American Printing of Rhode Island — Putting Clients First
LIKE MOST privately held firms, American Printing of Rhode Island (APRI) does not disclose financial results to outsiders. But a half-day visit to the 35-year-old firm, which is located in suburban Providence and employs 55 workers over two shifts, clearly revealed an organization bustling with activity—which gives credence to owner Paul Carroll’s claims that the firm’s sales have quadrupled in the past four years and are likely to double again over the next four.
What is driving the growth? A company-wide focus on achieving customer satisfaction and an ex-panding expertise in retail signage.
“Just about everybody claims to provide great customer service,” he recently told PRINTING IMPRESSIONS, “but very few actually deliver on the promise.” He believes the lack of service excellence disappoints customers and causes costly “churn” for printers.
Ask Carroll what he means by superior customer service, and you’re in for a long conversation and lots of examples. One example centers on something as routine as answering the telephone. If you call APRI during working hours, 99 times out of 100, you will be connected immediately to a live person—and one who has been with the company, knows the business, and can answer questions, as well as connect you to the person you are looking for.
Carroll believes that trying to save money via an automated answering system with elaborate prompts forces inconvenience on customers and sends exactly the wrong kind of message. “Customers are the reason we exist. We should react to their needs, and not vice versa,” he points out. Carroll himself is not above the need to respond promptly to clients: He interrupted this interview at least six times to take or redirect calls, or otherwise assure that various printing projects were on track.
“Many of our customers have reduced staff in recent years to lower costs, but their workload hasn’t decreased. They need proactive vendors, partners. Anything we can do to help them helps us build a stronger relationship.”
Superior customer service also means being flexible, as well as fast. And Carroll credits his firm’s flexibility with helping it grow in a difficult environment.
See a Chance, Take It
“One of our customers, a grocery store chain, was having difficulty with a complex signage project that involved small quantities and extremely quick turnaround times,” he explains. The project required multiple steps: printing on mylar, mounting on styrene, affixing brackets on the rear of the sign so it could be mounted on store shelving, and packing and shipping the assembled signs to multiple locations.
“We had very little experience producing such highly customized signs ready for interior display, but we saw an opportunity to solve a customer problem and just jumped in. And, we now have a thriving business producing retail signage.”
Coordinating efforts with related vendors, such as distribution firms, is a key part of any fulfillment activity. But if the customary “hand-offs” don’t work, Carroll is resourceful and will find a way. An example: As a private pilot, Carroll once flew his plane from Providence to LaGuardia Airport to deliver just-printed collateral for a new product that was being promoted on the TV show “Good Morning America.”
Carroll’s earlier experience as a print broker has given him invaluable insight into the marketplace. On the one hand, he saw the equipment, capabilities and service levels of virtually every printer in the Providence area. And, on the other, he saw the needs and expectations of customers. But, as a broker, he was repeatedly disappointed with printers who promised one thing and delivered something less. So he became a printer.
His first major equipment purchase was a two-color Hamada C2248 press, which led indirectly to another key to his success: Hire only the best people. Carroll asked several sales representatives who they considered to be the best operator of the equipment. He then approached the consensus favorite with a job offer. He was told, “No thanks; I’m happy where I am.” So, Carroll waited and kept the job offer open—for three years!
“I needed a color expert on that machine, so I just persevered until the time was right for him to join us.” Eventually, the pressman signed on with Carroll and was promoted to general manager within a year.
Whenever possible, Carroll buys good, used printing equipment because the lower acquisition cost enables him to price his work aggressively, and yet still generate a profit. “Many of my competitors say I am too cheap,” he laughs. “But we all pay about the same for electricity and overhead. My cost of financing is usually lower, so I can offer good pricing to customers, better compensation to attract good people, and still have some funds to invest in new technologies.”
He is admittedly cautious about investing in big-ticket items like new presses. But, he is more liberal with spending on new technology to boost productivity, reduce waste and expand capabilities. For example, he acquired an early Presstek device years ago and now easily creates 60 plates a day. Software is also used to automate the production workflow and give up-to-the minute data on inventory, costs and expected completion.
One major addition under consideration is a 77˝ press. If demand continues strong, Carroll will likely make the purchase. But, he is also short on floor space. His facility now occupies 25,000 square feet and is jammed to the gunnels. So, he is looking for new space in the 75,000-square-foot range.
Still, he wants to remain nimble and is cautious about growing too big too fast. “Thirty years ago, the industry was dominated by giant printers and large advertising agencies. The focus was on economies of scale, large runs and mass communication. Today, the giants are gone, the ad agencies have downsized, and the focus is on short runs, targeted communications and multi-channel messaging.”
To stay viable, Carroll maintains a broad range of production capabilities and is constantly adding to them. For example, he regularly prints brochures, newsletters and sales collateral. But, he also designs and prints a national monthly magazine for aircraft enthusiasts, still brokers some print, handles inventory and warehousing for key customers, produces and fulfills direct mail, assembles and mails kits, dupes CDs, offers design services, and even has an emerging video communications capability.
About the only thing he doesn’t offer is copywriting. But he readily admits that could change. All it would take is a call from a client. PI