Getting Respect from Commercial Printers
Why is it that sometimes in-plant printers can’t catch a break—at least, not from commercial printers? It seems like every time I talk to a commercial printer and the subjects of in-plants comes up, all I hear is negativity.
For instance, on a recent flight, I spent two hours of sheer hell arguing with the owner of a print and mail house, who had a very low opinion of in-plant managers. More on that exchange in a minute.
I don’t want to generalize about all commercial printers based on the actions of a few. Over the years I’ve built up good relations with many of them, and I’ve had more than one commercial printer tell me that he wouldn’t trade jobs; running an in-plant is too demanding.
Once, when the shop I managed was flooded, our friends in the commercial sector came to our rescue. They didn’t take our misfortune as an opportunity to gouge the university; they let us use their presses when they didn’t have work for them, let us borrow makeready and bindery facilities, and gave us room to store paper. They pitched in and helped us, and as a result we managed to get most of our critical jobs done on time.
So, no, I won’t generalize about all commercial sector printers; I’ve known some that understand the pressures of running an in-plant. I just wish more of them would show us the same courtesy.
When I do in-plant assessments I try to talk to commercial printers in the area. Over the years I’ve learned that when describing my years of experience as a print manager, it’s best not to mention that my experience is in managing in-plants, because when I do my credibility with commercial printers flies out the window. It doesn’t matter that I managed a three tower 1,000 feet-per-minute roll-to-roll, or a string of 40˝ manroland presses, or a four-tower roll-fed 25˝ web, or that in one shop I managed, 100,000 was a short run. My experience was still managing an in-plant so I couldn’t possibly know anything about “real printing.”
You can learn a lot about an in-plant by talking to its commercial competitors. When I hear a shop owner complain about the in-plant having unfair advantages, or that [name] University shouldn’t have an in-plant, or the in-plant doesn’t pay taxes, it often means that the in-plant manager is doing a pretty good job, and the commercial shop can’t beat the in-plant's prices or service levels. So they complain.
I had a conversation with a commercial owner recently, in a town where the university had closed its main printing facility. The owner had hired two former university bindery guys. In his words, “It didn’t work out.” No explanation of what didn’t work out, just that there had been some friction. His conclusion: All in-plant personnel are incompetent. Or lazy. Or whatever his complaint was. Excuse me?
So on a recent flight, when I ended up sitting next to the owner of a print and mail house, I wasn’t really surprised when he voiced a low opinion of in-plant managers.
Him: “What do you do?”
Me: “I’m a consultant.
Him: “What kind of consultant?”
Me: “I work with colleges and universities.”
Him: “Oh, you’re a professor?”
Me: “No, I help them understand and improve their printing and copying services.”
That did it. He unloaded on me, and the next couple of hours were sheer hell. Here are a few highlights, along with my rebuttals:
Him: In-plants have an unfair advantage because they are non-profit and don’t pay taxes.
Me: I believe there are more in-plants in the private sector, working for companies that do pay taxes. By helping organizations reduce printing costs, they are adding to shareholder value and bottom-line performance. As for public sector in-plants, if the in-plant is the low-cost producer, doesn’t that mean that it’s SAVING your tax dollars?
Him: Commercial printers have to hire sales people to bring in business, but in-plants’ customers are forced to use the in-plant.
Me: Not so. According to everything I’ve read, more in-plants do not have right of first refusal than do, so they have to compete with commercial printers and provide better-cheaper-faster service to stay open. And a lot of in-plants that are doing a good job are closed for reasons other than performance, like the university wants the in-plants space for something else. True, we usually don’t have sales staff. We call them Customer Service Reps.
Him: In-plants don’t know what it means to meet a deadline.
Me: Give me a break. A large amount of our work is deadline driven. If you work for a college or university and fail to have commencement programs ready on time, guess what. You won’t have a job. It doesn’t matter that the faculty didn’t certify the graduation list until two hours before the event. Parents paid a lot of money to get John or Mary through school, and by golly there had better be a program with their names in it—spelled correctly, I might add.
The same is true for a lot of the things we print. Classes start on pre-determined dates, and all classroom materials have to be ready on time. We don’t get to tell faculty how long we need to print their course materials, but we are expected to have them ready by the first day of class.
Companies release new products and expect printed marketing collateral to be ready on time. Programs need to be ready for scheduled events. Can you imagine delaying or postponing a football or basketball game because the print shop didn’t finish the programs on time?
In some states, state law requires budget documents to be in the hands of legislators a specific number of hours before a vote can be held, and it doesn’t matter how many pages, the number of copies required, or when the budget office provided the material. And on and on.
Him: In-plants aren’t held accountable for financial performance.
Me: Another give-me-a-break statement. Most of my consulting practice comes from colleges and universities that are concerned about printing costs and service levels. The common theme? How can we do better!
And so it went for an agonizing two hours.
These are just a few of the highlights of the conversation. I don’t doubt that he’s had some bad experiences with in-plants, but please, don’t paint us all with that brush.
I’d invite that bag of wind to spend a few days in the shoes of most of the in-plant managers I know, but I doubt he could keep up.
What are the implications? We, the in-plant community, need champions—people that can tell our stories to our bosses. Every time I make a presentation to business officers or auxiliary managers on the value of in-plants, I get favorable responses. Mostly they say things like “I didn’t know that” or “Our shop can do that?”
So get out there and tell your story. Let people know what you do. Brag a little on your accomplishments. Because if you don’t do it, who will?
By the way, I’m writing this at 6:30 p.m. on a Friday afternoon while I’m waiting for my wife to come home from work. We had plans for a nice end-of-the-week dinner with friends, but that’s been cancelled. You see, she manages the in-plant at Virginia Tech, and she called a while ago to say that a rush job walked in the door at 4:30. She has to print a few hundred letters, stuff them, meter them, and get them to the post office today. Most of her staff left early (hey, it’s Friday afternoon). So she’ll stay late and finish the job. That’s the second time this month our Friday plans have been put aside while she handled a rush.
So to my traveling companion who thinks that in-plant managers don’t provide great service, here’s a parting thought. Try walking a mile in an in-plant manager’s shoes before you criticize all of us. You just might learn a thing or two about how to run a customer-focused shop, on a shoestring, with old equipment.