How important is a printer to your customer? Or for that matter, to you? It seems that too many resellers are not asking themselves these questions and, as a result, failing to provide their customers with the best solution on offerYet designing a complete IT solution, whether it be for a corporate-wide network or a stand-alone system, demands of the reseller that they consider each of the solution's components - and this includes the printer.
"The rapid advance in computer technology over recent years has given rise to claims that the day of the paperless office is nigh. But in reality, the integration of the PC into virtually every business, from the one-person operation through to multinational corporations, has brought about a revolution in the office - and this revolution has opened up a whole new world of challenges and opportunities for paper which stands to benefit enlightened dealers."
Those are the sage words you'll find at www.almac.co.uk/business_park/weir/p4.html, a Web page maintained by Scottish paper products manufacturer, Inveresk Fine Papers.
For the past four years, one "enlightened" Melbourne-based reseller operation has been capitalising on the real opportunities existing within the printer market. Upstream Technologies has become established as one of Australia's foremost companies in the provision of unique printer-based solutions. The company's managing director, Neil Tilley, told Australian Reseller News: "We're a printer specialist company and our primary focus is on laser printers. If a product doesn't form part of a printer solution, then we don't sell it."
Tilley is forthright in stating that one of the aims of his company is to put the makers of pre-printed stationery out of business. "Preprinted stationery is expensive to print and store; and when details such as phone numbers change, it becomes redundant," he said.
One of the general solutions offered by Upstream is to replace all a customer's pre-printed forms with on-demand forms which are generated by the laser printer. "This way, the customer has the advantage of needing only one printer," said Tilley. "They're able to avoid the unnecessary expense of having one printer to handle preprinted stationery and another for general office printing."
Stephen Lockwood, manager of printing systems division with Fuji Xerox, is - not surprisingly - another advocate of the printer as a solution rather than just a product. "One aspect of selling printers is that if you're just selling a printer, then you're not offering the customer a solution," he said.
Regardless of the attitude expressed by some resellers, there is a fair amount of revenue potential in the sale of printers. "With the majority of companies, the printer represents only about one-third to one-half of actual printing-related costs," said Lockwood. "The additional costs are generated by forms design software, consultancy and implementation of the printer solution. Resellers, particularly VARs with good IS knowledge, are capitalising on this and doing very well for themselves."
Searching for the unique
In their work to retain a lead over other resellers, Upstream staff find themselves continually evaluating new printer products and technologies. "We recently looked at a poster printer for retail situations," said Tilley. "With this product, the customer would be able to print out huge banners, say a metre wide by 70 metres long. In the retail market, this is the sort of unique solution we like to offer our customers."
According to Tilley, too many resellers have been caught up in what he refers to as "the basic reseller mentality". He states that these resellers don't fully understand many of the unique printer solutions which they might otherwise be able to offer to their customers. "They need to realise that, for many customers, the printer is the 'end' of all solutions. More often than not, when a customer wants to get something done on a computer, it will end up with a print-out of some sort."
Replacing the tree-cutter
For many resellers who've been involved in IT for "too long", some of the earliest printers they would've come across are the large line or band printers. Lexmark Australia's managing director Peter O'Meara told ARN that the era of line printers has not yet quite ended.
"While I wouldn't say that the old line printers are becoming extinct, generally, they're being replaced," said O'Meara. "In the 'old days' you had a central computer and printer - what I used to call a 'tree-cutter' because they'd go through so much paper - and this has been replaced by distributed networking."
Printing has followed this trend, according to O'Meara, and has resulted in the concept of distributed printing. "The 1996 version [of the tree-cutter] is not one printer, but 1,000 printers," he said. There are still applications that require large-volume central printing, but this number is diminishing." In describing where he believes the printer industry is heading, O'Meara points to his own company as an example. "Five years ago, we thought we were in the printer business - designing, developing and marketing through resellers," he said. "We're no longer in the printer business in that sense. We're in the network printer business and the personal printer business.
"It seems to me that this has implications as well for reselling. If you look at the resellers who are VARs or SIs, then they are typically selling to network situations. The idea of somebody going to an SI to buy one printer is low to remote, but 500 to 1,000 as part of a PC network integrated solution is very typical. And there are quite specific skills required there."
O'Meara related to ARN that the problem users have in managing printing on networks is actually a bigger problem than managing the network itself. "Controlling printing on networks is a challenge, and resellers who are dealing with this - the savvy ones - understand that it's also an opportunity. They have to be adequately informed about network management tools - protocols and other associated issues. And that's not your average reseller."
One such "not your average reseller" is Queensland-based Data #3. With a staff of 185, which includes 110 technical, and an expected $70 million turnover for 1996, Data #3 markets primarily to the corporate and government sectors.
The company's sales and operations director, Mark Esler, told ARN: "While we do see ourselves as being resellers, we're also systems integrators." The success of Data #3 is reflected by the company's customer base, which includes Suncorp and Metway Bank.
In providing their customers with a total and fully integrated IT solution, Data #3 staff fully realise the importance of the printer. "The printer is just as important a component in a network as the PC," said Esler. "In many cases, customers also ask us to analyse printing volumes before they purchase printers. It's the ability to provide this particular service to a customer which is vital for resellers if they wish to sell into the large network market."
Esler also told ARN that industry is witnessing an increase in the number of printers being sold and the amount of printed material being generated within organisations. "Much of this is due to the Internet," he said. "Users are able to gain access to enormous amounts of information which they then print out for later reference. E-mail too is adding to this, and the amount of e-mail which is expected by the year 2000 is staggering."
The information superlagway
We're all aware that the typical reseller - if there is such a thing - has ample time to sit back and read the industry journals to keep up to date with the latest printer technologies . . . yeah, sure! In the real world, most resellers, whether they're in retail, systems integration or consultancy, find themselves with little enough time to just keep up with the demands from their customers.
The issue of keeping current with new technologies, especially printers, is a thorny one for resellers, customers and vendors. Unfortunately, it's the reseller who is more often than not the "meat in the sandwich". Customers expect the reseller to provide them with the best advice for printing solutions, and vendors are constantly introducing new products which incorporate increasingly complex technologies and added features.
While some printer vendors go out of their way to provide extensive education for their channels, others merely rely on the brochures or occasional newsletters to keep the sellers of their products "well informed". Even vendors who do provide reseller education hold back from stating that enough is enough.
"I come from the school which advocates there is no saturation point when it comes to education," O'Meara told ARN. "We provide reseller training at times which suit them, but at the end of the day, I believe that the printer vendor industry as a whole is not doing enough. But then, I don't believe anyone within the industry has come up with the answer to provide an overall education solution for the resellers."
Understand and specialise or partner
In the case of resellers and customers alike, a big mistake is that many tend to think of a printer as being little more than a commodity product. "Too many people try to put labels to printers like '8ppm' or '16ppm'," said O'Meara. "Unfortunately, that is really the same thing as saying that all cars are the same because they all have steering wheels."
For certain markets, particularly the home consumer and the SOHO, this "commodity" attitude is less likely to cause much friction between the reseller and customer. In the small to medium business and corporate markets, it's a totally different story. Users at these levels often have specific and diverse printing requirements which are rarely satisfied by a reseller having little or no knowledge of available printing solutions.
"The problem that many resellers have is that they chase every opportunity that goes past their door, rather than building a degree of expertise in a certain area," said Upstream's Tilley. "Probably the hardest thing that resellers need to learn is how to let some of those opportunities go past."
The message? If you're unable to provide an adequate solution to your customer's printing requirements, either refuse the business or partner with someone who can. In the majority of cases the customer will still perceive you as being responsible for the successful end-result.
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Rather than provide you with the stock- standard http addresses for the various printer vendors, we've scoured the Web for some of the more interesting and useful printer sites. If you're after more information on vendor sites check the first address listed below. It contains links to most of them.www.ozemail.com.au/~ecuapita/wri/inkjet.htmlPresents a document which explains how to extend the life of Inkjet/Bubble Jet cartridges when they are used in conjunction with refill inks.www.dungeon.com/~poota/lpbook/01-chp1.htmlAn excellent on-line book dealing with laser printers.www.netfactory.com/inkjet/guide.htmlDetails the initial "first aid" steps to be taken when your customers are having problems with inkjet printers and cartridges.www.via.nl/cgi-bin/ssis/users/hmd/reviews.htmProvides links to various pages which carry inkjet printer reviews.www.primenet.com/~penguink/printers.htmlThe best printer page we came across for vendor-specific links and software driver access.