The chief marketing officer at a company in the higher-education market has more than 15 years of experience in data analytics, and he spends part of each business day thinking of ways to improve the firm's online and offline marketing effectiveness. He has several academic degrees, and one of them is a bachelor's in physical chemistry from an Ivy League school. This is a smart guy.
He's the target of numerous distributors and direct-selling manufacturers. His office phone rings frequently, and his inbox has a growing folder of emails from people who hope he accepts invitations to lunch meetings, golf outings, online technology demonstrations and more.
He's a coveted client for good reason: The organization's annual print and marketing services budget is well into the six figures, and its marketing programs are built upon the things many distributors do well — the list includes direct mail campaigns, promotional products, event materials, brochures, search engine optimization, email and website lead generation.
"I get a lot of people reaching out to me," he said. "I don't know how many times I've spent five minutes on the phone with people I don't want to talk to, because they haven't taken the time to understand our business."
Like many end users responsible for either strategy or sourcing, he feels bombarded as he receives daily cold calls, emails, new product announcements, podcast invitations and advertising messages. Meanwhile, the supply options for end users have never been greater, including distributors, direct-selling manufacturers, online printers, advertising agencies, print management specialists and "big box" retailers.
"Getting my attention is more like earning my attention," he said. "Show me something I'm truly interested in, like a white paper or a case study of a similar project you've handled before. I'm not enamored with marketing-speak or strange gifts. But if you can show me an example of success, you might get my attention, and I might look into who this company is and what they're doing. Then if I'm impressed, a follow-up phone call will be much more productive."
He adds that the higher-education organization prefers working with incumbent vendors whenever possible, because "trust is huge, and our current partners have built up that trust over time." He also said it's important for all vendors to be honest about what they don't do well. "I've been in relationships with former partners that have soured because the companies took on work they shouldn't have, instead of just saying no or recommending another firm that might have been able to help."
That's one end user's perspective. What about others' opinions and experiences? In an industry that's increasingly fragmented and frantic, how can distributors break through the clutter, get around barriers, start meaningful conversations, impress more "gatekeepers" and ultimately win more business? What do end users want?
We asked some of them, under the condition that we would publish their perspective, but not their personal names or company names. Here's what they told us:
LIKES: Desire for long-term relationship, new marketing ideas
DISLIKES: Failure to grasp branding needs
For years, a vineyard in California has produced port wines, some of which are aged in oak barrels for 10 years. Companies constantly call on the vineyard's president and winemaker, hoping to land deals that would include labels for the 10,000 cases of wine the company produces annually. And while he occasionally answers those calls, he purchases nearly all of the company's printed items from one provider. When buying printing:
- He's concerned more about long-term relationships than pennies.
- Besides quality service, he appreciates the distributor's desire to talk with him about marketing ideas.
- Fast turnaround is important, but image is his main concern. "Everybody in the business is trying to get his bottle to stand out and grab the consumer’s eye."
- He said he appreciates providers who listen to his ideas, then take steps to make them better.
COMPANY: Non-profit medical center
LIKES: Operational efficiency, centralized purchasing, low costs
A medical center in the Midwest purchases documents such as admittance packets, insurance forms, booklets, annual reports, promotional products, flow sheets and more. Its supply chain manager handles print purchasing for its headquarters, as well as for two long-term care units and various clinics. His goal: centralize print purchasing.
The company selected a third-party mail house and invited print providers to bid on its other work. A direct-selling manufacturer offered an arrangement that impressed the medical center: It would buy and keep the center's printing equipment, hire the center's print employees, and add a part-time representative with a design background and several years of experience in the medical industry.
- The supply chain manager said having a rep of the direct-seller work onsite is critical.
- The medical center previously had problems getting printed materials to proper locations on time, the supply chain manager said. The rep ensures that those items move from the print services department, through the direct-seller (and sometimes third-party vendors), and back to appropriate departments.
- The rep also helps the center comply with the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations (JCAHO).
- The center sends about 300 annual reports to doctors and laboratories. The direct-selling manufacturer redesigned them, producing offset shells that can be variably printed with additional information and mailed in two days. The medical center saved up to 60 percent on the job, said the supply chain manager.
COMPANY: Hotel chain
LIKES: Customized materials, on-time delivery
DISLIKES: Inventory problems, quality issues, passiveness
A hotel chain's director of strategic sourcing leads a six-member team that purchases and manages about $200 million in printed products, service contracts and property operation supplies. The team's major purchases are business cards, note pads and sales collateral.
To encourage competition on quality and cost, the team develops product specifications and operates a bidding system. "Then we advise hotels which supplier has been awarded the program, and in many cases, have them work directly with the supplier on orders and payment," he said.
He estimates that 25 percent of the company's print business goes to distributors, including the majority of its small runs. His team currently works with about 30 print providers.
He said the ideal distributor offers:
- High-volume capability
- A proven track record of upholding promises
- On-time delivery
- A proactive, problem-solving mindset