The Magic of Support

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noelward

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By Noel Ward, Editor@Large

I was Skyping with some guy in Shanghai, wondering how much support I’d get out of a call to the far side of the world. I was in Germany and had bought Chinese software to convert a video file my normal editing software didn’t like. The guy in China apologized, telling me I apparently had the one-channel version. He promptly sent me the two-channel version over the web at no charge along with a new version of the one I had. Then he asked how his company’s product could be made better. Mine was a small issue, but the support was fantastic.

Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Six feet from where I am writing this sits an older name-brand MFP in dire need of a firmware upgrade. The original vendor is useless and the local service provider won’t help. Apparently they don’t care enough to provide service for a lone MFP. Let’s just say that I won’t buy this brand again.

The thing is, no engineers or product managers are willfully developing or offering inferior products. While some devices may lack certain features, most stuff works pretty well. And for anything you’ll rely on every day, chances are you’re buying solid equipment that will go the distance. Still, support is critical.

Baked in
The thing about support is that a company’s approach to it is often baked into the DNA of the company selling it. This applies not only for products that are selling now, but also those that have been around for some time. To be sure, all technological products reach the ”sunset” point, after which they are no longer made, sold or actively updated, but the better companies have an innate understanding of customer needs and continue to provide fee-based support because they know customers still rely on them.

So thinking about this, I made some calls, reaching out to companies I know that are all digital, all the time as well as shops I visited on a lap of America when I visited several commercial operations with various flavors of inkjet, offset and toner presses. I really just wanted to talk about support, but it turned out that some of them had Ricoh presses. This prompted me to re-connect with Ryan Kiley, Director of U.S. Production Sales and Services for Commercial & Industrial Print at Ricoh, and we updated a conversation we’d begun at a trade show two years ago. Then and now, we talked about the importance of support.

Because of the people I connected with, this story looks at support through a Ricoh lens, which actually works out well because the print providers I spoke with have all made the leap to inkjet and have some pretty demanding customers, making support an important issue.

Relax
“We think it’s important for companies to help their customers relax, or at least not have to worry,” says Heather Poulin, Senior Director, Marketing, Commercial Printing Business, Ricoh USA, Inc. “A big part of that is helping them make the most of the products and services they buy. Having a customer-centric approach that puts them front and center helps address their needs faster so they can stay focused on moving their businesses forward. Their success is our success.”

Some of this is attention to detail in how a product works, but the crucial parts come from the people involved. We all may nod at this, but when a high-end digital press and content critical data are in the mix, human interactions are incredibly important. For example, among my clients is an association of service bureaus, one of which is PrintMail Solutions based in Newtown, PA. The company produces an assortment of transactional documents for financial services companies. Gretchen Renaud, VP of Operations, says PrintMail uses RICOH ProcessDirector to convert print streams to the appropriate print language used on the company’s InfoPrint 5000 digital presses in its four locations across the U.S.

I tend to do very conversational interviews and don’t ask leading questions, so all kinds of things come out. In this case we were talking about support, so I let the conversation roll. Gretchen says one of the important things to look for with respect to support is partnership: the sense that a vendor has your back because there is mutual success when vendors and customers work together.

“The team at Ricoh has helped us solve challenges from data configurations to color management,” says Renaud. “The people really make the difference. We’ve found that Ricoh’s people act as if they are part of PrintMail Solutions. This is the day-to-day side of partnering, but they’ve also been in sales presentations as our partner-vendor to support our strategic sales growth.”

Related to this is Ricoh’s Business Booster program, which many customers use to help strengthen their business development activities.

“Some of the commercial printers and in-plants are smaller and don’t have big marketing budgets, so we work to help them,” explains Poulin. “It can be from a PR perspective or helping them market a new capability to their customers.”

Partnership
Partnerships are also available in other forms. One is through the company’s Business Consulting Practice. Customers can draw on consultants with expertise in multiple disciplines to gain fresh perspectives on and solutions for specific challenges. Another avenue is the Customer Council, a group of customers Ricoh draws on for insights about day-to-day and long-term needs for equipment, software and support. Then there is the annual, sales-pitch-free Interact Forum that brings customers, Ricoh experts and industry analysts together as a way of addressing, discussing and solving challenges. I’ve been to Interact a few times wearing my analyst hat, and have found it to be one of the best events in the industry.

Even with all these programs the larger story is in reinventing the meaning of partnership. Kiley says the mission at Ricoh is to support the customer. He notes that unlike some companies that have clearly defined boundaries between sales and service and hardware and software, Ricoh believes they are closely related.

“It’s all connected,” says Kiley. “Our culture is to support customers because at the end of the day, we’re all part of the same team and have shared goals. So we form alliances with our customers to help, support, and do what it takes to grow their businesses.”

One thing I’ve noticed in talking with various Ricoh staffers over the years is that many people in customer-facing roles have a lot of experience, ranging from years with other vendors to time on the customer’s side of the table. The time spent in the customers’ shoes—worrying about getting a critical job out the door or winning a new account—is especially important because it fosters trust and helps reinforce the company’s vision of customer support. The fact that a company the size of Ricoh can distill this into day-to-day operations is unusual and is a clear differentiator.

From all vendors (and print providers) over the years I’ve heard more than a few stories of times when things didn’t go according to plan or when the vendor dropped the ball. This can happen. We’re all human. But the difference is whether mistakes are used as learning experiences that help avoid a replay of the same issue.

“The commitment to our support program started in 2006 when Ricoh stepped into the production print space,” recounts Kiley. “This gave us the opportunity to learn from others’ mistakes—as well as our own.”

Kiley says he can show several ways to do something wrong, based on what Ricoh has experienced over the years. We bring all this forward to what we do today, such as surrounding a customer with the right mix of resources. “So, if the first thing we think of is how the customer is going to experience something we’re doing, then we are probably doing something right.”

At a trade show maybe three years ago, and then again on a lap of America, I met with Heeter, a cut-sheet commercial print operation outside of Pittsburgh, PA. One of the people I talked with at the show and again at the Heeter plant was Kirk Schlecker, President. I knew from the company’s client mix that quality was a very big deal and that they had selected the RICOH Pro VC60000 in large part due to the print quality and the variable data printing it could provide. Schlecker has some really bright people in his shop, but support is still critical.

“Ricoh allows us to be the experts in what we do, but when we have a problem, they are here to support us and resolve the issue. And when we have a success, we share that with them,” says Schlecker.

Sideways
Still, it’s when things go sideways that support matters most. Schlecker tells of a time when Heeter’s RICOH Pro VC60000 went down during a busy period. Ricoh flew a VC60000 operator to Pittsburgh and also flew Heeter’s files for the job back to Ricoh’s facility in Boulder to get the work out on schedule. Such an approach is something I often ask other vendors about. I’ve gotten a variety of answers, but few are clear, and confidence inspiring.

Developing the relationships Ricoh seems to have with customers is an ongoing and constant process. As you might expect, listening to customers is as critical a component as defining and refining the types of support provided. And it doesn’t stop with Ricoh.

“We are always pushing our partners to be part of all our solutions,” says Kiley. “We know every customer has different needs and concerns. We find those by listening, being flexible, and developing an approach to each challenge that will be successful for our customers.”
 
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