As a marketer in the printing services industry, becoming a trusted partner to your customers isn't just a good idea – it's the key strategy that could keep your organization afloat in a time when some critics have declared the age of print over. Of course, as a member of the printing industry, you know that such talk is misplaced – there is still a market for your offerings. That said, the digital transformation of some traditional print roles has changed the value proposition a bit, so it's worth relearning the best practices of marketing.

You aren't just making sales and then moving on – the key to being a successful print service provider is to hold onto clients time after time, job after job. Any practices that help you secure these types of long-term contracts are therefore welcome, while those that don't are less valuable. If you can inspire trust and become a partner rather than just a vendor, you're poised to slip into the new market and stay relevant.

Ask and you shall receive
As WhatTheyThink contributor Jennifer Matt recently explained, the key to strengthening the bond between a printing business and its client base may be asking important questions. She explained that when the relationship between provider and client doesn't involve curiosity, there is little interest there. The customer will get what he or she wanted, then leave. When all that salespeople, marketers and customer service agents discuss is business that has already been initiated, they miss chances to speak directly to the client and unlock potential new areas for up-selling.

Matt even gave a highly specific example of this effect in action. She explained that when working with a print provider on film festival banners, she received no follow-up questions about what purpose her order was going to serve. If the company had developed the conversation, it would have made a better impression. Matt stated that when there is a question attached, the salesperson seems interested and engaged with the project the customer is attempting to complete – that is the kind of interaction that befits a real, collaborative relationship.

If you believe that your connections with customers aren't that kind of two-way street, that may be a problem that you have to address. Becoming involved with clients' big-picture products may reveal areas of their operations where your products would really help. Matt noted that when you are just selling the product at hand instead of thinking outside of that narrow lane, you are severely limiting your company's appeal. Customers don't like dealing with businesses that put their products first and client needs second.

But what should your questions be like? Matt has an answer for this, too: Form your inquiries carefully and make sure they aren't redundant or simplistic. She explained that a good question will be one that lets the customer explain what his or her company is going through, the challenges and triumphs behind current plans. If you listen carefully to the answers, you'll get great insight into pain points and pressing needs, putting you in a good place to solve them and become a higher-level partner.

No ego, solutions first
Putting the customer first is a foundational strategy in print service marketing, and other experts have advanced the same ideas. Printing Impressions contributor Mike Jacotout explained that assessing client opportunities starts with an evaluation of the problems they are trying to solve. He noted that this means letting go of personal ego for a while and thinking of the customer company's problems as something to be solved. With those issues vanquished, things should start to fall into place for your business.

Jacotout specified that it's worth learning about the decision-making process at a client or prospective client firm. If the problems facing that business and your contacts there become known quantities, you can make the call about what to do next – or break off pursuit if the contract isn't going to work out. This is another of Jacotout's main points: While ample time and energy should be expended on deepening relationships with clients that will provide long-term value, prospects that won't work with your business model should not take up too much time or energy. Pursuing bad leads is a waste of effort, the bane of salespeople and marketers.

Solutions on call
If you have to rely on the client to give you every idea for product and service offerings, these may expand slowly, or not at all. You should be comfortable making suggestions and truly selling – which, of course, will only work if you have a good grasp of the customer firm's industry and challenges. This knowledge is the difference between a deep connection with a client and a shallow bond that's only triggered when it's time to buy. The former type of relationship gives much more to your company than the latter.