Your Customers Are Talking; Are You Listening?

by Robert Palmer

As the imaging market continues to migrate to a services-led model, there are noticeable changes occurring in all facets of the business. Products themselves are evolving from feature-driven output devices to application-driven platforms designed more for information management than simply printing pages. As a result, equipment manufacturers have revised their approach to the market by rationalizing product lines to limit overlap and address more customers with fewer models.

The upheaval in the channels that serve the imaging market has only intensified as the transition to services marches forward. The number of traditional office equipment dealers continues to shrink. Meanwhile, new entrants (such as IT resellers and managed service providers) have jumped into the mix, attempting to take advantage of the market’s transition to a managed services model.

With all these changes occurring on the supply side of the business, what is happening among those who typically consume office imaging products and solutions? As services become more important and products evolve into delivery vehicles, is the role of the customer changing? If so, how might those changes impact the future of our business?

The voice of the customer
In any business, regardless of the goods or services, it is always important to listen to the customer. That has certainly held true in the office equipment market over the years. It is necessary to understand, however, that the office market has historically been influenced by business segments rather than individual end users. These target segments have basically been defined by company size: SOHO, SMB, large business and enterprise, for example. 

Think about how products have historically been designed and brought to market. New products were essentially fueled by technology advancements: faster engine platforms, higher resolution, improved paper handling, faster Ethernet connectivity and better scanning, to name only a few. Meanwhile, IT departments typically drove demand for these new hardware features. Honestly, how often did you hear an individual user begging for a new printer with a 10/100 BaseT Ethernet connection?

As the office imaging market has matured, the role of the individual user — the end customer — has intensified dramatically. Basically, it is no longer good enough to pay attention to your target customer segment. Individual users have much to say about where, when and how today’s imaging products are being used, and if you are smart, you will pay attention to them.

The impact of mobility

The continued penetration of mobile technology into the workforce — i.e., the BYOD phenomenon — is the major contributor to the increasing importance of the end user. Today, individuals are making their own decisions about how they utilize technology — especially remote workers, who are less influenced by corporate policy or procedure. These individuals are not only deciding what devices to use, but in many cases they are establishing their own work processes.

Mobile technology, combined with cloud-based applications and an improved Internet infrastructure, are providing an unprecedented level of freedom to individual users. This is an important development that should not be overlooked. Today, individuals play a much larger role in the purchase of office equipment than has ever occurred in the past.

Meanwhile, these individuals are not just sitting by silently while technology advancements swirl around them. Social media provides the individual with a voice — a voice that can be heard by millions, even billions. A simple “like” or endorsement by a single prominent individual with a broad base of connections can cause a groundswell of support and at speeds that could not be fathomed just a few short years ago. Conversely, a negative rant by a person of influence can spell doom for a product.

Designed for the individual?
So does this mean that companies will soon have to design products to suit the needs of every individual user? Certainly not — but those businesses that are listening to the individual and tapping into the voice of the end user certainly stand a better chance of meeting long-term customer needs. Some might think of this as simply stating the obvious. After all, it has always been important to listen to the customer — and even to the individual user — provided it could be done.

The difference in today’s world is that individuals not only have a voice, but they have the tools, technology and assets to develop their own solutions — to solve their own business problems. If, for example, your customer uncovers a unique process utilizing your product to solve an unmet need, you certainly want to make sure you are in a position to hear about it and act on it swiftly.

Flexibility is key
The impact of these changes will be felt in a variety of ways. From a product perspective, it is likely that equipment manufacturers will begin to modularize devices, scaling down the number of features and capabilities that are built into the hardware and turning certain functions into “applications” that could easily move on and off devices. This would allow these functions to be performed either on the hardware, on a server or even in the cloud. That kind of flexibility would allow manufacturers to easily modify their solutions to meet the changing needs of end users.

We are already starting to see some of this — but it could take awhile before a full-blown shift to a modular platform is seen. The prototype, however, is already in place. One only needs to look at how smartphones and tablets have evolved to see the future of the imaging industry. End users will demand the ability to customize their devices and modify them through the use of downloadable features, applications and solutions. The ecosystem to drive that kind of functionality is not yet in place, but it is not hard to see how it could evolve.

Of course, corporations will continue to demand some type of control over the equipment used by their individual employees. However, considering how quickly smartphones and tablets have penetrated the business sector, it is not out of the question to think that end users will have much greater influence over future office equipment purchases. Most businesses are already establishing BYOD policies for mobile devices. Is it that far-fetched to assume that these policies could be extended to other IT products?

A usage-based model
The good news for the imaging industry is that this transition would enable an improved services-led business model to emerge. Instead of selling expensive hardware that is designed to meet every conceivable business need, suppliers could leverage low-cost platforms while charging for various usage models. This usage-based model could inject new life into an aging and struggling business — driving additional revenue and profits beyond the printed page. In theory, the higher the value associated with the application, the more you could charge for the capability.

Think about what this could mean for the future of our industry. How long, for example, have vendors been searching for a way to charge for scanning — a feature that has a very high value associated with it but has basically been built into the hardware and given away for years? Under a usage-based model, a feature such as scanning could be billed as an ongoing service.

Meanwhile, marketing organizations will need to stay flexible as well. The ability to react quickly to changing customer demands will be key to success in the future — not only in the office imaging market but also in virtually every business sector.