How Dealers Are Surfing the Digital Era (Without Getting Washed Away!)

In today’s digital era dominated by screens, the printing industry has faced a number of challenges. Think about the pendulum shifts the channels have seen in just five years, from technological advancements impacting print volumes to private equity companies interested in consolidation to a new way of working, whether in the office or at home.  Navigating these turbulent waters required more than just toner and paper.  It required the channels to embark on a transformational journey.

For the most part, digitization was a tide that the industry knew was coming, a sea of challenges the channels were preparing to face head-on.  The shift from offset to digital was well on its way and continued accelerating as digital printing technologies became more sophisticated and accessible. Personalized and customized printing and print-on-demand services became key customer focal points.  So, naturally, dealers had to figure out how to keep up and transform their offerings to meet these new customer demands and keep their businesses afloat. The good news was that industry dealers were already exploring opportunities to diversify their service offerings beyond traditional printing.  The wheels were in motion.

Then, just when the industry thought it had a handle on things, along came COVID-19, turning everything upside down. Suddenly, office life as we knew it was different. With everyone working from home, print volumes took a sharp decline, and offices were left with a number of idle equipment gathering dust. Dealers now had to face new obstacles once again.

The obvious question posed by many at the time was when the pandemic would end and business would return to normal. As time went on, the newly distributed workforce proved to be successful, ushering in a new way of working that transcended many different industries in various forms.  The first order of business was for organizations to implement secure printing solutions to protect sensitive and confidential information and keep up with new regulations. And with more people working remotely, the big question for channels became: how do we adapt to how work now works?

Integrating workflows into business practices to keep business continuity and maintaining employee productivity and collaboration became the number one focus for many businesses.  For example, in healthcare and the banking industry, the trend was for workers to be in the office, but remote work was the norm in the technology sector.  So, manufacturers and the channels that genuinely understood these markets’ workflows and security needs were better positioned to survive during this uncertain time.

But, amidst all this chaos, there was a silver lining. The rise of digital printing services led to some great innovations. Larger printing companies started consolidating different printing services under one roof, making things more cost-efficient and convenient for businesses. It reshaped the printing industry, leading dealers to provide web-to-print solutions for customers, enabling quicker turnaround times, cost-effective solutions, and customization. From on-demand printing to personalized materials, printing has become even more efficient, versatile, and eco-friendly.  And let’s not forget about the increasing use of mobile technology and workflow automation to improve efficiency and reduce manual tasks.  Finally, in the last couple of years, we saw a significant push towards sustainability, with more and more channels adopting eco-friendly practices and offering sustainable printing options. It has become a focal point as concerns about environmental stewardship have prompted the channels to put emphasis on eco-friendly materials, processes, and certifications.

No doubt, these underlying shifts in the printing industry toward digitalization, sustainability, online services, and personalization have remained prominent and relevant for dealers in the marketplace today. So, despite all these distractions of years past, one thing remains true. The channel has stood as a loyal partner, emerging victoriously by addressing and overcoming each obstacle head-on. You rolled with the punches and came out as a winner.

But the journey is not over, and we must be ready for a new set of challenges that are on the horizon. Things like data analytics, innovative or “intelligent” printing capabilities, advanced workflow management software, and integrated printing solutions are all driving the market forward.

Yes, every company has different printing needs and fluctuating volumes, so a one-size-fits-all approach will not work. This year, we expect changes in customer behavior driven by Generative AI, new social trends, policy changes, and a greater focus on data security and reliability. To keep up, channel partners must stay flexible and adaptable, ensuring their entire organization is ready to once again roll with these changes. 

Let’s examine what is driving the market today, the challenges channels face or will face in the foreseeable future, and how best to stay the course, adapt, and, most importantly, be agile to whatever comes your way.  

1. Business of supplies: Customers who are leaning towards generic brands for ink and toner might not realize that it could compromise the quality of their prints. Instead of getting caught up in price wars, double down on promoting excellence by prioritizing superior quality and reliability. 

2. Online retailers and price competition: The rise of online retailers has made the competition even fiercer, especially when it comes to prices. So, to stand out, manufacturers and channels must respond with agility, focus on delivering value-added services, and leverage brand reputation to differentiate themselves from online competitors. A partner should have your back.  It is crucial to have a trusted partner that is available, knowledgeable about what equipment to deploy, especially acknowledging those offerings that are different from what you would get through an online purchase, and someone well-versed in today’s customer needs to make recommendations to solve today’s most prominent technological issues facing dealers.  

3. Adapting to new technology, including AI: As artificial intelligence (AI) continues to emerge as a transformative force in the industry, the channels must embrace this new technology and see it as an opportunity rather than a threat. Ask yourself, how can we use GenAI to improve our products, workflows, and services? It’s very simple—translate the data into insights and use this technology to propose solutions to meet end-users needs by understanding a working environment, enhancing operational efficiency, especially in vertical sectors such as retail and healthcare, and allowing dealers to stay ahead of the curve in meeting evolving customer needs. The quicker you understand this data, the more resourceful and attractive you will be to an end user. Besides AI, other technologies, including cloud and security, should be at the top of the list as companies require them in their workflows today.

4. Sustainability integration: Recognizing the growing importance of versatile products that are eco-friendly and sustainable, customers are continually requesting to see sustainability efforts every year.  It is easy to say but not so easy to implement, so channels are tasked with integrating sustainability practices into their business strategy. So what does this mean?  Sustainable printing is intended to offer a means that blends innovative approaches into a business workflow. Implementing these may pose challenges, but a commitment to sustainability can resonate with environmentally conscious consumers and strengthen a channel’s position in the market. May land a few new customers along the way! 

5. Offering added value beyond transaction: It’s not just about selling printers anymore. Now, it’s about being a trusted advisor, working closely with channel partners to provide the right products and programs that seamlessly support today’s office and hybrid environments. 

It all begins with sales training, especially as the salesforce rotates and companies continue to go digital.  Keeping the sales teams up-to-date and maintaining proficiency amid digital transformations requires ongoing learning. That’s why dealers need trusted partners for hands-on training and to foster a culture of continuous learning. Imagine deploying equipment remotely or providing on-site assistance, taking the burden off IT teams and empowering users. That’s the kind of customer experience that will make dealers and manufacturers stand out. Create unique experiences around remote access and flexible support for office employees, whether in the office, working in a hybrid setup, or from home. This kind of support doesn’t just keep customers happy; it builds stronger loyalty and sustains a decentralized business model. 

But it’s not just about support; it’s also about optimizing workflows for operational excellence, especially in vertical markets like healthcare and hospitality. Providing vertical integration is necessary, especially in healthcare, where every second counts. This seamless integration from one area to another is an example of implementing the right technologies to achieve operational efficiencies and employee productivity. It allows organizations to see the benefits as they can shift focus to the administrative business. 

Dealers who set themselves apart by offering these value-added services and fostering partnerships will thrive in this evolving landscape. 

Navigating today’s channel challenges will not be easy. Just when you think the tide has settled, another wave is pushed ashore. Stay agile, stay resilient, innovate, and demonstrate an unwavering commitment to customer needs. Address each obstacle with determination and foresight, and once again, the channels will emerge stronger and more agile than ever before. You will come out on top. 

Evelyn Pichardo
Evelyn Pichardo

Evelyn Pichardo is Director of Partner Experience, Brother International Corporation.