Just what is the message?


The Problem

In case you haven’t noticed, the old “quality, service, price” message doesn’t fly any more. Most of us in the print world have figured that out by now, but many  haven’t come up with anything different to say.  Skeptical? Try a little experiment.  Pick any nearby community and Google the city name combined with “printing services” (i.e. Athens GA printing services). Then take a look at the websites that come up.

Here’s a great example, the first words on the homepage of an actual printing website (name withheld to protect the unfortunate).

Welcome to Anonymous Printing Company. Our goal is to provide our customers with the highest quality products and premium service. We do this by continuously upgrading our equipment and by maintaining a well trained, professional staff.

Impressed? Well, at least they didn’t claim to have the best price, too. Perhaps the logic was to avoid that part of the message . . . let’s provide quality and service and try to charge a little higher price. Good luck.

Maybe the quality, service, price strategy worked ok in the days when print was top of mind and customers were plentiful. Maybe. It fails abysmally today. Here’s the point:  When there’s nothing to differentiate one company from the next, price becomes the key determinant.

Perhaps it was a little better in the old days. When competition was local, there was usually some price support among the key players, and every shop had a little niche where they were able to make some extra profit.  Those days are gone. Competition is global and your customers hear this message from every company out there.  If you’re a print salesman and you’re still using this tack, this is the reason that you can’t get appointments with key prospects. If you think you’re marketing with this message, your wheels are spinning, but you ain’t goin’ nowhere.

There was a great discussion thread in the NPOA LinkedIn group last week, started by Bob Hall of Quick Printing Magazine.  Bob’s question was about how competition had changed, but the discussion went off on a tangent.  Kate Dunn, President of Digital Innovations Group (DIG) in Richmond, VA, made a couple of incisive comments.  Here’s a compilation of her remarks:

Most companies just flat out don’t have a differentiation strategy of any kind.

There are plenty of excellent websites for smaller quick printers too that tell us that it can be done. Unfortunately, most do not see their website as an important element in their differentiation and have a “me too” approach.

The real question for these companies is “What’s makes us special?” And their answer has to be unique – “great customer service, high quality and competitive pricing,” when everyone says that, is not enough. If companies could figure that out, then it would be much easier to carry it over to their website.


What makes us special?

If you’re thinking about Dana Carvey as the church lady on SNL, you should probably pull out the Grecian Formula about now. This is the differentiating question and it really shouldn’t be that tough to answer. Let’s think it through by asking a few pointed questions:

  1. What do my customers say about me? – If you don’t know the answer to this question, perhaps it’s time to ask your customers. Don’t do a survey. Meet with a few selected customers (good and bad) face to face and ask them to be open with you.
  2. What are my favorite stories? – like the time that I took my pressman, Oscar, to see a favorite customer about an ink drying issue and he wore Reflex blue on his forehead and the end of his nose.  Stories illustrate the character of your business.
  3. What claims am I making and are they believable? – How do you talk about your company? What language do you use? Today’s buyer is skeptical of superlative claims. Do they believe you?
  4. What am I doing for my customers today? – because that’s what’s important.  Forget talking about last year’s project and don’t talk about machinery or the last acronym that you added as a service.  What can you really do to help their businesses?
  5. What does my customer want to hear? – Seriously, and with no disingenuity intended.  Put yourself in your customer’s shoes and think about how he or she would prefer to communicate.  This may be another good discussion topic for your customer meeting.

Implementing a Solution

The list above isn’t exhaustive. It’s there to give you a sense of the kind of thinking that is useful to produce a differentiating message.  I should say messages, though, because your audience really won’t swallow the entire elephant at one sitting. Think information bits, details, stories, case studies.  Provide your customers with message content that is interesting, believable, entertaining, and relevant to what they are doing.  This will go much farther than the “me, too” message of quality, service, and price.


Just as I was ready to click the “Publish” button on this post, I received the weekly Profitable Print Relationships from Matthew Parker, a well-known UK consultant.  Matthew’s focus is on sales strategies.  Here’s what he  has to say on this topic:

Print sales people who sell on service, quality and similar offerings will find it harder to achieve their sales targets. They will struggle to control the sales process. This is because buyers will have heard their message many times before. So they will treat them as commodity sellers. These print sales people will find it harder to create profitable customer relationships.

Click the link above to read his entire message. Also,  if you’re not following Matthew on LinkedIn, you ought to be.


I’d love to see some comments and ideas here.  Let me know what you think!



  1. Great information and really relevant. I would love to hear the rest of the story about your client visit with Oscar (your pressman). This has made me think and that is always a good thing for all of us!

    • Richard Dannenberg

      Thanks very much, Mark. I’ve got lots of stories about Oscar, but this is one of the best. We had a new customer, Jeannie, who was extremely picky about color and the quality of print in general. One of the first orders we delivered was a set of business cards for one of her salespeople. Her colors were Reflex and black at that time. Jeannie was in a big hurry for the cards, so we actually slipsheeted the stack, cut them, and then divided the slipsheets back out.

      Trouble. The ink wasn’t dry and Jeannie smeared it all over the place, then called up to complain. I explained what we had done and why the ink wasn’t dry. She maintained that ink should dry instantaneously. I could detect a little sense of humor under the complaint, so I told her that I was bringing the expert with me to check out the situation. We doctored Oscar’s nose and forehead with Reflex Blue (although it wasn’t uncommon for him to wear this color at the end of the day, anyway). When we got to her office, Oscar was introduced as Herr Oskar von Heidelburg, Master Pressman. Smearing the ink on his forehead, he illustrated that Reflex blue did not dry instantaneously. To make the long story short, Jeannie got to laughing at us, and became a great customer. Her company worked with my shop for over a decade.

  2. Bob Carr

    I have always found communication to be a good place to start a conversation with a client. How well we communicate, learn the clients specific requirements and tailor our approach to their unique style and needs. The most effective presentations I have ever made, over time, have approached the idea of “speed” which touches on quote turn around, proof turnaround, timely and accurate response to inquiries and always “on time delivery.” I also have a “philosophy of print” which fits my belief in how to get the best out of the print process. All of my responses to my clients/prospects are rooted in that philosophy. It helps to have a belief in why print matters and its best use.


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