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The Owl and the Centipede

by | Oct 12, 2017 | Exploring Alternatives

Here’s a cautionary tale for printers

A mid-size printer closed a while ago. No big news by itself, but their story was especially poignant, because the company had been widely-recognized for doing many of the right things while repositioning itself as a marketing services provider.

Their closing reminded me of the story of the owl and the centipede.

One day, a centipede was complaining to the wise old owl. “My feet are killing me. Every day. All the time.”

The owl thought for a moment, blinked, and said “Well, if you were a sparrow, you’d have only two legs, and just think how much better you’d feel.

The centipede was thrilled. “A sparrow….great. How do I become a sparrow?”

The owl blinked again, turned his head and said “Don’t ask ME. I just deal in concepts…

It’s easy to tell printers how much better they’ll feel when they’ve become marketing services providers. But becoming a sparrow is no easy feat for a centipede, and becoming a marketing services provider isn’t much easier for a printer.

Every day brings another story of a business failure – and in almost every case, the CEO is quoted as saying

We TRIED offering marketing services, and some clients went for it. But it was a long hard slog. We just weren‘t prepared for how long it would take, and how difficult and expensive it would be to develop the new capabilities- or how difficult it would be to find people to sell the new services, because most of our existing salespeople just couldn’t get comfortable with the higher-level sale.

If you’re trying to make the transition from being a traditional printer, keep this in mind: being successful in selling new added-value services requires much more than calling yourself a “marketing services provider.” It requires an entirely new skill-set, a new way of thinking, and new kinds of people who don’t know much about printing (and care even less).

It’s a real challenge to convince clients that you’re a credible resource. Changing the tagline on your business card isn’t enough. And it’s just as big a challenge to convince your salesforce that selling added-value services will be good for them.

Thinking carefully about your company’s strengths

Choosing the right direction is difficult. You’ve got to think carefully about your company’s strengths, and you’ve got to offer a business proposition that’s credible with your customers and your salesforce.

In our consulting business, we often deal with companies caught in the midst of making the transition from being a plain old printer to something more complicated. It always takes more time, ingenuity and money than expected.

So if you’ve decided to make the transition to a new business model – whatever that model may be – don’t forget to make money on your existing business while you’re building a new approach to a brighter future.

By all means commit yourself fully to making the necessary transition, but never stop fighting to extract every dollar of profit from your existing business: squeezing more sales out of your existing salesforce, producing existing jobs productively and streamlining your workflow from beginning to end. That way you can generate the profits required to fund your long, slow transition to whatever you’ve decided your company should become.

Meanwhile, our condolences to those CEOs who have gone off in search of greener pastures and run out of food before completing their journey. Becoming a sparrow is no easy task.


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