ONLINE INTERFACES -- Printers Set Sites on Clients
BY MARK SMITH
For better or for worse, and maybe a little of both, self-service has become the model of business efficiency in the modern world. Vending machines aside, the trend first took hold at the gas pump, then led to ATMs popping up like weeds and now is spreading to the grocery store checkout line.
Online interfaces to customers are the printing industry's latest take on the self-service trend. The basic concept is not new, but the way printers are now executing it differs from the wave of eProduction/eCommerce ASP ventures that enveloped the graphic arts during the dotcom bubble.
A key difference is that these solutions are being rolled out by individual printers using infrastructures they control. Those at the forefront are moving beyond offering bits and pieces—such as simply supporting online file submission or even proofing and preflighting—to developing a comprehensive and unified strategy for interacting with clients online.
It comes as no surprise that some of the industry's largest companies are leading the way, as a couple of recent headlines attest. Cenveo launched eCENergy, which it describes as a Web portal providing access to a suite of "eSolutions" designed to automate and streamline transactions with customers.
As part of its strategy, Quad/Graphics become a minority shareholder in Dutch workflow vendor Van Gennep—M.A.C.
It's not just the industry behemoths that have the vision and wherewithal to be on the leading (not bleeding) edge of this trend, however. While they don't precisely represent opposite ends of the industry spectrum, as evidence consider the experiences of Brown Printing in Waseca, MN, (which reported sales of $400 million in 2004) and Rapid Press in Tallahassee, FL, (which is building toward $5 million in sales).
Lee Edberg is the central premedia manager within the b.direct workflow group of Brown Printing. The group falls under the organization's IT department and is responsible for setting standards and driving technology across its three divisions. That makes Edberg one of the point people for Brown's online strategy.
The company is striving to provide customers a "picture window" into its production environment, he says. Various technologies are being deployed throughout the process to provide the view, but customers will access it all—some as an option on a fee basis—through personal, secure Web portals.
Not all access will be equal for another reason, Edberg notes. Premedia/prepress operations require a higher level of customer interaction than other stages of production, he adds.
Brown is implementing Dalim's Mistral automated production and communication system as the backbone of its premedia customer interface. The workflow system already has been tested and deployed internally, and the company is now on track to roll the interface out to customers starting in March, Edberg reports.
"We've already been able to gain efficiencies internally," the premedia manager observes. To support that contention, he outlines the typical scenario for dealing with customer inquiries before and after implementation of Mistral.
Previously, if a client called a customer service rep to ask about the status of a job, the CSR would say, "I'll check and get back to you within the hour." Then, the CSR would physically walk over to prepress and ask the operators where the pages stood. Prepress would say, "We have to check," then scramble around to figure out the answer. After getting that answer, the CSR would likely get involved in conversations on the way back to his/her desk or have to take another call, so it turns into more like an hour and a half before the customer gets the status update.
"With all the CSRs having access to Mistral, they will be able to instantly bring up a job and check the status of individual pages and entire flats," Edberg points out. Pages can be viewed as status icons or thumbnails of what they actually look like. Users can choose the imposition view to see if any pages are missing from a form.
After confirming the workflow system's effectiveness in the company's internal operations, Brown decided it needed to add a level of security before going online with customers. "The portal server builds a secure, encrypted connection from the outside world through our firewall into the Mistral server inside the building," Edberg says. "We wanted to make sure it was near impossible for one customer to see another's pages and we didn't want to expose customers' assets to hackers by posting them directly to the Internet."
By building individual Web portals for customers, Brown is able to create a secure environment for all online interfaces and give clients one point of access that is protected by a log-in authentication process. The number of links a portal contains will depend on what services a customer signs up for and will grow as the company implements new capabilities.
To support ongoing development efforts, the organization is concurrently working on implementing the DiMS! management information system throughout its operations, Edberg says. "When DiMS! is fully integrated, it will become the center of the earth, if you will. All of our ancillary systems will sit around and report into DiMS!," he explains. "Our plan is to offer customers limited access to the information in that system so they can see where jobs are in the process all the way through our entire company—from premedia through to shipping."
On the Right Track
The initial premedia/Mistral link within a customer's Web portal will track a job to the point where plates are made and sent out to the pressroom. "In the future, there would also be a pressroom link, postpress link and so on," Edberg says. "We have systems in place today in the pressroom and bindery to collect data. Those systems will feed into DiMS!."
Rollout of the management system is being handled by another team. Edberg thinks it should be operational in the May timeframe, but client access probably won't be enabled until the fourth quarter.
On the premedia side, the current plan is to launch the online interface at Brown's annual sales meeting in March. The sales team will be free to pitch the service to any and all clients, according to Edberg.
"All users will probably be given the option to see status icons for their particular titles and issues as a free service. If they want to see thumbnail views with pictures of the actual pages, that would be a paid-for service," he adds.
Pages are preflighted when they are submitted to the system, so users will see a flashing alert and can access a report if any problems are found. "This enables customers to validate their own files through the system," Edberg points out. "They can accept the page as is or decline to use the current version and submit a new file. If they accept it as is, that action is recorded in a log entry.
"We anticipate getting to the point where customers are checking page status themselves without us having to alert them to a problem," he adds. "But, we are setting the system up so we can do e-mail notifications."
Brown is also integrating Dalim's Dialogue interactive soft proofing solution as a chargeable service. It knows customers are willing to pay for premium services because many are already using its current fee-based soft proofing solution. And that solution simply enables users to view PDF files online.
Edberg believes the premedia interface will be easy enough to use so that customers can be walked through it over the phone or by a salesperson. "We are also looking into putting together a small online video to demonstrate the capabilities," he adds.
Since Brown Printing prides itself on having good customer relationships and keeping the personal touch despite its size, it has no intention of trying to force clients to use the online system, Edberg emphasizes. He expects 30 to 50 percent to sign up initially and the rest to come on board over time.
"We expect to see a huge decline in the number of product-related calls we get over the next two years. Customers will start to answer their own questions and be happy doing so," he says.
From the internal perspective, Edberg admits some concerns have been raised about the level of transparency offered to clients. "We don't have a problem giving customers a view into our process because we are comfortable with our production systems. Our intent, however, is not to let them mandate how we process their work through the company.
"We can control how deep they go into the system; what level of detail they see. We will let customers know a job is on-press, but not which specific press it is running on. We don't want to put them in a position to say, 'I don't like that press.' We may also let them know things like ink consumption and how much paper we've gone through."
Providing customers a more efficient and enhanced experience working with Brown is part of the justification for developing online interfaces, but the printer is looking to recoup costs through the user fees, Edberg says. "We're also gaining internal efficiencies from an automated workflow that can help offset the cost. We've been able to reduce staffing by putting more work through with less labor."
Rapid Press is working through a bit of a transformation in its online customer interfaces as well, reports Hank Madsen, director of sales. The shop currently uses the Internet to give clients easy access to quotes and for placing orders, along with soft proofing and file submission.
"Also, each CSR does a check for their top 10 clients every morning before 8 a.m. and e-mails a status report of all jobs in process. In this way, we eliminate a lot of status inquiry calls," he says.
The printer originally developed its own online quote request forms, which are specific to the product, Madsen says. Its envelope request, for example, lists all of the common sizes of envelopes, and folded products are shown as drawings to aid less knowledgeable buyers.
"We are working on a new service for two of our clients that will enable users to pull up 'approved' versions of templates for their letterhead, business cards and other documents. They then can type into changeable fields, view an online proof and place their order," Madsen notes. "This is for a couple of our corporate clients with offices all over the country."
Rapid Press has been running elements of the ePace print management system from Pace Systems Group. In the time since the printer developed its own online quote forms, the MIS vendor has developed some very similar customer interaction functions in its product.
"For that reason, and for continuity, we are planning to purchase the full ePace system. This will greatly simplify the learning curve for our clients," he says. Online capabilities offered in the system include ordering, order status checking, inventory management, shipment tracing and more.
To handle online job submission and remote proofing, Rapid Press has implemented Creo's Synapse InSite Internet portal solution, he continues. That system is also capable of supporting job approval and status reporting.
The printer is now adding the Creo Synapse Director collaborative workflow component and looking to enable its customers to use Rapid's portal site for remote proofing with their clients (the customer's customers). "It's a big step toward 'lights out' prepress," Madsen asserts.
"We tend to go for systems, like ePACE and Creo Synapse, that offer full solutions," he continues. Trying to piece together a system is too disorganized of an approach for Rapid and tends to result in a clunky solution, the company exec believes.
Customer response to these initiatives has been positive, although a bit surprising. "The clients we thought would be the most excited about the various services were not, while those we thought were 'technology challenged' were the quickest to adapt," Madsen says.
One lesson the company has learned is to not overwhelm a prospect, or even a current client, with everything it can do. "We find it best to sit back and listen during a client meeting, then have a team powwow before responding with an answer tailored to that client's problems," the sales exec advises. This makes it seem more like a client has found the perfect printer to meet its needs, rather than a printer that just offers a bunch of solutions.
"Client relationships are like dating; the more a client thinks 'I am the only one,' the more willing they are to work with you," Madsen says. "Clients don't necessarily want to know about all the things you do for other people. Our clients like the feeling that they're very important to us."
Such attention does come at a cost, even if it's not a line item. "We are in business to sell print-related services and not to buy equipment and technology. No ROI, no purchase here," emphasizes Rapid's director of sales.
In the case of the two corporate clients for whom Rapid is developing systems for online ordering of customized forms, the arrangement stipulates a minimum monthly charge of "X" dollars with a contract for a minimum of two years.
"We front the development money, but the clients are then locked in whether they use the system or not. That is the only way to approach it, or it would be too easy for them to bail," Madsen contends.
One-on-one training is the printer's standard procedure for getting clients up and running with new online services. "First we train our salespeople so they can train the client, usually just during a regular visit," he relates.
Online interfaces are just another extension of Rapid's business philosophy of selling on quality and unique services. "We are getting a reputation for being the highest priced printer in our area, but 'well worth it.'
"Our online quote request even has a place where the client can copy the request to two additional printers," he reveals "This does two things. First, it shows that when all specifications are equal, we are fearless of competition. Second, when a client submits a quote request only we know who else is in the quote game."
Rapid Press registered a double-digit sales increase in the first five months of its fiscal year and profits are also up, Madsen reveals. "We are projecting 2005 to be the best year for our firm since opening in 1958."