September 12, 2006
ONLINE ALTERNATIVE; Printer's New Way Wins Customer Loyalty
By MATT VILLANO
HERE on the banks of the Yellowstone River, in a town where antelope are as plentiful as sport utility vehicles, one upstart company is offering the power of the press to what its founder calls 'the little guys.'
The company, PrintingForLess.com, combines offset printing techniques with customer service in a custom publishing operation meant to serve small- and medium-size businesses. All business is conducted over the Internet and telephone, maximizing efficiency and minimizing cost.
More than 50,000 customers have used the service since 1999, and the 132-employee, privately owned company estimates that it took in $18 million in revenue last year.
Behind this effort is Andrew Field, a printing industry veteran. After years of observing big printing companies like FedEx Kinko's and Sir Speedy price smaller customers out of the market, Mr. Field set out to provide an alternative that everyone could use.
'For many smaller businesses, buying full-color printing is a cross between going to the auto repair shop and dentist -- it's painful and expensive,' he said. 'We try to eliminate some of that pain, and make the publishing experience more pleasant for everyone.'
Technically, PrintingForLess.com was born on a river. The year was 1996, and on a trout fishing trip, a buddy lobbied Mr. Field to open a printing company. At the time, Mr. Field was running a successful automotive chemical business, and wasn't sure he was ready to give it up. Still, the idea intrigued him.
Mr. Field was no stranger to commercial printing. He had spent most of the 1980's running printing companies in Minneapolis, and had moved to Livingston in 1989 for a simpler life. He knew he was a printer at heart, and was enthralled by the artistry of using plates to put ink on paper. 'It was in my blood,' he said. 'I've always loved printing, and I just couldn't stay away.'
Mr. Field started to write a business plan in 1998. As he researched the document, he discovered that the number of commercial printers in the United States had ballooned to more than 30,000. With many of these outfits requiring customers to drop off and pick up jobs in person, Mr. Field knew his firm needed to find a better way to manage customer relationships.
Ultimately, that better way was e-commerce: customers log on to the company's Web site, select the type of job they want and specify critical details like quantity, paper stock and ink. They also decide how quickly they want their materials processed: four days or two.
With this information, PrintingForLess.com automatically issues an on-the-spot cost estimate. Historically, these types of printing estimates have taken days to generate. By automating the process, however, industry analysts said PrintingForLess.com expedited the entire printing process.
'For most printers, pricing always has involved time and a little bit of magic,' said Holly Muscolino, a director at InfoTrends, a research company in Weymouth, Mass. 'With the rubric from PrintingForLess.com, everything has changed for the better.'
Generally, once a customer accepts the quote, the Web site instructs the customer to upload files through a standard File Transfer Protocol interface. As soon as the file is received, the site requests billing information. Hours later, the customer receives an e-mail confirmation with an electronic proof.
This proof is followed shortly by a phone call from a PrintingForLess.com representative to discuss the order. Generally, callers review job instructions, explain to customers what happens next and answer any questions. Mr. Field said the calls were meant to establish relationships beyond the Web site.
'We want to let our customers know there are living, breathing humans behind the Web pages they're ordering from,' he said, 'and that we're here to act as business consultants if they need us to do that.'
If customers have questions later on, service representatives are available from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Mountain Time.
This kind of commitment has inspired fierce loyalty among many of the company's oldest customers. At Gaia Power Technologies, a battery backup manufacturer in New York, marketing officials have returned for more than 20 jobs in less than three years, largely because of the hands-on service.
Onion Mountain Technologies, an assistive technology vendor in Canton, Conn., is another happy customer. The company asked PrintingForLess.com to publish its annual catalog in 1999, and Jack Sweeney, the firm's vice president, said he had worked with the same service representatives since then.
'We've had the same team of people for years, and I know them all on a first-name basis,' Mr. Sweeney said. 'If we don't know how to prepare a certain file, they'll tell us what we have to do and how we have to do it. We're partners.'
Still, PrintingForLess.com is not for everyone. Because of limited capacity on the company's Heidelberg press, few orders top 50,000 pieces. Mr. Field said he had no qualms rejecting a job he deemed too large.
Interestingly, this base of predominantly smaller customers has laid a strong foundation for growth. Earlier this year, the company moved from a tiny warehouse downtown to a 46,000-square-foot facility near Interstate 90. Mr. Field said the company was on target to take in $24 million in revenue this year, a 33 percent increase from 2005.
Looking forward, Mr. Field said PrintingForLess.com would continue to distinguish itself with a commitment to customer service. In the long run, he expects this strategy will make the e-commerce interface nothing more than a vehicle to reach customers and serve them the way they want to be served.
'Printing is a trust buy,' he said. 'The more we show our customers how important they are, the more they're going to trust us with that next job.'
Copyright © 2006 by The New York Times Co. Reprinted with permission.