by Doug Johnson | 12/28/15

In my last blog, I hypothesized that the printing and imaging market is bifurcating and affecting all points of the value chain.  Economic buyers in the (near) future will either buy in transactional, commodity-like ways, OR they are buying outsourced services.  The former is often done by functional-level and below decision makers while the latter is done by C-level decision makers. 

Since then, I’ve heard “bifurcate” is trending in social media and every industry consultant has added that word to their standard presentation.  OK, maybe not, but I know some of you looked up the word or, more often, just contacted me for the definition.  Either way, I think it is a concept worth discussing in further detail.  In this blog, I’ll cover the evolution of one of those forks in the road — the transactional selling model.

Not too many years ago, selling printing and imaging products (hardware, supplies, break/fix service) transactionally meant hiring “feet on the street” to go to businesses and sell the offering.  They may have delivered printed catalogs or brochures along with the donuts to their key contact — often the office manager or purchasing manager.  They got to know their customers very well, right down to their kids’ names and birthdays.  These sales reps were a great source of expertise and knowledge for their buyers, helping them cut through the latest in technology changes, “speeds and feeds,” and the ever-expanding range of consumables to feed the plethora of hungry machines in the office.

Hopefully,the result of all this work for the sales rep and their company as a whole were a base of loyal customers who valued the expertise and the relationship.  To switch to another provider, that provider would have to offer even better expertise, an expanded portfolio of products, and/or significantly better pricing for to entice the customer to switch.  The comfort zone for the customer was small, and that created barriers to switching.

As I noted last time, fast forward to today.  Ubiquitous Internet access enables buyers quick and comprehensive information on document output-related products and solutions.  Best pricing for a given product is not only easily available, many intermediaries exist who will provide side-by-side price comparisons in the blink of an eye.  Today, most of the buying process has already been completed BEFORE the buyer makes contact with a seller.  The face-to-face selling process (along with the box of donuts) is nearly extinct.  (And possibly the answer to “whatever happened to Krispy Kreme?)

To thrive in the transactional selling model going forward, resellers must embrace e-commerce as a core asset and competency of their company.  Simple and smart navigation, quick product knowledge access, massive selection, and live online help (“chat”) are all fundamentals.  Product recommendations based on search history, department-level billing, loyalty/rewards programs, even “gamification” of aspects of the site to attract and retain the growing Millennial buyer should be considered in site design.

The “feet on the street” approach to customer acquisition is replaced by ongoing Search Engine Optimization (SEO) techniques to prioritize your website in customer searches, strong social media usage (Twitter, Facebook, etc.) to create conversations with your customers (and even between them), and the aforementioned world-class e-commerce site.  The overall goal is the same:  generate customer loyalty through product expertise and the relationship to create barriers to switching.  The tools to accomplish the objective (assets and competencies) are just vastly different.

In this new world, the beauty of this model is the range of products you can sell in the office is exponentially larger than before.  Knowledge of products is not confined to what you can teach an individual sales rep — it is searchable on your site and through specialized online chat consultants.  Of course, you no longer need to warehouse products in today’s transactional selling — distributors drop ship product for you, in your name, directly to your customers.  Expanding your offering has much more to do with acquiring knowledge to sell and much less to do with availability and delivery.

Whether we are discussing the “old” way of transactional selling or the “new” way, success still depends on how well you know your customers.  Their needs are evolving in many ways.  What needs do they have today for products?  How does it vary by vertical?  What will they need tomorrow that they may not have even thought about today that will make their business more successful and profitable?  Answers to those questions can help you leverage your new transactional selling model into new products and categories you may have never imagined carrying even five years ago.

Today’s Yogiism:  “You can observe a lot by watching.”

Next blog: Outsourced services—the other fork in the bifurcated road.

Doug Johnson is a highly respected business owner, thought leader, and expert with over 30 years technology experience; 15 of those years specific to managed print. He is currently the founder and president of RedSage Group.