Print samples – seeing is believing?

Jim Hamilton of Infotrends wrote a blog post today in which he highlighted the role of print samples in the sales cycle of digital printing equipment. He specifically cited the initial reluctance of vendors to let potential customers actually get close enough to the samples to make a judgment on their quality.

I’ll go further and suggest there are 5 levels or stages of print sample in the lifecycle of a new printing machine:

1. Alpha machine: the machine is barely out of the laboratory, and the samples have significant defects, so prospects get to see just enough to believe that the demonstration machine is not all smoke and mirrors, and that it actually prints. The printed images and the substrate are carefully chosen to minimize visible defects. An example would be a busy image with plenty of irregular detail that makes aliasing (‘stair-stepping’) and inkjet ‘jet-outs’ hard to see.

2. Beta machine: this is pre-production equipment and most of the bugs have been ironed out. The images and the substrate are again carefully chosen to optimize the appearance, but defects might still be visible to prospects, who are now able to look closely at the samples. The machine might still be unable to meet its design specification in other ways: perhaps the quality cannot be sustained over a long run, or perhaps it cannot print the displayed quality at full production speed.

3. Production machine – sales qualification: the new machine is in production, and now performs to spec. The samples freely shown and given away at trade shows or sent to prospective buyers accurately represent what the machine can do – at its best. (Why would a vendor want to show anything less than their product’s best output?) So the samples are again on an ideal substrate, but perhaps with a selection of more-representative production images than earlier. These samples are used to qualify the prospect: because they are the best that the system can produce, if the prospect still doesn’t think they meet their business needs, there is no point in wasting further sales time.

4. Production machine – sales process: The vendor is confident that the print quality meets the needs of the target market, and potential customers have to be convinced that it will meet their own specific needs. So, having accepted the potential print quality as shown by the samples in the previous stage, the prospect now needs to see representative production work done on the substrates he actually uses. The vendor runs the customer’s jobs with the customer’s substrate, or perhaps provides samples from an existing user with similar work. These samples might be provided in a live demonstration.

5. Production machine – acceptance testing: with the order closed and the machine either ready for delivery (factory acceptance test, or F.A.T.) or on site (site acceptance test, or S.A.T.), a standard set of test images are run, using a reference substrate. These are designed to show that the machine meets its specification, so they may include test patterns that – in contrast to the images guardedly shown at stages 1 & 2 – are specifically designed to show print defects. If the acceptance tests are passed, any future problems of print quality can be confidently ascribed to service problems, changes in substrate or operating conditions, or operator error.

It would be unfair to single out vendor examples of these early stage samples (we’ve all seen them at print shows), but I am continually surprised to find, on the one hand, printers who become dazzled by the quality of inkjet samples on stocks that are too expensive to actually use in practice; and on the other, printers who expect to match a label job that uses multiple spot colors with a digital printer that uses only CMYK inks. Part of the job of digital printer salespeople is to educate printers who are nervous about making the jump into digital that all print processes have drawbacks, and the decision process is a matter of picking the solution for which the benefits outweigh the drawbacks, while avoiding unnecessary risk. (This is of course also true of the printer’s salespeoples’ need to educate their end-customers!)

Back in the days when desktop publishing was roiling the pre-press industry, I had a colleague who maintained: “Believe nothing of what you see on a computer screen, and half of what you see in a print. Only believe the film separations.” In the world of digital printers, film has gone away, but the injunction to be cautious about print samples still holds true.