Beware the end game

We are always talking about how print is changing – lower margins, commoditisation of the work, advancing technologies. One thing that I do not often hear mentioned though is the way our relationships with our suppliers are changing.

Twenty years ago you bought a press, most likely with finance. At the end of the lease you could trade it in, sell it, or keep it with the knowledge it would work for another ten years, more than repaying your investment. And the only time you needed the manufacturer was for servicing or when it was time to buy another.

But what about now? With the way digital presses work, the relationship between printer and manufacturer is a hell of a lot closer. I have seven Xerox machines on my floor and to me it feels more like some kind of co-business than a traditional supplier/customer relationship.

Start with servicing. Digital presses break down lots – they just do. I cannot say if my Xeroxes break down more or less than their competition, but at least once a week and mostly more we have the service guys out. There are several who look after our region and we know them all by name. I am not saying this is a bad thing – the servicing is necessary because the machines are built that way, and so long as we can continue to produce it does not really faze me.

And then there is the click model. For someone who started in offset, every time the Xerox clicks over I count the money going from my pocket to Xerox’s and hate them a little bit more. It feels unfair that they get such a big and continuing slice of my work, more than the tax man and more than the bank.

And it is such a good model for them. Machine leaves a streak through a run of a thousand sheets? We will fix it, but you have to pay for those sheets. And if it takes our serviceman another five hundred clicks to work out and test the problem? No worries – we will charge you for that too.

It is most galling when I print out the Xerox invoices every month that they refuse to send via mail (to save the environment). It is a neat trick to have your clients pay you to print your bills.

But don’t get me wrong – I actually like Xerox. If I had to pick a company to share my business with, then Xerox would have been a pretty good pick. The service guys are great and the sales team are responsive. I have had some weird and pretty unedifying encounters with the senior management but so long as I don’t have to deal with them very often I can live with that.

But then, the weirdest part of being in this co-business is the way the big digital press makers also exist as our competitors. Xerox is not alone in this of course – they all do it to a certain extent, except probably HP, but why are they doing it?

They know it annoys us, and they know we know they are poaching our clients, deliberately or otherwise. Chinese walls may exist between Fuji Xerox Australia and Fuji Xerox Document Solutions, but FXDS are a pretty ferocious bunch of competitors and you would be well advised to keep your clients clear of them.

I reckon there is a place for the manufacturers to do direct work. There are some organisations that need inplant facilities that no local non-manufacturer could provide. If no one locally can do it, fair enough.

It also must be frustrating for them to see clicks being done for good companies disappearing in a printer’s receivership only to reappear in a competitor’s machines. Safer to do it direct yourself.

But what about the rest of the work – what is the plan? My own view is that the corporate planners at the big companies foresee a day when print will be so easy to generate and finish that the office junior will be able to produce the business cards and brochures on the office copier to a level comparable to what we can do now.

When that day comes, who needs printers? They are just an unneeded, unwanted and risky middle man between customer and press. And the slow march into our clients today is about positioning themselves for when that day comes, be it five, ten or twenty years from now.

So for now keep nice with your press maker, and work well together. But remember that every day you are running your jobs on their machines, they are watching you and learning from you, and hand in hand with their corporate print divisions they are planning, one day, to eat you alive.

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