Printers Haven’t Grown Up. At Least not a Lot of Us

We see equipment and we get excited. With their new technology—turning cylinders, all kinds of devices that deliver brighter colors and higher resolutions—these machines transform us into to six-year-olds on Christmas morning again.

We’re often so smitten by these shiny machines and their capabilities that we forget to ask ourselves a few questions:

Do our customers currently buy that capability?

Do our customers need it?

Can we convince them of this need?

We also forget to examine whether we can generate revenue and profit from such investments.

“Buy it and they will come” has long been a popular mantra in our industry. It worked really well through the 1970s and ’80s when print was a dominant industry; one that was healthy and growing. Many of the largest print companies standing today were built using this so-called “strategy.”

The wind started to go out from our sails in the 1990s as the digital revolution swept our industry. Two aspects of the digital revolution had lasting effects:

  1. new digital communications vehicles emerged that siphoned revenue away, and
  2. new variable digital printing (VDP) technologies—like shiny Christmas-morning packages—lured printers once again into another buying spree.

Unfortunately, the seeds of change did nothing to alter the printer’s thirst for metal, or plastic as it has now become.

New technology adoption typically follows a set of inflection points that determine its ultimate success. These key points include hitting a critical price point that enables widespread adoption. This critical mass, when achieved, can generate momentum to leverage what economists call “the network effect.” If successful, the technology displaces existing technologies, becomes ubiquitous, and then commoditized, before being put out to pasture to make way for the next generation. It’s the circle of life.

VDP technology providers did a fantastic job not only developing new products, but also selling printers on the necessity to “lead the digital revolution.” Further, they supported printers’ investments with seminars, sales training, and even joint sales calls. So, of course, we printers dove in head-first without giving much thought to the three questions above.

A third-generation printer, Dustin LeFebvre delivers his vision for Specialty Print Communications as EVP, Marketing through strategy, planning and new product development. With a rich background ranging from sales and marketing to operations, quality control and procurement, Dustin takes a wide-angle approach to SPC

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  • Bobby Digital

    True, VDP never really made a difference and I don’t believe it will.

    I do believe though, that there should be a sentence somewhere in this article that specifies that the – childish printers – as you say, are those who purchased digital machines only for their VDP function which is really all software driven. I’m sure they are out there.

    Digital is all about efficiency, small runs and fast turnaround…not just VDP.

    When my shop bought into digital, we did it to capture the work we weren’t getting or were simply missing out on.

    Our customers buy this capability.

    Our customers need this capability.

    Our customers convinced US of this need… not shiny machines for Christmas.

    A large fraction of these customers are NEW customers from which we generate NEW profit and revenue.

  • Anonymous


    The industry was born and bred on "build it and they will come". I agree wholeheartedly that it is immature. It’s still working though. Read the blogs about Benny Landa’s announcement at Drupa and it’s a regular Barnum and Bailey’s with plenty of suckers drooling and ready to buy. I think most printers are just doomed to failure. It’s too much of a mind bender for them to have to get the sales before they buy the iron. The new world will now officially transfer over to the technically savvy people who have chosen to master the business model and not listen to the greedy highly compensated salespeople selling presses and single W2P components which won’t work. PSPs cannot be retaught. They are like old dogs. Unless they partner or hire the right kinds of people, they’re doomed. Even Bobby boy here is justifying his decision to buy the press. Guarantee he couldn’t tell you if it’s worth it and now he doesn’t have to because the Pandora’s Box is open and he has no choice but to keep digital in his offerings. Take a look at this post and its virtually the same message. (No, I didn’t read your blog before I wrote it.)

  • Kate Dunn

    The problem is that 90% of the sales reps in the printing industry are not sales reps. Calling the customer to ask if there is anything to quote on or being called by the customer had asked to provide a price for something that has already been decided upon, is not selling. Even if you suggest a different stock or a different way to run the project, it is not selling. The "thing" that the customer wants was decided upon by the customer and the rep is just facilitating. The salesmen and his company have very little responsibility for the outcome of the what the project is supposed to do so therefor there is no pricing power. The resource isn’t scarce, they are 1,000 more suppliers who can provide exactly what the customer asks for.

    The 10% (or possibly less) of the sales reps who know what they are doing, are getting their customers to solve problems differently not print something differently. That’s why they can sell relevant messaging or personalized content (VDP to the non sales reps), or supply chain management (web to print to a non sales rep) and lead qualification (cross channel) and whatever else comes up. Until this industry decides that being able to sell is as important as being able to produce, outcomes will be the same.