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The Changing Tide Of The Office Automation Industry

4 Oct, 2010 By: Rob Gilbert, Sr, Industry Consultant   imageSource

The Changing Tide Of The Office Automation Industry

Remember when you used to be able to sell copiers for a profit?  Remember when we used to be smarter than our customers?  Remember when a “solution” used to be a dual line fax machine?  Remember when customers used to place maintenance agreements on calculators?  I hear these questions periodically today when discussions revolve around all the changes in how our industry has redefined itself.  Without question, times are changing.  Understanding change, anticipating fluctuation in the market, deciding which way to turn during any particular swing in business philosophy, gauging your vendors’ decisions and strategies and more are becoming a common occurrence today.  Never before have so many different business units moved so quickly to change so much and so fast as in today’s current market. 

Anymore the question isn’t “Will I change?” but “How will I change?”

The Evolving Business Model
As innovative digital technology was ushered in, so too was the “solution provider” mindset.  Of course at that time, a solution was a digital copier with the hope that a customer might eventually buy a network card and hook it up so that it would print.  Even as knowledge increased about printing, the industry still had a hardware-based mindset.  This was based largely (and still is) on the manufacturers’ need to move units into the field.  As the need arose for true understanding of the print environment and how information moves in an organization, truly better technology evolved.  It was slow at first, and somewhat manageable.  But as things go, technology is exponential and increases at a faster rate as time passes.  Other things also converged into the process; customers became smarter and savvier about the document movement processes. 

My feeling is that this is really a result, more than anything else, of a lackluster job that was done by a bunch of copier companies who touted themselves as being solution providers, but couldn’t really provide a suitable solution.  (You know you’re in trouble when a customer feels there is a better answer in the market and you don’t know what it is!) Eventually this philosophy began to take shape and customers began to connect digital copiers and use them.  This of course threw up a giant flag to the printer world and then the game was on.  After all, we are all fighting for the same turf.  So printer companies then devised ways of providing “cheap” printing for customers.  This undercut the digital copier philosophy and made it harder to determine exactly what was cheap and what was costly. 

At the same time, a swing was underway in the business world as a result of the technological age.  IT managers began to rule the world with an iron fist.  For the first time, companies were finding themselves dealing with personnel on hardware decisions that they had never dealt with before.  This was challenging, because IT people speak their own language, and unfortunately for many, it isn’t “copier guy English.”  The next resulting evolution was a re-education of salespeople, along with a different hiring philosophy for sales in general. 

At the same time, an understanding arose that new tools were needed to communicate more effectively with an IT mindset, and the network assessment era was ushered in.  It was at this point that many dealerships had to take a hard look at their business models and decide where they were headed.  It seemed difficult enough to stay abreast of new technology from a hardware perspective, but almost impossible to retool an entire company’s thought process to a truly technological mindset.  Add to this mix more pressure from the printer world and more confusion on pricing models for toner and service, and things can get really interesting. 

"As digital technology was ushered in, so too, was the “solution provider” mindset."

Then, document solutions entered.  In understanding the lifecycle of a document, it became apparent that the need for more concise movement and manipulation of information was at hand.  This created an even bigger gap in sales training and skill sets for salespeople and potential customers.  Yet another decision had to be made for many dealerships:  Do we go down the document solutions road or not?  At every step of the way, dealers had to decide whether to continue to embrace technology and change, or to stagnate and keep a hardware mindset.  Many picked up the progressive baton; some did not.

Yet again, printer companies reacted and created tools for customer use, which in turn made customers smarter still.  At this time, supply companies also entered the fray and tried to take back a slice of the revenue pie.  Holy-moly this got really confusing, regardless new opportunities appeared.

For many, all this reads like a best-selling novel or ongoing series. Now add in the global economy that drastically started to wane.  That alone brings about its own challenges, but it also turned the tide back in favor of progressive dealerships.  Financial decision makers (with the assistance of true consultants) began to realize that they had no control over internal expenses related to their office environments, for all the reasons listed above.  Companies were, and still are, looking for the most cost-effective way to run their businesses, and need help to do it.  As what was our biggest headaches six or seven years ago has become the best reason for our greatest successes  - if we can truly position ourselves to capitalize on the opportunity available.

Choose Carefully

There is still a lot to learn, and a lot to know.  Hardware, software, wide format, document solutions, scanning technologies, managed printing services, account mapping, file archival and retrieval are just a few.  How will you proceed in this current market?  Will you weather the storm and still continue to be primarily hardware-based?  Or will you use a good hybrid strategy and involve partners that can help you bridge the gap between your offering and something that looks solution-based? Will you truly take the time, effort, energy, and pain that is required to totally immerse yourself in a climate of change?  For those companies that have embraced a consultative and true solutions-based mindset, the sky is the limit.  It first starts with your definition of the word “solution.”

Rob Gilbert, Sr. has 25 years experience in the office industry; implementation of CPP programs to sales & management training & consulting including MPS program setup. Contact him at: rgilbertsr@gmail.com.

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