Printers suffer something of an image problem. It's a hangover from a time when the PC was king and the printer its poor cousin. It was a necessity tolerated rather than celebrated; an add-on that nobody wanted to think about.
So it's not surprising that those who successfully operate in the market have more than a little nous when it comes to sales techniques. Now, while PC sales wane and many in the channel moan about the lack of margin and the difficulty of making a sale, there is a strong but often silent dealer force providing success stories in a market that has been written off by the vast majority.
Take Brad Jackson, managing director of Advanced Business Technologies (ABT) in Brisbane, for example. With 14 years experience in printers and copiers, Jackson established ABT three years ago and is now one of Sharp's most successful colour printer dealers in Australia. The company turned over more than $7 million in its first two years and expects business to increase 30 per cent in the next financial year. Jackson believes the key to such success is the ability to focus on the end user rather than trying to sell the highest-priced product - and working with a vendor that supports rather than dictates strategies.
"A lot of companies are sick of being sold cheap boxes, so I think it is a matter of doing the job properly," he says. "Some vendors are giving away their product in this market, but all it does is drive everything down. In the end, a cheaper product will often end up costing you more money."
According to Jackson, issues such as response times, good products, reliable service and ease of invoicing often take precedence over the price of the product in a successful installation.
"Follow through on what you promise," he says. "Make sure you address the customer's needs and you do it quickly. If you don't have all the facets covered, you don't get recommendations, and word of mouth is very important for repeat business."
Ongoing interaction with the customer is the key, Jackson says, and despite all the talk of providing services, many resellers still view printers as add-on items.
"The fact is, they're not," says Lexmark's business printer division general manager Martin Ryan. "There tends to be a view that a printer is just a peripheral device. But today's printers are extremely complex, clever products and selling the support and infrastructure is more complicated than selling a PC.
"Printers can provide a highly effective way to develop an annuity stream if resellers understand the applications for moving documents within an organisation."
Ryan believes resellers can build ongoing revenue by bundling technology with services such as finance and fleet management. With the functionality of printers moving into the realm of the copier business, this can prove a daunting concept for the IT channel, but resellers have one major advantage: they understand the network.
"Traditional IT resellers have not been exposed to the same opportunities as some of the more traditional office suppliers," Ryan concedes. "But once printers and copiers start getting onto the mainstream network, it is a hugely different environment. It is a very important factor in putting together print-management solutions. The copier industry generally does not have the skills in network management and the IT industry therefore has the opportunity to leverage more quickly."
It may be easier said than done, but for those who want to move beyond box sales, both vendors and distributors offer the tools.
Alloys International, a distributor that specialises in imaging solutions, offers a dedicated resource centre where its resellers can showcase solutions to their clients.
"Ninety-nine per cent of people who make it to our showroom with a dealer end up buying a colour laser from us and we've never had an unhappy client," says Alloys International sales manager Phil Gibbs.
Alloys International is particularly focused on the colour market, where the solutions sell has never been more important. "There are a lot of different technologies and it is a big market. The resellers know that we all use colour differently and they're pitching colour to the requirements of their customers," Gibbs says.
"Colour is an extremely complex animal. It is a lot more complicated than black and white and you need to know a lot more. That is the fundamental error for many end users - they assume it is the same as black and white printing so they ask for the product that worked for them before, then they get upset when it doesn't work in the same way."
Fuji Xerox Phaser Printing offers resellers the use of demonstration printers for colour printing as well as a demonstration program.
"We want to make it as easy as possible for resellers to maintain the minimum three printer technologies we produce," says channel marketing manager Ben Gardem.
Inks, paper, usage - all these elements contribute to the success of a colour sale and since individual departments use and understand colour differently, resellers must also decide to whom they should pitch the sale.
"The IT manager is generally the only person in an organisation who doesn't need colour, and yet who's making the buying decisions?" says Gibbs. "The person I have never been able to sell colour to is the IT manager."
The good news is that information systems managers are no longer the gatekeepers of IT spending. In a tough economic environment, the job is more likely to go to the managers who control the purse strings.
"Generally, the MIS guy was quite powerful prior to the implementation of GST," says David Finn, managing director of Kyocera Mita. "But we have gone past that to the financial controller. Now they have the IT budgets back under control."
At such times, saving money becomes paramount and a reseller that can show significant cost savings is already in front of the competition. "We make the tools available to let resellers go out and build a profile for their customers that calculates all the different running costs," Finn says. "At that point, the discussion becomes about how much the reseller is saving the customer, not the cost of the machine."
Bernard Esner, senior analyst with pricing research company Ideas International, believes comparative tools provide vendors with the tools to help resellers.
"Price is more important than it has ever been when vendors are in a depressed market and are reacting to the competition," he says. "You can't just say, what's an average printer?'. It is such a diverse product segment that resellers need to fully understand each offering so they can cross-sell or up-sell a product.
"The opportunities are there for resellers and the vendors can provide the marketing collateral to understand the market," Esner says.
Fuji Xerox Australia is also helping its resellers emphasise the cost savings. The vendor prides itself on appointing focused distributors that take a consultative approach.
"Organisations cannot often see where their costs lie and there are a lot of opportunities to provide value in that area," says Michael Byrne, marketing manager for indirect channels. The company also provides tools to help resellers think differently about sales, and conducts workshops on sales techniques. The vendor recently commissioned marketing guru Martin Grunstein to present a series of seminars for its channel under the banner "The X factor: your licence to print money".
"He talks the sales language," Byrne says. "It's not just about, here's a product and it's fantastic'. When you look at some of the sales messages, they can seem pretty obvious, but it's easy to get caught up in the day-to-day grind of running a business."
Such is the complexity of selling printers that proficient resellers are highly prized by vendors.
"It's hard to find a good salesperson," admits Kyocera Mita's Finn. "There are a lot of order takers. But there are some very good salespeople out there and they are doing very well.
"Everyone thinks selling printers is not a sexy business, but the top guys are making more money than the sexy-PC guys."