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Understanding Print Buyers

How and why to categorize print buyers into three categories.

As our print industry has transitioned from craftsmen analyzing tight, rosette dot patterns on paper to machines executing pixels across omnichannels, we’ve all needed to change in order to stay relevant. Throughout the years, printers have often vented to me: “Print buyers just don’t know what they’re doing today,” or “They aren’t like they used to be.” In my defense of the print buyer community, print salespersons aren’t like they used to be either.

Chameleons shift colors to fit their surroundings: Sometimes their colors are bold, other times they’re subdued. Sales success is all about the salesperson’s ability to recognize and embrace the difference in each and every buyer, and then change up their selling approach to align with their distinct traits.

You’ll be most successful when you intentionally choose clients whose vision, personality, and character align with your own. You’ll enjoy the account more, and the buyer will appreciate your personal insights about their business.

When you take time to learn about your print buyer, their job responsibilities, and their company, you’ll be rewarded with new business. Sales 101 courses continue to preach that listening is the most important skill you can bring to the table. But today, the assumption is that you’ve already done your homework. It’s so easy to research your client’s business through Google, LinkedIn, and their website. Know the end use of their print products. If their product goes into a retail store, you should spend time in multiple shops. Good print buyers will likely lose patience with your lack of preparation when you ask generic questions or simply listen. So, during your first call, be ready to facilitate a rich conversation about how you can help with their business challenges, share observations, and start adding value.

In this first meeting, you should be interviewing the buyer and documenting their profile. What is their background and print buying experience? What are their company’s challenges in the market as well as the buyer’s personal challenges in their job? Ask simple but important questions. Do they prefer to communicate via email, phone, or text message? What will they require from you? Many times they won’t know what they don’t know, or haven’t found time to think about how a print partner might just become an extension of themselves. Be prepared to tell them how you can add value, and, at the same time, get something off their plate.

The Three Categories of Print Buyers
Each print buyer will require something unique from you, but generically, print buyers can be categorized into three groups: Elite Professional Print Buyer, Procurement Print Buyer, and Inexperienced Print Buyer.

1. Elite Professional Print Buyer
• Works or freelances in a merchandising, graphics, or marketing department or agency
• 100 percent of their job is buying printing and other related products
• Has more than eight years of experience, on average
• Trained in graphic design and print management
• Passionate about printing
• Understands the value of a print partner
• Will expect the most out of you

What do Elite Buyers need from salespersons?
• Unsolicited specification rationalization toward cost savings
• Help with staying on top of schedules
• Proof deliveries to their home (or kids’ ballgame)
• Friendship, i.e., someone who’s empathic to their workload and challenges
• The most experienced salesperson, someone who can add value, and someone who knows more than the buyer

What Elite Buyers will give back:
• The highest loyalty (until you make them look bad)
• Three strikes, you’re out:
      – Off target costs
      – Untimely, poor advice or updates
      – Missed expectations (delivery dates or quality)

Who are the right salespersons for the Elite Buyer?
Elite professional print buyers require expert salespeople who understand they will be expected to know as much, or preferably more, than the buyer. This salesperson will need to be a chameleon, changing with the workload, mood, and needs of the expert buyer. On most days, when the buyer needs a collaborative relationship, the expert salesperson will need to communicate in “full color”: clearly, directly, and with a high level of expertise and credibility. Because this salesperson has a full-color personality, they will need to make sure they never outshine the buyer in any situation, whether they’re at press or in a boardroom presentation. In these situations, the printer has the best opportunity for a large percentage of an expert buyer’s spend, because they understand the value you bring to the relationship.

2. Procurement Print Buyer
• Works in the finance or procurement department
• Buys some printing and lots of widgets
• Has more than eight years of experience, on average
• Educated in finance or strategic procurement
• Has the least understanding of the value of a good printing partner

What do Procurement Buyers need from salespersons?
• Detail-oriented salesperson who enjoys pricing exercises
• Help in developing the specifics for “apples-to-apples” comparisons
• Hearing about processes and process improvement
• Continuous reinforcement about how printing is different than widget manufacturing

What Procurement Buyers will give back:
• Not much more than purchase orders

How to earn points with Procurement Buyers:
• Introduce them to new products, certifications, and process improvements

Who are the right salespersons for the Procurement Buyer?
Procurement print buyers require experienced salespersons who enjoy analytics and numbers. This kind of salesperson will need to be comfortable communicating in black and white. They need to be passionate about attention to detail to ensure apples-to-apples specifications and comparisons. This salesperson will need to be unemotional when projects are lost, understanding it’s not personal, but simply a business decision. The relationship between the buyer and salesperson will be a “strictly business” relationship.

3. Inexperienced Print Buyer
• Works in a graphics-related department
• Buys printing because no one else knows how or wants to
• Has fewer than five years of experience
• Educated in graphics or an unassociated degree
• Doesn’t understand the value of a good print partner, because “you can buy anything online”

Who are the right salespersons for the Inexperienced Buyer?
Inexperienced buyers require the least experienced salespersons. There will be an unspoken bond between them that they will help each other out, but neither will expose the other. The inexperienced buyer and junior salesperson will grow to become a strong team. The buyer will know that both he and the salesperson are inexperienced, and it will reduce stress if they both know they have help waiting on the sidelines. The investment of a sales mentor will pay off through the junior salesperson developing solid experience and the buyer becoming loyal to your company. Today, as unfortunate as it is, the “default buyer” is quickly becoming the most common print buyer; embrace this fact and take on the opportunity to lead and teach.

How Not to Help an Inexperienced Buyer
As our industry continues to evolve, so must the role of salespersons. Because of the large percentage of inexperienced print buyers, great salespersons take on the role as an educator.

Most buyers don’t have clearly defined individual objectives because they are wearing so many hats, so you need to assist them in recognizing the value they can bring to their organization through smart buying. Many buyers are untrained in print management, so you need to help train them to become a technical buyer: Right fit equals right price. If they’re multifaceted procurement buyers, they may not understand how print projects are not a commodity, so you need to show them why every print project is unique.

When an inexperienced buyer throws unorganized, poorly prepared work at you, don’t just get it done for them in order to make the sale or make yourself a hero. If you do a buyer’s job for them, they have no way of understanding the value that you bring to the relationship and they will move on to the next printer based on a lower price alone. Do not do yourself, or our industry, a disservice by doing buyers’ jobs for them. Knowledge exists to be shared. Think long term, not instant gratification, and embrace the role of a leader. Now, not only are you adding value to your client, you are strengthening your value within your own organization.

Once you’ve built a relationship with a print buyer, they’ve put a lot of trust in your promises. Ongoing transparent communication with integrity will earn and sustain clients. Treat the buyer as a part of your internal team and include them in subjective decisions regardless of their expertise level.

And, remember, print vendors take orders. Print partners ask questions, learn, and teach.

Martine Padilla is a 35-year printing industry veteran, splitting her career between print buying and selling. She resides in the Kansas City area and is currently VP of sales at Allen Press. You can reach her at

Check out another Outside the Gamut column from an expert guest columnist, or read more from our April 2017 issue.

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