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How Can I Generate More Sales in My Printing Business?

[fa icon="calendar"] Mon, Feb 15, 2010 / by Andre Palko

4 Strategies for Growth in Small Commercial Printing & Copy Shops


So you run a printing business. What makes you so different from the 36,247* other companies in the US who put ink or toner on paper?

If you are pounding the pavement to sell printing services, you might feel there are that many competing printing companies in your neighborhood alone!

“You’re the third printer to stop in this morning…
Sorry, we already have 4 print vendors…
Give me one good reason I should do business with you
instead of the 7 other guys on this street…”

That’s the kind of response I heard in my years on the street. Fortunately we had a specialty (short-run books and manuals) that gave us some unique capabilities. But the customer didn’t really care about our capabilities…he wanted to know how I was going to make his life easier, save him money, save him time, or make him additional money.

For starters, your competition is narrowed considerably in that you are probably working a defined geographic territory. Let’s take a look and see what that’s like. I did a quick Google search for “commercial printers Baltimore, MD” and the top listing was a Superpages directory showing 548 results. A search in a small-town rural area like Lafayette, NJ shows 18 results.

The plus side to this is that lots of competition means there is probably lots of work available. But whether you have 548 competitors or 18, you still need to find a way to stand out from the crowd. That’s what we’re going to look at today.

The Inside Scoop

Over the past several years at Technifold USA, we’ve grown a customer base of nearly 4,000 printing companies throughout North America, many of whom are doing well in a poor economy. So we can’t help but get something of an inside scoop on strategies that are working well. How do they do it? The list is long, and we’ll cover more of these in future articles. One thing that stands out among the winners is how they position themselves in a market. Yes, they all put ink (or toner) on paper, but that is not what their customers are buying—they are buying something that is making their lives easier, simpler, richer, better.

Make the Competition Disappear…

One of the most effective strategies we’ve seen implemented is this: niche the product you are selling—in this case, printing. Let’s go back to Baltimore and narrow our search, looking for a ‘niche.’  Let’s stay on Superpages and search for “newsletter printing”, and we come up with 31 results. Now the apparent competition is thinning—that’s a long, long way from 548 competitors. Now let’s try “newsletter printing for doctors” and we come up with 0 listings for exact match and 1 listing for ‘best match.’ Your competition has virtually disappeared. If you are the first printer in Baltimore to be positioned as a newsletter printer for doctors, you have first shot at that specific market.

What we are going to look at is 4 variations on the strategy of creating a niche, or specializing in a market to distinguish yourself from your competitors. The more targeted and focused your market, the easier it is to stand out in a sea of competition. It may seem counter-intuitive to shrink the market you want to be in front of, but take a minute to think about how you would search for a product or service.

Why Niching Works

Let’s say you have a son playing high school basketball who injures his knee in a game. You’ve come up with a list of doctors, one is a general practitioner, another specializes in sports medicine, and one specializes in basketball player knee injuries. Who will you go see? That’s the idea behind “niching” or target marketing. All 3 doctors can probably treat the injury equally well, but the specialist will attract more of a certain type of client.

This does not mean that you are limited to a single niche. You may end up with numerous niches based on what you have to offer. The knee specialist may advertise “soccer related knee injuries,” “football related knee injuries,” “running related knee injuries,” and so on. If his training is in joint injuries in general, he might include “football related elbow injuries,” “golf related elbow injuries,” and create niches for every joint on the human body.

You probably know from personal experience that if you are going to a specialist in anything, you expect to pay more. Why should it be any different for printing?? The rewards for the extra work at niching outweigh any extra effort involved figuring out your niche. What follows are 4 strategic variations on the theme of niching.

Strategy # 1: Done For Them Newsletters

Do you know the easiest and least expensive sale to make?
It’s to an existing customer!!

A business that maintains an ongoing relationship with its customers will make more money and be more profitable. According to Dan Kennedy, noted author, copy writer and business consultant, one of the best ways to maintain this relationship is through monthly print newsletters. Email newsletters of course are more popular because they’re cheap (or free) and require less work. The downside—much email gets blocked in spam filters and average attention paid to emails according to various studies, is about 30 to 50 seconds. Print newsletters however have advantages:

  • They have more perceived value
  • Most people still prefer to touch and feel what they’re reading
  • They get delivered (no spam filters)
  • Readers keep them longer –we know this from feedback from our own newsletter readers

According to a study by Anne Mangen of Norway’s University of Stavanger, “reading online may not be as rewarding—or effective—as the printed word.” As a printer, it’s obviously in your best interest to convince customers to print, and a monthly print newsletter is golden. It’s a predictable, regular source of income for the printer that theoretically lasts as long as the customer is in business.

This is all well and good, but if you’ve ever worked at producing a regular monthly print newsletter, you know full well that it is a LOT of hard work. That’s where doing it for them can be turned into a niche. Convincing a customer that a newsletter is valuable is probably not that hard, and with a little research you can outline a convincing case.

My simple argument FOR a print newsletter:  In an ideal world, wouldn’t it be great to personally speak with each of your customers every month to let them know what’s new and to ask if there’s anything they need? How much time would it take to personally talk to each and every one of your customers every month? If you’ve been around any length of time, you have a lengthy customer list and such a task would be nearly impossible.

Let’s say it costs .60/piece to print and mail a monthly newsletter to all your customers. Is it worth 60 cents/customer to talk to each and every one of your customers every month? Isn’t that less costly than making a personal call or visit to each customer? That is in effect what is being done and it’s hard to argue that it’s NOT worth the cost.

OK, now you’ve convinced them to produce a newsletter,  but convincing them to take time to organize, write, edit, print and mail a newsletter will be nearly impossible, especially after they try it once.  Remember…it’s work being added to their already full plate. If however, you tell them you intend to do it all for them, it’s clear you’ll have a far more receptive candidate.

How it Works

Before you respond, “Oh, I don’t have time to write and edit a newsletter every month,” understand that it’s not necessary to write a custom newsletter for each and every customer. There are newsletter content services that provide you with new creative content on a monthly basis, including articles, cartoons, trivia, puzzles and more. Some will provide complete, ready to use newsletters, or you can pick and choose as needed. To reproduce content for resale may require some type of license fee, usually nominal, so be sure you get appropriate permissions.

Step One of doing it for them:
First, create a monthly newsletter format, for instance an 11x17 that folds to a 4 page 8.5 x 11 or 5.5 x 8.5 for mailing. Leave a space for an article from your customer, and space for their contact details. That way, the customer need only contribute one item per month about their business and preferably include some type of offer.

If they are too lazy to submit even one article, just print the newsletter with their contact details, but still try to get at the very least, an offer from the company for their customers that generate some type of response. They will still benefit without an offer but the return on investment will be lower.  If you are creative—and energetic—you can of course write all the content for each month’s newsletter, or any portion of it. Content providers however, do all the legwork for you. It’s a HUGE timesaver and you will simply be filling in the blanks in a template that gets used over and over.

Step Two of doing it for them:
Have the customer provide their list to your mail house. By combining mailings for what is hopefully to be many newsletter customers, you can save on setup and running costs. Be sure to investigate options thoroughly with your mail house. This is one logistical step that will put off many businesses from doing a newsletter. Since you are doing it for them, it’s one less thing on their plate and one more reason for them to commit to you for the monthly printing.

From your vantage point, handling 20 customers simultaneously in this fashion is much easier than handling 20 different newsletters at different times.

Step Three of doing it for them:
Laser targeting of your prospective newsletter customer. An example: One printer we know of prints only newsletters, and only in two categories: one is for real estate agents, the other is for dentists. Each month a new template is created (they happen to have their own creative department because of their success with this strategy) and they drop in contact details and optional articles/offers from the customer. The realtor version gets a spot to include featured listings. Each newsletter is then printed and mailed at the end of the month. The customer can do as little or as much as they desire, but in essence it is completed entirely for them.

Dissecting Your Market

What about your local market? How can you dissect and target your market to specialize in a newsletter? If you run a print shop in Cincinnati and approach the roughly 160 chiropractors in the Cincinnati area to offer your services as a generic “Cincinnati printer”, what percentage do you think you would close? If you approach them as a “chiropractic newsletter printer,” do you think more of them will pay serious attention to you? Do you think your odds of closing a sale go up?

Remember, you do not need huge numbers to succeed in a targeted approach like this. If you had 10 chiropractors a month, each producing a couple thousand newsletters each and every month like clockwork, wouldn’t that make you sleep better at night? Remember too that as a specialist in a niche market, you are not just a printer putting ink on paper; you are now providing a unique service with tremendous value added. As such, you can get a premium for the combined package of done-for-them services.

Producing and mailing 10 newsletters, slightly different versions, same format, is really no more work than producing one. And by doing them all at once, your costs of production go down; your profit margins go up further.

Mining Your Existing Customer Value…

If you currently print for a certain type of business or professional practice and you happen to be good at it, why not expand on that by creating your own local niche. Say you have a good vendor/customer relationship with 20 doctors in your area. Right now you might print forms for one, letterheads for another, envelopes for two or three, etc.

You can easily tap into their value as an existing customer by creating content for a doctor-themed newsletter. It doesn’t have to be technical—the point of a newsletter is really the regular monthly contact, combined with some type of offer. The content providers can do this for you. Give it a unique title. Or make the title/masthead particular to each doctor, e.g. “Dr. Smiths Healthy Living.”

Now approach your 20 doctors/customers with the concept. Remember, they are already customers so they will listen to you as a trusted advisor, not as a salesperson. Doctors will be thrilled that you can deliver such a unique service without any demand on their time. Usually a staff person can provide an article or an offer for each issue. If they want to include technical items, just drop that somewhere in the template. And continue to paint the picture for them about the importance of customer relationship and retention.

You can take this approach with ANY category of client you currently have. It could be auto repair shops, plumbers, contractors, restaurants etc. It will take a bit of work and research to put together the theme, but once you have the concept down, the hard part is done. Take a look at your customer list right now, and you’ll undoubtedly see common threads that you can begin to mine. All you have to do is plug-and-print for them every month and collect the money.

Strategy # 2: Birthday Card Mailings + Variable Data

Nothing special about birthday greeting cards or variable data. Both have been around some time now, and today you have desktop publishing software and inexpensive digital printing available to produce any product with variable data. (For those of you not familiar with it, the term ‘variable data’ refers to individual personalization. For instance, a greeting card mailed to a list of 500 people may have “Happy Birthday ” as the greeting, with a different first name on each of 500 cards, corresponding to the first names on the list.)

The Concept

This concept is a million dollar idea for retail outfits, especially restaurants, clothing stores, bowling alleys and similar establishments. The example here comes from personal experience—my brother has used this strategy in two different successful restaurant startups. It can be easily applied to any retail outfit.  I have also watched several printers evolve from “printing” companies into marketing companies by setting up a “done for them” system of reaching customers through birthday, anniversary and other types of highly targeted mailings. If such a simple strategy can transform the direction of a printing company, it can easily be used as a strategy to generate more sales for you—and that is our goal.

How it Works & Why the Business Owner Will Love It

Once a month the restaurant mails a postcard or letter to everyone who is celebrating a birthday that month, usually offering a free dinner worth up to $X .XX during their birthday month—no strings attached. The average person brings in 2.7 other people to celebrate with them (3.7 people/party.)

Actual restaurant results from a December postcard mailing:
580 cards mailed (Total cost of $638 includes print, postage and food costs for the free dinner.)  232 cards redeemed means 232 x 3.7 people = 858 diners brought in because of the cards.  His average check:  $20/person ($858 x 20 = $17,160) $17,160 – 638 = $16,522 in additional sales that month because of birthday card/letter

He does no other advertising except for the birthday cards and occasional similar offers sent to his customer list. In a year where restaurants are shutting down by the dozen in his town, his business is up about 20% over last year. All due to a simple, ongoing birthday card campaign.

In his case, the printing and database management is all done internally, but he is the exception. Most restaurant owners are far too busy with other tasks to be willing to do all the work. However, if you go into a restaurant with the proven concept, supply them with the printing & mailing—and all they have to do is supply you with a monthly list of birthday celebrants—your printing package is an easy sale.

Remember, you are not just selling ink on a postcard or letter; you are making their lives better and more profitable with your expertise presented in the form of a package and you can command more money. By combining this strategy with variable data printing, you will boost response, and boost your value to the customer.

Yes, it will require work on the business owner’s part (your prospect) and on your part. Once you set up the system, it’s done. You don’t have to do it again. The same formats can be re-used in a plug-and-play fashion.

There are several online database management systems that cost very little which can handle contact management including birthday and anniversary details. With a little research, you can point them in the right direction and perhaps even help them get set up. You might even be able to set yourself up as an affiliate for particular software or contact management systems and make a few dollars for referrals.

Strategy # 3: Bring Outsourced Finishing In-House

From your customers’ vantage point, one of the prime attractions of digital printing is the quick turnaround. They can create a piece and probably have it printed within a single business day. As the speed of required delivery gets faster, price becomes less important to them than simply getting the job delivered. For you as the printer, the ability to turn a job faster thus means higher profit margins for the same work.

The bottleneck in all this is usually the bindery. Customers can design anything on the computer, (much to the printer’s chagrin!) and printing it is almost as easy today with digital presses and desktop publishing. But depending on what springs from the designers’ mind, you may have to score, fold, laminate, die cut, perforate, emboss, kiss cut, glue, foil stamp, assemble or a combination of all the above. You can’t just finish with a few keystrokes.

According to the Printing Industries of America, it’s estimated that before 2010 is over, about 30% of ALL printing jobs will be turned around in one day—or less! The problem with bindery work is the time often required, especially if it has to be sent out. This can add days to the turnaround time.

A simple strategy is to bring some of the simpler
finishing processes in-house

Scoring, (creasing) perforating or laminating can easily be internalized, with lots of high quality equipment on the market to handle these chores. According to Cecilia Fisher, Director of Production Operations for Impact Marketing Specialists, the strategy of scoring in-house saved them “countless re-prints, rush deliveries and overtime,” enabling them to deliver 15 to 20 Xerox iGen3 jobs per shift. Their short turnaround times were guaranteed, which meant that to keep customers (and get new ones,) internalizing this one function was critical to their success.

Another example: bring micro perforating in-house.

You can buy almost any type of pre-micro perforated (or regular perforated) paper for imprinting. Unless you stock a diverse inventory, it will take 1-3 days typically to get what you need, especially if a customer places an order with a perf that’s considered custom. Right off the bat, you are shut out of that 30% of same-day jobs the PIA talks about.

Additionally, paper costs on average account for about 25-30% of printing costs. In the case of a specialty paper, costs/thousand go up substantially. For example, 1,000 sheets of a 67# vellum Bristol with one perf will cost you roughly $65/thousand. Without the perf, it will cost you less than half, around $27/thousand, a savings of 58% in direct material costs. Yes, direct labor costs are now involved in micro perforating, but the direct savings in paper costs will in most cases outweigh the additional costs in labor.

Laminating is another process that’s easy to bring in-house without the need for large equipment investments or skilled labor.   

In all these examples, your return on investment comes in several ways:

  • You now have access to that 30% of ‘same-day’ jobs
  • Reduction of outsourcing costs + reduced freight costs = higher profit margins
  • Better quality control over jobs internally
  • You can charge higher prices for same day work

The time factor in all cases is the key to unlocking more sales from the huge same-day market. If you combine this strategy and niche it further as we discussed earlier, you have a powerful combination for picking up more business. For instance…same-day laminated menus for restaurants; custom micro-perfed office forms for doctors’ offices, and so on. Take a look at your bottlenecks and investigate bringing some of those processes in-house.

Strategy # 4: Packaging

Packaging is a huge industry. Anything sold comes in some sort of package and most well known manufacturers either have their own in-plant printing operations or use companies that specialize in printing whatever type of paper, plastic, board or synthetic material is needed. The opportunity for the small commercial printer is more local in nature—you’re not going to be printing 6-pack containers for Coke.

Packaging and small commercial printing traditionally don’t meet; historically they’ve been separate industries. While many larger commercial printers cross over into packaging, it wasn’t until I saw what some digital printing departments were doing that I became aware of the opportunities. They were using one of our tabletop creasing machines to score wrappers for various types of novelty goods or candy.  Often there were dozens or even hundreds of products that required different printed wrappers, which were scored, folded over and glued or fastened to create a container. It was all small format, short-run digital work and they had designed simple, clever packaging for their product lines.

“From sales samples to covers for single-serve cans, digital on-demand printing can provide better turnaround times— 24 hour or same day delivery. For the introduction of a new product, a small number of labels and product identification tags can be fabricated quickly for a trade show, without tying up cash for advance purchases and warehouse inventory. A good use of on-demand printing is the production of sales samples and prototypes.” Packaging and labeling, according to Paul White of, is a prime area to look for new business, especially on the local level.

There are often local micro-breweries, bottlers, vineyards, food specialty retailers/growers, supplement manufacturers, who need labels and packaging. The digital or short-run printer is ideally suited for this, and local service is especially important with packaging and labeling. After all, the labels or packaging will be representing the customers’ company to the world at large. You probably won’t find such jobs going to anonymous internet printers.

If you currently do this type of work for a handful of clients, that makes you a specialist. You know how to do something that is foreign to at least some of your competition, so now you have a niche to work with. “Morris County’s short-run label printing specialist,” for instance.

Working the Strategies

My hope is that by now you have several ideas brewing because of these powerful strategies. Our goal as business people should not be to make a sale, but to get a customer. We do that by providing them with a very real value they feel they can’t get anywhere else. Does any of this come easily? No. But do the work once and you—and your customer—can profit for a lifetime. As that most famous of printers, Benjamin Franklin said, “Drive thy business or it will drive thee.”

If you want to avoid costly marketing mistakes, then be sure to check out this hands-on program from Bob Bly, one of the best marketing and sales strategists I've ever encountered. Bly tells you specifically how to sell more printing services, to more, bigger and better clients...starting right away.

5 Steps to Selling Your Services

*Source: Melissa Data SIC search

Topics: Bindery Business Tips, Printing Business

Andre Palko

Written by Andre Palko

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