From The Wall Street Journal Online
A Human Touch For Online Customers
By Paulette Thomas, November 17, 2005
THE PROBLEM: Striking the best balance between human and online interaction with customers.
Andrew Field was fly-fishing in the Yellowstone River in Montana one day when his fishing buddy lamented that the print shop he worked for was shutting down. Intrigued by a new challenge, Mr. Field decided to launch a print shop of his own.
He and his wife had moved to Livingston, Mont., from the Twin Cities in 1990 to enjoy the sports and scenery, and they ran a small chemicals business. But Mr. Field had worked previously in printing, and he envisioned a new enterprise printing brochures and catalogs to small-business owners across the state.
He started in 1996 with six people and $500,000 in equipment. Two years later, sales were about $50,000 a month -- roughly break-even -- but growth appeared limited. "Montana has more cows than print buyers," Mr. Field says.
THE SOLUTION: One day in the late 1990s, a frustrated customer asked Mr. Field to print a brochure created on Microsoft software. It seemed that no one else locally was able to do it. It got Mr. Field thinking about a huge untapped market: "If that guy was having a hard time, so was everyone else, and how many copies of Microsoft Office are out there?" As entrepreneurs became more tech-savvy, he realized, small business of every stripe would want to convert their digital files to nicely printed brochures. He vowed to make a user-friendly Web site for those businesses, and expand far beyond Montana.
He changed his company's name to PrintingForLess.com, and planned a custom Web site, not a "shopping cart" site. He wanted his customers to be able to fill out simple online forms, requesting the number of copies, size, folds; the pricing on the screen would automatically change with the specs.
At the time, it was a big technology challenge. Outside developers using Oracle and Microsoft products bid about $1 million to do the work. "I didn't have $1 million," says Mr. Field. So he hired a Wall Street refugee and a programmer fresh out of school, who built the initial system for about $100,000.
Customers liked the system, which allowed them to send files in a wide variety of formats and software languages. But they inevitably had questions that required human intervention. So Mr. Field made the company phone number more prominent on the Web site, and he installed three-person teams to be responsible for each print job, start to finish. "Printing its still a 'trust' buy," he says.
PrintingForLess.com just reached $20 million in revenue, and employs 125 people. "Our whole gig," says Mr. Field, "is being easy to do business with."
THE LESSON: It's never been easier to reach customers beyond your local market, but how to interact with them is as critical as ever.
Copyright © 2005 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved.