Specialization Versus Generalization
One of my favorites sayings is, “just because you can doesn’t mean you should.” By looking at the technologies and solutions available to today’s print providers, and viewing their individual core segment as their hub, one can see a mind-boggling number of opportunity pathways. So many considerations. So many choices that, if made with a clear view forward, can lead a company toward unique approaches, differentiation, and truly compelling value. But how do these decisions, and how do thoughtful business leaders focus on what will bring profitability?
The idea of print providers setting themselves up to be “one stop shops” for their customers is not new. That approach, taken to its extreme, is one of the endpoints of a spectrum that starts with specialization and ends with generalization. Regardless of what your company does and the technologies it uses, it falls somewhere along this line.
Several years ago, I had the pleasure of touring a wide-format graphics shop that had gone big in specialization. Because this company had a laser focus on the retail market, providing a specific type of interior signage for a portfolio of specific types of stores, it was able to focus its use of technology tightly (highly automated, high-production flatbed inkjet feeding into highly automated, high-production CNC cutting and routing tables). Because of this approach, the company was able to fine-tune its production to achieve all the benefits of automation and a simplified approach.
For this company, it seems success came from creating a strong definition of what it does and who it serves and doing that both well, and efficiently. For this company, that definition also meant having strong knowledge of what it does not do and having the intestinal fortitude to turn down large, tempting jobs that don’t fit its core competencies.
One Stop Shop…Sort Of
As providers of services to customers, the concept of meeting customer needs, serving as solutions providers, and solving their problems, is ever-present. But neither companies nor people can be all things to all people: doing too many things and constantly grasping for what is next leads to a lack of focus in the here and now, and that affects efficiency and quality. Also, it is mostly impossible to do all things well, which can result in customer satisfaction malaise: what a company does well becomes averaged with what it does passably, with the overall result being, “pretty good.” Limits exist for a reason, and sometimes saying “no” to jobs that don’t fit is the best path forward. Perhaps Meat Loaf had it right with the sentiment of his 1993 hit, “I’d Do Anything for Love (But I Won’t Do That).” Having customers love us can mean showing them our boundaries.
I’ve been through quite a few small wide-format shops where the owner says something along the lines of, “we do a little bit of everything here.” The job-shop approach is built on taking on the business that comes through the door. Small shops need the revenue and are more likely to take the work even if it’s a stretch. It’s the type of hustle many small-shop owners know well. As shops grow, however, it is likely they will become more specialized as they follow key customers and focus on applications that fit best and more strongly affect the bottom line.
The Sweet Spot
So, where along the specialization/generalization continuum should companies seek to exist? Simply put, there is no simple answer, so we must seek understanding. The saying “know thyself” is attributed originally to Socrates, and it is excellent advice. Expanding on that for the purposes of this discussion, print providers are urged to “know thy company,” and “know thy customer.”
A company’s sweet spot becomes apparent from carefully meeting the needs of its customers and thoughtfully monitoring their changes. It comes from steering customers toward technologies and solutions that complement your core competencies, instead of stretching outside your company’s defined boundaries. If new technologies or materials are to be added to a company’s mix, then it should be done following careful consideration – it must fully fit the business foundation upon which it would be added.