How to Become a Solutions Provider

Tips and advice to help become a solutions provider.

When we founded our company in early 1994, we were simply a print provider. The prints we provided were digital, large-format inkjet. In those days, just printing in high resolution (300 dpi) and large format (up to 36-inches wide) was a big deal. It allowed us to more than double our sales annually for four consecutive years. There are still and may always be many large-format digital printing companies that are first and foremost print providers. Some continue to be very successful at it.

It didn’t work out for us, however. I wish there were a name for what our company has become. I’m still introduced to people as a printer, and I feel uncomfortable with that description. I guess I think of myself more as a graphic-solutions provider. Yes, digital printing is still at the core of our business – but strangely, it may be the least important component of our sales.

The changing market
All print businesses are market-driven. We either serve an existing demand for our products, or we create one. The initial business plan for my own company was to print posters and backlits for the Las Vegas casino market. It was a great ride while it lasted.

We did unbelievably well until the economic principle of supply and demand reared its ugly head. In 1994, we had two or maybe three true competitors in the city. Then, competitors began cropping up, and the supply side changed. Eventually, franchises, storefront sign shops, and dozens of other small to medium-sized independent printers dotted the city. To add insult to injury, many core customers in the Vegas casino and tradeshow industry adopted in-house print departments. Competitive forces radically changed our market (and I doubt our experience is unique).

Various other factors came into play as well, including the fact that the printer manufacturers have developed great products in the past decade. These printers have gotten easier to master, making it possible for all print providers to produce really good-looking images.

Since almost anyone can do it, though, it has become increasingly difficult for a print provider to distinguish his or her products from everyone else’s. Even before the recession, there was an oversupply in many print markets. The bad news is, if you want to hang onto or increase your share of the pie, there’s a strong temptation to fall back onto a potentially destructive competitive tool – price.

Then, there’s the drop in overall demand. We were the envy of many of our colleagues because Las Vegas was our market. What was once our gravy train, though, has become the recession’s hardest-hit American city. We have the highest unemployment rate (15 percent as this is written) and highest home-foreclosure rates in the nation. I don’t have to tell you what this depressed market has done for demand.

‘What am I?’
So, how do you break out of this supply-and-demand dilemma? One way is to stop looking at yourself and your company as a print provider. Instead, consider: What else do your customers need to bring their projects to fruition? Is it consultation, design, fabrication, installation, or specialized finishing?

When you assess your customers’ needs, it’s up to you to add services and products that will transform your company into their solution provider. I know this isn’t a new idea and a lot of you already do more than simply print. But I’m suggesting the evolution of our industry requires us to take another look at this and continue to evolve.

The first non-printing service a lot of us have adopted is installation. If we print self-adhesive vinyl, for example, it has to be stuck onto something. The ironic thing is that some of the signshop owners who have added digital printing over the past decade were ahead of those of us who began as print providers. They have been doing decal application and sign installation for a long time; as a result, it hasn’t been much of a stretch for them to print sticky-back vinyl and install it. And, most of them have the added benefit of a contractor’s license, a step that a number of my print brothers have now taken.

When you talk about decal application, vehicles are at the top of list. We still provide a vehicle-graphics solution. Although I know a lot of great out-of-house installers, for us to not do this in-house is giving away half the profit on a wrap. Also, since it’s about half the cost to do a staff install, you can be more competitive on a quote than someone who is only the print provider and still be profitable.

As advantageous as install capability is for vehicles, the installation markets we really like to serve involve tradeshows and architectural projects. These installs tend to be on large flat surfaces – large means more square feet and flat means faster and easier. We frequently get much better square-foot rates for both our printing and our install on these types of projects than we do for vehicles.

Expanding via human capital
Two ingredients are typically needed to become a solution provider: equipment and human capital. We spent more than a decade looking at which specific pieces of equipment would diversify our portfolio. Today, we aren’t looking at capital equipment for solutions because of the tight money situation.

We do, however, have an opportunity to expand our solutions portfolio via human capital. After all, there are a lot of talented people among the 15 percent of our local citizens who are unemployed.

For the past 15 years, we have had at least one talented and degreed designer on staff. Today, because of the rich talent pool now available to us, we have three. They share duties in design, prepress, and customer service. Having a team with great design, illustration, layout, color, composition, and creative chops has given us a significantly enhanced capability.

For instance: We have a customer with seven restaurants who plans to open 100 more locations over the next 12 to 18 months. We landed this account partly because of our ability to print wall covering, tabletops, rout direct-printed boards, and stretch dye-sublimated fine art. However, it may have been even more important that we took early meetings with the client with one of our designer teams.

We’ve found that being able to contribute in the creative and planning stages of large projects not only helps make the sale, but also keeps that customer coming back. In this instance, one of our staff designed all the decorative, branding, and informational elements (these are all done in four different color schemes), while another developed an online catalog so that franchisees could decorate their stores online in any size and configuration anywhere in the country. And another of our designers handles the ongoing customer service with the franchisees.

I’m not suggesting that we have found the right and only path to becoming a solutions provider, but I do believe there are niches for every market. If you can recognize your clients’ needs and find a way to fulfill them, you will strengthen your competitiveness in your markets and perhaps create new ones.

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