In the promotional item industry selling either printed or embroidered apparel is part of the daily routine. It’s a natural course of your business to help your customers with their event t-shirts, company store merchandise, golf outing sport shirts, company picnic teamwear, or just simple brand awareness campaigns. In over twenty-five years in the business I’ve worked with some of the best . . . and some of the worst . . . promotional item sales people. I’ve got the coffee addiction and the battle scars to prove it!
So what makes one promotional salesperson a hero and the other a complete disaster? Listed below are the top five things, listed in my personal order of importance, that I believe will make your next order rise to the top of the hero status in any apparel decoration shop around. That’s where you want to be.
Complete order information on a purchase order:
This seems simple enough, however, if it was so simple we wouldn’t continue to still receive purchase orders without due dates, shipping information or even basic needs such as quantities per size or even garment color. When a purchase order is sent with all of the information needed on the order, it only takes a few moments to enter and get it into the system and scheduled. It’s easy. When anything is missing? It could take hours or even days to get what’s needed, as the inside rep has to contact you to get what’s missing. However, when we follow up you are on another call, on an airplane, at home with a sick kid, in a meeting, or on vacation. What do you think happens to your order now? What should be a simple task; is a journey of despair as we try to get everything lined up properly. Pulling our fingernails out one by one would be less painful sometimes.
What is even worse is cloned reorders that aren’t double checked for accuracy. The big problem now becomes that the old dates, original request for a sample or some other verbiage from the original order is present on the cloned order. This problem magnifies in intensity in January, when you reorder something with last year’s date in the artwork. Are you really reordering something with 2014 decorated on it? Do we update it to 2015? Shouldn’t you know what you want?
Your purchase order is basically a contract and the blueprint for success for your job. By not sending the complete, accurate and timely information to your vendor you are short circuiting the process. This can lead to a domino-effect of problems down the line for everyone. Please, please, please – fill out your purchase order completely and proof it before sending. Also, when your vendor follows up to get this information they are just trying to do their job. In no way should this be construed to be an accusation that you, your company, or your ordering system is somehow not doing their job (Although that’s probably what we are thinking.) Don’t take offense, just pay attention.
There are two types of artwork. The first is the artwork that you create and send in to be produced. The second is artwork that we’re creating for your order. Apparel vendors are happy to do both, but each has their unique set of challenges. Let’s explore:
Customer Supplied Artwork - This is the file that you are providing us to use for your order. Maybe you have your own in-house creative staff or customer file that you want to use. That’s great! Trust me, we love not having to do something and you providing the artwork will make all of our jobs easier. However, what we need are files we can use. Sending us a PowerPoint file and calling it artwork isn’t going to help push your job through faster. That 15k .jpg file you downloaded from your customer’s website when they didn’t have a logo they could share? Also not going to work. As a rule, what we need are either vector files created in Illustrator with the fonts converted to outlines, and all of the Pantone colors labeled, or high res Photoshop files at 300 dpi at the actual size you want the job produced. Always check with your decorator, but either one of these two should do the job. From there, we can make the magic happen. Also, if you are supplying the art you should know what you are sending in. If you are working with your own art team, have them create a .jpg or .pdf of the file so you can see what the art looks like. From there, you’ll know how many colors need to be reproduced on the art file. This is very handy information during the quoting phase. I can’t tell you how many times someone has sent in a file that is supposed to be three colors for example, but it’s actually six. This causes some drama as there is a price difference between producing a six color and a three color job. When we hear “Sorry I can’t requote this as I already sent my customer pricing”, that’s when we start our Yosemite Sam imitation. Raise your hand if you have said that to any vendor before. This is your fault, not your decorator’s and therefore they shouldn’t have to eat the difference.
Vendor Created Art - Top apparel decorators all have great creative teams - That’s what sets us apart from everyone else. We are very happy to help produce art files for you, and love working with you to help nail down a new client. That makes us more valuable to you. As a salesperson you should take advantage of this as your vendor may have more tricks up their sleeve on how to decorate apparel than your own in-house team. Believe it or not, we know what we are doing. To do a good job though, we’re going to need a few things to get started. First, please write a creative brief on what you need. This doesn’t have to be overly complex, but should include all the necessary details and set clear expectations on what the end result should look like. Shirt styles, colors, target demographics, number of colors and decoration locations, and price points should all be considered before we get started creating anything. “Do something cool” is not art direction. Using adjectives, examples, and some reference points to describe what you want will always help. Please send us the correct logos, verbiage and information that should to be on the art to get started.
If your customer has a brand guideline for logo usage, that is a critical component to share. Also, sometimes stating what you don’t want can help too. If you think it through, we should be able to hit a home run for you the first time out without any changes to the artwork. That should be the goal. The more organized you are with this process, the better the results.
What else do we need? Time. Being creative is hard work. Ideas don’t always just pop into your head, although another cup of coffee sometimes helps. If your big presentation is Monday, don’t call us on Friday demanding six killer concepts that will win you the job. The more time the creative team has, the better work will come out of the project. Also, if you repeatedly have the vendor’s creative team work on jobs for you but don’t send them business; don’t expect them to be there for you when you need it. You can only say “This client is going to be huge!” so many times without giving an order before you aren’t taken seriously.
Also, while lots of apparel decorator shops will happily help you with artwork for free; if you want to get to the top of the priority list please pay for the service. Or at least send a box of cookies and a thank you note.
It all comes down to money doesn’t it? In the promotional item industry everyone always expects end column pricing, but we all know that not everyone deserves it. How demanding are you on this point with your vendor? Want to get to the top of the food chain and get better pricing? Here are some things you can do to help your case:
Pay earlier - What does your accounts payable list look like with your company? Do we have to chase you constantly to resolve outstanding invoices? Has your company ever been placed on credit hold? That isn’t doing you any favors. In fact, that’s probably going to result in a price increase or different structure soon. Help yourself by pushing to pay all invoices within ten business days. Paying early can be a competitive advantage over your rivals that are constantly 60 or 90 days out. Your decorator has other companies that are vying for spots on the schedule too. Think about it this way, if I can only produce one more job today do I pick someone that takes care of business early; or someone that’s on my pain in the butt list? What would you do?
Use Fewer Vendors - The more jobs you send a company, the bigger your value to them as a customer you will ultimately become. If you routinely job out your orders to five or six apparel decorators, reduce that down to one or two. Just like you, companies pay attention to how much their customers spend with them yearly. Are they going up or down? You are sending the jobs out anyway, but increasing your worth to a company by sending more business their way could be a great way to get your jobs handled more efficiently. It’s worth a discussion with your current apparel vendors. What will happen to my pricing if I give you “x” more this year? Send bigger orders. I hate to say it, but if you can only close t-shirt deals that have a dozen shirts involved you aren’t going to get the same level of pricing or priority as the guy that sells a semi-trailer full. Most t-shirt pricing grids are based with levels that have bigger reductions with multiples of 144 pieces. Keep that in mind before you start demanding bigger discounts. Also, if you have a decent relationship with your apparel decorator they should be able to provide you with a pricing list that will help you quote any job. Get this nailed down and you can close deals faster as you won’t have to wait for your vendor to shoot you back a quote on that job. Like any promotional item you are selling, more is always better. There is always someone selling for a lower cost than you. This isn’t a big secret. The shop you are using now? There’s someone out there cheaper them them, and someone else even less expensive that them. Does that make them better? No. And sacrificing quality for price might even end up costing you more in the end. When I discuss the decorated apparel business what I talk about is Trust. I don’t sell printing or embroidery work. We sell Trust with a capital T. I talk about being able to get your order out on time and produced correctly. What’s that worth to you if you are trying to keep customers coming back for orders in the future too? Sure, pricing should be competitive, but is it worth the hassle to find someone that will print the job for a nickel less? If you had a brain tumor, would you shop around for the cheapest surgeon? Sometimes the best is worth the money, as they do things that the cheaper guy doesn’t even consider. Don’t think of decorators as a commodity, think of us as partners or members of your team. Who has your back?
Don’t be the Seagull - When it comes to pricing, there is always the “Do me a favor” sales person. I call that personality type “the Seagull”, as they fly in, crap all over you, and then fly away. Does this sound familiar? This type of person just pushes and pushes, but will be the first person to fly away and won’t really ever establish a good partnership through thick and thin. Just so you know if you think you are that person, you’ve been spotted, labeled and talked about. I'd also be willing to bet your pricing is higher than what others pay. At the end of the day, this is a relationship business. How you treat your suppliers directly affects the pricing you receive and don’t think for one minute that it doesn’t.
We don’t print or embroider on air, so this is a critical factor in the process. I don’t know how many different styles, colors and combinations there are out there to decorate. It’s jaw dropping to even consider. You’ve been to trade shows, or have the seventy-five pounds of catalogs on your shelf behind your desk. We get asked to decorate all kinds of stuff constantly. However, while the apparel cut, fabric, texture, color and overall style of the garment may differ from piece to piece…the methodology in how we decorate these doesn’t differ much. We all screen-print, digitally print, or embroider them just about the same way.
Here are some thoughts to consider:
Dye Lots - As your decorator, we are not in control of these. Why don’t the size mediums match the same color as the smalls, larges, and x-larges? We don’t know. Also we may or may not have noticed. During the production process we don’t inspect every single shirt, and we certainly don’t usually compare them to another size to see if the color matches. Dye lot issues pop up usually with company store or catalog programs where one thing can be compared to another fairly easily. Sometimes with weeks or months between production runs. I see this happening more often with garments manufactured in Asia and usually with polyester content. Garment dyed or vintage t-shirts may have some challenges as well. Also, one common thing that I’ve seen recently is the sleeve material is slightly different than the body of the shirt material. This can be a completely different fabric, color and texture and will sometimes affect the print. Please be patient with your decorator, as the challenge doesn’t originate with them but with the manufacturer of the item.
Jackets & Hoodies - These are always fun and profitable items to decorate, but some shops may have trouble with them. There is a reason that these cost a little more to decorate as they take more time and effort to do correctly. Whether we are embroidering these or printing these, they are going to take longer to produce. This is why they cost more. Your decorator should be able to handle just about any item on the market, so if you are getting push back on something it might be time to explore other shops with a larger skill set.
Ordering & Receiving - As a contract decorator, we receive hundreds of boxes a day for promotional item company orders. Almost all of the goods we receive don’t have any issues, but occasionally there are some that crop up. One of the most common is the fact that we’ll get the inventory on our dock before a purchase order has even been sent in to be entered to create the order. This creates a challenge as we can’t receive the items, and we don’t know if we have everything for the order correctly as there’s nothing to compare to in our system. When this happens, we may or may not know it is for a particular client. Furthermore, the receiving issues could be compounded by the fact that your goods are coming in from multiple warehouses from different parts of the country. If you are ordering your own merchandise, you need to take this into consideration when planning your ship dates. Have good communication with your purchasing department so you can be aware of these challenges, as most of the time your decorator won’t start production on your order until all the goods are checked in and received. Nobody wants to set a job up twice. If you are ordering your own goods for your jobs, send the tracking information to your decorator so they can check when everything will be delivered. As a rule of thumb, most shops want all goods delivered the day before the job is to start production as a minimum guideline. Getting shirts the same day they are going to be run is asking for problems with the job.
When Things Go Wrong:
Everyone makes mistakes. How we deal with them and make them right is what separates us from the hobbyists and turns us into professionals. Over any length of time in a business relationship something is going to happen. You forgot to order the youth shirts for an event, something got misprinted or a hole was cut in a jacket during embroidery trimming, or maybe UPS lost the package. Stuff happens. If all parties involved just work to resolve the situation calmly things will usually work out for the best. We think long-term. Most shops want you as a customer five years from now, and if they have a clue, will work to resolve the challenge regardless of how it happened. Sometimes everyone has to give, other times one party needs to take ownership. What should happen though are good calm communication about the challenge, some compassion, and the ability to think clearly about the situation. Profanity, finger pointing, threats, and crazy demands won’t solve the problem any faster.
Discussing this further, here’s a list of what you should expect from your apparel decorator for orders:
1) An order acknowledgement and art approval should be sent to you to verify that everything about the order is exactly what you want - It’s your job to proof these when they are sent. Things are much easier to correct at this stage than when your customer gets their order delivered and something is wrong. Please open them and review them thoroughly every time. Not approving art is the number one reason why jobs are delayed.
2) Ink and thread colors should be specified and matched - Don’t state you want Royal Blue, instead specify PMS 286 or Madeira 1166 instead. This communication helps everyone with clear expectations on what is supposed to be used for the order. Also, when you specify the colors the expectation is that we use what is listed. Everything should match, regardless of the shirt color or underbase. If you decorator doesn’t have that skill set, find one that does.
3) Image locations on shirts - Some people get very wrapped up in the placement of images during production. The industry standard is that the decoration can be about a half inch left or right both horizontally and vertically and about two to five degrees at an angle at most. Placing the garment on our machines is a by-hand process, and our staff members are great at it…you would be too if that’s all you did all day, but there is some tolerance with placement.
However, any challenges may not be the loader’s fault. There are some things to consider when discussing these issues. The first is that not all shirts are created perfectly. The neck holes aren’t centered, pockets aren’t sewn straight (especially with hoodies), and the weave and the weft of the fabric may be twisted instead of straight (a common problem with garment dyed t-shirts). This can affect how the machine operator loads the shirt onto the equipment. Usually these problems are magnified with garment sizes that are extreme; extra-small or anything over XXL for example. The entire production run may not be affected, just these sizes, so inspect everything on the order.
4) Misprints or defects - The industry standard for misprints is usually 2% of the order per location. So for a 100 piece order, decorated front and back, the misprint allowance would be four. If an order has to be shipped 100% complete you should discuss with the shop what should happen if something happens. Should the job wait until replacements are ordered? Should the bulk of the job be shipped and the misprints shipped on a different day? Will inventory be ordered to account for any misprints? Can they be decorated, or should they be shipped back if not used? There are a lot of possibilities here, and most shops just want to know how you want it handled. Some may have a policy already.
5) Ship dates - Most jobs will ship on time, but sometimes due to the time of the year some shops can get behind. This is not unusual. It’s always a good idea to discuss with your decorator if the job is for an event or if there’s any critical information that’s needed regarding the shipping when the order is placed. This sets the expectation from the beginning that the order needs to be completed by a certain date, so it can ship and arrive at your customer as requested. Your decorator should keep you abreast on all the jobs on the schedule, and if everything is going according to plan. If there are art or inventory challenges with an order, this can throw the schedule off sometimes, so be sure to discuss this and push the job out accordingly. Also, if you have a job on the schedule and a new order crops up that is a rush, it’s great if you can let your decorator know that they can move one job out on the schedule to help another one make the ship date. This type of horse-trading goes a long way to establish a good rapport with your decorator, and isn’t overlooked.
Breaking all of this information down to wrap up, the top things you can do to build a better relationship with your apparel decorator really just boils down to a few things. Communication, clear expectations, professionalism, and a dose of empathy sprinkled on top. Our number one goal is always for you to succeed. Any decorator wants more business, and the better product they can deliver will make the salesperson’s job easier the next time.