digitechby Christina Robbins, Digitech

As 2017 comes to a close, what are you planning to grow your revenues in 2018? How can your business stand out in a crowded landscape of hardware dealers and imaging VARs? What do you offer that is unique?

With so many imaging hardware dealers and VARs in the marketplace, selling something unique can be a challenge. After all, many other dealers offer the same hardware lineup, and there are only so many ways to scan paper files. So how do you establish unique value to your customers? What makes you stand out in sales opportunities as the vendor of choice? 

The end of one year and beginning of another often serves as a time for self-assessment and goal setting in our personal lives, and our businesses should be no different. There are three important things to consider as you contemplate your business plans for 2018:

•  What’s happening in the marketplace that may impact your opportunities?

•  How might you leverage key technology trends to increase your sales?

•  What other areas of value do you have or can you develop to make your business stand out?

First, a Story

Before we dive into our three areas for consideration, ask yourself how much difference you believe a thoughtful business plan can make. For one hardware dealer, a strategic shift is having a significant impact.

Over the last 50 years, New England Copy Specialists (NECS) has provided copier, scanner, and MFP devices to customers all over the Northeast. However, VP of Sales Dana Cunningham was concerned about the long-term trend toward digital information that he knew could potentially limit the business opportunities for paper-intensive devices. As a result, Cunningham wanted to expand their product line beyond just device sales, but he hesitated to introduce such a radical change to a business with a long and successful history. 

Over time, Cunningham convinced the business owners to interview manufacturers who offered complementary technologies like Enterprise Content Management (ECM), which would help their customers to manage electronic files. The addition of software offered two advantages. First, the ability to work with digital information would mitigate the threat of declining paper storage. Second, NECS would be positioned to offer customers solutions to business problems, rather than simply providing hardware. Solving complex business problems for customers would increase their value to the customer and enable them to improve margins on sales.

After searching for a technology partner, NECS chose a vendor who would be easy to work with and who would boost their ability to bring unique value to the table. Today, they continue to sell a ton of scanners and copiers, but they enhance revenue with a cloud storage option for their customers’ digital information, and they’re leveraging an artificial intelligence (AI) driven scanning application to simplify how their customers index and organize paper files as they’re scanned. Though the transition has not been without struggles, NECS is expecting more than 50 percent sales growth this year, and they’re expanding sales into new markets by solving customer problems that they simply couldn’t address before. Cunningham saw the shifting landscape and relied on courage and integrity to challenge the company’s comfort zone as well as his own. 

What will you do? 

A Marketplace Reality to Consider

The imaging industry is well into a significant change being driven largely by shifting consumer behaviors. Known alternatively as digitization, automation and even virtualization, offices are moving away from primarily paper file storage to digital options in order to enhance efficiency in business processes, to improve control of sensitive information, and to reduce the overall cost of doing business.

While customers print less, the explosion of data in all its forms has consumers and businesses scrambling to find cost-effective solutions that enable them to intelligently find the critical data they need to make smart decisions. Analysts at IDC report that digital data doubles in size every two years and that the pace at which we create digital content continues to accelerate.1 

What does this all mean? If your business primarily facilitates the creation and storage of paper documents, you should expect that revenue to decline as customers increasingly move toward digital options. For 2018, plan for how you will enhance your current hardware and imaging services options with technologies that enable you to more effectively address this shifting buyer preference.

Two Technologies Can Help You Offer More

Don’t throw up your hands just yet! Two technology trends will help you more simply enter the digital marketplace, and you don’t have to become a tech guru to be successful. 

A Cloudy Forecast

The worldwide technology forecast continues to trend toward the cloud. In fact, more than 35 percent of companies are only considering cloud technologies for data management projects this year.2 Why? Your customer’s perception that the cloud costs less is correct, says Nucleus Research. In fact, they explain that cloud delivers 2.1 times more financial return than projects implemented in-house.3  Customers further point to rapid implementation, ease of use, and lower initial and ongoing costs to explain this preference.

Cloud gives you an advantage. Because cloud manufacturers do all the heavy lifting, you don’t have to acquire or buy technical expertise to instantly add cloud storage to your product offerings. Here are just a few examples of cloud benefits that help you avoid IT expense:

• Manufacturers build and maintain the services, so you skip the expense of hardware and software installations at your own organization.

• Cloud technologies generally don’t have to be installed, so you don’t have to hire IT staff to install or customize solutions for customers.

• Manufacturers are responsible for uptime and reliability, so you don’t have to pay for on-call IT staff to support systems.

Artificial Intelligence

I’m sure you’ve seen commercials for Watson-enabled applications in healthcare and financial services from IBM, and you’ve probably been exposed to some of the current hype surrounding AI-enabled manufacturing techniques and products like self-driving cars. But, did you know that artificial intelligence-enabled applications can also make the imaging process really simple?

Driven by the massive growth of digital content, improved computing power, and cost-cutting pressure in most businesses, AI has emerged as the dominant trend in technology development over the last few years. In fact, Gartner lists AI and machine learning (a subset of AI) as their No. 1 strategic technology trend this year.4  The demand for AI-enabled applications is so strong that Research & Markets expects the opportunity to grow to almost $39 billion by 2025 at a Compound Annual Growth Rate of about 64 percent.5 

Imaging and content management manufacturers are beginning to bring AI-enabled applications to market that can dramatically simplify complexities associated with document categorization and data extraction — labor intensive and therefore expensive parts of our business today. Keep your eyes open as you should expect more AI-driven products to emerge in the New Year, and you’ll want to consider how these innovations can help you grow your business.

While trends like the decline in office print volumes may seem threatening, smart imaging VARs will leverage technologies like cloud and AI to protect their customer base and stabilize revenue. Consider how you might integrate them into your product offerings to grow your business in 2018.

Straightforward Self Assessment

SWOT

Business schools have long encouraged leaders to periodically assess their business and to adjust strategies according to circumstances. One of the simplest models for this assessment is known as SWOT — strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. It was most likely developed (there are conflicting stories) by Harvard University business school professors in the 1950s. The SWOT analysis encourages owners to think in two dimensions. As shown above, leaders should consider positives and negatives both internally and externally.

We’ve already discussed some of the external trends that will change your sales landscape going forward, so what may emerge as you consider your own organization’s strengths and weaknesses? Did you know your organization may hide unique value in some unexpected places? For example, as products commodify (increase in similarity and price), you may discover that customers prefer your organization because you deliver and install solutions more quickly and with fewer hassles. Or perhaps your customer service team has a very high satisfaction rating. Learn to leverage these unique values during your sales process, and you’ll find you close more business, more quickly because you’re offering something unique to buyers. Best of all, these internal strengths are very hard for competitors to mimic. 

Embedded in your self-assessment should be a review of marketing messages and efforts. How strong is your brand? What qualities does your target market associate to your business and its offerings? How might strengths and weaknesses here impact your opportunities? Most businesses could improve their marketing efforts to be more effective, so take these simple steps early in the new year to line up your sales team with more prospects throughout 2018.

1. Start by researching why customers buy from you. Please don’t assume you know. Get out there and ask them. You may be surprised to learn what customers perceive to be your biggest value-add.

2. Craft messages that play on this unique value. It’s not so much about what products you offer as the problems you solve for customers and the benefit they believe they get from working with you. You’ll be surprised how quickly this simple shift in language will get you away from selling to office managers and IT and into solving problems with executive-level buyers.

3. Learn to speak to the part of your prospect’s brain that makes buying decisions. This field of brain research is known as neuromarketing, and you may be surprised to discover how much even a small understanding of neuroscience will improve click-through rates on emails, leads coming from paid advertising, and the number of folks who sign up to attend your events. 

A word of caution: If you are naturally positive, you will tend to overemphasize your organization’s strengths and the value customers perceive in those differences. If you are naturally more negative, the opposite will apply. Seek out additional opinions and advisors when conducting a SWOT analysis in order to minimize personal bias in the results. Your goal should be to create a straight-forward assessment of your ability to meet customer needs.

Your hopes for a successful 2018 will be dramatically more likely if you take the time to plan carefully for how your business will proceed. Allow your awareness of shifting buyer preferences and growing trends toward cloud and artificial intelligence to influence how you plan for growth. And, consider how internal strengths can be utilized while weaknesses are addressed to better serve customers and grow brand equity. Lead on! For those who prepare, the future is bright. 

Resources:

1 Gantz, John and David Reinsel. (2010, May). IDC iView: The Digital Universe Decade — Are you Ready? IDC: Framingham, MA.

2 Bartoletti, Dave, et. al. (November 18, 2016). Predictions 2017: Customer-Obsessed Enterprises Launch Cloud’s Second Decade. Forrester Research. 

3 Wettemann, Rebecca (April 2016) “Cloud Delivers 2.1 Times More ROI”. Nucleus Research. Retrieved from: http://www.digitechsystems.com/cloud-delivers-2-1-times-more-roi/

4 Kasey Panetta. (Oct 18, 2016). “Gartner’s Top 10 Strategic Technology Trends for 2017.” Retrieved from: http://www.gartner.com/smarterwithgartner/gartners-top-10-technology-trends-2017/

5 Research & Markets. (March 9, 2017). “Artificial Intelligence Market Forecasts 2016-2025 Across 27 Industry Sectors.” Retrieved from: https://globenewswire.com/news-release/2017/03/09/933837/0/en/Artificial-Intelligence-Market-Forecasts-2016-2025-Across-27-Industry-Sectors.html

Christina Robbins, Digitech

This article originally appeared in the December 2017 issue of The Imaging Channel