Print is not a dying industry, but it is one that is starting to become more specialized rather than universal. The role you'll fulfill for your customers is different today than it was even a few years ago. No doubt you've observed this change, and it's likely you've either already adjusted your selling tactics to match or are about to do so.

Surviving and thriving in the print industry as it now stands means meeting customers on their own terms. There's no way to turn back the clock to a time when they needed paper or other printed goods for every communication need. It's time to lend an ear to customer worries and needs and become a valued partner. Everything can play into this customer mindset, from your product lineup to the technology you use.

Web print as an advantage
One of the most important points on the road to a achieving a more customer-centric line of print offerings is framing every element of your company in terms of whether your clients will care about it. This is something to think about when you are acquiring new technologies or materials from dealers and when you're formulating marketing plans. As frequent WhatTheyThink columnist Jennifer Matt recently pointed out, even your web-to-print features should be managed with the end user in mind.

Matt specified that ease of use is the key to a good online experience. Thinking about how many steps it takes to receive an order from your company is a good way to start. If people have to go through several rounds of interaction to perform even simple steps, the system may need a re-think. After all, this is the digital age. Matt pointed out that web-first services such as Amazon have wiped out the previous generation of supposedly efficient retail businesses. With highly efficient self-service experiences now the default, a web-to-print option that seems mired in a past age isn't likely to wow customers or encourage them to come back.

This web baseline is important to remember for another reason: Buyers have become more lax about when they make purchases. Matt explained that people no longer think in terms of whether a company is "open" at the hour they are interacting with it, or whether it is near them. They just want the order to go through and to receive the product in a timely fashion. If simple functions in your web-to-print interface require communications from your team, you have reinstated the concept of business hours, which may be inconvenient to clients who want a 24/7 e-commerce type of print ordering experience.

If your company is smaller, dealing primarily with a local clientele, you may believe (or hope) you are immune to this need to modernize your web offerings. Not so, according to Matt. She explained that, unless you offer reliable and efficient online print buying, you may find yourself losing customers to companies that are based far away but are still more convenient. Once again, Amazon is the example to remember. The way it dealt mortal blows to many local bookstores is a still-resonant lesson when it comes to selling products and services of all sorts, print being no exception.

Accurate customer feedback
The above imperative – to make your offerings easier and more efficient to suit customer preferences – is based on knowing what those shoppers want. While some improvements are obvious, others may be more nuanced, and one thing you shouldn't do is assume you know intrinsically what your audience wants. Printing Impressions contributor Bill Farquahrson recently described the horror scenarios when companies modernize based on what they think their clients need rather than what they are actually interested in.

The author gave a pertinent example: An email provider he uses made a change to its interface, making it less useful and causing problems for longtime clients. If it had a better grasp of the actual way its product is being used today, the company would have likely made very different choices. This is the risk that print providers run when setting up new ordering systems.

Becoming more efficient is hugely important, but if the new features contradict the way the system actually works for users, the response may be more puzzled and unhappy than grateful. Every client base is different, so learning from your particular buyers is much better than taking a general look at the industry space.

So, Farquahrson noted, you have to learn to think like your clients do. How have they implemented your print products in the marketing campaigns and other ongoing strategies? What are they trying to accomplish, short- and long-term? If you work on your offerings with these endpoints in mind, you'll be more likely to implement relevant changes to your web-to-print and other interfaces. The customer has to be there in spirit when you create new and revised solutions. Failure to consider this mindset may lead to sustained problems.