What is the printing industry's stance with regard to improving technology? Is it the last bastion of analog production, an anachronism in the face of the digital revolution? Is it just an extension of companies' digital marketing efforts? Has it, in a worst-case scenario, become an afterthought?

With all the facts considered, it appears the printing business has taken on a digital skeleton to aid it in delivering distinctly non-digital experiences. This diagnosis is likely no surprise for print service providers, as they have watched their customers become tech-savvy over the past decades. Keeping up with what clients want, and operating at a speed that will satisfy them, means using technology.

A software industry
As What They Think contributor Jennifer Matt recently pointed out, the print shop field is driven by its software. She admitted that this is a shift, at least at a symbolic level. Companies that once defined themselves by their printing presses are now setting themselves apart with their online portals and web-to-print products. However, when leaders make the transformation gracefully, they stand a chance of making a name for themselves among clients that are still out there and remain interested in print.

Matt specified that tailoring a software environment for ideal print production means thinking of the whole picture rather than individual pieces. Companies that don't consider how their different solutions communicate with one another can end up sabotaging their own production capabilities, weakening their value for tech-savvy customers looking for intuitive experiences.

When it comes to building up software capabilities, printers are planning for the future. Matt urged print service providers to make this kind of thought and assessment an essential part of their skill set, as it will remain relevant over the coming years. Updating capabilities every few years could be a regular part of the print sector now, as the march of technology is ongoing and client expectations will evolve in similar ways. Shop operators who are mainly concerned with the hardware on their floors should pay heed to the tech behind the scenes as well, if they want to present a competent face to clients.

Becoming a valuable team member
As Printing Impressions contributor Mark Michelson pointed out, there are plenty of easily understandable reasons to build a contemporary, effective set of web-to-print capabilities. He specified, for instance, that some of today's main revenue-generating exercises, such as securing recurring contracts, are easier when there's a self-service portal in place. Web-to-print options make it easy for clients and printers to communicate, and that ease can translate to revenue over time.

The way people think about purchases has changed over time. This is true whether you're considering the app-driven business-to-consumer world or the digital space of business-to-business transactions. Michelson noted that people today want a sense of control. They are interested in pressing the buttons with their own hands, and a web-to-print interface allows them to do, this, placing the final decision in the customer's care.

Print service providers today have to fit into the ecosystems their clients already operate. By giving these customer firms a variety of easy options, they make it easy for these businesses to come back time and again. This is a modern and potentially difference-making way of conveying value.

Software is stepping up
Service providers are encouraged to keep track of their software environments and put on a competent digital face for customers – this advice would be hard to follow if software developers serving the industry refused to update their offerings. Thankfully, there are plenty of products available to turn a print shop into a digital business capable of serving modern clients effectively.

As another Printing Impressions contributor, Pat McGrew, pointed out, there were numerous developments on display on the floor of ESKOWorld 2017. This conference featured only Esko solutions, but these provided a neat cross section of the kinds of tools printers have access to these days. For instance, the offerings ranged from the latest versions of 90s-born CAD software to up-to-date design options. McGrew noted that even foundational products such as Esko's automation tool are in tune with modern needs: The solution is now browser-based, bringing it in line with development trends.

A core competency
Print service providers interested in differentiating themselves and becoming useful to clients may have to look to their digital capabilities. This isn't a problem, merely a change in focus that leaders will have to acknowledge. As a service industry, printing will always be concerned with what its customers are interested in. As brand representatives look for software-based solutions to their problems, savvy printers will deliver the options they're most enthusiastic about.