Customer service has long been the key to success and growth for Bullock Professional, based in Albemarle, NC. Now digital lab systems are raising the bar for customer service even higher.
"Photographers need fast delivery times, and digital equipment lets pro labs turn orders around more quickly," says Don Bullock, who founded the company with his wife, Barbara, in 1986. "Digital equipment also lets labs continuously increase the variety of photographic products. We're limited only by our imagination, and the imagination of our customers."Owner Bullock Professional: Don Bullock founded Bullock Professional in 1986.
When the Bullocks founded the lab, their equipment consisted of little more than a printer, pen, table and pair of scissors. Today, Bullock Professional employs over 45 employees and professional photographers in 16 states regularly use the lab. Yet Bullock does little advertising and has no sales reps on staff. Its growth is driven entirely by word of mouth, electronic communications, and personal attention to their clients.
Growth by word of mouth says that Bullock gives photographers what they want, when they want it, and for a reasonable cost. Professional digital systems play a major role in every part of that equation.
Digital Lab Systems Boost Productivity
In addition to helping the lab be more responsive to customer needs, digital technology also offers substantial productivity gains, though Don Bullock has found that photographers don't always believe this. Bullock views this as an opportunity for his lab.
"Our goal is to make handling digital files as easy and fast for photographers as handling film. We tell them, 'bring us film or a digital file, it doesn't matter. We will do all the video analysis, cropping, and sizing for convenient, professional results.' Our customers really appreciate what our pro lab offers to their businesses."Kodak's HR500 scanners are utilized to scan 120, 220, & 35mm professional films in a high volume, high resolution manner. High-resolution scans are saved of every image for six months so that customers don't have to return their film for reorders.
In fact, Bullock is taking special care to make sure his customers don't think he's abandoning optical technology completely. "Many of our photographers are veteran, long-term film users who want traditional products," he explains. "We never want our film users to feel forced toward digital capture, however we make sure that each one knows about the many products and services available if we process their film, digitally."
Bullock Professional's production line begins with two Kodak Professional HR 500 film scanners with 35mm and 120mm stripgates. "It's an excellent scanner," Bullock says. "We scan all negatives at a high resolution so that if the photographer needs any size print up to 30 x 40 within the next six months, we can print it without them having to send their film back." Bullock Professional also stores all digital files sent from photographers in full size for six months so they don't have to resend CDs or upload images again for reorders.
All prints 11 inches or smaller are produced on one of the lab's three Kodak Professional Digital Multiprinter II printers and Kodak Professional Endura paper. Two printers are dedicated to prints that are 5 x 7 inches and larger; the other is used for smaller prints, including proofs. "For us, the ability to print on photographic paper was a big plus," Bullock notes. "We love the fact that all our prints are made on real, Kodak Professional Endura RA-4 photographic paper and trust its long term archival qualities." Prints from 11 inches to 30 inches are sent to a Durst Epsilon printer.
The workflow is driven by a site license of Kodak Professional DP2 software running on over 20 high-end, Dell workstations and servers networked throughout the facility. Bullock uses DP2 for everything from tracking orders in customer service to creating digital print packages. "In my opinion, this is the only software available that can completely run a professional color lab," Bullock says. "It can be adapted to any lab's needs. It's flexible; there are always different ways to accomplish tasks, depending on how you want to organize production. And it keeps improving. Sometimes we've passed along suggestions for functions that would help us save steps, and in the next version, Kodak's programmers build them in."Linda Burleson packages sample products on Kodak Professional Endura paper and ships them to all Bullock Professional clients.
The lab's digital workflow can also accept digital files on CD or uploaded through Bullock's website. The number of images uploaded through their website has doubled in the last six months. This has helped reduce incoming shipping costs, not to mention the speed at which orders can be entered into production.
For color management, Bullock runs C-41 and RA-4 control strips each day, then uses the digital printers' built-in auto calibration tools. "If the calibration is off, the printer automatically adjusts itself." All on-screen color checks are performed on color profiled, calibrated monitors. Bullock currently uses three Kodak Digital Imaging Module video analyzers and a fourth is on the way. "It's extremely important that professional labs continue to individually analyze every film or digital camera image just as we've done from film for years," Bullock explains. "After all, professional individual video analysis is what has always separated a pro lab from a minilab and it will continue to do so in the future. Professional photographers should always show their clients proper color and density in each proof and photograph, whether they realize they need it or not."
Something else Bullock praises about the digital equipment is its open, modular design. "I can integrate it with my existing equipment," he says. "I can use the same proof cutter as I use with my optical equipment. When we started digital a few years ago, I didn't have to change anything on my package cutter either." As orders are entered, Bullock says, the staff sends them to a printer queue; the DP2 software can then route the order seamlessly to the correct printer.The Order Creation Teams work side by to create, individually video analyze, print, and package photographer orders all but eliminating departmentalization.
"So much equipment that was out there wasn't designed to mix well with a lab's existing workflows," he says. "Labs looked at it and saw that they couldn't use their cutters, their packagers, their processors. But when they see the modular equipment we have, they realize they can get high quality prints without having to immediately replace all their existing hardware or work flow. As imaging equipment evolves, we continue to look forward to evaluating affordable, long-lasting equipment that improves speed and allows our people to produce more sales per hour of labor."