Fulfillment: A New Service Frontier

These days, remaining competitive in the graphics market takes more than being fast and cheap. Fulfillment offers a new way to not only stay ahead, but also to stand out among the crowd.

It’s the F-word your customers love to hear when they bring their graphics jobs to your shop. Members of your sales team may use it a lot to attract new business and take care of current accounts. And if you’re lucky, it’s a word that everyone on your staff uses liberally in each area of production. We’re talking about fulfillment, an area of service that has come to mean much more than simply making sure that clients get what they’ve ordered.

Competition in graphics printing today is such that producers must look beyond pricing and turnaround time and focus on what happens to a finished print run once it leaves the pressroom. Fulfill¬ment is a way you can set yourself apart from the companies that trade solely on same-day service or a few cents less per print. However, fulfillment can be a gray area, so it’s important that you determine precisely what it means—and what it means for your business.

What is fulfillment?
For some, fulfillment is organizing and packing graphics and shipping them to the client on time as soon as the job is done or on an as-needed basis. Those who routinely handle complex jobs, such as customized, multistore campaigns, may offer fulfillment by warehousing raw substrates and finished products, managing inventory, picking and packing, kitting, drop shipping, tracking, and installing. Engineering and project management also may be a part of a graphics producer’s fulfillment arsenal. But regardless of what’s on the menu of services, most printers would agree that fulfillment is doing whatever it takes to satisfy the customer.

“The way we define it is making sure we package signs and get signs where they need to be for the customer. It’s that simple. We also inventory signs for some customers, and we do have a full installation department,” says Tim Leary, president of Fresno, CA-based Pro-Screen, Inc. “Once a sign is produced, we do what the customer wants us to do with it—ship it, or install it, or just put it into inventory. That’s fulfilling their needs, and that’s what the word is all about.”

Fulfillment also is a measure by which potential buyers may judge prospective print providers. Some retailers just don’t have the manpower to accommodate storewide graphics roll-outs at several locations. The matter becomes even more convoluted when graphics kits vary according to region, promotion, or site-specific program. In such cases, a print shop that offers a comprehensive approach to fulfillment may be hired to manage the logistics.

“Retailers are doing more and more with fewer and smaller staffs, so they need to rely on outsource partners to be able to get the work done and distributed to all of the stores. They require partners that they can depend on to accomplish these goals for them,” says Jerry Gelsomino, vice president of marketing at Pratt Corp., Indianapolis, IN. “It’s not like the old days where you have one look, one idea, it goes out to all of the stores, and they have to figure out how to fit it in. Now it’s catered to the customers, as well as helping the stores be efficient. Having somebody they can trust becomes extremely important for extending their reach and their effectiveness in the marketplace.”

Fulfillment has as many definitions as there are companies that offer the ser-vice. But one thing is clear: Fulfillment is an increasingly important part of the way graphics producers do business.

Jody Henry, vice president of sales at F.B. Johnston Graphics, Chapin, SC, says companies want the convenience that comes with having one place take care of the printing and ancillary services, such as shipping and installation. By creating a one-stop shop, as he describes it, F.B. Johnston Graphics is able to entice new accounts with its all-encompassing services.

Here’s another example. Pro-Screen commonly works with customers who operate separate marketing and production divisions or facilities. In such cases, Leary explains, a client’s warehouses are designed to take care of the fulfillment of the company’s own products—not the collateral managed by the marketing department. Fulfillment has become a critical part of the way Pro-Screen works with those buyers.

Fulfillment technology
Many options await those who would like to use technology to establish or boost their fulfillment programs. Some companies need only use e-mail to keep track of orders, stock, and more. Others require high-level software platforms to tie everything together. Branching out onto the Net is yet another option—one that can allow customers who wish to be involved more intimately with fulfillment to take a more active role in managing their orders.

Pratt uses solutions on the intake side that help with site surveys and gathering, recording, and cataloging information. The company uses an enterprise-resource-planning system (ERP) on the operations side. The essential role of an ERP is to integrate a company’s departmental functions onto one system that can accommodate the needs of each department. Pratt plans to update its ERP to reflect the changes in its business pro- cesses, as well as clients’ needs.

“We have a core ERP system that has been effective for us.... We started with a great system—a good system by today’s standards—and have a very prolific and effective IT staff that has modified and essentially souped up the system we started with to change with us,” Gelsomino says. “We’re now ready to move to the 2008 model. Big changes are coming.”

F.B. Johnston Graphics uses POPS (Point-of-Purchase Software), a custom program written in house, to catalog and manage all information about a client’s chain of stores. Henry explains that each store is set up with a profile. The software can capture as much data as necessary, and all of the company’s fulfillment services are tied into the software. Stores are grouped by region or market—however the client defines it. “Then we enter in the promotion schedule, the promotion details, and determine where we want the promotion to go,” he explains. “Through a series of filters, we generate packing lists so that our fulfillment people can kit-pack accurately.”

Think Big Solutions, Commerce City, CO, leverages Web-based software to allow for self-service order placement and tracking. According to Gail Mason, Think Big’s process manager, the Web- based system helps the company develop business and keep customers happy. Think Big also relies on technology for customer-care services related to print and trade-show-booth management, logistics, and more.

E-mail and spreadsheets help keep Pro-Screen’s communications moving and information cataloged. Employees update spreadsheets when an item is taken from inventory, and the inventory sheets are sent to key customers each month so they can remain informed about what Pro-Screen has inventoried for them. Leary explains that reorder functions are in place to notify customers when inventory drops below a certain point. An order will then be placed should the customer plan to continue using the graphic in question. “That’s standard practice,” he says. “It’s something we weren’t set up to do, but when you have that kind of inventory, you have to have things in place to make sure the customer knows. When they go to do an inventory for their company, everything needs to be aligned.”

Outsourcing
Outsourcing can be an effective way to manage the occasional request for fulfillment services. Farming out fulfillment also can allow you to determine whether it’s the type of service you’d like to offer—and do so without taking the risk of spreading your resources too thin.

Some shops develop long-term partnerships with companies that specialize in fulfillment services. Houston, TX-based FulFill Plus is one such company, and P-O-P fulfillment is one of its specialties. Among the services it offers to that market segment are order-receipt and collateral distribution, kitting and assembly, shipping and freight, reporting, real-time inventory updates, warehousing, climate-controlled storage, and order taking.

Joe Isaac, president of FulFill Plus, explains that the company also can set up a technology infrastructure for printer customers so they can oversee parts of the fulfillment process themselves. “We offer them online capabilities. We try to make it a self-service application,” he says. “Even though we have a full staff of customer-service representatives, the customer can manage a lot without having to call. Each customer has a unique login, and depending on their requirements, they see more or less of the capabilities.”

Some of Isaac’s customers in other markets have even asked FulFill Plus to do the printing for them. The company responded by creating a production department that can handle screen printing, sublimation printing, rotary screen printing, pad printing, and more—essentially making product decoration a fulfillment service. Isaac says the current job-run record in the print shop is 50,000 units.

Outsourcing fulfillment is an attractive option for shops that lack the space, time, or manpower to handle the work. But those who discover that they can accommodate the demands a fulfillment program can place on their business and its assets may find that having total ownership of the entire operation is critical to quality and productivity. For example, Pratt used an outsource partner in order to assess the value and feasibility of fulfillment before making the commitment in house.

“It was an opportunity for us to test the waters. Then we felt, with a couple of specific clients, that it made sense for us to have full control over it,” Gelsomino explains. “I think it would be like that with any of our new services. We would do a test, a very controlled situation, and see if there’s a future and decide if it’s appropriate for us to get deeper into it.”

How should you view fulfillment?
Is fulfillment something to keep under wraps and grudgingly accept when absolutely necessary? Or is it an aspect of your business worth promoting and mining for profits? Fulfillment can be enticing bait for new opportunities and an effective way to keep valuable purchasers from checking out the shop up the road that’s playing a pricing game. It can also be something that you use to further support those clients who have increased the amount of business they do with your company.

“Fulfillment is on our Web page. We do promote it as one of our products. I know that it’s a good thing,” Leary says. “We talk about the quality of our work first, we talk about our service, and then fulfillment is the next natural step—especially with the bigger customers.”

Leary explains that Pro-Screen has developed a personality for its fulfillment department. Members of the installation and shipping teams communicate directly with buyers, a process he says demonstrates that the company is multifaceted and has more than just a salesperson in the building working for the customers. Another benefit Leary sees in promoting fulfillment is that it makes Pro-Screen look better than its competitors.

“It gives my product a higher perceived value, which in a lot of cases means I don’t have to get into a bidding war over a small sign program—or even a big one. We have services that many people don’t offer,” he says.

At Pratt, fulfillment is one of the tools in use to cement the connections the company has with its customers. Gelsomino says part of fostering positive relations is finding other areas where you may be able to help customers be more efficient or effective. “Yes, it is profitable for us to be in the fulfillment business,” he admits. “But even more importantly, it strengthens the relationship and trust between partners. Everything comes alive with a great fulfillment program for the client.”

Funky fulfillment
Warehousing, packing, and distributing flat graphics and display components may not be the most glamorous of jobs, but print providers are sometimes approached with requests that are unusual enough to warrant considering them for inclusion among other fulfillment offerings. For example, printers may be asked to manage items they had no hand in producing.

“Trash cans,” Henry says. “If the client needs us to warehouse or inventory their trash cans for them and then accurately ship out the right number of cans to each location, we will assist them with fulfillment of those items. Of course, we won’t do that for just any client. When we go outside of the realm of what do in inventory and warehousing, it has to be a sizable account.”

One of Pro-Screen’s clients sends a truck to the plant each month to deliver food for distribution to end users. Leary says the company prints the banners for the customer and then packages and ships the edible goods along with the related graphics to a variety of sports teams.

“Their distribution center is really good at getting the food to the stores, but they could never get the food, containers, and all the other stuff they provide these clubhouse guys and trainers delivered on time,” he explains. “These food products are brought to us because our shipping and fulfillment departments have become so valuable to that customer.”

The desire to satisfy leads printers to take care of some strange products. When is the right time to turn down a remarkable request? Henry says F.B. Johnston Graphics typically refuses to carry products that take up too much space, are hazardous, or pose some sort of risk. “We won’t chase just pure fulfillment business,” he adds. “If there’s no tie-in to printing or signage, or if a client comes to us just asking for fulfillment that won’t allow us to entertain their printing business, then we’ll reject that too.”

Challenges and remedies
Developing and growing a fulfillment department is not without its roadblocks. Depending on the level of service you plan to offer, you’ll need to look into shipping and freight options, warehousing, hardware and software, customer service, staffing, and more.

Training has been an issue at F.B. Johnston Graphics. Henry says the com¬pany makes a strong effort in educating the people in the fulfillment department about the needs of each customer. “How you handle a program for one customer is not the way you handle it for another,” he explains. “We have a fulfillment manager on staff, and he works very diligently to train his employees about clients’ needs. We also have what we call capabilities-assessment meetings about each client before we kit-pack a job to educate our fulfillment workers about that job.”

Pro-Screen needs to add people to its fulfillment department, but Leary says the employees who work hands-on with signage have trouble with the idea. They wonder whether new hires, people who are not producing signs, will really be generating money for the company.

“I have to make sure that department continues to grow, just like any department in my business, to keep up with demands,” he says. “I can tell you that they’re absolutely bringing in revenue for my company. Fulfillment solidifies pieces of business. That department will grow by at least two people this year.”

According to Gelsomino, the biggest push at Pratt is to continuously im-prove speed, efficiency, and quality, and to develop the ability to think ahead for its clients. He also cites staying ahead of the industry—being aware of how it’s moving and changing—as an ongoing goal. “We want to be ready when our clients say, ‘Hey, we’d like to try that,’ and tell them that we’ve already been thinking about it, we’ve even been practicing in our R&D labs, and we’re tuned in to what they just suggested may be their future,” he says.

Ramping up fulfillment services at Think Big Solutions put a damper on the company’s overall productivity. The company also discovered that it needed more space, better technology, and streamlined training. However, fulfillment is paying off for Think Big as it addresses those obstacles. “We see it as an area for growth and a current profit center,” Mason says, adding that the use of “better automated processes” will also help to jumpstart the shop’s efficiency and accommodate growth.

Fulfilling your potential
The move into fulfillment should not be taken lightly. Adding such a critical extension to your business can initially tax your resources, but if you plan ahead, offer only what you can handle, and present your new capabilities as part of an all-in-one package of services, fulfillment can become something that you and your customers will swear by.

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