Andrew Field of PrintingForLess.com – Part 1

This interview is one that I’ve been excited to post for a few weeks. It’s just taken a long time to get it all written down, edited, and so on (my fault!). However, I think it’ll be worth the wait.

PrintingForLess.com is an interesting company that I first heard about from Robert Scoble, and then more from Christian Long. Their coverage sparked my interest and I setup an interview with the company’s CEO and founder, Andrew Field.

The company is fairly big (about 165 employees) and its average order is about $470. Their common orders range from$60 box of business cards (shipping included) to 2,500 8 x 11, full color brochures. They’ve been growing very fast.

The interview will be four parts. In the first part, Andrew tells me about PrintingForLess.com and its history and how they discovered that customer service was a great way to do things.

Click “read more” to read the interview.

Question 1: Could you tell me briefly about what PrintingForLess.com does?
Answer: PrintingForLess.com serves the print needs of small businesses around the country. We sell full color, short to medium run, high quality printing: brochures, post cards, letterhead, business cards, catalogs, etc. – mostly marketing materials and corporate branding. 80% of our customers have 20 or fewer employees working at their company.

It’s all via e-commerce and we work a little differently than a typical e-commerce company in that we are a high touch model. We work very hard to incorporate the human element: we answer the phones in two rings and ensure not only a live human answers, but one who is an expert in all areas of the company: the digital filing and the production process. So it is high touch and highly consultative.

The reason we do that is because larger companies have professional print buyers who have a high level of expertise buying commercial print and preparing the files for it. Smaller companies tend to need more help and they also need us to be their partner in getting the job done.

Question 2: Could you tell me briefly about PrintingForLess.com’s history?
Answer: We started in October of 1996. Six of us started together – bought a Heidelberg printing press and started in the local market. We figured by late ’98 that the local market was sort of tapped out (Montana doesn’t have a lot of big print buyers). Through a variety of different things coming together, we decided to launch what at the time was the first and only e-commerce commercial print web site. It was true e-commerce and commercial printing. That launched on March 3, 1999 and ever since then, that area of business has grown. Today, essentially 100% of our business is e-commerce print sales to small businesses all around the country.

Question 3: How many employees do you guys currently have?
Answer: We have 165 employees. We moved last June into a new state of the art facility that we built – it’s about 46,000 square feet. A third of that is manufacturing, and the rest is office space. We also have an onsite child care facility, and dogs running around the workplace. The short answer would be: 165 adults, 15 kids, and 15 dogs.

Question 4: Was customer service intended to be a key competitive advantage for PrintingForLess.com when it was founded?
Answer: No, it really wasn’t. We discovered that later on. When we launched the web site, we thought it was going to be like Amazon.com, which essentially provides no customer service that I’m aware of and doesn’t publish their phone number. We had our phone number tucked away on a back page somewhere and people would find it and call. We didn’t realize that that was going to happen and at the time, the very first person who answered all those calls, and the second person along with him, was very experienced (a co-founder who knew all the aspects of the business – from the printing to the digital file). We found the customers loved that experience. We then turned around and revamped our hiring criteria to hire not just technical people, but to hire people who would be great at providing great customer interactions.

It’s pretty unusual in any business (and completely unheard of in the printing business) to have a sales person and a digital pre-press technician, and a customer service rep all combined into one. Typically, they are three different positions. What we did was combine them into one. What we liken it to is if you called the Polty Heart hotline and found out that instead of talking to someone in India, who is reading from a script, you were talking to the head of thoracic surgery at Stanford, you would be pretty pleased. The question is how do you deliver that level of expertise in a cost effective manner?

What we do is we hire great people from a variety of backgrounds (mostly non-printing backgrounds, but we do take some printing background people) and put them through a 14 week, full time training program before they hit the floor at entry level. Then, we give them ongoing (sort of graduate school) training, on the job mentoring, and coaching, particularly heavily in the first year (until they really get good and up to speed).

It is now a huge competitive advantage for us. We occasionally have people try us and try to find a slightly lower priced competitor online. Inevitably, they come back. They find that they just couldn’t stand the poor experience they had.

We actually take it beyond the phrase customer service – we are trying to create an entire experience. It starts with the web site and goes all the way through to a very clear and readable and understandable electronic invoice we send and a follow up call after every order to ensure that everything met the customers to expectations.

One Response to “Andrew Field of PrintingForLess.com – Part 1”

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