Who is the Customer?

A view on the supply chain in the digital print industry


It is a rather simple question: “who is your customer?”. Answering it proves more difficult than expected, however. When asked, 9 out of 10 answer by describing the market they are selling into. Upon further inquiry, we may get a slightly better idea of an actual buyer. Most of the time, it is still a rather generic description of a company that happens to purchase goods or services. And, interestingly, it almost always concerns selling one step down the supply chain.

In the industry I come from – digital inkjet print production – there seems to be such a huge complexity, that it becomes quite natural to focus on very specific technical issues and selling solutions that address the needs of the next in line. There are many parties involved in the total production of an end-product. And while they speak the “same language”, meaning jargon like resolution, color definition, drop size and fastness properties to name a few, it is not that often that the practical application for a customer takes center stage.


Designers vs. Producers

Late last year, I held a presentation during a SignPro College Day, where the main topic was ‘opportunities in digital textile printing’. If there was one thing that caught the eye, it was the division of the audience: about half consisted of creative designers, while the other half belonged to the technical side of production. It was also pointed out during and after the event that, finally, these two very different groups got together and spoke about the same topic for the first time.

This division is seen a lot across the industry. Where designers speak about their creativity and not necessarily seem to have any idea what the technical implications are, most manufacturers speak about their technical USPs, without exactly knowing what happens down the line.

And yet, ultimately they all work for the same customer.


Practical example

One example is a full color printed outdoor event tent. The paying customer is a well known brand owner that wants to have its brand identity prominently visible during an outdoor event. The actual user is an event organizer that concentrates on the practical use of the event tent as one of the elements in the total design. The supplier is a specialized producer of custom printed tents that has its own proprietary technology for the combination of polyester media and water repellent coating. A printer manufacturer installed their system together with a 3rd party fixation unit to let the producer create the tent material. And last but not least, an aftermarket ink manufacturer supplied an inkset suitable for the media used. The brand owner employed a design agency for their corporate identity, while a freelance designer reworked the original files into print ready artwork.

That’s a lot of supplier/buyer relationships. And it is indeed a complex supply chain.

Asking parties involved who their customer is, resulted to most of them answering in the most direct, financial sense: “they who pay my invoice”. Which, of course, is essentially true.

However: as anyone in this industry will tell you, there is a lot of miscommunication and a lot of failure before a first tent is produced to full satisfaction of the brand owner and the event organizer. It causes invoices not being paid. And it causes frustration during the process.



Luckily, there are many examples of successful cooperation. It is certainly not all bad. Initiatives that put the application first and work backwards to tweak the workflow on a technical level have been instrumental to making it work. In the textile print competence center, we raised awareness for a best practice workflow, where manufacturers, suppliers and developers were involved to jointly combine expertise and make the components compatible.

But it is still a rather technical experience, with lots of combinations of software, hardware, chemistry, supplies and systems. And here too, the designer often has no clue what can or cannot be done during the production process, while at the same time, manufacturers may not always understand the very specific needs of the end-customer. Let alone that these two speak with each other about the do’s and don’ts in a constructive way.

Companies such as Color Passport that simplify the communication about accurate color coding, or initiatives such as the SignPro College Days, associations such as FESPA, ESMA and SGIA running conferences and workshops all help.


Customer first

The argument is now to not only look at the application from a technical perspective, but also bring into play the customer that in the end validates whether a product meets expectations. And, more importantly, decides to order a product again. The question “who is the customer?” can no longer be answered with a generic description of a market, or even pointing to the first in line of the supply chain.

The answer should include the actual person making the buying decision and being motivated to do business on a regular basis. Understanding what drives them makes it easier to come to proper solutions and work with the people within the supply chain to drive successful businesses.


Fespa Amsterdam 2016

During the seminar sessions at the 2016 FESPA Digital exhibition in Amsterdam, (March 8-11, 2016; RAI Amsterdam), Jan van der Spoel and I will further explore this topic and share insights into using the power of the persona to have companies effectively communicate brand values and stand out in a crowded, shifting market place through better quality visual communications.