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Monday, October 20, 2003

When Max Johnson put in his order to prepare a mass mailing for his travel company, the print shop did more than get the font right.

Rather than just taking the order and collecting another customer payment, the printer made an assessment of what was going to be entailed for the fellow Winnipeg small-business owner.

"They saw that the way we had asked to get it done, we would reach the next weight level at the post office by 10 grams," says Johnson, head of the Great Canadian Travel Co. "It made no difference to the cost of the printing bill, but it probably saved us as much as $12,000."

It's a modest but resonant example of how small businesses can get far more than just a generic transaction in products and services when they deal with their retail suppliers. Many of the latter, of course, are small businesses themselves, similarly dependent on the knowledge of their own suppliers.

As a travel agent in a new era of Internet bookings that would otherwise eliminate his livelihood, Johnson understands that dynamic intimately.

"I could order anything on-line, but I don't know the difference between 80-pound offset and 40-pound web," he remarks. "That's what's missing in the binary world of the computer."

Certainly it was missing for the commercial client Johnson had who was flying specialty diamond cutters from Armenia to Yellowknife.

"They were doing it on-line," Johnson recounts. "But you should see what happens to the cost if you have the audacity to want to go to one of the places not served with nonstop service by one of the major airlines. We are now saving them many thousands of dollars a year."

The argument can be made that every possible jot of information exists somewhere without charge in the current electronic universe. But try finding and assembling the ones relevant to making a decision such as configuring the computer network for your startup.

"You take customers through the ramifications of each of their options," observes Sara Meurling, general manager of Carbon Computing, a Macintosh-focused sales and service retailer in Toronto.

"What level of scanner do you need?" she continues. "Do you need a scanner at all? Or many people come in and ask for an ink-jet printer and don't know that the cost of refills can become astronomical very quickly."

While Carbon might appear to have a ready advantage in just selling anything customers ask for and then some, the shop does not use commissions among its sales people and gently reprimands new staff who might initially be inclined to beef up a purchase.

"If we catch them box pushing, as we call it, we will pull them to one side," Meurling says.

Like Johnson in Winnipeg, Meurling understands that Carbon customers can order products over the Internet. But as with printing orders and travel bookings, computer parts and service are something her small-business customers will need many times over many years. Getting them the best possible fit for their needs in the most cost-efficient way is the win-win dynamic that small-business customers and suppliers always need to seek.

"It's like having a good mechanic or a good barber," Meurling says. "You want to know that you can trust the people you are buying from."

Some big-time suppliers are getting that message as well. When Greg Ardagh of Ardagh Financial Inc. in Ajax, Ont., needed to network the three computer terminals in his office, he didn't want to spend money for a consultant, but he also knew he wasn't sure of how to accomplish it.

Cutting to the chase came through a local Staples Business Depot outlet that was already his choice for a host of office supplies.

"When they brought over the equipment, their person was here a good half-day or more," Ardagh notes.

"Everything they recommended worked out perfectly."

That was an experience that occurred by company design, says Steve Matyas, Staples president in Toronto.

"One of the things we pride ourselves on is ensuring that our staff is trying to understand customer needs, that they're in a solutions-buying mode," Matyas says.

"They really want help when they're first starting out."

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