July 9, 2014
Embracing a Multidimensional IT Strategy in the Print Industry
Andrew Alford
Vice President, Information Technology
Graphic Dimensions, Inc.

It was about fourteen years ago when I first set foot in this industry. Like a hopeful newborn, I entered a world of wonder and mystery. With this childlike ambition I had a glimmer in my eye and aspirations to make my mark on an industry on the verge of change. It was an exciting time when the promise of building a website meant you’d become an overnight millionaire. If you were in IT, you had all of the answers and an audience with some of the most elite leaders in the business. In my naïve 20-something year old mind I was going to save the world. Then it happened; reality hit like a ton of bricks and the “dotcom super era” was over.

Downsizing IT

Something that I never thought possible began to cascade throughout the industry. As if out of nowhere the cost of technology came into question. Business leaders who once revered technology became more and more reluctant to open the purse and throw money at software and hardware solutions at the risk of damaging their core business interests. Long term projects involving technology were shelved and unless the business absolutely demanded it, the cost was off the table.

This new era ushered in a paradigm shift into how print businesses looked at IT. For many, technology became something of an enigma with a singular dimension. This laser focused shift narrowed IT into the category that I dreaded to hear the most - that IT, in the end, was a cost center. I was crushed when I came to grips with the stark reality that my department, my team, my position cost the company money; pigeon holed into the category of “Corporate Overhead.”

From that moment on, I was bound and determined to eliminate the stigma associated with IT. I wanted to prove that IT was more than a room full of dazzling, blinking lights; more than the guy in the cube down the hall denying access to your internet and network needs; more than just a room full of white noise sucking the money out of an organization all of the sake of keeping things running. I wanted to prove that IT had more than one dimension; that I.T could change the face of doing business, and even (yes, I’ll dare to say it) add growth to the top line as well as bottom line.

A Request

I implore you, the reader, whether you are an industry leading executive or an up-and-coming “principal in training”, to study each of these dimensions and remember them. The future of our industry is in the hands of our collective ability to seek out technology, not as a crutch, not as a survival method, but as a way to grow and flourish. Together we can overcome the economic turmoil and downward shift, but first, we must understand and embrace it, even if it means changing our culture and our way of doing business. Standing still is not an option.

You may not have a massive IT staff, a small tech team or even a single geek stored away in a dimly lit closet that urges you keep one eye open at night. Regardless of your situation or what you’ve been told, you do have the capacity to embrace these ideals and carry them forward. Your ability take the next step relies on your fortitude to accept change and the desire to make it happen.

Infrastructure - The First Dimension of IT

It should come as no surprise when I say the first and most important aspect of IT is to keep the business running. A good IT infrastructure will ensure that you can conduct business every day with the fewest possible touch points and a peace of mind that you have a stable environment that promotes future growth. This infrastructure includes your ability to take orders, collaborate with your customers and, at the end of the day, bill for your services and put money in the bank. To some this means a national footprint of servers and blazing fast network connectivity tied into robust ERP and CRM software. For others it might be QuickBooks running on a computer in the comfort of your home office and talking on a cell phone with a (forgive me) 56kbps internet connection screeching in the background.

In all cases, this first dimension relies on the stability of your systems and how quickly you can get back to business in the event of a disaster. At the end of the day, you cannot afford to pinch your pennies when it comes to securing your infrastructure and critical business systems.

Cost Savings - The Second Dimension of IT

Most businesses will siphon less money in a fiscal year into solutions that promise to cut costs and lower overhead than into the maintenance of their existing equipment. If executed correctly, this secondary dimension has the potential to revolutionize your operation, from customer service to order entry to getting the order out the door. By analyzing your business’ order workflow from before the order even leaves your customer’s hands until the time the shipment arrives at their location, you’ll be surprised at how many times this order might touch human hands. Each touch point equates to more chance for human error, added overhead and latency in fulfillment.

Many print suppliers in today’s industry are well equipped to handle automation. In fact, there are several outstanding order management and financial systems that contain modules that allow for easy B2B, B2C and B2B2C fulfillment. Even if you’re the guy entering PO’s in QuickBooks you have tools for automating your workflow. In a day and age where we’re all pushed to do “more with less”, consider your workflow and determine how much money could be saved by working smarter instead of harder.

Sales, Marketing and the Electronic Fence - The Third Dimension of IT

Why would IT ever have anything to do with Sales and Marketing? Why wouldn’t it? If you do not have an active IT strategy that involves your Sales and Marketing teams, you’re missing out on a great number of opportunities and potentially putting your business at risk. Let’s look at it this way: how much of your operation depends on an existing book of business where 90% of your work is received through your customer hitting the “repeat” button? Let’s take another look. How much of this repeat business is in jeopardy because your competition has an outstanding technology platform that is attracting your business in other directions?

A solid IT strategy can provide what we’ll call an “electronic fence” around your customers. It’s pretty, it’s shiny and it attracts new potential customers – and once they’re in, all of the benefits it provides make it much more difficult for your customers to leave. The more tools you have in your toolbox to equip your team, the more opportunities you’ll be able to attract. The end result is that you’ll focus less on trying to win or keep your accounts based on price wars and focus more on quality and customer service and your core strengths. In the end you have a happier customer and more stable top-line.

Making Money - The Fourth Dimension of IT

Let’s say that before you’ll ever attempt at making money with technology, you first do what all successful businesses should diligently do before making any paradigm shift: have a business plan in place. This means more than just knowing your audience and the need for these services, but also an acute understanding about your available resources, overhead and related expenses. Knowing the cost of doing business is paramount to getting started.

Secondly, determine your capacity for today’s market and tomorrow’s growth. Can you say, with confidence, that your team or suppliers can handle the load? It is very possible that you’ll take on projects that far consume your available resources. This plan should consist of a plan “B”, and possibly a plan “C” that will allow you to comfortably switch gears and accelerate through the turns without braking for unexpected peaks in business.

Gauge your profitability. Do the math, crunch the numbers. Know with certainty that you’re charging enough and keep in mind that technology is in high demand and filled by relatively few good providers. Do not attempt to play the pricing game to undercut your competition. This will only diminish the value of your offerings in the eyes of the beholder and cut into otherwise healthy margins.

Finally, don’t try to be all things to all people, unless you absolutely know you can. Know your sweet spot. What specific services are a perfect fit and homerun for your business that you know you can turn around efficiently? Develop a process that allows you to fluidly on-ramp and off-ramp customers with acceptable timelines and turnarounds. The lack of a proper process will be evident to your customers and add stress to your workflow.

In Summary

At the end of the day you have to decide what is best for your operation. The decision starts with a proper understanding of the many facets of technology and its impact on your business. Your core business focus should always come first. This article isn’t intended to tell you how to run your business, but rather steer us away from the mentality of being the last man standing. We should instead work to become a culture of “stand up and stand out.” Print isn’t dead, and it isn’t dying. It’s merely transforming to meet with the next generation of consumers. It is up to us to lead that change.

About the Author

Andrew Alford is the Vice President of Graphic Dimensions, Inc., which is headquartered in Austell GA. Andrew has over fourteen years’ experience connecting customers, resellers, vendors and operational facilities through internet technologies and service oriented platforms within the print and packaging industry. He is considered a foremost leader in print technology advancements for suppliers within the print resell industry and was one of the pioneers of the web-2-print movement.