There are moments that unmistakably mark a new era in the human experience.

Discovering fire. The invention of xerography. Moore’s Law. Duplexing. The Six Million Dollar Man. Digital reproduction. Digital color reproduction. The fax machine. Fax servers. The Internet. The iPhone and iPad. The inexplicable use of paper in Battlestar Galactica (OK, not technically an advancement, but noteworthy regardless. Discuss).

I know what you’re asking: “Does managed print services rank among these noble advancements?”

Not so much.

MpS was white-hot just 18 months ago. No more than three years ago, you could barely find anyone who offered MpS. Today, when one Googles the term “managed print services,” 15 kabillion responses come back. It’s nuts. Worse, when comparing multiple provider websites, the commonality between MpS offerings is laughable. It’s like we all copied each other’s websites, value propositions and talk tracks. We’re all selling the same thing, and at times it looks like we all work for the same people.

Today, MpS (in North America) is:

— Ubiquitous

— Commoditized

— On the downward slope of the “buzz” cycle

Everywhere I turn, there’s another “Mc”MpS.

Managed print services is everywhere. I swear, any day now Starbucks will be offering toner cartridges with every mocha. It seems more and more dealers are joining the fray; I had no idea there were so many copier dealers!

This degree of saturation can only mean that MpS is easy to sell and support, right?


The only guarantee is that prospects are going to be sick of hearing about “uncontrolled print spend” and how “organizations will spend 1 to 3 percent of revenue generating documents.” Blah, blah, blah. It is said that misery loves company. I guess there are a lot of miserable managed print services programs out there.

This isn’t to say there are no more MpS opportunities. Even if your definition of MpS is one-to-one replacement and toner delivery and you promise lower costs, you’ve still got prospects.

Until the next iteration.

Price, price, price

Because MpS is everywhere and the definition is quite common, it is only natural to consider the service commoditized. Pricing is falling off the table. Devices are delivering smaller margins and require less attention. This happens in all sectors of the economy, and with every innovation, “bleeding edge” morphs into “leading edge,” which grows into “everyone’s gotta have it” before finally settling into “everybody has it.” Demand meets supply or supply meets demand.

As products and services reach the end of their value, watch how prices tumble, small players coagulate and bigger organizations move into adjacencies.

Fret not. The cycle is never-ending. The next commoditization is just around the corner.

Every action has an opposite and equal reaction

The “transform or die” talk around managed print services is a thing of the past. Indeed, at some OEM dealer shows, the phrase is never mentioned, heard or seen. Like ghosts in the machine, the early MpS evangelists seem relegated to legend, retirement or both.

But that was then and this is now. Managed print services is no longer the darling of the OEMs and toner suppliers, and those who chose not to get involved look like rocket surgeons, don’t they? Maybe.

As the buzz around “transformation” dies down here in North America, it is desperately apparent to some of us that the current state is not sustainable. To me, it feels like we’re in the eye of the hurricane, the other shoe is about to drop, or maybe this is just the calm before the storm.

What’s extreme today will be forgotten or vilified tomorrow. It is the way of things: Human nature strives toward a state of normalcy, of what used to be.

And now this …

Major resellers are pitching coffee service.

No. Really. I’m not kidding, nor am I joking, nor do I think it is a joke. As a matter of fact, I like this idea a lot more than the erasable copier. A move like this is no real surprise, considering HP is choking access to supplies and now pushing the “razor-blade-by-subscription” model. Coffee, water, hard drive destruction, help desk or backup disaster recovery – whatever it takes. Keep innovating.

A4 is surging. Print volume per employee is down, and the “little machines” are all the rage, meeting this lean need with an even leaner price point. But lower operating costs and thinner margins aren’t the only issues. These A4’s don’t jam. Seriously, when was the last time you heard of a laser printer or MFP jamming? Fewer misfeeds mean fewer service calls, which mean smaller teams of technicians. So could the increase in A4 actually threaten our tried-and-true service model? Time will tell.

Someday, your client will rent managed print services. Yeah, I know we’ve been renting copiers for decades and some managed print services engagements are filled with rentals. But what about a company renting multifunction devices over the Internet on agreements that include toner and service as long as the device is connected to the Internet without the “middleman?” (See HP Instant Print again.) MpS in the cloud – or as I like to call it, managed-print-services-as-a-service (MpSaaS) – is here, and rentals could be a major part of the future.

What does it all mean?

The gravity of the situation is both enormous and insidious – enormous because the issues outlined above may spell the final turn for our industry, insidious because for all the forewarning, we could awaken one day to realize everything is different and there are no benchmarks; the challenges sneak up on us.

For those of us still in the action, the ability to sustain is dependent upon our willingness to adapt to the terrain. It is a fight, and at times it seems we’re struggling against all the laws of physics – especially gravity.

We’re being drawn toward the long tail. If you envision yourself as the lone survivor – that one dealership that can stay in business longer than the others and sell copiers into the next decade – have at it. Somewhere on the planet, right this second, somebody is making buggy whips and getting a pretty good price with each sale. Maybe you’re “The One.”

For the rest of us, let’s keep moving and scanning right and left. There are so many other demand curves spinning, we just need to jump. The answers aren’t in our backyard, but they are nearby. Can you smell the coffee?

Gravity is a force that causes all matter to be attracted to all other matter – an undeniable power rarely beaten, yet often mastered. As we head out of the Quiet Year, the Year of Normalcy (2013) and into another unknown, find your adjacency and defy gravity.

Posted on 11/13/2013