Monday, April 5, 2010

Iron Chef

On the popular TV cooking show Iron Chef America, different chefs from around the world are chosen to compete head-to-head against an Iron Chef in a cooking battle. The participating chefs must choose their competitor, one of the Iron Chefs who are the best of the best – featuring chefs such as Mario Batali, Bobby Flay, Masaharu Morimoto or Cat Cora. The show features dramatics that make it entertaining like naming the cooking arena Kitchen Stadium and commentary that resembles a sporting event. Each show is unique, as a randomly chosen theme ingredient must be incorporated as the focal point of all dishes prepared. The chefs must create four dishes all within 75 minutes with the help of a team of sous chefs (15 minutes to come up with an ensemble of dishes and 60 minutes to cook them). At the end of the competition, each competing chef faces a panel of judges who grade them on a scale of 60 points (30 points for taste/quality, 15 points for presentation and 15 points for originality) and a winner is declared.

To compete in such as pressure packed situation under a short time frame, these chefs must be seasoned professionals. Cutting corners will ultimately lead to failure. They must be problem solvers, quick responders, fast thinkers, creative, knowledgeable and extremely dedicated hard workers. The same qualities that make these chefs so great are the exact same qualities you that you want in a print sales rep. Print reps can no longer afford to be good at only a few things. There are just too many options out there now and too many people hungry for work. They can no longer afford to have only one specific skill set, similar to the chef who only specializes in a few key ingredients or just chops. Flexibility is a requirement now and you have to wear multiple hats. Simply stated, a print rep can’t just be a chef anymore, they must be an Iron Chef.

What does it take to be the Iron Chef of printing? Let’s for a brief moment, assume printers were judged in a similar fashion that the competitors on Iron Chef are judged. We’ll start with the prerequisite that any printer who wants to compete at the highest level needs to be prepared for ANYTHING a customer throws at them. You can’t afford to only be an expert at the same processes that you’ve always known such as offset printing or promotional products. You must know it all: offset printing, direct mail, digital printing, variable data printing, PURL’s, online print procurement, fulfillment, integrated marketing communications (cross media), demographics, response rates, product differentiation, branding, PPC, CPM, email marketing, and social media. If you can’t have an intelligent conversation with a customer across all of these different marketing channels then you’re going to be just another printer. You must understand your customer’s business inside and out if you are to clearly identify opportunities to offer solutions that enable you to do more business with them. When I receive an email for a print bid that was clearly sent to 20 other printers I can already assume I’m not getting the project. Maybe my price will be on point occasionally and I’ll win a few projects, but in this scenario, I clearly haven’t established any value with the customer and all I’m doing is bidding on printing.

Now assuming you actually make the cut above, there are probably only a few printers left to battle against. So how do you determine who is the Iron Chef out of the remaining lot? On Iron Chef, 30 of the 60 points are for taste and quality of the meal. I think it goes without saying that if you can’t consistently produce a quality print project with good image reproduction, color, cross-overs, trim and binding, then you’re not going to be an Iron Chef. Does it have to be the best of the best in quality? This depends on the buyer, but most of the time no. It needs to be good enough though. If quality isn’t your forte, then you better be great at everything else you do. Iron Chef also presents 15 points for presentation and 15 points for originality. With presentation, how often are you communicating the exact status of a project throughout production? Are your projects produced with a high level of professionalism and is the communication always on point? On the point of originality, what is it that makes your company so different that someone is compelled to work with you? What new ideas do you bring to the table that make your customers look like geniuses?

All of the points are part of the bigger picture and the overall experience that defines who and who isn’t an Iron Chef of the printing world. However, there are still two more remaining key points that I strongly believe should be a given: meeting critical ship dates and responding to problems immediately.

On the cooking TV show, if the Iron Chef doesn’t produce in the allotted 60 minute time, they’re probably not going to win. To meet the time, they make sacrifices and constantly make quick decisions to change the course of their dish. For a printer and ship dates, while all may be important, you are going to miss a few. The key is to make sure you meet the ones that count. Are you anticipating ahead of time if a date is in jeopardy? Are you heading the problem off by offering solutions that let your customers react and adjust schedules on their end? What is the financial cost and impact of a missed deadline? To be an Iron Chef in printing you need to proactively minimize the pain of not meeting a ship date.

In addition to meeting deadlines, you must be address issues immediately. In a custom manufacturing world, things happen and we get that. What makes someone an Iron Chef of printing though is by making sure that if something does go wrong, then the rep is going to work non-stop until the issue is fixed. This sounds like common sense but too many times issues are confronted with the attitude of hide the dirt, throw money at the problem or sorry let the customer deal with it. It is amazing that people are scared to enthusiastically take ownership of issues. How you handle problems directly impacts your quality, presentation and originality. How issues are handled is often the only real difference for a print rep to be the Iron Chef of printing or just another printer.

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