BizTech Solutions for Growth: Meeting Amazon Expectations While Creating a Personal Customer Experience
In 1991, Bob Chanson and Bruce Vorel left their lucrative sales positions at the top forms company in the Midwest to go it alone. The two entrepreneurs purchased a small print shop in Rockford, Ill., which sold business cards, forms and other paper products. The internet was barely a thing, and the printing industry consisted of everything paper—remember white, pink and yellow copies?
The basement of the small storefront housed two screen-printing machines that accounted for only 10 percent of sales. Customers walked in to order their printing needs, and the few sales reps at the time called on local clients. User experience was personal and hands-on. If a client needed something, they picked up the phone or stopped by. Cold-calling ruled the printing and sales industry, and departments each handled their specialized jobs. Integration and efficiency consisted of getting the product made and delivered as quickly and affordably as possible.
Today, that company, Meridian, is listed at No. 10 on this very site's 2019 Fastest-Growing Distributors list, with nearly 44 percent promotional products sales growth in the last year. In fact, Meridian has seen double-digit growth every year for the past five years. Until seven years ago, Meridian didn’t even offer wide-format or many of the digital offerings it has today.
How did a company that began offering print services—mainly paper products in the pre-internet era—grow to become a leading branding solutions company in today’s modern, tech-filled, Amazon-driven society? The original $300,000 print shop is now a $26 million marketing solutions company, and with a new, state-of-the-art facility under construction, it show no signs of slowing down. We’re committed to continued evolution and growth alongside our customers.
“Eighty percent of products from 20 years ago no longer exist,” Bob Chanson, co-founder and president, says. The company had no choice but to evolve with the print and promo industry or go out of business.
As head of business development for Meridian, I attribute our growth to staying on top of technology, learning and adopting new systems and processes, and taking advantage of all BizTech has to offer, such as custom integrations and new software. Technology has not only affected digital product offerings, but also the processes by which companies do business. For example, adding apparel and promo solutions has allowed Meridian to capitalize on existing clients, discover what new products and systems can benefit them, and making sure to deliver those products and experiences as efficiently as possible to clients. Our mission? To use integrated BizTech solutions in order to create the best user experience within the print and promo space.
From determining what products and solutions customers need, to creating a user-friendly shopping and ordering experience, to providing custom, on-demand fulfillment, we aim to exceed customer expectations and to match an Amazon-like user experience. To accomplish this, one of our strategies has been to invest in technology on the back end, which makes the distribution and fulfillment processes easier and more collaborative for our teams and employees. Now that we’ve expanded our product offerings to include print, promo, branded solutions and wide format, one successful integration system has been to create collaborative teams, aligned with SMEs (subject matter experts) within the Meridian corporation, that allow different departments to work together on one project. This system streamlines the experience for the customer while still maintaining expertise and stability within an individual department.
Despite being a much smaller company, we take guidance from giants like Apple and Amazon, companies that provide on-demand, high-quality products and services. We believe distributors of any size can meet today’s highly immediate customer expectations by implementing and matching the experience customers get when they buy from larger companies like Amazon. By leaning on the industry, attending print and promo trade shows, and learning about new software, apps and systems, there are affordable options for any company to make use of today’s new technology for doing business.
After having the same ERP (enterprise resource planning) system in place for the last 10 years, we’re excited to roll out a new ERP in the next six to 12 months. The new integrated management system will provide conveniences like auto-tracking on orders, customer portals for purchasing and designing, auto-proofing, auto-quoting and other custom experiences for the customer.
We didn’t even add branded merchandise or wide-format promo options until about seven years ago, but since adding, the department has seen double-digit growth every single year. When adding new products, we start by asking and listening to existing customers. They determine where clients could benefit from adding wide format and promo products to their businesses. How can we help customers grow? Bob Chanson calls it a snowball effect—create business solutions for other companies, so they can grow and create more business for other businesses.
Small distributors can grow sales by upselling to existing clients to determine what they need in order to grow. What products and solutions can a distributor offer that will integrate all their printing needs to make for a better customer experience?
In addition to investing in custom software platforms, we just broke ground on a brand new, 60,000 square foot facility that will house four regional locations into one. The new building will make the Meridian employee experience more collaborative, integrated and efficient. Teams can collaborate under one roof, and customers can experience the full range of products and services Meridian has to offer. In the end, this will result in customers having a better experience and lead to more collaborative growth and partnerships with their own clients.
Like the original storefront location, customers will be able to walk into Meridian’s state-of-the-art showroom and see firsthand our products, technology and services. As much as companies like Amazon have mastered user experience in customization and delivery, people today also crave something personal and face-to-face. People want to feel heard, taken care of, and human. The new facility will allow us to get to know our clients, demonstrate new technology in manufacturing, and show in-person products and services. Any way we can provide a personal, interactive experience, will set us apart from the giants. As much as there is a lot to learn and glean from large corporations like Amazon and their models, Meridian started as a family-owned company, and we want to continue creating memorable, personal customer experiences within our local—but quickly expanding—community.
Jake Chanson grew up watching his father and business partner grow their print distributorship in the early ’90s. This inspired him to gain outside experience. After college and a move to Portland, Ore., he landed a job managing a wide-format supply and distributorship for seven years. His time in the print industry turned into an obvious love affair, and moving back home to bring his knowledge and expertise to Meridian seemed like the perfect fit. Over the last five years, he has successfully grown the wide-format department at Meridian into a multi-million-dollar revenue stream. He then turned his focus to business development for all Meridian departments, including promo sourcing, software/technology advancement and ownership of Meridian’s latest mission: creating the best possible customer experience. Jake has won several PEAK Awards for Print/Promo Excellence as well as multiple ADDY Awards for Print and Promo Design/Fabrication/Execution.