What Printers Really Need from Their Suppliers

“Customer satisfaction is a flawed idea,” says Wayne Renken, CEO of SensArray Corp., in an issue of Electronic Business News. How can that be? Renken says that by focusing on “doing things right”, by improving the status quo, we may be blind to a novel and potentially more effective approach. To be truly valuable suppliers we should broaden our goal from customer satisfaction to a far more powerful concept — customer success.

Subtle? Perhaps. Splitting hairs? Maybe. But think about it. Today, many suppliers strive for annual improvements in our customers’ satisfaction indices. Often this means improving on criteria that were established years ago, by other people. Is that really meaningful? Wouldn’t it be far better to make a positive impact on our customers’ bottom lines? Or help make them more efficient, or gain a competitive advantage?

In printing, there are many opportunities for suppliers to help their customers succeed, but not many real success stories. Let’s look at what goes on in the pressroom.

The pressman faces a monumental task. His job is to manufacture products your customers will love. His tools, aside from the press, are plates, paper, blankets, ink and fountain solution, all interacting on the press at a high rate of speed, in a work environment whose temperature and humidity may vary season-to-season, or day-to-day.

He’s pressured to seek the cheapest products that will do the job. Sometimes, he saves a penny, but spends a buck, because the product he purchased varies in some way from the one he bought last week, causing unexpected downtime. His suppliers, meanwhile, are being pressured on price, dealing with environmental regulations, etc., and may be adjusting their formulas “on the fly” to provide the prices the pressman wants, yet still make a profit. Usually suppliers make their cost-reducing formula changes without informing anyone, since there is no legal need to do so. “We can make the change,” they say, “no one will ever know the difference.” You know the rest of that story!

How to get more value from suppliers? First, define what success means to you. Chances are it is some variation of an increased bottom line. This could come from lower material prices, but better bets might be reduced downtime, reduced variability or fewer errors, cuts in paper waste or reduced investment in inventory or other assets. That might actually mean investing more in better materials that offer better mileage or less downtime.

Next, give your suppliers a tough review. Are they capable of making you successful, by your definition? Are they committed to your success or are they mostly committed to keeping the business? Do they invest in real R&D, or just tinker with old products? Do they support the industry by participating in trade associations and trade shows? Are they really interested in your success, or do they just want to sell you something and move on to the next customer?

Finally, change your supplier business model. Rather than viewing suppliers as individual entities, consider building a supplier support team whose mission is to work together to make you more successful. Perhaps your dealer can help here, by coordinating the resources of those suppliers who meet your criteria. Share your expectations with the team. Have them report on their progress, and hold their feet to the fire. If they’re helping you succeed, reward them with more business. If not, replace them. Remember, you can take control here, and building a competent team of suppliers to support you will likely lead to greater success than continuing to do it the old way. After all, would you rather be a satisfied customer, or a successful one?

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