Inkjet printing is a major disruptor, not simply because it competes with a number of other forms of printing, but because none of the old, accepted norms apply to inkjet. Inkjet is fast, it is adaptive, it is variable, but the most distinctive aspect of inkjet is that it challenges what we think we know about print.
With all other forms of print, there are innate characteristics which can be carried over from one technology to the next: colours work in a certain way, papers react in a predictable manner depending on certain conditions, certain manners of handling printed materials are acceptable and others are not. Inkjet pretty much throws all of those preconceptions out of the window. With the result that much of what was known about print does not apply to inkjet. And, by extension, the selling of inkjet technologies.
This has raised a debate in the European, African, Middle Eastern and Russian (EAMER) market where some companies have opted for selling direct while others have opted to use dealers. Certain companies have opted for a hybrid sales approach with the result that there are some very real, and understandable concerns of whether to buy direct or from a dealer. For customers this can result in a level of confusion and uncertainty: who do they turn to, the manufacturer or his distributor for the answers to their burning questions?
Strategies Vary by Region and OEM
To get to the bottom of this, I approached five inkjet manufacturers in the European marketplace to see what their approach is and how the decision is made. Phil Walsh, vice president of sales for Digital Press and Inkjet Products at Kodak EAMER explains that inkjet is different from other forms of printing and as such cannot be treated in the same manner. “Inkjet is a science of its own, it does not behave like any other printing technology, the results are not as predictable and what works for one job will not necessarily work for another, so it requires a lot more hands-on activity. This applies as much to selling the equipment as it does to the operation. It is like saying ‘I know all about commercial litho, so I understand packaging.’ Quite simply, you don’t!”
In mainland Europe, Kodak has a direct channel made possible by the length of time it has had to develop its presence in these markets. In the markets of Middle East, Africa and Eastern Europe it makes use of a dealer channel, but with direct involvement in every stage of the sales and support process. In these markets, where it’s mutually beneficial, Kodak favours the dealer method due to the fact that the dealers have long-term customer relationships that should never be underestimated, there is more to selling inkjet than dropping plug and play boxes and given the high price tickets of these items. Kodak makes use of dealers because of their specific market, segment or customer expertise, but retains close control of every aspect to ensure that the customer achieves the desired level of success.
“As manufacturers, we need to support the dealers, but we also need to learn from our dealers and customers and their specific experiences,” says Walsh. If we think that we can give dealers a few days training on inkjet, a sample kit and a few PowerPoints and then sit back and wait for the phone to ring, we are wrong. It just won’t happen.”
Fujifilm makes use of a hybrid approach. According to Mark Stephenson, product manager for Fujifilm Europe, the decision on whether to appoint a dealer or go direct depends on a number of factors, but the most important is the relationship between all parties: manufacturer, distributor and customers.
“It is a very flexible process. Where we have a solid relationship with a distributor and they have the market knowledge, we will go with a distributor. However, given the purchase price of the equipment, we sometimes need to give a greater level of direct support to our distributors. In those markets where we use distributors, the aim is to create a seamless link between us, as this is what gives the customer the confidence. The aim is always to make sure that the customer feels supported, during and after the sale. There are very few countries where we have both distributor and direct selling channels but in these cases the priority is always the clients’ needs.”
Kyocera also takes a hybrid approach in mainland Europe, as well as emerging markets, where a mix of direct and dealer channels are used. The company believes that its distributors have knowledge of the market and customers which its direct channels may not necessarily be able to achieve. Marcel Ebbenhorst, manager of production print at Kyocera Solutions Europe stated, “This business is based on relationships and the time it takes for a manufacturer to establish its own presence and to gain the experience and the trust of the customers is valuable time taken away from educating the market about the technology and products. This is a lengthy process in itself and can be better achieved by appointing the right distributor and then supporting them. We feel it is better to use the time and resources explaining the benefits of the total cost of ownership to the customers, while our direct channels offer support and accessibility to the distributors.”
HP, has a much more hands-on approach. In mainland Europe, HP has a direct position, while in emerging markets it uses a dealer channel. While dealers are used to find, attract and introduce clients thereafter, HP takes the lead in guiding the customer through the sales process and early stages of production. Alex Oldfield, AP General Manager of PageWide Printing at HP stated, “Production inkjet has taken quite a bit of time to bring to the market because it has required a lot of education, focus and effort. That said, the main markets of Europe have achieved a high degree of education and the focus is now on expanding into new and emerging markets and this is where we need to consider whether to go direct or via distributor.”
Oldfield continues, “We still want a direct presence but, where we do not have the reach or where we have limited market knowledge it is ideal to find the right distribution partners with the best levels of service, customer knowledge and market reach. We use their relationships in those markets to introduce our solutions and to educate the market.”
Screen takes an entirely customer-centric approach. According to Bui Burke, Senior Vice President of Sales for Screen Europe, Screen has no direct distribution in markets where dealers have been appointed, but by the same token, dealers are required to be flexible and are expected to accept direct intervention on the part of Screen where it is in the best interests of the clients in a particular market.
Burke explained, “For us it is not about the biggest dealer but about the dealer who has the relationship and who knows what he is doing. It is all about finding the right partner. That said, big ticket items, such as inkjet are not really dealer items, so it depends to a large extent on the knowledge, capabilities and expertise of the respective distributors in specific markets. If they are not able to sell a specific product or solution then we will look for someone else or consider a direct approach if there is no alternative. Very often this comes down to how successful a particular type of technology is in given markets, if our competitors are selling and we are not, then we will make the change.”
“For us it comes down to how we are managing sales opportunities and then we support our dealers. It becomes a hand-in-glove direct support approach with a distributor where we need to be competitive. For us, the support post-sale is very important and we expect our distributors to take the lead on that, with our assistance.”
These various viewpoints from the different manufacturers place a burden on prospective customers to do their research, not only into the technology which will best meet their needs and production requirements, but also into the strength and support of the direct or indirect distribution approach adopted by the manufacturers.
One of the most important element in the production process of inkjet printing is the substrate, regardless of what is being printed. Substrate choice can mean the difference between a quality result and a fiasco. Inexperienced clients are often tempted to seek out lower-cost alternatives, but this can have detrimental results, both on print quality and on the printing device itself. Substrates must be tested for suitability on the specific device and then profiled for the intended purpose, in a controlled environment. Channel partners may or may not have this expertise. Clients need to lean on the local support of the manufacturer to ensure that their substrate choice will work without causing damage to the device and deliver the desired quality without excessive ink cost or prohibitive procurement costs due to high exchange rates.
There is much more for customers to consider than just the make of inkjet press which will meet their needs. Consider, and look for, all the things you do not know, investigate the relationship between your manufacturer of choice and the local distributor. If direct representation is the model used by your manufacturer, consider the impact of the local situation on the production process. What you need is support – before you buy anything – and as much of it as you can get. Consider the availability of consumables within your specific markets, ink, paper, spare parts and especially printheads. As with most purchasing decisions, information is key.
There is no question that the manufacturers take the sale of these high-ticket items very seriously and want to ensure the success of their clients. For this reason, every sale is seen as a close relationship between manufacturer, distributor and client where each one relies on the support and flow of information from all sides. Clients need to know that regardless of the success, or failure, of the specific distributor, they are ultimately secure in the hands of the manufacturer.
This is our first post from contributor Jean Lloyd covering EMEAR inkjet market needs. Jean is the principal of JL Consulting and currently splits her time between South Africa and Western Europe. A digital technology specialist with decades of experience, Jean has been instrumental in introducing new digital technologies into many countries and markets resulting in measurable growth for both the OEM and their customers.