The Real Channel Evolution Centers Around People

I have mixed emotions on the whole “channel evolution” discussion, particularly after attending ITEX in November. In case you didn’t attend, here are my three big takeaways:

1. Print is on the decline.
2. The pandemic raised/continues to raise new challenges.
3. Supply chains are a mess and probably will be throughout the better part of 2022.

Now wait a minute, Captain Obvious — that’s it? That’s all you’ve got?
OK, here are three more:

1. Many companies would not have survived without PPP.
2. Companies focusing on the fundamentals are doing fundamentally well (maybe).
3. We are a resilient community, or at least stubbornly determined.

Convergence, transformation and evolution are terms we’ve been throwing around for a couple of decades. Convergence of analog to digital. Transforming the way we do business. Channel evolution. All pretty cool sounding and certainly they do a decent job as far as sound bites go in explaining what’s happening at any – actually EVERY – point in time. The problem is we aren’t at any point in time. It’s a time like no other.

A Trip Down Memory Lane

I sold magnetic media in the ‘80s — tape, disks, disk packs. Then I sold moving platen copiers. Next for me came ribbon, toner cartridges, and inkjet supplies. All were wonderful things to sell at one point in time because they delivered tremendous value at that point in time. And if you have a tough time imagining amazing value created by a ribbon, consider the beauty of the first nylon mobius loop ribbon. Ah, glory days. So, I guess you might say these are some of the evolutions those of us old enough to have traveled around the sun a number of times have enjoyed and benefited from.

I’ve participated in NOPA, NOMDA, BTA, private brands, e-commerce, and a host of “channels.” So, I guess you might say those are some of the channels I’ve seen evolve and change. I even once held the official title of “Channel Development Guy.” Hopefully this qualifies me to talk about “channel” a bit.

And yet, at the risk of sounding sacrilegious, I truly believe that none of these were particularly evolutionary. They were simply natural reactions to the real evolution — the evolution of what customers want, need, and are willing to pay for. The funny part, looking back, was all of the discussions on “the next way to print” — which was entirely the wrong topic! The real topic should have been, “What’s a better way to collect, store, distribute and ultimately use the information?” After all, the real value of information resides in how it is used to solve problems.

If you have read this far, you could stop and go try to figure out two things: 1) What are the big problems that need to be solved? 2) How do I solve them? But read on, because we are going to address the “big problem” and how to solve it. Hint: It isn’t document management.

To continue down memory lane, some years back at Lyra’s annual symposium, a leading OSS retailer senior executive stood up and said, “You people are product snobs. You think it’s about your products, but you couldn’t be more wrong. It’s about serving customers.” Mic drop. Ok, maybe that sounds obvious or even simplistic, but ponder it for a decade or more and you’ll see just how true it is. And not just a little bit painful, if I’m honest.

The Key to Evolution: People

Back to the present, as we gathered at the show and talked about declining print, opportunities in managed this that and the other, expansion into IT or AV or e-commerce or whatnot, I was reminded of the words of the late, great Zig Ziglar, “You can get everything in life you want by helping enough other people get what they want.” In other words, look for BIG opportunities to serve lots of people in BIG ways. Or create crazy amazing amounts of value for a ton of people.

Now, I’d be nothing more than a pundit if I made a statement like that and then didn’t offer some ideas on how to do it! So, here goes, the secret to evolving all wrapped up in a nice, neat framework:

Step 1: Solidify your core business. You can’t build the business equivalent of a high-rise skyscraper on a lousy foundation. It might look pretty for a bit, but it won’t last. And if you ever want to sell, the building inspector (M&A folks) will take one look and move on.

Step 2: Pay attention to today’s trends. During his presentation, Mike Stramaglio referenced Wayne Gretzky’s secret to success: skating not to where the puck was, but to where it was going. As Mike pointed out, that may be great advice for hockey, but not so much for business. Who in the world can guess what Intel or any innovation company is going to be up to a year down the road? I don’t know of a single person who can claim they saw the pandemic coming. Ok, actually I know two but both of them wear tinfoil hats so that probably doesn’t count.

Zoom certainly saw an opportunity, not a trend — the “trend” had already occurred. They capitalized on today’s need while planning ahead for the trend of moving more online even after the pandemic ceased to be so disruptive. I will be bold enough to say that if you can see where a trend is going, it’s because it’s already there. I’m not saying it’s bad to be considering what may come down the pike. I am saying that you derive revenues from solving today’s problems with today’s solutions as you prepare for where the current trends are moving.

Step 3: Ask yourself, “Do I want to commit to the new channel, service, product, etc., over the long haul, and why?” You’re going to need a lot of fortitude which means your “why” better be pretty darn compelling, to you, customers, and your team.

Step 4: Partner or risk it all. Once you have the area of expanded service determined — product, service, line extension, etc., ask yourself, “Is there a way to move today to start capturing revenue NOW?” Do this even if your ultimate goal is to handle more in house at some point. Partner up, prove in, then invest. This approach is lower risk (you might be wrong), and leads to faster revenue creation.

Step 5: Business plan, goals, metrics. Write them down, track them, revise them. Amplify what works, eliminate what doesn’t. If it’s a new endeavor, you can create a single page plan including metrics in a long weekend. Monday you can be implementing and testing.

And now, finally, we get to the real evolution. An evolution that’s more of a revolution. You are simply going to have to focus on the one thing that will make all of this work, or not: your people. The real war won’t be of product/service innovation or even business model transformation or any converging technologies. It won’t be a war of who has the best managed something offering. It is, and will be, a war for people. For decades we have been competing for customers. Waging battles to grab our disproportionate fair share of the revenues. We have been outwardly focused on our “evolution” and “innovation” and “mental attention.”

While the great game of capitalism will always be measured by revenues, evaluations and such, the game-changing strategies being developed today will focus on the warriors (employees), not the win/loss record. Leading companies are more and more seeing the value of their individual team members — team members who are undergoing huge shifts (again, you don’t need a crystal ball to look into the future trend, it’s already here!).

The Great Resignation, millennials, Gen X, Gen Z — the fact of the matter is there is an evolution of how people are working (or not) and what will inspire them (or not) to deliver all the value you package up as an offering.

Top companies will attract people with the potential to be top talent.
Top companies will develop people to become top talent.
Top companies will retain top talent.
Top companies will embrace the People Revolution.
Top companies will be inwardly focused to outwardly serve.

While industry events are fantastic places to gather intel, network, make some new connections, gain some new ideas and have a good meal with old friends, most are lousy places to look for innovative answers to the most pressing questions.

One of my friends and a darn smart person who is extremely successful in the world of sales boils a lot down to, “Pick up the phone.” You see, the main thing is the main thing. If a salesperson won’t pick up the phone, not much else matters no matter how cool and sexy the product is. In the same way, companies that don’t shift their emphasis to their people, well, their best people will move on, leaving only those unqualified or incapable of joining top companies!

In summary, I’d like to suggest that “Channel Evolution” isn’t about what new cool gadgets, gizmos, and whatnots you can offer to your customer base, but rather it’s about leadership for today and the future. It’s about:

1. Attracting potential talent
2. Developing the right people
3. Retaining them

Agree or disagree, I welcome your thoughts and comments. I don’t claim to have all the answers. I’m still evolving.

is executive vice president of InkCycle Inc. He is an industry veteran with more than 25 years of sales and marketing experience. He is an active member of the imaging industry as an author, trainer and speaker. Contact him at