In February 2020, COVID-19 crept into the United States, bringing with it lockdowns and work from home; the mood was cautious yet a bit giddy. Months later, the business landscape had shifted underneath us like never before and the copy and printing industry was getting kicked in the shins, gut-punched and was taking uppercuts to the jaw. What was before COVID — shrinking volumes, lower unit sales and layoffs — moved five to 10 years into the future in just two quarters. Some say the overall rate of change was 15 years in 30 days.
Today, print volumes are facing unbearable contractions in recurring monthly volume. Sure, the gears of sales are slowly grinding forward, helping some businesses hang on – but nothing like 2019, let alone 1999. Indeed, like a bad memory, “price” is the biggest obstacle and “transactional” sales are the norm — and those are words nobody in this industry likes to hear.
Some dealers have jumped on the personal protection equipment bandwagon. While not a bad stopgap approach, it’s not a long-term solution. Hope for things getting back to normal is fading.
What is “normalcy”? It refers to the return of a status quo, and if there is anything the past 10 years have shown us, the status quo is a slow death. Yesterday’s ideas restrict growth and innovation. Still, some believe in a return to normalcy in copier and printer usage. This is not going to happen.
We are entering a variance of the “long tail” period. Demand approaches, but never reaches, zero. A smaller set of providers can sell on the curve to a smaller set of customers at a profit.
It goes without saying that predicting anything nowadays is nearly impossible. But here are my prognostications based on the last eight months.
Work from home (WFH) – everybody is doing it
Working from home is the single, most historic secular shift in the business world. This is not hyperbole. Bigger than the typewriter, copier, personal computer or advent of the laser printer, many studies show work from home can increase productivity, reduce major cost components like rent, and make employees happier. Corporations are realizing downward shifts in cost, increased productivity and a more resilient workforce.
Although your dealership may not be 100% WFH, your bigger clients are offering the option. The WFH movement is the primary factor determining how the channel will look a year from now. The predictions of less productivity have been proven incorrect. Indeed, studies reveal an increase in productivity when employees work from home. In 2021 we will see a return to the office by a minority – some say 40% return, while others project 60%. Forrester Research says up to 30% of employees working at home today will make this a permanent change.
We’re all getting well versed in holding web meetings with people in their homes. By this time next year, if you’re not already, you will be very proficient at lighting, solving web-meeting-related technical issues, and making short introductory video clips.
WFH and remote attendance will help you move an opportunity through the funnel faster. All decision makers can log in and logistics become a non-issue as the influencers connect from anywhere in the world.
In 2021, the new designator will be “work from anywhere” as travel opens up and powerful technology makes communicating around the globe second nature.
It goes without saying that most of the technology innovation will revolve around the entire working remote transition. The bad news for our niche is less prints and copies. One thing to remember is that paper promotes slow business processes. With more employees working away from each other, the remaining paper documents will be converted to digital at an accelerated rate. Output devices will have less to offer.
The mysteries of the cloud will fade as more SMBs embrace the flexibility but there will be hybrid solutions. These hardware/cloud solutions will work will in larger corporations when it comes to provisioning, securing and supporting the corporate stack in people’s homes.
The machines make little difference.
Security will continue to be a primary issue and challenge. Consumer-based efforts will be shored up with policy mandated, enterprise-level sophistication – the bad guys are getting smarter, but providers will keep up the pace.
Empty cities in 2021
Masks. Five people max in an elevator. Traffic arrows on the carpet. Mask complaints. Half-filled conference rooms. No coffee, water or candy machines.
Why go through that? Why drive to sit with a mask on all day, trapped in a cubicle? Especially when compared to working from the comfort of your home.
The business parks, corporate headquarters and big-city skyscrapers may reach 50% occupancy as many are questioning the need to live in a city. Reduced cost, reduced stress and a higher quality of living combined with reduced need to go to an office may lead many to move to the suburbs.
The copier channel was built around on-site technical service and devices installed at the office. The WFH shift is directly counter to this environment, diffusing end users over a wide geography. Instead of visiting 12 businesses a day replacing rollers and cleaning user panels, your techs may visit eight different end users’ homes and may help connect dual displays, solve Wi-Fi issues, reconnect mice and occasionally help install a toner cartridge.
The workforce isn’t disappearing, it is spreading out. The successful technology providers will help fill the gap between internal, corporate IT infrastructures and home use devices.
Here’s an interesting historical note: if we had experienced a pandemic just 10 years earlier, the remote work would not have been feasible. Our internet infrastructure would not have handled the bandwidth demands.
The digital transformation will continue to accelerate, which should be no surprise. Those who already provided digital transformation services will double down and the few who can make the pivot will pick up an offering. But regardless of what we do on the provider side, the consumer side will transform and move headstrong into full digital processing — with or without you.
Dedicated scanners will prevail as inputting documents becomes more important than printing. Software will be less expensive and easier to use and may even get back to shrink-wrapped solutions. The cloud will be expansive and security at high risk, but the SMB will embrace it while corporate accounts continue moving more to the cloud.
Virtual and remote selling in 2021
I’ve been saying it for years: “If you can sell copiers, you can sell anything.” In this industry, we have great sales processes and excellent training professionals. But this is a new world of sales. We now must be able to convey solutions via web sessions, email and the phone.
In 2021 the more advanced dealerships will have honest-to-goodness video production studios. Live presentations will be the new stage for remote demo-ramas. And we will acquire new presentation skills – salespeople will become actors and consultants collecting and conveying information via the internet.
Luckily, the up-and-coming generation of selling professionals already know no fear when it comes to getting in front of a camera; it seems to come naturally. Unfortunately, the “old dogs” of sales may find this part of the transition more challenging.
Look for multiple “remote selling” courses and books – the consultants and “experts” are going to have a field day packaging and delivering content geared at getting the salesforce off the streets and in front of a camera.
Your prospects will love it. Health concerns around face-to-face meetings are negated with remote presentations and a sense of “control” is naturally given to your prospect, not you. They will feel safe and less intimidated by salespeople. Professional sellers will need to present clear and concise solutions that address real concerns from the prospects’ view, not the OEM’s or dealership’s.
Fewer customers, less money
This is the big one. 2021 will bring:
Fewer service technicians
Fewer enterprise level sales professionals
I know doom and gloom is everywhere, and the copier industry is feeling it more than some. I’m not piling on, but the idea of “fewer” is an observation, not prognostication.
Eventually, COVID-19 will be gone, but it will leave scars behind. This time next year you will have fewer customers, less money — and it will be OK.
You will not be alone. Most of your customers will be in the same boat. You will have deepened your existing relationships and have net new customers.
When you survive, you can start picking up the pieces. The demand pool will be smaller but so will the number of providers. Dealer operating cost should be lower, so even though you may be selling fewer devices, at lower margins, with little usage, everything is going to be OK.
Sales techniques may change, though. The new world has led everyone to mistrust everything, especially salespeople. COVID has given people months in front of the interwebs – your prospect is even savvier. They know more about you, your offering and your company. The great news is you no longer play the role of a walking, talking spec sheet. In a strange way, COVID-19 helped us be more human. Shared hardships build both implicit and explicit bonds. Everybody you meet and talk with has experienced the same challenges as you.
The fall was bound to happen; it just came quicker than anyone had thought. Demand was steadily marching downward. The survivors in 2021 have adjusted internal costs to meet reduced demand. This will be painful, it will not be fun, and many of us will transform out of the industry.
But this is the way.
Road to recovery? If you survive, you win
We are in a metaphorical period; this may be the last copy, the final image, the seventh step of the process, the end of the road. It is true, sales may never reach zero like buggy whips, but then again, somebody, somewhere is making and selling buggy whips.
One thing for sure, if you survive until 2021, you are winning. Just keep in mind that expanding, bringing on new lines of hardware and hiring deep in the technical and service departments are not in the plans for 2021 – enduring and persistence are the words of the year.