespeople are comfortable and knowledgeable with the technology, the focus shifts to educating customers about the virtues of digital printing. "We attempt to inform our customers that they're going to get a better product," comments Larry Reynolds, president of Orangeburg, SC-based Major Printing. "It's a sales tool, but they expect a good product—regardless of the process that is being used."

Consumer Advantages
To the untrained eye, there is now little difference between digital and conventional offset printing due to the ongoing maturation of digital output devices. Those in the know, however, are aware of the advantages that digital possesses. For starters, on-demand printing is a much quicker process since make-ready time is reduced and many of the steps in traditional printing are eliminated.

"The biggest saving, as far as digital imagery is concerned, is that the time to get a finished product is cut drastically," Nudo comments. "With most budgets being a just-in-time type of situation, timing is extremely critical."

Completing orders quickly, notes Don DeHart, president of DeHart's Printing Service in Santa Clara, CA, is what customers look for first. "My personal feeling is that customers are concerned with turnaround time, quality and cost as it relates to product," he says.

DeHart's Printing has been involved with digital printing for 10 years. Today, approximately 98 percent of its work—which is primarily technical documentation and book printing—is produced digitally. DeHart believes the cost of switching from conventional to digital is what has kept many printers from embracing the new technology right away.

"A lot had the solution where you took a customer file, then you went to film, then you burned a plate. And if you had all that equipment, it was a big pill to swallow scrapping all those processes and going completely digital," he explains. "As equipment was aging and printers were looking at getting their products onto the press quicker with shorter makeready times, they began to change to digital."

The switch to digital capabilities by many printers will eventually lower the cost for customers, since there will be more on-demand print providers out there. But with printers shelling out large investments for the new equipment, it's still a challenge for digital printers to command a premium in prices from their clientele.

Digital Printing Myths
"That's one of the myths of digital printing. Printers say I'm not creating film so, basically, I'm going to save money," Nudo states. "There is a slight savings, but it's minimal. People forget about what you have to do to create the digital images—the trapping of the materials, the combining of layers of information, the RIPing of the information through the system, as well as the new plate equipment, personnel and overhead costs, which don't change with digital."

And marketing digital printing will remain a challenge for companies until the customer base becomes more comfortable with the emerging digital technology. "It's not an easy thing, because it seems like it's a discovery for most customers," Edgar observes. "Once we get them on board and they see the value, though, it becomes much easier."

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