What’s next for the channel? How does the past shape the future? Should phone banks and paper planners make a comeback? See what our panel has to say about channel evolution.

Is the paperless office going to happen?

Jennie Fisher: Never say never; however, achieving a fully paperless office is quite a way off in my opinion. That said, there are trends relating to optimizing workflows, reducing paper usage to cut back on waste, and the rise of hybrid and remote, which are motivating businesses to move in that direction. Hybrid work alone has fueled a need for better digitization for purposes of collaboration. I think about the move toward digital document management; there is much opportunity for organizations to digitize and organize documents more efficiently. There is also increased use of digital signatures in place of wet ink which means business can be closed faster and often from anywhere. Cloud-based collaboration helps organizations share and store digital files securely and for expanded collaboration. For these reasons, we will continue to see large strides in a paperless direction. 

Christina Robbins: Stop thinking “paperless” and start thinking “less paper.” While we all understand the environmental impact of excessive paper use, humans have a deeply seated psychological and emotional connection to information they obtain via paper — in books, newspapers and magazines, or even printed office documents. In fact, that connection consistently boosts retention and recall of the information when compared to electronic exposure. I don’t think the most effective message for our industry is paperless — meaning without paper at all. Rather, a more effective message is to promise a reduction in paper use by encouraging electronic file management, reduced printing, and electronic document distribution with tools like workflow and process automation. We can help advance organizations’ sustainability goals, but we should be cautious in how we advertise and promise results. 

Brad Roderick: The prospect of a paperless office reminds me of the question I heard every summer growing up: “Will the Cubs ever win the pennant?” The answer usually sounded something like, “Sure!  But maybe not in my lifetime.” Perhaps, instead of fixating on whether a paperless office will materialize, we should redirect our focus. The key question becomes: How do we leverage opportunities and mitigate risks in evolving work environments?

No question, the dominance of paper is waning, courtesy of the surge in digital tools, cloud storage, and collaborative technology. Technological strides, such as improved scanning, e-signatures, and a touch of augmented reality, are propelling us toward a less paper-dependent era, at least in certain domains. However, not everyone is digitally fluent. To bring about a more widespread adoption, fresh awareness campaigns, educational training programs, and more user-friendly interfaces and integrations are needed. Even with all the advancements, there’s still considerable awkwardness in integrating these solutions seamlessly. 

While a fully paperless office aligns with commendable goals such as efficiency, cost reduction, space optimization, and sustainability, I believe a hybrid approach, where digital and paper coexist, emerges as the more practical path. The speed of this transition hinges on a host of factors—industry idiosyncrasies, regulations, corporate culture, and the simplicity of understanding, deploying, and utilizing these digital tools.

Mike Stramaglio: Yes, it will go away about the same time Scotty can beam me up. Certainly, we will continue to see print decline and no doubt the A3/A4 battle has been won, with ease/cost and WFH being the driving factors. I see printing to be a part of our landscape for at least another 10 years or more. This migration will happen, to be sure, but it will be in razor-thin slices thanks to the slow pace of generations exiting the industry, and new generational adoption will create a new cadence.  

Given the rapid shifts in products and sales models, how have companies within the office imaging channel adapted to stay competitive?

Alex Cribby: The ability to remain competitive and truly operate efficiently and effectively in today’s modern business world relies heavily on organizations thinking ahead about future-proofing their technology platforms internally. Adapting, making the necessary investments in modern technology, and being open to change to break through the outdated toolsets that have been present for so long in this channel leads to improved processes internally, but also to agile customer support and modern customer experience and engagement. There will always be opportunities to provide customers with new products and services, and diversifying that is important to staying competitive and providing as much of a value offering as you can to the end consumer. 

Fisher: The office imaging channel never ceases to amaze me in their ability to evolve and adapt. Declining output has been an area of concern in the channel for more than 20 years now. Are dealers more concerned today than they were 20 years ago … or 10 years ago? Yes, as the hybrid work environment has become accepted as a norm for many organizations throughout the nation. However, the sustainable ones have been focused on expanding their footprint in their geographic regions and evolving the scope of their offerings beyond traditional print for years now. Many have evolved into total solution providers, offering solutions for the needs of the modern office, and doing so in a way that provides a seamless experience for their customers.  

Stramaglio: I think the dealer community over the past few years has become segmented by size,  business model, dealership age, dealer principle age, private equity, geography, and other important factors. When you consider this you almost have to answer this question by category. In large part I believe the dealers have found the right path to successfully navigate through the most traumatic business cycle in the history of the country and the channel. They stayed competitive by organizational changes, partner changes, OEM partner changes that allowed them a more balanced portfolio; i.e.,  inkjet, A4/A3, production print, service models, MSP models and IT services expansion. That being said,  they are not as well prepared as they need to be in order to stay competitive in a world driven by AI in almost every sector of our business. AI/ChatGPT will impact every dealer’s valuation, business projections and client retention, and we as an industry need to level up big time.

How have customer expectations evolved? What strategies are successful companies employing to meet and exceed these expectations?

Robbins: The 2020s have ushered in an unprecedented era of customer distrust in businesses and government. The reasons are complex, but channel businesses must do all they can to emphasize the steps they’ve taken to be customer-centric in their product lineup, billing, and service. One simple way to put the customer first that will help you stand out from others is to add microservices products and microtransactions-based billing to your offerings. Representing a change in technology architectures, microservices products enable customers to access and use smaller feature sets, so there is a better match between what they actually need and what they’re being billed for than has ever been possible with traditional software licenses or even cloud-based services tiers. Microtransactions-based billing gets even more granular by enabling an exact match between how often or how much a particular feature gets used and how much the customer is billed. If microservices and microtransactions-based billing are not on your strategic radar for 2024, they should be. IDC says more than 60% of customers expect to purchase technology this way because of the increased fairness and transparency it offers.

Stramaglio: End user clients’ expectations have increased, and in a big way. They expect speed, efficiency, security protection and ease. They seek a partner who will help them to grow their business, not a transactional relationship. They expect you to be the expert and provide guidance as well as performance. One strategy I have seen that works is when the dealer collaborates with their client on a routine basis conducting focus groups, innovation fairs and educational programs focused on critically important areas of the business. Education and imagination must join forces like never before.

In your opinion, what technological innovation has had the greatest impact lately on channel evolution?

Cribby: AI has certainly dominated the conversation lately … organizations are still understanding the best strategies for deployment of AI, and understanding the human element of building the business logic to deploy AI and make it work the way that we need and want it to, specific to business goals and needs. 

I would also say that the cloud has had one of the most significant impacts on this channel’s evolution. From cloud computing to cloud printing to the use of SaaS software solutions for business operations, having access anywhere, anytime, provides OT/OE dealers the ability to have ultimate business agility, which is a must. Technologies will continue to evolve and improve and innovate, and assuring you are future-proofing your business by investing in modern technology will position your organization to evolve as technology evolves.

Roderick: In my view, the most impactful recent technological innovation shaping the office imaging channel is the widespread availability of advanced AI language models like ChatGPT. While debates on their pros and cons persist, these models undeniably influence how businesses approach customer interactions, sales, and support.

I see these AI models as opportunities to enhance customer interactions, providing 24/7 access, scalability, consistency, data-driven insights, and cost efficiency. An underutilized power is their ability to generate valuable data and insights for both customer interactions and the selling process.

However, concerns about the impact on interpersonal relationships in sales persist. Issues include overreliance on automation, loss of personalization, communication breakdown, and customer perception. The solution lies in a nuanced approach: ongoing training for sales teams, integrating technological tools with interpersonal skills, and establishing clear guidelines to ensure AI complements rather than replaces the human element in sales.

For me, ChatGPT and tools like Crystal Knows are invaluable research assistants, aiding in understanding what to say and how to say it based on the person I’m communicating with.

What do you consider the biggest challenge in evolving the office right now?

Fisher: Adaptation to new technologies. Many businesses are going through a digital transformation, and integrating new processes and technologies while ensuring compatibility with current processes and legacy systems can prove to be challenging in many ways. Overcoming resistance to change can be the most challenging. Strong communication, collaboration and strong training/onboarding while minimizing disruptions during the transitionary times are critical. 

Goldberg: Hiring and retention. At its peak, the Business Technology Association (NOMDA) had 6,000 businesses as members. That number has significantly declined. There are few new entrants. Consolidation eliminates certain positions. The industry is no longer viewed as a career path. Many industry participants are nearing retirement. Family members are often declining to follow in their parents’ footsteps. Finding employees is very difficult, as is retaining those employed. Those dealerships that have built teams with common objectives, values, and commitment are growing. 2023 saw dealer revenue and profits rise above 2019. Maintain a positive team attitude and your business will grow.

Robbins: I don’t actually think the biggest challenge facing office evolution has changed much over the decades I’ve spent in this industry. From my perspective, our biggest barrier has always been people’s reluctance to change. Businesses and workers get comfortable doing tasks a certain way, and they often don’t want to change or may not even be aware that change is possible. How often have your sales teams lost business to “no decision” even though they presented a compelling business benefit or substantial savings? Harvard Business Review recently pointed out that change resistance robs 70% of expected value from technology implementations. As technology sellers, it’s our job to help manage the change resistance that crops up during both sales and implementations in order to maximize the value companies get from adopting the products we offer. 

Roderick: I believe that without a doubt, the biggest challenge facing the channel lies in transforming sales teams into the kind of professionals customers want to engage with—individuals who earn trust as advisors, cultivate meaningful business relationships, and are duly rewarded for the value they bring to the table.

How do you feel the emergence of machine learning and AI tools is affecting channel evolution?

Cribby: When planned, deployed, and managed properly, the emergence and use of AI tools and machine learning should have, and are having, a positive effect — from saving time by eliminating repetitive processes, improving operational efficiencies, improving reporting capabilities and data analytics, to automating proactive device monitoring and maintenance, customer support and reducing manual intervention to improve customer service, etc. These positive impacts are only scratching the surface of the effects these tools have the potential to provide, in concert with the human element of applying proper business logic to help implement these processes. 

Goldberg: AI is not being embraced by the industry as fast as it should be. AI is an amazing tool. Dealers are treating it like a new machine — let it be out in the field awhile and then consider it. Dealers should be immersing themselves in AI and sharing their knowledge with their customer base. Using AI as a talking point will elevate one as a trusted advisor and say to your customers that you are on the cutting edge. Demonstrate to your customer how they can use AI in their business. Show customers how you are using AI in your business. Build relationships by sharing knowledge and business will increase.

Stramaglio: It really has not had a measurable impact as of yet but it will be dramatic in 2024. We have only just begun to welcome it into our world, but where we have done so we are finding amazing results. One dealer has incorporated AI into his call center and on average he has been able to successfully manage 72% of his incoming calls without human intervention. This is only in one area of the business and when our industry embraces the wealth of applications, they will be freed up to make better investments into their business strategy. Of course, with AI comes the obvious baggage of what is legal, moral and/or necessary. While the benefits are very real, so are the serious risks we will be creating. Manageable, yes, but a big risk, nonetheless. We have never had tools like this before and I am excited by this new journey! 

Name a change you’ve had to make in the way you work due to evolving technologies.

Goldberg: Having practiced law for 50 years I have seen technology revolutionize the workspace. We have come a long way from using carbon paper to make copies. I have gone from printing every word with a pencil to full automation. Technology has made me more efficient, better organized, and provided access to a wealth of information. A significant portion of our office was once devoted to a law library that no longer exists. I can say the same for our records center, which now is digitalized. The biggest change made is the ability to work effectively anywhere in the world.

If there was one thing you could have back that disappeared due to technology, what would it be?

Fisher: While this may seem very simple, I feel there is something special about a handwritten note or letter. They come with that personal touch and a level of genuine sincerity that can very easily get lost in a digital format like a text, IM, or email. There can be a deeper connection nurtured and created by receiving or delivering a handwritten note. I wish there was more of that today, and I do think, amidst the digital static and noise of our inboxes, it can help a message stand out and resonate on a deeper level. As automated as we all strive to become, it cannot be done without the value people bring to the equation!

Goldberg: My daily planner. I had one book where all my appointments, to-do items, and contacts were located. This information is now on my laptop, iPad, and mobile phone, all of which do not always synchronize. I lack confidence in my devices always having all the data imputed. Back in the day my only concern was losing my planner.

Robbins: Like most marketing and communications experts, I’d love to go back to cookie-based web tracking, because watching online behaviors offered significant insights into both aggregate and individual customer and prospect needs. Understanding government efforts to improve personal information security, however, I can’t disagree with existing and emerging regulations that have turned 95-98% of web traffic to an untrackable status. Where do we go from here? At Digitech Systems, we’re digging into more traditional ways to interact with prospects directly rather than relying on outdated cookie-based web tracking and advertising tools that no longer offer statistically significant, actionable data.

Roderick: Public phone banks. Because who doesn’t like getting an alert on your pager that requires you to find the nearest phone during the height of LA rush hour? Line and band printers would be second. Why? Because I made a lot of money selling inked nylon and coated mylar.

Stramaglio: Technology continues to move at lightning speed and with it we have become entirely dependent on it. There is literally an “app” for just about anything you can think of, and if there isn’t one it will be created overnight. Our work habits have changed dramatically because of this capability and I fear in this process human interaction has suffered because we are tied to keyboards, phones and WFH spaces. 

With an eye to the future – where do you see the channel going?

Goldberg: Maintaining growth and profitability are challenges for the dealer channel. As traditional sources of revenue decline, dealers must find new opportunities. The challenges dealers face are no longer uniform, but dependent in part on the location of the business. In the Chicago area, where I live, the downtown business district is populated by 50% of the number of workers pre-pandemic, but the further one is from a metropolitan area, the less of an impact experienced by remote and hybrid workers. Determine what your customers are seeking, dislike performing, wish they had, and provide it. Attend industry events such as the BTA regional meetings and ECS 2024 to network with fellow dealers to see what successes they have found. Understand the work habits of the younger generations and have the solutions they need available.

Robbins: The future of this channel is bright! At the end of the day, we are not just flashy tech. We offer products and services that add real value to our customers, their companies, and their lives. Digitization, office automation, security, and more bring real cost savings and better customer and employee experiences, resulting in competitive advantage for the businesses we serve. Don’t get so wrapped up in the bits and bytes of your technology offerings that you lose sight of the value you bring to humans in the workplace!

Stramaglio: “Channel,” as a term is already in conflict with our reality and certainly disconnected from our future. Where are we going? Thanks to AI/generative AI and all things related, we are opening up $300B in next generation [opportunity] and with it will come unprecedented new skills, new and nearly unbelievable advancements in the areas of healthcare, transportation, data centers, data usage, security, and a long list of yet to be determined applications. In my opinion our channel will morph away from a vertical market into a broader horizontal future, optimizing the fast growing skills and experience from young, next generation leaders who are already embracing “the new” as a part of their everyday life. We will be a services based industry that will incorporate new sales strategies thanks to the deployment of a whole new arsenal of weapons. I might add the “dealers” as we know them will look nothing like today. The time has come, and “age” is not negotiable.