The office imaging channel has been asking itself for more than a decade, what’s next? As fewer business processes include paper, and the core deliverable (the printed page) becomes less valuable, where does that leave the office imaging ecosystem? By extension, the popular question has been, “What will my core business look like in three years?” Not surprisingly, there has been an obsession with tracking technology-driven business models in the channel. Document management and managed IT have been at the forefront of these discussions.
When this question gets asked, it is mostly with the intent of realizing relevance beyond the printed page. The page today still drives the core metrics around revenue, but that is changing. In an era where dealers are looking to diversify, the conversation remains centered on what revenue streams make the most sense. And while it’s an important question, it’s not the MOST important one.
So, what IS the most important question? In my view it’s this: How will my company create an experience that will continually provide value? It’s related to technology and diversification, but it encompasses so much more than technology or business models. Tech is a factor for sure. But at its heart, it’s a people question. It’s a relationship question.
How do the people who need your solutions (aka your prospects and customers) feel after they have an experience with your team? If you create an experience that continually provides value, you retain customers. You attract new ones. You establish a culture, instead of merely employment, through which your employees and partners also find value.
Many in this industry are resellers of solutions and specialize in selling and supporting those solutions. Those two skills, selling and supporting, are dripping with opportunities to create valuable experiences for people and over time build relationships. How competent is your organization at sales and support? These are the areas in which you have the most latitude to impact your customer’s experience with the solution.
For example, if you’re a Canon dealer today, you don’t have influence into how Canon manufactures their hardware or develops their accompanying software solutions. But you must field a sales team that can talk about the value created by those solutions and keep trained service techs who are certified to support them. That’s your place in the supply chain. These daily sales and support touchpoints either propose solutions and meet needs for your market, or they don’t. They propel your brand forward and create differentiation or keep you from it. These touchpoints are the heartbeat of your business. Because of that, creating the optimum sales and support infrastructure — one that ensures productive, responsive, and valuable touchpoints every day for your prospects and customers, should be the number one focus of every dealership.
Let’s pause here. There is a very predictable and obvious counterargument to my last statement and it’s this: How well my sales and support teams perform or the great experiences they create won’t matter if the solutions I’m selling are growing increasingly less relevant. While on the surface this feels valid, the truth is much more direct and in your face. The truth is that the minute a service becomes irrelevant, it will be discontinued. Because your customers continue to purchase solutions and services from your sales team and rely on your support team to keep them up and running, your offering is valuable. And if your offering is valuable, the delivery mechanism (again, your sales and support teams) must mirror or exceed that value in order to create a truly great experience for your customers. Offering plus delivery equals experience. Which part of that equation do you as a dealer principal have the most control over? The delivery.
If delivery is the core competency of the office equipment channel, why do we spend so much time obsessing about the evolution of technology, trends and business models? If we’re going to obsess about anything, we should be obsessing about bettering our sales and support teams through training, hiring and delivery processes.
Am I saying we shouldn’t be thinking about diversifying our businesses through new technology offerings? No. I’m saying we should not be obsessing about it in a way that takes our focus off the core job of selling, supporting and creating great customer experiences. That’s the priority. And when the core focus is prioritized, secondary initiatives become easier to achieve.
“If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend fifty-five minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about the solution.” – Albert Einstein
This famous quote from Albert Einstein would describe the approach very few of us tend to take when faced with problems like shrinking margins or commoditized solutions. In fact, most of us would be better described by this quote from Sherlock Holmes: “My dear Watson, you were born to be a man of action. Your instinct is always to do something energetic.” That’s the normal mode of operations in business and our industry is no exception. When faced with adversity, we respond quickly and decisively. In other words, we do something energetic. When faced with the above-mentioned business challenges, we rush to see what others are doing. Can we add managed IT to our offering? Why not? We already have the customers, and they use technology. Can we add document management? Maybe we can chase our lost pages into the digital realm and recoup some revenue. We obsess over the options.
With this in mind, how should dealers consider new product and solutions offerings? Should it be in light of what other dealers are doing? In light of what their customers are asking for? Those two reasons can factor into the thinking, but the main considerations have to go beyond the predictable or impulsive response. As an answer to these questions and as a response to the title of this article, here are the two things I believe office equipment dealers will want to consider when adding product offerings outside of print hardware and managed print services:
1. Needs of customer base:
If dealers want to make meaningful additions to their solutions offerings, they must look at needs of the marketplace they serve. Is it a major metropolitan area or a rural market? Are there vertical-specific needs? For example, is 40% of a dealer’s customer base comprised of healthcare or education accounts? If so, are there related or adjacent product offerings specific to those verticals that could be lucrative offsets to declining print revenues? Focusing on the needs of your customers is a different way of thinking than just listening to what they’re asking for. The needs will exist whether they ask about them or not.
Some dealers began selling temperature scanning kiosks during the COVID-19 shutdowns. What about solar? What about EV charging stations? These are needs customers have that may or may not come up in an account review, but are relevant and require solutions.
2. Fit of offering:
How does the delivery and support of a prospective solution fit with the existing infrastructure you have in place? If you’re a dealership with a proficient sales and support team, will that existing team be able to sell and support the new offering? How steep is the learning curve and how many new hires will be required to onboard the new offering? This is the reason that many office equipment dealers have failed at managed IT. Yes, they could check the box that their customer base needs the service, but the requirements to go to market were not a fit within their current infrastructure. The dealers that have been successful moving to IT have hired IT specialists to sell the service and bolstered their support staff with network specialists. This is a significant investment that many dealers are not willing to make. And for smaller dealers, it may not be the right fit.
What is the right fit? Using the two factors listed above, the right fit for one dealer may be the wrong fit for another. The right fit for a dealer who is not ready or willing to build out an entirely new division of their organization will allow that dealer to work within or easily pivot around the hardware sales and support model they’ve been successful with. They will be able to extend the core strengths they already leverage to further their brand into a new space and generate new revenue streams. Can they work with an OEM in the space to easily get product? Can they get their existing sales team trained to qualify and close opportunities? Can they get their existing service and support team trained and certified on the new products or solutions? If the answer to these questions is yes, the road to diversified revenue may be shorter and less fraught with growing pains.
In closing, the search for what’s next should be more aligned with a dealer’s current strengths than with popular trends or the impulsive need to “do something energetic.” Obsessing over the next big thing does not make it the next right thing. Print is declining and the ability to diversify and adapt will be paramount in the next decade. That diversification and adaptation will take many forms. Some will excel at managed IT and document management. Some will pivot or expand to EV charging stations, solar energy or some other offering that doesn’t exist today. I’m confident our channel can rise to meet the challenges of tomorrow. But they will take careful thought and a thorough understanding of who we are today. The best way I can think to end this article is with the words of Kentucky writer and poet Wendell Berry. “It may be that when we no longer know which way to go that we have come to our real journey. The mind that is not baffled is not employed. The impeded stream is the one that sings.”