Channel Chat: The Paperless Office in the COVID-19 Era

In a 1975 Businessweek article titled “The Office of the Future,” business leaders at IBM and Xerox were discussing word processing equipment that was replacing typewriters, and how desktop display terminals linked to data processing centers were going to revolutionize the way offices function. George Pake, head of Xerox’s Palo Alto Research Center told Businessweek, “I don’t know how much hard copy [printed paper] I’ll want in this world.”

The paperless office didn’t materialize then. With advances in print technology, the amount of printing and paper use skyrocketed after the 1970s. Yet the paperless office theory has remained in place as more electronic documents and information are created and managed and printed pages are declining. The increase in work-from-home employees and significant declines in office print volumes resulting from the coronavirus pandemic is expected to drive more paper out of the office. The office that uses no paper could be closer than ever. This is both a challenge and an opportunity for the imaging channel.

We talked with several major dealers to get their views of the paperless office, how their dealerships have handled the trends, challenges they’ve overcome, and how the COVID-19 events are shaping their businesses and views of the future.

bill dermody brian gertler john propersi richard whitlock

In the past few years, what has your dealership experienced with the increasing shift from paper documents to digital documents and workflows as customers undergo their digital transformation?

Bill Dermody: What we’ve seen is that most of the large enterprises have already undergone or started their digital transformation processes. The big change is in what we call the mid-market companies of $40 million to $800 million in size. They’re now discovering processes they can automate using electronic content management (ECM) and workflow. Our salespeople find it easy to open conversations by asking the customer whether they have any paperless initiatives underway or planned.

Brian Gertler: About 10 years ago nobody was giving up their paper that quickly and the right technology, equipment, and digital processes were not necessarily in place. Today, there’s more intelligent capture, and more rules-based routing for workflow so that more digital transformation is supported with each innovation that emerges. There were early adopters (to the paperless office idea), like the court systems and the government offices … CPAs, tax people, and a lot of the litigation people. Now the not-for-profit, municipal agencies, healthcare, and schools that have compliance governance and regulations in place have recently caught on to doing things that are more digital.

There were early adopters (to the paperless office idea), like the court systems and the government offices … CPAs, tax people, and a lot of the litigation people. Now the not-for-profit, municipal agencies, healthcare, and schools that have compliance governance and regulations in place have recently caught on to doing things that are more digital.Click To Tweet

John Propersi: There has been a gradual acceptance over time to trusting electronic documents. It took a while for clients to feel secure with simple archive and retrieval. Now, the next evolution is electronic document workflow or rules-based workflow based in index metadata. The benefits are many for the organizations that move to this next capability.

Richard Whitlock: We don’t believe that print is dead. However, more and more customers are looking to have instant access to information that used to be stored in the file cabinet and they want it (that access) on the desktop. We work with customers on basic repository backfile stuff but also help incorporate workflows like the daily receipt of invoices, accounts payable, and expense reports that need to be routed through approval processes.

What has been the strategy of your dealership to meet this “less paper” digital transformation trend?

Dermody: We’ve found manufacturing to be a good market for us. It’s an underserved ECM market. We talk to those customers about how they’ve been using lean manufacturing processes in their manufacturing lines and how those same principles can be brought into the office using lean document workflows.

We’ve found manufacturing to be a good market for us. It’s an underserved ECM market. We talk to those customers about how they’ve been using lean manufacturing processes in their manufacturing lines and how those same principles can be brought into the office using lean document workflows.Click To Tweet

Gertler: We’ve never totally depended on print although we’ve excelled in that area. Our conversations with clients have, for many years now, been as much about workflow as print or copy engines. We try to zero in on the applications that make sense based on the vertical market or what the client is trying to achieve. We’ve become more conversant in document management technologies so that we can provide a system a client can use to share, archive, and access documents not only as part of their information sharing but also as a permanent archival and record retention system. One of the most compelling talk tracks today is information protection and cybersecurity.

Propersi: We have created a new business division dedicated to backfile scanning and indexing to transform legacy hardcopy documents. This feeds opportunity to our document management software division where the images will be stored. We also focus on leveraging the capabilities inside the MFPs that provide robust scanning options as well. As we understand the client’s business workflow, we plug in the right solutions around that. It’s exciting when somebody shares their business processes and gives us an opportunity to rethink them in more of an automated fashion.

Whitlock: We created our Digital Transformation division in 2019 and it’s purely focused on analog to digital conversion.

What kind of products or services have you found to be the best solution for customers wanting to move to a “less paper” office?

Dermody: The most common process solutions are around procurement, accounts payable (AP), and contract management. Each customer is different, like a snowflake, and the software is a blank sheet of paper. Our professional services teams work with clients to map out their processes and understand where information comes into the business, what is done with it, and how it flows. Then we create a solution specific to the customer’s needs. Almost all the ECM business is subscription and cloud now. This gives a steady revenue stream and we’ve adjusted the business to that. Professional services revenue is greater than software/subscription revenue and those services are priced pretty much by project.

Gertler: Focusing on the applications that make sense for what the client is trying to achieve will ultimately determine the equipment or solution configuration that we put into play. So, whether it’s about 3D or 2D technology, or how other strategic products and services work within their office ecosystem and play into how they want to conduct their business, we’re prepared to have that conversation. Part of the boom in our business has been in our Pro AV video conferencing solutions. A client’s digital transformation needs to use an integrated strategy that not only includes document management and file sharing, but security, confidentiality, and governance protocols and how it all connects through telephony and meeting strategies. Pro AV has really rounded out our offering.

Whitlock: We’re always looking at and doing different things. A part of the expansion with the Digital Transformation division group was also about expanding our managed services offering to include more on-site services like digital mail and print fulfillment. While print may decline, we don’t see it going away. So, we train our customers on how to leverage the MFP as an onramp for communication in the organization which is really what we’ve been doing for 20 years.

Things are moving to the cloud and we’re moving along with them to help our customers make that transition. With so many ransomware attacks the cloud can be a safer environment for mission-critical applications, where redundancy and security are important.

Things are moving to the cloud and we’re moving along with them to help our customers make that transition. With so many ransomware attacks the cloud can be a safer environment for mission-critical applications, where redundancy and security are important.Click To Tweet

Have you been able to serve these customers with traditional hard copy/print solution sales teams or has this caused a movement to hire a different type of salesperson?

Dermody: Our copier salespeople are good lead finders by asking the question, “do you have any paperless initiatives?” But we do have an ECM sales team that works with the client. Both positions have different skills.
A copier customer and salesperson know when the copier lease is up and that a new machine is needed – it’s a very visible need. An ECM prospect knows they have a procurement, AP, or contract management process but they may not be aware of any problems because they don’t have anything to compare it to. An ECM salesperson needs to make that prospect aware of the problems, listen closely, and be nimble and agile as the customer needs can change quickly.

Gertler: Strategically, we never like to rely on having a client conversation with just a single point of contact from LDI. We like to go wider and deeper with our clients so that we can have a conversation about the core product that gives us our initial success and then expand our influence within the company to make us a little bit more “sticky” to them. That enables us to have higher-level conversations that enable clients to leverage their investments in technology. That’s accomplished when you’re not only able to speak to the copier guy but when you can talk to the IT department, the CFO, or the people that are responsible for information governance and business sustainability. We have teams of specialists that are truly conversant in each core area so that they can have the right conversation and bring the right solution to bear.

Propersi: It is truly a team sales approach. When we are talking to the right people within our client’s organization about solutions, we bring the right team, so that we can have an impactful in-depth conversation. We bring in certified credentialed network engineers that not only will do the installation but also write the custom code.

Whitlock: Salespeople are still about relationships and with a little bit of knowledge, they can hunt for the opportunity. They’re not going to be experts and we have SMEs for Laserfiche, for managed network services, and so forth, so we leverage our ability to bring together the right team with the right knowledge to the table.

Has the coronavirus pandemic changed the trajectory of offices moving to use even less paper? Do you see this accelerating as business reopens and recovery continues? How is that affecting your business and sales plans now and for the future?

Dermody: The coronavirus has been an acceleration catalyst for what was already happening. Many forms were existing or moving online and that was going to continue. The coronavirus has accelerated the digital transformation changes that were already going on in making workflows better and helping companies support work-at-home employees. We see this continuing and we are in a good position with that change.

Gertler: Digital transformation was accelerating and [the coronavirus] accelerated that even more. We’ve always been uniquely positioned as an independent, backing the right horses and presenting emerging technologies as they are needed by our clients. We’re able to integrate strategic products that are going to be part of the new normal, whether that’s display communications, video conferencing, remote or work from home strategies, or even infrared thermal kiosks. We’re extremely nimble and flexible and have always been able to react to market requirements in a very quick way. We were still very reliant on print and MFP devices and the coronavirus emergency has tremendously impacted that part of our business. But, unlike many people who made print their sole business, we’re going to be able to pivot and come out better and stronger than we ever have been.

Propersi: It’s a new normal that we have spent time unpacking. We believe business leaders are going to say that sheltering in place and working remotely could be ebbing and flowing continuously. It could be that a combination of people who work at home now will keep working there and some people coming back to the office will have a different “normal.”

Whitlock: Within UBEO the effects of the coronavirus are a little bit different in each region, and each zone. We’re in California and Nevada, and California has been pretty good about the transition to work from home. We’ve seen a lot of deployment of print enablement in the home office for people. We’ve seen solid hardware and solution numbers, and we’re still seeing the enablement of the solutions on MFPs. Our Digital Transformation division is where we’ve had the most growth this year and we’re seeing that accelerate faster than we had anticipated.

Our approach is that we want to be prepared and don’t want to take anything off the table or take anything for granted right now. We want to be agile and move with the market. We don’t believe that print is dead. People are still going to need print; it’s just not going to be done in the same way that it’s been done in the past. When it’s all said and done, we’re going to be in a great position because of the things that we’ve already been moving in the direction of.

Is there any advice you would like to give others in the industry regarding “the paperless office,” how to plan for it, and sell to it?

Dermody: Many customers want to go paperless and ask about scanning forms or documents they have or get. Think about that – unless they receive those in the mail, those docs and forms come in via email, web, or are created on a computer. In other words, they were digital to begin with. You should ask the customer why they were even printed and work with them to find the answer to that question. You can then look at the workflow and figure out how to automate it before the form or document is ever printed. You also need to look at compensation for ECM sales. You need to bring the vision of paperless closer to the salespeople. Customers are moving that way, so you want salespeople to be comfortable pursuing that as well as traditional copier/printer sales.

Gertler: There’s a saying you’ve probably heard many times: “if you own the network you own everything on the network.” I’m a big advocate of that. Our best way of de-commoditizing our offerings has been to really understand the business challenges clients have from different vantage points. Managed IT, Pro AV, and the other digital transformation core disciplines have brought additional revenue streams and have enabled us to not only maintain but to increase market share in what was traditionally our core success in print. Think about it for a second, why would any prospect want to have a conversation with anybody but a complete solution provider that is proficient in all these different core areas of expertise? Clients want to have conversations with the company that understands their needs, can leverage the right kind of technologies, and connect all the dots.

You need to understand your clients’ workflows and how they process, route, and access documents. Next is knowing what solutions that are out there can help them with their digital transformation. You have hardware and software that integrate, and the idea is to make it seamless.Click To Tweet

Propersi: First, you need to understand your clients’ workflows and how they process, route, and access documents. Next is knowing what solutions that are out there can help them with their digital transformation. You have hardware and software that integrate, and the idea is to make it seamless. Finally, you need the right staff to make sure that the client feels comfortable, and they can trust your implementation methodology.

Whitlock: It’s super competitive out there and I would say, don’t give up on your core business and what you know because it’s not completely going away. Then just think carefully about the partners you bring to the table with that digital transformation message. Do your homework before making an investment and talk to other dealer community partners to see what they’re doing.