Connecting with your customers – I hear it a lot these days. Manufacturers, resellers – in fact anyone with something to sell – are all collectively clambering to use social media to 'engage in meaningful dialogue with the customer.'
Forget social media and whatever merits it may or may not have in the B2B arena. AGFA Graphics has just shown me the correct way to connect with a customer in the real world.
I'm talking about the VIP trip that AGFA Graphics regularly runs from the UK to its European HQ in Antwerp, Belgium. I was invited along as an observer of sorts, to provide some impartial feedback, and of course to share my experience with the LFR readership.
The premise of this trip is to allow potential buyers of AGFA Graphics wide format print equipment to visit the AGFA factory, get an insight into AGFA as a company, and to get up close and personal with an array of the latest AGFA print production systems.
In the process of achieving the above, potential customers will be wined and dined in the posh seats on Eurostar, stay overnight in a quality Antwerp hotel, eat in a Michelin starred restaurant – all at AGFA's expense, I should add – and be offered access to more AGFA Graphics experts than you could shake a stick at. All of this in the company of other graphics business owners that, just like you, are considering the next moves needed to take their business forwards.
As a method of connecting with your customers, delivering a positive customer experience and getting the most pertinent product information across in a relaxed yet effective manner, it was a complete success.
Let's rewind briefly to my perception of AGFA Graphics prior to my visit. In truth it was not entirely positive. Historically speaking, I always thought of the AGFA wide format offering as being little more than a badge-engineering exercise.
There is some substance to that viewpoint; the original AGFA Grand Sherpa solvent printers were made by Mutoh, the first Anapurna flatbeds were made by Dilli, and more recently AGFA acquired Gandi and rebadged the Jeti.
However, it is important to note that there is much more substance to AGFA these days. The company now owns a majority share in Dilli, and all machines from that factory are now built to AGFA specifications based on significant AGFA R&D investment.
Similarly, the AGFA Jeti machines of today have little in common with the machines inherited from Gandi. They have been completely revamped with only the chassis surviving a major overhaul and upgrade of the printing engines.
As for the Grand Sherpa legacy – well, AGFA doesn't even play in that sector of the market now. Today, the company purely focuses on UV ink systems and only operates in the mid to high-end product range. There is no AGFA product offering in the commodity roll-to-roll solvent market where the likes of Roland and Mimaki dominate.
Getting back to the trip itself, the agenda is a simple one: prospective buyers from the UK are signed up to an all-expenses trip to the AGFA Graphics factory, they get to see all of the current products in action, get unbridled access to AGFA technical staff and are given a series of highly informative presentations about the market, its products and the solutions available.
On this particular trip, I found myself travelling in the company of 16 people: 13 from some of the UK's leading wide format printing operations supported by three AGFA staff that ensured everyone got what they wanted from the trip.
Day one was spent travelling in style to our impressive overnight accommodation.
Day two saw us all making an early start and boarding a coach for the 10-minute trip from the hotel to AGFA HQ. The day was then split between hands-on demonstrations in the AGFA showroom and an afternoon of presentations with Q&A sessions.
Undoubtedly, the AGFA showroom in Antwerp is a wide format tour de force comprising multiple Anapurna and Jeti printers, the new M3200RTR roll-to-roll printer, the new Ardeco fabric printer, finishing equipment and a comprehensive software demo suite. All equipment was attended throughout by AGFA technical staff who were there to answer questions, run customer jobs and otherwise provide all necessary product and application information.
The product demonstrations were followed by a delicious lunch after which we all assembled for a series of short but informative presentations prior to setting off for home.
I found the information that was provided to be honest, as impartial as it could be, and free of any kind of sales pressure. You leave AGFA very well informed.
The journey back to the UK was also beneficial as the assembled graphics professionals compared notes on what they'd seen. To me, this was invaluable. After all, when was the last time you sat down with a baker's dozen of like-minded professionals all running successful wide format print operations?
On the way back to the UK, I took the time to talk to the other attendees. All of them agreed that they were leaving with a sense that AGFA Graphics has an impressive portfolio of products that meets or exceeds the standards set by comparable products available within the marketplace.
In more general terms, all agreed that the trip was a very positive experience, with AGFA providing first-class hospitality throughout. In a wired world of increasing social media hysteria, AGFA proved that good old-fashioned face-to-face customer care is still the right way to build relationships and do business.
So on reflection, AGFA badge-engineering has for the most part been replaced with AGFA manufacturing. Lessons were undoubtedly learned along the way, and from all evidence I have seen, AGFA is now positioned to confirm its position as one of our industry's key manufacturers.
You'd dismiss them lightly at your peril. AGFA is not a company used to finishing second. In a number of other key market sectors, AGFA enjoys a dominant number one position, and I got the distinct impression that AGFA is now taking the wide format market very seriously indeed. As well as taking over the manufacturing of all of its key hardware products, the company is now producing its own ink, developing its own software – based on an already dominant platform – with a range of AGFA-manufactured media in the imminent pipeline. AGFA is certainly one to watch in the wide format space.