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PrintingForLess.com : 21st Century Printing

November 2010 By Erik Cagle
Senior Editor
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Let’s turn back the clock a few years. Andrew S. Field ambles into a Barnes & Noble bookstore in downtown Seattle, in want of a newspaper. 

Behind the counter, Field spots a less-than-enthralled cashier, a twenty-something whose dead-eyed glaze would’ve fit in well at the local fish market...in the “catch of the day” bin.

Field, a man who knows a thing or two about customer service, genuinely inquires, “Excuse me, but do you love your job?”

Trout orbs doesn’t miss a beat, replying, “Will that be all?” One wakeup call placed, one snooze bar tapped.

“It’s too bad,” Field observes, “that life is that way for some people.”

Andrew S. Field, founder of PrintingForLess.com (PFL) in Livingston, MT, never had any grand designs about owning an online venture, let alone a printing company. But, one day in 1996, while fishing with an old buddy who was about to lose his job at an in-plant printer, the idea was floated to Field that he should take a stab at starting his own print shop.

It might have seemed like a career reach, considering that Field was selling auto supplies to repair shops at the time. But, he had worked in the industry back in the 1980s at Minneapolis-based Meyers Printing, as well as Sir Speedy. However, Field now resided in Montana, the sixth-least-populated state in the union.

“We did about a week’s worth of market research. There were only two other printers in the area. We felt like they were cutting a pretty fat hog, so I thought we could eat, too,” Field remarks.

In short order, he assembled a six-employee crew, shelled out $425,000 for a Heidelberg sheetfed press and sales quickly grew to $80,000 a month. But there was a reason why only two printers existed in a 100-mile radius. Print buyers were few and far between. Montana’s bread-and-butter industries, like agriculture and timber, didn’t drive print. The pig was not so big, after all.

Although Field couldn’t find enough customers, he was able to find a niche. In the late 1990s, it was tough for customers to get printers to accept/manipulate different types of files—Microsoft Word and Publisher, Corel Drop, PowerPoint, etc.—without being charged with setup/layout fees. Field’s technology wizards figured out a technique to take RGB output and convert it into CMYK, which was a big deal back in the day. Armed with an angle, he decided to emulate the Amazon model by taking to the Internet in March of 1999, first selling brochures, then relaunching in October with a greater arsenal.

These days, PFL offers the full gamut of commercial printing products, from brochures, postcards and stationery to newsletters, catalogs, folders and various other goods such as CD covers, table tents, hang tags and large-format printing. The shop has grown from a half-dozen employees to 130, with sales in the mid-$20 million range. The typical customer spends about $2,000 a year on printing. About 80 percent of its clients are small- and medium-size businesses; the rest are resellers (marketing firms, ad agencies, graphic artists and printers).

Now, competitors tell Field that they have watched PFL from day one and have tried to copy everything, because “if you’re doing something, we figure it must be working.”

Field also didn’t set out to create arguably the most unique working environment in the history of the printing industry. He didn’t sit down with a legal pad and jot down the genesis of a James Hilton-inspired Shangri-La, but the final product definitely evolved into a harmonious balance between worker happiness and productivity. At PFL, employees don’t bring their work home with them, but for some, the home life creeps into work.

“If your biggest motivation in life is to make a pile of money, you’re not going to stay here,” Field says of living in Montana. “People are in Montana because they want a great place to live, a great place to raise their kids. We have no traffic, no pollution, no crime and the cost of living is reasonable. What you end up with is nice people who really value the outdoors.”

Fishing, hunting, white water rafting, skiing, hiking—no outdoorsy activity is unrepresented here. But the benefits don’t end once the employee steps inside the PFL facility.

“People who are attracted to working here also want to have a workplace that is more than a paycheck,” Field remarks. “They want to have a workplace that’s meaningful, engaging, rewarding and fun.”

For starters, PFL is the only company in the state that is licensed to have on-site child care. He first considered having in-house accommodations after two key employees became pregnant within a short span. One employee took just two weeks of maternity leave, and asked if she could bring her baby to work.

“Sometimes I’d carry her child around so she could get some work done,” Field recalls. “What I realized is that it’s really tough that moms often feel the pressure or conflict between having a great career and being a great parent. We want to make it easier for them. If a mother knows that within 30 seconds she can go see her child, during her break time or lunch, that’s nice. That’s important.”

Sometimes, an employee’s “baby” has four legs, and those loved ones are welcome, too. Field himself started the trend of bringing dogs to work when he first toted along his newly-adopted puppy, whom he didn’t want to leave at home alone. Soon, an employee asked if he could also bring his pooch to work, and a tradition was born.

How valued are the canines? When PFL moved into its current facility nearly five years ago, Field decided against having carpeting, since dogs and rugs invariably result in disaster.

“I figured if manufacturing employees can stand on concrete for 12-hour shifts, we can roll our chairs on it,” he states. “We realized that we value a fun, casual and relaxed workplace. On a typical day, the best-dressed person might be wearing jeans.”

Don’t let the name fool you. PrintingForLess is not a bottom feeder.

“It’s not printing for least,” Field relates. “We want to provide quality, a good value and a really great experience for our customers.”

According to Wyeth Windham, vice president of technical services, the do-it-yourself mentality of online printing services is intended to cater to those who are looking for the absolute lowest price. PFL is probably not a good fit for that type of print buyer.

“High-touch customer service and really good relationship selling are how we differentiate ourselves,” Windham says. “We’re taking the traditional, local print shop feel, but doing it nationwide through the e-commerce model. Because of that, our largest source of new customers is referrals.”

Once an order is placed online, clients are assigned to a three-person account team that is fully versed in sales, electronic prepress and service. These teams are given easily remembered names, like Mustang, Eagle, Big Sky, Red, so clients won’t be frustrated if they only remember the first name of a team member. That erases the aggravation of weaving one’s way through an automated phone tree, then getting a CSR up to speed on your account and needs.

PFL used to have random CSRs, but it became problematic when a buyer would place multiple orders within a day and be assisted by more than one rep. So, Field hired an organizational development consultant, who advised PFL to adopt its three-member team concept.

“We’ve applied a lot of technology to have really great software tools for our people so we can see—very easily and readily—their order history, status of all their current orders,” Field remarks. “We keep good contact history. So, even if it’s a different member of the three-person team, we try to make it seamless.”

PFL’s clients seem to have bought into the customer experience. The company has literally hundreds of client testimonials on its Website, and links to nearly 100 video “thank you” productions, mostly YouTube uploads.

“In America today, the overall level of customer service across all industries is so low,” Field says. “We just try to raise the bar, show how it can be done.”

Interpersonal relationships within the walls of PFL are nothing short of progressive; particularly the rules governing them. The company has an “agreement to values” form that encompasses standards such as: 

• Fun loving and accountable. Nothing is swept under the rug, which—of course—has already been removed.

• Teamwork and transparency. Everyone’s productivity report is available for all to see. This fact is made abundantly clear during interviews to avoid confusion later.

“If you’re a pressman and you’re not comfortable with everyone seeing your productivity report, then this probably isn’t a good place for you to work,” Field says.

• No gossiping. Back stabbing and office politics are strictly verboten. Employees police themselves and, on a rare occasion, an offender will be reminded of the core values. 

These aren’t Brave New World concepts dreamed up by Field; these values are embraced and treasured by the employees. They promote teamwork, increase morale and provide them a better sense of work community. 

When people are hired at PFL, they are given a communications assessment, which identifies the employee’s primary communications style. Each style has a corresponding color: Red means the person is direct and to the point, blue likes details and wants time to process them, yellow is open and spontaneous, and green is sensitive and prefers a courteous approach. The color bars are affixed to the name plates on employees’ desks, advising those who approach them of their preferred style of communication.

Field stresses that any group working together for a prolonged period already knows how each person prefers to communicate and be approached. However, with a large number of employees forming account teams, the newly-formed units can get to a higher level of effective communication more quickly via the color coding. The company doesn’t hire to any particular profile.

Emma Fuller, director of manufacturing for PFL, feels the company not only does a great job with its hires, but also has processes in place to ensure employees have the opportunity to reach their maximum potential.

“We hire intelligent people and have a great training program,” she says. “There’s a continuous feedback loop. They know exactly what they need to be working on but, at the same time, employees know where they’re excelling. With our one-on-one program, all of our managers spend 45 minutes talking with each of the employees about their growth plan, where they stand with their personal development plan, and other areas of interest or issues that may exist or be improved.”

Field is an excitable man, and it’s easy to see why. His clients love him, as do the employees, the children and their parents, and so do the dogs. Field looks out his windows and sees breathtaking mountains. It is not a privileged view, as even the manufacturing area has windows to allow natural light.

“You don’t have to be a professional print buyer to get professional-quality marketing materials,” Field concludes, echoing a company mantra. “We know print buying can be kind of scary—there are a lot of pitfalls and booby traps. We try to take some of the pain points out of traditional printing.”

And who better to do that than a non-traditional printer? PI


 

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