Mon, Aug

Up close and personal

Could bespoke or off-the-shelf software packages help you to more closely collaborate with your customers? Richard Stuart-Turner investigates..

‘Added-value’ is a term that is bandied about in the print industry more than in many others at a guess, but there’s sound reasoning behind that - by offering an extra level of service, or something special that makes your business stand out, customers are more likely to remain loyal, particularly if you can quickly establish a strong, personal relationship with them.

OK, so one way to significantly increase the likelihood of retaining clients is to work with them on a closer and more collaborative level. While this can be achieved via several means, one of the ways you could go that extra mile is by using software systems to add, automate or tighten up various processes and services.

Large-format PSPs dealing with brands or blue-chip companies on a regular basis will know that a job might need to be proofed, or ‘touched’, by many people before it is signed off for various branding and legal reasons. Investing in some sort of software system is one of the most effective ways to ensure that this process is completed as simply and efficiently as possible.

But it is not just proofing that such systems could be used for. Many PSPs now are offering services that go far beyond this, by using off-the-shelf - or in many cases in-house developed bespoke systems - to solve their customers’ problems. So should you be?

One company that has built and is successfully running its own software is SPS Group, based in Wimborne, Dorset. The firm says its online portal, Mauve - an asset management and workflow system - has been built in collaboration with its retail clients to improve their processes and fix issues.

The software encompasses a modular collection of tools to profile stores and create, manage and distribute POS materials and campaigns. It enables customers to control their stock holding and ordering, create and store artwork and approve proofs in a structured way.

SPS Group director of Mauve, Peter Coe, says the system - designed to save the firm’s clients time and money and improve their efficiency - has been completely rewritten over the last 18 months to take it to the next level. It has been redesigned to make it responsive and able to work on any platform, such as a phone, tablet or desktop.

“Mauve has 12 modules that work both together and independently, so you can pick and mix which modules you’d like to use. Someone might just choose to use our digital asset library, but if you had our automated artwork generation system then at the end of the process you’d just upload a spreadsheet and that merges with the templates and can create tens of thousands of bits of finished artwork in minutes.”

SPS Group built Mauve in-house and it was written from the ground up. Coe says: “We’ve just finished a rewrite of the online proofing and artwork approval. You can include brands, buyers and various other departments to get some quite complex approval steps.

“The first step of approval to get a finished piece of artwork might be between the agency and the internal department who’s asking for it. Once it’s had the first sweep through you might include a few other people to get their approval and then you might also include legal later on. All the time it’s going through the system, any changes are being communicated back to the agency.”

Coe says that, by taking the approval process out of the email channel, Mauve gives customers additional transparency and means they can quickly and easily see what has happened if something goes wrong. The automated artwork generation, he adds, reduces the risk of human error and improves speed, allowing Mauve users to get their campaigns out quicker or react much later in the process to what their competitors are doing.

“Another of the key areas we do is profiling of stores, so we will take a retail estate and profile it to find out where all of the receptacles are for POS - all of the opportunities in the store where you can put banners, posters and shelf-edge strips etc.

“Using that information, when a client wants to run a campaign they will say what bits they want to change and which artwork they’re going to use for it and they can also define how many overs they want, and it will tell you exactly how many you need to print.”

He adds: “Whereas traditionally people have just sent the same pack to every store, or graded it, this way the stores get exactly what they need. The system also goes beyond that to produce delivery notes and picking sheets and any overs go into our logistics department where, using our store ordering module, stores can then order any replacement items when they require them.”

Washington, Tyne and Wear-based Simpson Group has also seen success with its own software, PopFit. This system enables the company’s retail clients to profile the POP requirements of their stores to cut down excess print ordering and ensure that graphics are tailored to the space available and the sizes required in each individual store, thus significantly reducing waste and saving customers money without lowering the selling price of the print itself.

“To combat this waste, it was essential that retail marketing teams were able to centrally control their POS in real-time, allowing them the ability to plan, create and edit their store window promotions,” says Simpson Group chairman Mark Simpson.

“Data unique to each shop is held within the PopFit database, including details on the shop location, in-store characteristics and window dimensions. The store data can be updated in real time by the retail marketing team, ensuring each promotion takes into account any updates.”

Simpson adds the firm decided to build software from scratch internally because, following extensive research, it found no supplier that offered anything similar. “This allowed for a more bespoke solution plus more flexibility when developing the system going forward.”

In some cases PopFit has enabled identification of space which had been previously underutilised, says Simpson. “One customer in particular is now saving 28% per annum post-PopFit in comparison to pre-PopFit, based on volume of printed POS.”

Ultimately, Simpson says the business is now much more involved in the direction its customers are taking, in a way that goes beyond only being their print supplier.

“We carry out store profiling and auditing before introducing the PopFit solution to our customers. This gives both parties a better understanding on where they are wasting business resources, how their operating costs are affecting sales growth, the efficiency of their current marketing processes and how they can innovate their in-store promotions to drive sales.”

Other companies have gone down a completely different route to customer collaboration, coming up with new services that can be paired with print to create whole new experiences. One such example is Icon, with its meshh technology.

Developed internally by Curb Media - acquired by Icon last year - meshh is a hyperlocal WiFi technology that can essentially turn any static advertising into interactive displays that are compatible with tablets and smartphones. The small meshh boxes allow Icon’s clients to create a hyperlocal content network anywhere they want, such as behind a piece of print or integrated into a POS display.

Each box creates a local network within a 5-30m radius, which is independent from 3G and 4G networks. The service is free and does not use up the recipient’s data. The recipient can access any content on the meshh box as long as they stay within its radius.

“The ability to make digital content exclusively available to that physical environment and from a footprint perspective of five to 30 metres is raising the interest of people delivering richer mobile experiences on signage,” says Anthony Ganjou, chief executive and founder of Curb Media, now part of Icon CSM Sport & Entertainment.

“We started developing meshh about 18 months ago when we had a brief from a client to find a way in which they could deliver digital content without data or the internet.

“We’ve got two key dimensions to what we’re doing with meshh; one is delivering local content and the other is understanding footfall analytics.”

The technology can relay anonymous metrics such as how many people are walking past a sign and how long each person is looking at it. This data enables businesses using meshh to better understand how their marketing is being received and interacted with.

Ganjou says an advantage of meshh over alternative technologies such as NFC and QR codes is that you do not need to physically touch your phone onto the surface of the print or download a specific app to engage with it.

And as no WiFi or data connection is required to interact with meshh, the system could also be used to deliver rich interactive content on tubes, trains or planes, where alternative technologies are unable to be used as easily, if at all.

If it seems, then, that many of the PSPs using software to collaborate more closely with their customers are building their own systems in-house, that is because the very specific requirements of these businesses and their customers are not always fully met by the off-the-shelf systems on the market.

Having said that, there are existing alternatives available, and many of these do cover a range of the functionality of the bespoke systems already discussed.

A lot of the major printer manufacturers offer tools within their workflow systems that enable PSPs to provide their clients with services such as web approval and job submission. These functions, however, tend to be tied into each respective manufacturer’s own systems, which is not ideal for those running kit from multiple vendors.

There are systems out there though for PSPs who want to offer their customers some of these services but have no desire to build their own software.

Pre-press workflow specialist ProofTek recently launched its Operam Cloud platform, a system built with an open-architecture which builds on the company’s existing Operam software. This collaborative soft-proofing system is proving especially popular in the publishing sector but can be used by any PSP - including large-format - particularly businesses that produce quick-turnaround print and therefore need a way for proofs to be approved efficiently.

The software uses a traffic light system to proofing: red to indicate that items are missing from the page, amber to indicate that corrections still need to be completed, and green for go. Additional custom stages of approval can also be set by the customer if they wish to include extra people or departments into the proofing process.

Emails are automatically sent to clients every time a change is required, to keep them updated in real-time. The Operam correction tool allows users to see their job and zoom the page, outline areas and add sticky notes, comments and corrections. The system automatically delivers fully approved files to the chosen printer.

Implementing software such as this can be just as useful for the PSP as the customer, as these systems improve transparency and accountability.

Another benefit of Operam Cloud is that customers are able to see the Rip data of the job.

ProofTek managing director Colin Taylor says: “Whereas normally you’d send a PDF back for a proof, there can be low-resolution images in there so they’re not really approving the actual file that’s going to print. We base ours on a snapshot of the Rip data so what you see on the screen is exactly what’s going to come out in print.”

Ultimately, there are numerous different ways that closer customer collaboration can be achieved using software packages. Whether it’s by building your own system or investing in an existing solution, adding that value to help build a close-knit relationship and offer your customers a level of service and support that they can not easily find elsewhere can only help your business on the right track.

As Curb Media’s Ganjou concludes: “I think being the right kind of partner is fundamental in being a leader in any scenario.”

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