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Why Customers Walk Away —Morgan

September 2008
EVER WONDER why that once-great customer no longer returns your phone calls? Get the feeling that you’ve been kicked out, but you don’t know why? It’s no wonder that printers experience this mysterious disappearing act, as close to 50 percent of print buyers say they quietly walk away with no explanation.

In June, we asked our major print buyers, “If you decide to stop using a print supplier, how do you end the working relationship?” Of the 70 participants: Fifty-three percent of print buyers said, “I am usually direct with them. I tell the supplier that I’m not planning to work with them again, and I tell them why.” Forty-seven percent said, “I usually just avoid them and stop sending them bids to quote on.”

While some print buyers are willing to be direct with what went wrong, here’s a few tips on how you can avoid getting to that breaking point with the other half.

Prep Your Rep. Print buyers demand more from sales reps than they did just a few years ago. They are expected to understand the nuances of marketing, financial impacts on print promotions and deliver bottom-line solutions. When your customers feel that they don’t have the right liaison, you could be losing business.

“I stopped working with a vendor because the sales rep was continually not following through with his jobs,” indicated one survey respondent. “There were late estimates, untrue job status statements and unfulfilled promises. I also have had a few different sales reps who never submitted the estimates that were promised, with no apologies or follow through. This occurred mainly with vendors that I was considering trying. It’s too bad—the company samples seemed great, but the employees stunk. Maybe I should have complained to their superiors, but I just let it go.”

Since sales reps are the key builders of intimacy, trust, and communication between the printer and the print buyer, it’s crucial that the sales rep is the right fit for the buying company.

Ask for Feedback. Establish frequent and open communication with your buyers and request feedback for past jobs. Ask how your company can improve and what changes they would like to see. Learn what’s working, and what isn’t. Print buyers will share their thoughts with you, if you just ask the right questions.

“I always find it best to be direct with a supplier,” contributes Gary Hansen, a vice president/production director. “If I tell a vendor that I am ending my relationship with them, it would not have been the first time I spoke to them about having a problem. The supplier would have seen it coming.”

And, keep in mind some print buyers literally keep tabs. Kim Kailey, a senior print buyer at Boy Scouts of America, keeps a track record of previous issues. “We keep a log of problems that would be cause for concern and share this information (usually several instances later) when we decide that the relationship is not a ‘good fit’ for our company.”

Listen, Don’t Lecture. Some buyers walk away without notice because they don’t want to argue. One print buyer shared, “In my experience, most printers want to debate the decision, and such a decision comes after a long process of trying to negotiate our needs. If they are not listening before the ‘firing,’ then I don’t have time for them after I have cut the strings.”

Another agreed: “A lot of print vendors will not take ‘no’ for an answer. They keep pushing to get another chance. I begin avoiding them until they get the point that I don’t want to deal with their company.”

“I try to be direct, but I have to admit that sometimes I do take the route of avoidance,” contributed a senior print buyer. “I’ve found that even though a print supplier wants you to be honest with them, they don’t take the news too well. It typically ends up with my having to justify my position over and over—and having to endure phone call after phone call. Sometimes avoidance is just easier.”

Acknowledge Mistakes. If something goes wrong with a project, print buyers are more likely to continue sending you work when you are willing to admit your part in the mishap. As one of our members shared, “Rarely would I end a relationship with a printer based on one mistake. The test of a person or company is how they respond after they make a mistake.”

When a print buyer is dissatisfied with a project, arrange a formal meeting with them—on their turf. This is a clear signal that you acknowledge their concerns, and will make every effort to accommodate them. Ask the print buyer to create an agenda outlining the major issues they wish to discuss. During the meeting, listen without going on the defensive. Let buyers share their frustrations at length, and then brainstorm together how to eliminate or minimize the problems.

Lastly, follow up after the meeting with a letter summarizing what you have worked out and detailing the quality assurance procedures you will follow on future orders. By clarifying all expectations, confronting problems directly and developing an action plan with your customer, you should be able to work through most production problems.

Don’t Burn Bridges. “If it’s a supplier with whom I’ve had an ongoing working relationship, I think it’s only right to be straightforward and tell them why I’m severing the ties, be it quality issues, cost or customer service,” noted Robin Norman, production manager at The Jewish Publication Society. “This way, the supplier can address the issues, and it may allow us to work together again in the future.”

Another print buyer concurred. “I never completely end any relationship with a vendor. Our print community is too small to burn bridges. If a client requests a vendor that you have ended the relationship with, then it is awkward. I usually speak with my reps, and tell them why I am dissatisfied and let them know that they will have to sit it out on the next few projects.”

“The print industry, on both sides, is such a small community,” another print buyer said. “A new plant manager, a new salesperson, or perhaps a new piece of equipment might solve the problem over the long run. It’s never a good idea to totally burn those bridges.”

If it is already too late to salvage the account, it is still useful to find out exactly what went wrong. If you can listen with an open mind, this information can potentially save you from losing another customer. While it may be frustrating for you to hear criticism that you may or may not agree with, always be gracious. You never know when a customer may return. PI

—Suzanne Morgan

About the Author Suzanne Morgan is president of the annual Print Oasis Print Buyers Conference ( and Print Buyers, a free e-community for print buyers and suppliers ( PBO, which has 11,0000 members who buy $13 billion a year in printing, conducts research on buying trends and teaches organizations how to work more effectively with print suppliers. Morgan can be reached at


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