Industry Thoughts: Can I get a bucket of halftone dots?

Halftone DotsI had this joke played on me once while I was in a darkroom learning how to manually shoot halftones with a process camera. And, as a young novice in the print industry, I easily fell for it because all i wanted to do was show my eagerness to expand my print knowledge. However, after that joke, I became quite skilled at manually creating halftones on a process camera. Remember bump flashing? (On a side note, that link took me 20 minutes to find on Google with 6 or so different searches).

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Thought Leadership: Beware of DAN

I hope you read Tim Morin’s post yesterday. It reminded me of a guy I know named Dan. Not Dan Morin, who happens to be Tim’s son. A different Dan altogether. If you’ve been in business for a while, you’ve met Dan. Might have been no more than a handshake. Maybe it was a series of meetings over the course of a week or a month. Perhaps it was a full-blown relationship; one that you’re still in.

Given the current economic climate and general nationwide fatigue, more of us are meeting Dan these days. You have to admit that he’s got an infectious personality. You listen, then you listen some more, and man this guy is talking some sense! Can we please get Dan to run for office?!

Here’s a quote from a print distributor who’s never met Dan. Or perhaps they did meet, but this guy sized up Dan and told him to get lost and stay lost.

“Amazon is getting into office supplies and that’s probably only a start for them. It’s something to ponder as we look at where we’re going and what we’re going to be offering. It’s a good bet that over the next five years your competitors will change. Your customers will change. Your markets will change. Your core technology will change. Shouldn’t your capabilities change as well?”

Dan hates talk like that. Talk of optimism, resiliency, self-reliance, willingness to change, competitive fire, creativity.

Dan is Denial, Anger, and Nostalgia. If he calls, don’t take the call. If he’s already in your office, throw him out.


PS I first heard about DAN in a speech given at the National Tooling & Machining Association’s annual conference c. 2001. Many thanks to that presenter, whose name neither I nor Google can recall.

Thoughts from Four51: Form meets function when learning is fun

Everyone is passionate about something–it’s human nature–and we will relentlessly choose to learn more and more about our interests. I’ve recently developed an interest in history. It’s a topic I have not spent much time on since…I don’t know when, but lately I can’t get enough of it. I buy books, I download podcasts on iTunes, I read blogs…yada, yada, yada. In short, I’ve become passionate about it.

While we are free to pursue personal learning on our own time, self-directed learning in the workplace is often a struggle for employees. Most of us don’t get to pick what we learn about at work, and if we do, the time allowed for self-directed learning is often very limited.

An online training magazine I recently read cited a survey that showed that 80% of survey participants didn’t remember the last time they purchased any self-directed learning offerings. To add further evidence, I’ve observed that nearly 100% of Four51 customers that attend our training courses come because they were asked to by someone else at their company, typically their boss.

It makes sense, right? Companies make calculated investments in their employees and ought to get a return for their money.

Here’s an obvious but interesting fact: Most of us learn the bulk of our knowledge and skill on the job, through ad hoc interactions with our peers. We collaborate with each other on the fly, and learn a wealth of information while doing so. It’s a powerful dynamic, probably more powerful than any classroom or web-based instructor-led training!

That being said, my impetus for this post is a learning website called It’s a new tool that allows educators and students to teach and learn in a collaborative online community. Basically, it’s Facebook meets eLearning.

But the coolest thing is that you don’t need to be a licensed, certified educator to teach courses. In their words, “Because LearnHub’s communities can be created by both teachers and learners, the system purposefully blurs the line between teacher and student to increase collaboration between learners and educators. By eliminating the divide between students and teachers and combining education with the benefit of social networking, LearnHub has created a niche in education that is unprecedented in the world of online education.”

Pretty cool stuff. These people truly understand how most of us learn: peer-to-peer, collaboratively, in social networks. And, as an added bonus, is a lot of fun. Learners and educators have the ability to create personal profiles, develop communities around any topic, get RSS updates about what other users are doing, and much more.

Why not make learning fun? Shouldn’t Four51 do this? I’m not making any announcements in this post, but I will say that Four51 is currently taking a hard look at ways to enhance our training offerings. In a few weeks, Four51 will be distributing a survey to all our customers asking for input about how we can enhance your Four51 learning. When you receive the survey, I ask you to take it seriously and really let us know what your training needs and wants are.

To me, is a clear indication that there is technology available to support a wide-variety of learning styles and needs. That’s what I want Four51 to do but the question remains, do you?


Thoughts from Four51: Tools and the way we use them

During my tenure as head of Four51′s Customer Support team, I focused on introducing online self-service tools that would help distributors get answers faster and help Four51 build a scalable, disciplined model for customer care. These tools included Access Four51 (for case submission and tracking), Forum Four51 (the user forum) and Discover Four51 (our new knowledgebase). There was some internal and external resistance to these efforts, of course. Change is hard and it tends to make happy people crabby and crabby people downright angry. I didn’t give it much more thought, until…

During a conversation with two Glatfelter employees at a recent PSDA event, I gained new insight. One of them mentioned that she hates to wait…for anyone, or anything, at any time. Given a choice between getting an answer from an online knowledgebase in 5 minutes versus a person on the phone in 90 minutes, she always chooses the knowledgebase. Her husband, however, is just the opposite; aware of the trade-off, he still chooses the human.

It dawned on me then that some, perhaps many, view tech-heavy support and human-heavy support as incompatible–at odds and locked in mortal combat. The introduction of online tools must by definition mean customers will be forced to have less interaction with people. Why can’t Microsoft Support treat me like Nordstrom associates treat me? (Suddenly the folks who hid behind voicemail for years or gave you wrong answers are so much more desirable.)

My friend at Glatfelter doesn’t see it that way. She thinks great people are capable of creating great tools to help her get the right answer faster. For her, it’s about a better customer experience, not whether she got to speak to a person. And if the online tools fall short, then people are there to help.


Thoughts from Four51: Blogging

I suppose it’s a little odd to discuss blogging on the blog, but a customer asked me a really good question about blogging and I thought what better forum than Insights to answer it?!

The customer asked why we had started a blog and if a blog was the right choice for his company (a midsize print distributor). We started Insights because we have a great community of customers with whom we wanted to keep an open dialog about ideas that are of interest to us and them.

Although I’m quite biased on the topic of business blogging, there are definitely some things to take into consideration before starting a blog:

-Do you have a clear audience? Obviously if you’re blogging for your company you have customers–but are they an audience as well? Would they be willing to visit your blog and read what you have to say?

-Do you have at least one person who can be dedicated to the blog internally? (Believe me, it’s a big job!) If nobody is willing to be responsible for posts, comments, and all the other fun tasks that seemingly fall from the sky, then it’s probably not really worth it to your company. Blogs have to be well-maintained to keep readership alive.

-Do you have anything to say? Of course you can think of ten things to post about right this second, but do you feel you’d have a lot to say nearly every day? Ask others at your company (especially those who might become contributors) what they think and assess possible topics and threads.

Starting a blog is a great way to reach out to customers and engage them in a new way. It also asserts your voice within your industry and gives you an opportunity to connect with prospective customers simultaneously. The Marketing Profs blog had a great post on this topic that I’d highly recommend reading. The post explains that ‘successful blogging is about creating and nurturing relationships’–couldn’t have said it better myself.


Thoughts from Four51: Selling the application

I talked to a customer yesterday who was looking for some tips on selling the Four51 application. His questions and frustrations were nothing I hadn’t heard before, and I thought maybe some of you could benefit from the discussion.

The customer is in a great position; he is bringing Four51 to his existing customers with whom he has strong relationships, he has staff members who are trained on Pageflex, and he has a great understanding of the application and the benefits it has to offer.

The problem he is running into time and time again is that although people seem really excited about the application while they are watching a demo, getting them to actually sign up and move ahead is proving unattainable. I’ve heard this more than once from customers and here are some helpful things to think about as you take the application out to your customer base:

- Most of your customers’ needs are being met today. Even though you can save them time and money, they might not be compelled to make a change when the system they have still gets the job done. Make sure to underscore not only the ease of use they’ll enjoy, but also how you plan to help them make a smooth transition. They look to you as your partner, show them you truly are trying to help.

-Take the time to prepare for your demo. Especially when you’re in a situation where you’re working with an existing customer, look at the products they order, the quantities, the frequency, anything that will show them you understand their needs and can help make them work more efficiently.

- Think about how you’re positioning the “getting started” process–does it seem long and arduous? Are you piling on setup fees and ordering requirements that may make it seem like more trouble than it’s worth?

- Are you giving them an offer that they can refuse? Try giving a free trial or a free setup consultation to help move the process along.

- Wow them right away–in your demo, show them a site that you’ve already created for them and describe how easy it is to tailor what you’re showing them into exactly what they need. (This would be a good time to mention the tip above about a consultative session where you’ll work with them to decide what they need included…)

It’s not always an easy sale, but once you get them using the application they will wonder what took them so long!


Thoughts from Four51: Web-to-print for mortgage brokers

Although the end solution may look very different, web-to-print technology can help just about everyone in every industry be more efficient with their time and money. Take for instance, this article written by Gary for The Mortgage Press (a minor heads-up, you’ll have to do a quick quasi-registration to read the piece but rest assured it’s well worth it).

As Gary points out, “The key to success is relevance—a meaningful message delivered the right way at the right time.” Of course, this can be easier said than done, but that’s where a web-to-print solution can make life a lot easier. Although there’s a steady stream of news about the takeover of internet advertising, direct mail is nonetheless a powerful tool.

Check out the full article to get the whole picture, including thoughts on how web-to-print can be a powerful environmental differentiator in competitive industries.

Thoughts from Four51: Recap from the Print Solutions Show

Last week, several members from the Four51 team were in Las Vegas to attend the DMIA’s (now PSDA’s) Print Solutions show. Our goal at the conference was to unveil the Four51 Edition for SAP Business One, the result of our partnership with SAP.

The Four51 Edition is designed for print distributors and is a fully integrated, end-to-end business management system that marries the Four51 e-commerce platform with SAP’s Business One ERP software. Business One is meant for small to mid-size businesses and is currently implemented in over 15,000 companies. The Four51 Edition allows for significant improvements in workflow, real-time business intelligence, inventory management, advanced reporting, and tools to grow your business.

The product unveiling was a great success! We were joined by our partners from SAP, Vision33, our go-to-market and development partner, and Key Equipment Finance, our financial services program provider. We were inundated with inquiries and requests for demos. The product will be commercially available in January and we continue to work with our alpha and beta partners to develop the best product for the print distribution space!

If you’d like more information on the Four51 Edition for SAP Business One, click here or call your Regional Director.


Thoughts from Four51: All aboard the green bus!

We recently sent out a survey to customers about sustainability and the results were fascinating.

Most people are personally concerned about the environment (67% rated 7 or higher on a 1-10 scale of concern), and are at companies that are already doing something to address environmental concerns (66%; with another 23% at companies who aren’t doing anything yet, but plan to).

As fantastic as the results were, the devil is, as usual, in the details. When asked what the biggest hurdle to sustainability was for the print industry, one response was heard frequently: “We want to do more, but we have to keep costs down.”

To help answer this issue, I’d urge anyone feeling these sentiments to do a couple of things. First, attend our Salon Four51 session on September 24th with Don Carli (the link to enroll is in the post below). Don is an expert in the area of print industry sustainability and will give practical advice about tackling this issue at your company. Second, I would encourage you to raise your hand! We want to promote you to print buyers who are looking to buy sustainable products!

It’s clear from the survey results that everyone’s on the same page that an issue exists and that solutions need to be devised–let’s work together to make it happen.


Thoughts from Four51: The Telephone

Alexander Graham Bell’s invention is arguably one of the most important in modern history. The telephone allows for a myriad of remote and complex connections with just the pressing of some buttons. And it allows my 15-year-old daughter to send 400 text messages a day, and who can put a price on that? (Verizon can, for one.)

But the phone in its typical form sitting on your desk right now is also dated technology. Yes, phones have gotten neater features but they have not kept up with every complexity in the evolving technology world.

Consider then, the following statements:

“People rely on email too much these days. No one picks up the phone anymore.”

“The telephone is bad technology. No audit trail, inefficient, expensive…”

Can both be true? I think we’d all agree that some business conversations need to take place over the phone, if not face to face. On the other hand, playing phone tag is very annoying, and what’s agreed to on a phone call often doesn’t get logged in a meaningful way in a CRM system or anywhere else, for that matter.

What happens in the context of Customer Care? I contend that speedy problem resolution is the goal, and the means of communication are relevant only to the extent that they expedite or hinder progress toward that speedy resolution. For example, I would much rather query the Knowledge Base on than actually speak to an IRS employee. I’ve done both, and the latter is a nightmare beyond anything that ever happened on Elm Street.

Are there successful companies that deliver a satisfactory, or perhaps even a superior, customer experience via the Web only? Google comes to mind.

What do you think?