Measure Twice, Cut Once

measure-twice-cut-once

There are occasions during the workday when you need to deploy critical communication skills.  What you say and how you say it can be the difference between resolving a potential problem, and kicking up to the next level in disaster.

Last week I spoke to a shop owner that completed a rush contract screen-printing order.  It was a simulated process, two location job for a repeat customer.  They do work for them constantly, and this particular job had to go out in a hurry.  The client’s artist sent them the art, with each of the colors for the files already separated.

Because of the rush, and the fact that the client sent separated art, the shop neglected to send an art approval confirming the image.  The art department didn’t think to verify the separations matched the provided mock up.  The problem the shop faced was that an item in the design separations was the wrong color.  Nobody caught the mistake until it was out the door and already on an UPS truck.  Ut oh.

So what do you do now, my client asked?

In my view you have to get ahead of this problem.  There wasn’t anything wrong with the technical aspects of the print.  It shipped out on time, with the same fantastic print quality that the shop always produces.  The initial issue was that they skipped their own internal review steps in order to “save time.”  They just assumed it was ok because someone else did the work.

As professionals, this is our mistake when we let that happen.  I’m sure plenty of shops would just say to keep quiet, or sweep the circumstance under the rug.  After all, the customer provided the sep’d art files.  What’s the big deal?

My take however, is that the shop should have known better.  There were several chances along the way to catch the mistake.  In the art department, as the seps obviously didn’t match the mock up.  On the production floor, as they should have reviewed the mock up to the first strike off for manager approval.  And even on the catchers table, as the mock up was available to review as the shirts were rolling down the dryer belt.

This is why the shop has to own up to the mistake and let the customer know.  Sending an email or calling them with a “Please let me know your thoughts” type conversation builds trust.  It’s the honest and professional way to handle the situation.

It’s always difficult to say you made a mistake.  Those words never taste good.  But trust me, these problems get noticed sooner or later.  Especially with orders like this one that are destined to become repeat orders for a program.

Also, I like the “Please let me know your thoughts” sentence as it isn’t introducing to the customer anything about a reprint, a discount or any financial band-aid.  Maybe the art was changed and the printer wasn’t in on the loop.  Maybe it isn’t a big deal.  Maybe their world will come to an end and their head will explode like in the movie Scanners.  Ka-plow!

But when you use the phrase “Please let me know your thoughts”, you are placing the question at the feet of the customer to decide how important the problem is to them.  How much responsibility are they going to take?  Is it a minor inconvenience or a major disaster?  The client will decide if they need any sort of concession or reprint.  Then you can negotiate what makes sense to your shop.  Don’t just immediately go to “We’ll give you 50% off the order for the mistake.”

As it turned out, my client took my advice and used the magic phrase.  In this case, the customer actually sold out of the shirt quickly and already placed a reorder.  No discount was needed or given, and the client took full responsibility for the challenge.  Some trust was earned with the heads up alert.  Everyone vowed to be more careful in the future.  No harm, no foul.

They dodged a bullet though.

Bonus Discussion:

Stick to your guns for procedures when you are rushed.  Yes, it may be quicker to skip a step because you don’t have time.  However, what would happen if that order listed above would have had to be reprinted with the correct color scheme?  What if it was for an event?  Time can be your enemy too.  That’s when the cost of correction multiplies quickly.

Doing something twice is never faster.  Slow down.

  • When taking the order, know exactly what the customer expects and clearly communicate that on all work order instructions.  Yes, it’s your job in customer service or sales to be an art expert.  This industry deals with images.  Know how many colors it takes to do the job.  Ask for help or training.  Learn the industry vocabulary.
  • The art department needed to review the mock up against the separated file and double check it matched.  If you are provided art files, it’s your job to preflight them and make sure they will work as intended.  Let’s face it, we work in a specialized industry.  Choking an underbase plate in screen-printing or tweaking a digitized embroidery file for performance garments so they won’t pucker is an art unto itself.  Your job is to make what the client hands you work for the production in your shop.
  • While an art approval may not have prevented this problem, as the challenge was in the separated file, the shop could have sent one off.  Usually this step ferrets out challenges as the creative team would may have been more attentive.  By the way, for rush art approvals use action language such as “Your job is slated to print tomorrow, please approve this file by 2:30 today so we can burn the screens and your order can ship on time.”
  • They could also have sent a digital pic of the first shirt printed.  Especially with simulated process work, what the artist designs, and what is pulled off the press may be different.  Not everyone has great separation skills.  If something looks odd, is critical, or is a high-dollar print run, getting another set of eyeballs on the print can be a good thing.  Know your production schedule and let the client know that they will be receiving a digital picture at 10:30 am or whatever.  Be ready.  Get good lighting and snap a photo.  Zero in on key areas that maybe are a concern.
  • The production manager could have compared the shirt to the customer provided mock up.  Step one in starting any production needs to be quality.  Have a quality control review.  Check for print quality, registration, image location, “is it straight?”, moiré patterns in halftones, or any other challenges.  This is your last chance to catch spelling errors.  Absolutely compare the print to the art approval or a mock up.  I like to use my finger and just go one item at a time back and forth.  This to this.  That to that.  Make sure you break out that PMS book and check color hues too.  If anything is off, fix it.

Remember the old carpenter rule: “Measure twice, cut once.”

That adage applies to our industry too.  Double check.  In order entry.  With the artwork.  With the screens or digitizing.  With the registration.  With production quality.  With color matching.  With the shipping address and labels.

Sometimes another review on something prevents your shop from having a difficult conversation later.

Got a similar example?

“Please let me know your thoughts on this.”

.

“You can’t fix stupid.” – Ron White

“Change is the end result of all true learning.” – Leo Buscaglia

“If you don’t like how things are, change it!  You’re not a tree.” – Jim Rohn

The No BS Rule

the-no-bs-rule

Want to make your shop better?  Run with more efficiency?  Bigger profits at the end of the day?  Here is one place you can start.  It’s a simple rule and it applies to just about everything:

No bullshit.

Sorry if that is offensive language to you.  But I think it is an appropriate business term in our industry context.  It sums the collective need to simplify things to push for the greater good.  Listed below are six key areas of your business where the NO BS rule could have a tremendous impact.  Feel free to add yours in the comments section!

Staffing

Your business isn’t just a line-up of computers, machines and other gizmos.  It’s made up essentially by the people you employ.  Yet shops all across the land often fail in this most important aspect of their business.  They hire the wrong people.  They don’t push clear expectations.  There isn’t any accountability.  They put off employee reviews and difficult conversations.

When it comes down to it, it usually is a leadership challenge.  Create a BS Free Zone with how you handle your people.

When you think about your employees or your co-workers does anyone seem extremely out of place or over their head?  Get them the help they need or go in another direction in terms of their employment.  They don’t “have to” be your employees.  That deadweight that’s holding you back can be someone else’s problem.  Especially if they have a litany of challenges in their personnel folder.

It should be easy to work in your shop.  Clearly defined rules.  Crystal clear expectations.  Accountability.  Trust.  Humor.  Training.  Teamwork.  Empathy and understanding.  Effort.  Reliability.  Honesty.  Respect.  Even fun.

Shops that have this practically run themselves.  Shops that don’t look chaotic.  Lots of turnover.  Dysfunction.  Finger pointing and blaming.  Mistrust.  Basically the opposite of the paragraph above.

If you have ever lamented, “We just can’t find good help!”, often the answer to the challenge starts with the top.  Is that you?  Look at your own BS and see if you need to change something.

This also may mean that your staff just can’t do what they want.  If you have established procedures, policies or rules, then those are the guidelines everyone must follow.  If the rules don’t work, by all means change them…but if they are useful and pertinent; then that’s the direction your shop train is traveling.

Either employees are on board, or they need to get off at the next station.  That’s No BS.

Craftsmanship

This is crucial.  Either you have quality or you don’t.  What do you allow to ship?

The No BS rule here would be to clearly define that line.  It is binary.

Can you match a PMS color?  Can you print or sew in the correct location?  Are the garments folded neatly?  Is the quality of the decoration perfect? When you put a sticker or shipping packing slip on a box, is it on straight or just slapped on crooked?  Details matter.

If your team has any sort of craftsmanship challenges, what are you doing about it?  It’s the question for the ages.

Craftsmanship counts.

  • Does your shop think craftsmanship is just what happens in production?  What about in sales or customer service?  How is that mentality driven home in the work they do?  The quality of their work affects so many people downstream.  When was the last time you had an in-depth review of how orders or information are being used?
  • How many customers are lost every year because someone didn’t update the shipping information and the order missed the event?  Maybe the info was right, but the shipping label was printed incorrectly.  
  • How many shops get new business because of dye migration or an under-cured print?
  • How many catalog programs are lost each year because your team can’t do an inventory count?  
  • Take a close look at your art team.  How many jobs have to stop from the production floor because something wasn’t digitized properly or separated correctly for printing?  If a job on press has to wait so an artist can make a new screen because they don’t like how something prints, that’s a huge problem.
  • What happens if that round art is stretched on the shirt because of too much tack?  Are you shipping egg shaped prints?  Is the last person to see the garments before they go into a box reviewing for quality?  Or are you just stuffing them in without a care in the world?
  • Can your team load a shirt straight?  How many customers complain about crooked or off-center results?  This seems like such a basic skill, but you’d be surprised that it is the most common problem out there.

Your shop is the totality of the mistakes you make.  You can print 99 orders right, but the only one the customer is going to remember is that one that “got away”.  Plenty of shops get new customers all the time because “my old shop screwed up my order”.  Have any of your new customers told you that?

Customers have very little memory of past successes.

The NO BS rule changes that.  Don’t accept mediocrity.  Learn how to do it right.  Buy the right equipment.  Use it properly.  Train your employees.  Have good work instructions that clearly define the order expectations.  Insist on excellence in every step.  All the time.

  • Screen-printing: Load the shirt straight, use the correct ink, printed through the right mesh, on tight screens, with the right off contact, with the proper squeegee durometer, at the correct angle, pressure and speed, on a leveled press.  Watch your flash dwell times and heat build-up.  Remove the shirts from the press without distorting the image.  Cure at the right temperature for the ink.  
  • Embroidery: Hoop it straight, use the correct thread, with the right bobbin tension, sewn with the correct needle size, at the right speed.  Trim neatly without cutting a hole in the shirt.  Steam out the hoop marks.
  • Digital Printing: Load the shirt straight, use the right amount of pretreatment, with the correct print settings.  Cure with the right temperature and time.
  • Heat Press:  Read the instructions for time, temperature and pressure for each type of material used.  Place the image on straight.  Hot peel and cold peel mean different things.  Select your settings accordingly.

Do you cram mistakes in the middle of the shirt pile and hope your customer won’t find them?  Do you argue to your wit’s end that your color match is “close”?  Are you the master at inventing excuses?  That’s all BS and you know it.

Stop sweeping your mistakes under the rug and hoping nobody will notice.  They do.

Craftsmanship isn’t about doing just enough to get by.  Craftsmanship is all about creating the environment in your shop that pushes the limits of what is the best in the industry.  Vince Lombardi has a great quote that applies to this:

“Perfection is not attainable, but if we chase perfection we can catch excellence.”

What level of craftsmanship do you think you have in your shop?  Are you working on this every day?

This is shop-wide…not just in production.  What are you chasing?  Name your top three weakest areas.  Start there.  That’s no BS.

Lean

From an operational standpoint how efficient is your shop?  In manufacturing, lean thinking is all about eliminating waste.  Wasted steps and motion are targeted.  A hypothesis is developed for the change.  It’s tested.  Implemented, and then constantly tweaked.

Are you on a continuous improvement journey?

Apply a No BS rule to your operational efficiency.  Take a long, hard look at the internal processes in your shop.  Just in how things are routed, organized and handled.  What sticks out?  Look for your bottlenecks.  Talk to your staff.  What are their biggest problems?

Within each task that has to be accomplished, you might go from A to B to C to D to E to F.   Map it out. Gather your team together and examine the process.  What do you need to eliminate a step or two?  Do you do something in your shop just because “that’s the way it’s always been done”?

There may be a better way.  Think about these things in your shop that are slowing you down:

  • Does each workgroup have all the tools they need?  Does a printer have to go and search for a PMS book to review the ink match?  Does a catcher have to go hunt down a tape gun just to close a box?  What if each workgroup had a complete set of everything needed so nobody had to share?  Don’t step over a dollar to save a dime.  The expense of buying something can be little compared the every day labor you are spending in doing without.
  • How can technology impact your shop?  Can you use automation to send out art approvals?  Coat screens consistently?  Import order information?  Handle communication?  Schedule jobs?  Gather information?
  • Preventative maintenance for your equipment.  Do you have machines that are down?  How often is your equipment maintained?  You are only making money when your machines are running.  Downtime = Zero Cash Flow.  Sadly, even though shops spend a boatload of money on the equipment for the shops, very few of them even read the owners manuals.  It’s just work, work, work, work until the machine breaks.  Then, it’s the equipment’s fault.  Take care of the things that matter.  Yes, that means you.
  • Using the wrong information to make decisions?  How is information communicated in your shop?  
    • In receiving, do they know what goods are coming in so they can check against the packing list?  This is for everything that is coming in the door. 
    • In the art department, do you have design changes due to lack of information or good instructions?  Sales teams or CSR’s often give sparse info and just leave it to the art team to figure it out.  What type of time suck do you think that creates?
    • In the screen room, are the mesh counts assigned to colors for the job by the art department?  They should.  When the art team has screen mesh count knowledge they can make better decisions with the technical end of creativity.  If your team doesn’t have this, get them the training.  A simple guideline is a place to start.
    • In production, are the job details for ink, thread, placement, shirt color, quantity by size, and any other details listed on the order instructions?  Does anyone have to stop and ask what to do for the job prior to setting it up?
    • Are shipping details perfect so orders can go smoothly through the system and out the door?  What if something changes during the production run?  How does your shop ensure that the job will ship correctly?

The goal of lean in your shop is to establish standards for work to eliminate any waste.  What BS is the way?  Old rules?  Junk nobody uses?  Barely functional equipment?  Spend-thrift decisions about supplies?  Personnel issues?  Clutter everywhere?

Get past that and work towards freeing up time and effort by culling out the problems that don’t work to increase operational efficiency.  Some of this effort will be easy.  Some of it may require a difficult conversation.

Compromise

For a lot of things a compromise will be reached to satisfy many different concerns or a group of people.  A new vacation policy for example.  Compromise in this context is great and truly needed.

Where the No BS rule comes into play for compromise is in bigger picture ideas.  Your company’s Vision Statement.  Core Values.  Purpose.

When you think about your shop are you doing what you set out to do?  For a lot of companies they work for a few years and realize that they left a lot of the “why” they got into the business at the feet of getting another order.

  • What is the Vision Statement for your company?  Do you even have one?  Have you ever described the overall macro view of your company to your employees?  What do they think your company should be doing?
  • What are the Core Values of your company?  Can you list them?  Do you have them written on a plaque on the wall, or posted on your website?
  • What is the Purpose of your company?  Your main mission is to what?  

There is a reason I’m asking.  I’ve had plenty of in-depth conversations with shop owners about their businesses.  For many, their core beliefs and ideals that they founded the company with aren’t present in their daily view.  They’ve sacrificed and ignored some of their principles.  Now, years later they are mystified about how they are running their own businesses.

It’s heavy.

Here’s the NO BS rule though.  You have to paint the picture about these important things everyday in order for them to be present.  What is your Vision?  What are your Core Values?  What is the Purpose of your company?

If you want your team to follow these maxims and use them to guide their actions and business decisions you have to talk about them constantly.  They just can’t be on a plaque on the wall or posted on your website.

They need to be in the heart, lungs and breath of your company.  Your leadership must instill these in the actions they choose to take every day.  You need to acknowledge or even reward staff members who demonstrate that they “get it”.  Conversely, you need to eliminate those that don’t.

There shouldn’t be any compromise on this big picture, and crucial ideals.  That’s No BS.

Creativity & Learning

What separates the wheat from the chaff in this industry?  It’s simple.  The masters of our craft are constantly learning and pushing the envelope with their creativity.  The best shops all pressure themselves to get better.

In everything.

What have you done this week to learn something new?  Are you asking your staff to experiment with anything?  Do you:

  • Constantly scour industry trade magazine for tips and ideas?  Then, you try out something or use what’s written to develop your own take on the subject matter.  You are steering your own boat in the sea of knowledge.
  • Fail?  By fail, I mean try to do something and not worry about if it succeeds or not.  Have you given your staff permission to try new things and not worry about the outcome?  Part of the journey of learning is to try.  Nobody learns to ride a bike, ice skate or cook French food without disastrous first attempts.  They same can be said of puff-embroidery, using foil, four color process printing, or maybe some type of multi-media effort.  Be fearless.
  • Celebrate learning?  Do you talk about big ideas?  Discuss that book that someone just read?  Pass around the latest TEDtalk?  Listen to podcasts instead of music?  Subscribe to blogs (hey, like this one!) or newsfeeds?  If your team isn’t searching for new inputs, don’t be surprised when everything constantly stays the same.

This isn’t just with your management team.  This is with everybody.  When you celebrate creativity and learning you are opening up the floor to new ideas.  You are saying “It’s ok to try something new”.  That’s where the real growth occurs.

Do you want to be just a group of order processors?  Where’s the fun in that?

This industry is a marathon, not a sprint.  In order to really succeed you have to separate your shop from all the look-a-likes.  There is a low cost of entry into this business.  Anyone can embroider or print a shirt.  Not everyone can do it well.  Few can stump the experts.

When your work stands alone as a shining example of the best the industry has to offer, you won’t be competing any longer on price.  Creativity drives value.  Learning to do it better drives value.  

That’s the No BS rule here.  Increase your value.

Plan

Have you ever read or heard this before?

“Failure to plan is planning to fail?”  

I’m only asking because one of the top challenges that I see with the shops I’m talking to daily is that a good number don’t have any sort of long-range plan for their business.

They’ve started it.  Worked it for a few years.  Seen some great growth.  Now, they are poised to take the next step and blossom.  Everything that they’ve accomplished as been due to hard work and a good amount of luck.

I say that because there are just as many shops that didn’t quite make it.  Where do you think all the used equipment on the market comes from?  They worked just as hard.  Except that they were in the wrong area, or tried to service the wrong market.  Or any number of things really.  For them, their Ready, Fire, Aim luck didn’t work out so well.

Want to push for better growth and fantastic success?  The only way to do that is to plan for it.  It is the long-range mental game.  It is strategic.  It is No BS planning.

One of the first things I ask for when I start coaching shops is for them to send me their current business plan.  About 75% of the shops that I’m working with don’t have one, or the one they have is several years old and doesn’t match up to their current state.

Why do you need one anyway?  Can’t you just wing it?  It’s been working good so far…

Here’s why.  Let’s say you want to drive from Miami to San Francisco.  Would you just get in your car and drive?  What roads would you take?  Where are you stopping to rest or sleep?  Is there anything you’d like to see along the way?

I’m sure plenty of people could find their way without planning the trip, but constructing a plan would bring a long list of benefits that would help on the journey.

Writing a business plan works the same way.  Can you just shoot from the hip?  Sure.  But knowing your direction, key landmarks, understanding your metrics, challenges, competition, and most importantly your customers, is the No BS way to get to the next level.

Success is strategic in nature.

Don’t have a current business plan?  There is a wonderful free template available at the Small Business Administration.  Click here to use it.  Here’s what you will need to write:

  • Executive Summary – this is a brief overview of your business.  It lists your company information, products or services you sell, your audience, ideal customer, and the future of your business in the industry.
  • Company Description.  Details about your company.  Your key staff members, such as your CEO, President or other executives.  List your Mission Statement.  Describe the qualities that makes your shop a success.
  • Market Research.  This is an overview of your customer demographic.  Do you have a solid understanding of the marketplace?  Who is your target customer?  Provide a competitive analysis of how other businesses are targeting these customers.  What legal requirements are impacting your industry at the local, state and federal level?
  • Product or Services.  Provide in detail the product or services you are marketing to your customers.  Explain the benefits, the advantages you have over your competition, any any future developments that you may employ to gain a better market share.  In a nutshell, why should they buy from you?
  • Marketing & Sales.  Describe in depth how your company focuses on your customers through your marketing and sales efforts.  How do you reach your customers?  What are your companies’ growth strategies?  How does your company communicate with your customers or potential customers?  How do you advertise?  How will you know your marketing efforts are effective?
  • Financial Projections.  Provide financial information.  Spreadsheets should include: Profit and Loss Projection, Cash Flow Projection, Projected Balance Sheet, and your Break-even Analysis.

Here’s the No BS…to grow your business you have to understand your journey.  Where you’ve been.  Where you are going.  Can you describe where your shop will be in 3 years?  5 years?  Maybe 10?

If so, that’s great!  If not, it looks like you have some homework to do.

…and it’s N0 BS.

.

“Strategic planning is worthless – unless there is first a strategic vision.” – John Naisbitt

“Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the mouth.” – Mike Tyson

“Stop setting goals.  Goals are pure fantasy unless you have a specific plan to achieve them.” – Stephen Covey

The Gig Economy

the-gig-economy

gig e-con-o-my

noun •  “A labor market characterized by the prevalence of short-term contracts or freelance work as opposed to permanent jobs.”

Most businesses don’t think that they fit this description.  However, as markets become more unpredictable, many different companies are faced with working this way.

Balancing your labor variable just makes sense.

In the decorated apparel industry, the gig economy working class surrounds us.  You know them too.  Let’s take a peek:

  • Have you ever hired a freelance artist?
  • Have you ever outsourced your digitizing for embroidery?
  • Have you ever used a temporary worker agency?
  • Have you ever had an electrician, plumber, carpenter, or machine tech fix something “after hours” to save a buck or two?
  • Have you ever used someone to help build your webpage?
  • Have you ever had someone write a blog article or pay them to post content for your social media?
  • Have you ever outsourced some garment relabeling work to a seamstress?
  • Do you pull in more workers for seasonal help such as in the summer or Christmas holiday boom?
  • Have you ever brought your kids or relatives in to help clean screens or catch shirts when you are really busy?  Always the favorite.
  • Do you use a bookkeeper or accountant to review your financials?  What about a lawyer?
  • What about a recruiter?  Tons of industry positions open up every day and need to be staffed.  (here’s a great one: Textile Staffing Link)
  • How about me?  I do decorated apparel industry coaching constantly for shops.  But I’m not really on anyone’s permanent payroll.   

Any occupation in which workers may be hired for on-demand jobs has the loaded potential for gig employment.  To tell you the truth, I think that this type of employment is steadily growing.  Recently the McKinsey Global Institute posted that in the US and Europe there are 162 million workers that have some sort of gig economy job.  That’s 20%-30% of the entire workforce.  Quite the chunk.

You see it now in business insider-site headlines about drivers that want to work for Uber or Lyft.  That’s a gig economy job.

Where nothing existed like this five years ago, now you have an entire wave of workers willing to essentially become independent taxi cab drivers.  Why didn’t they want to drive for the taxi companies before?  Simple.  All the power rested with the taxi company and not the driver.

Recently I used Uber to get to the airport from a client’s office.  I asked the driver, Anthony, his thoughts on the work.  He said, “It’s great.  I’m my own boss.  I work when I want.  Make the money I need for the day.  When I’ve had enough I just quit, take a nap, and then get back to what I really want to do which is create music.”

The secret to this section of the gig economy is that the control resides in the worker.  He/she has 100% control of what they do, when they do it and who they do it for.  For them, this fits their lifestyle choice for the work.

Someone posted on an industry Facebook group I belong to that they wanted to be a freelance t-shirt printer and just travel the world.  Six months or so in one city and then off to somewhere else to learn what life is like there.

What an awesomely brave idea.

Successful gig workers like the control they have over their lives.  Want to go for a run at 10:00 in the morning?  Just do it.  The day becomes more about the work, and less about when you are actually doing the work.  It’s not necessarily confined to a 9 to 5 job schedule.

Let’s not forget the fact that many decorated apparel shops started off as a gig economy side job operating out of a basement or a garage, before they ever blossomed into  a mainstream “real” businesses.  You gotta start somewhere.

The biggest problem for most gig workers is the uncertainty of what’s around the corner.  Getting a steady stream of work is extremely difficult.  Most gig economy workers spend just as much time tracking down their next opportunity as they do working the ones in front of them.  Sometimes more.

This means that quite often that it’s hard to turn the gig into a full time career.  It’s a struggle.  And if you aren’t working?  Zero pay.  Sorry, no soup for you.

However, it’s not all doom and gloom.  As independent contractor or freelance business opportunities become more mainstream, it may be easier to find new opportunities.  Usually this starts with a few successful finished contracts, and then as referrals come in, more business can swing your way.

For Gig Economy Workers, “Hey, I’m a Freelancer!”:

Here are some tips if you are considering doing something interesting with your career:

  • Network.  It pays to know people, especially those that may need your services.  This usually means locally, but don’t forget to use your social media contacts too.  Find a few people that can champion your services and keep them abreast of what you have been doing.  You have to keep doing this.   Whether you are an artist, web developer, software engineer, machine service technician, digitizer, embroiderer or printer…you need to meet a large number of people so they know you exist.
  • Ask questions.  Don’t be afraid to ask questions, especially of those doing the work you are wanting to try.  What do they charge?  How do they get paid?  What has been the biggest problem?  Some might not want to share, but most will.  Look online in forums, Facebook groups or other sources for inspiration.  This industry constantly amazes me with the generosity of the information.  Even to competitors.
  • Research.  Like any business, write your plan on how you are going to succeed.  What do you need?  What makes the most sense?  Who are your customers and how will they do business with you?  Write everything down and build a business plan.  
    • You may also want to check out the governmental Bureau of Labor Statistics to see info on trending jobs.  Here’s a link to the Occupational Outlook Handbook which compiles statistics from the US census.
    • Want to start a small business as a freelancer or other gig economy type business?  Use SCORE to get started and create your plan.
  • Branding.  Learn how to differentiate yourself from others.  What is going to make you different?  While you might not need a logo, you will need to come across as a professional.  What documentation or information will you routinely need to share?  Will you need a business card or a rate sheet?  Get those made and have them ready to hand out.  Don’t forget to tune up your resume too.  Being professional equates to being ready.
  • Use social media.  Find the channels your gig customers share and then market yourself online there.  Social media means you need to be social.  Read, share or like what your clients post.  Use the private messaging feature to introduce yourself.  You want to create as much dialog with your customers as you can.  This helps drive your engagement, which leads to more gigs to complete.
    • Use online tools such as the mainstream Behance, Pinterest, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.
    • Don’t forget about more esoteric online gig economy choices.  Freelancer.com, Toptal, & Upwork are some top sites that link workers with companies with needs.
    • Maybe you just need some help with funding to push your creative awesomeness.  Many artists are now using sites like Patreon to help get the financial aid they need to get those projects built and live.
    • You have to show people what you do.  Machine repair tech?  Have plenty of pictures of you crawling under a press.  Artist or webpage designer?  Better have a great portfolio.  People need to see examples to build trust.  “Oh yeah, he does that!” is the reaction you want.
  • Work in more companies.  I know plenty of screen-printers or embroiderers that work the day shift in one company and part time night shift in another.  Some even have deals worked out that they can use the equipment on the weekends for their own apparel line.  For them, it’s a necessary mercenary/financial decision.  More effort equates to more pay at the end of the week.  Are you willing to put that extra time in?
  • Get referrals.  The secret is to constantly get in front of people that could direct some traffic your way.  These are usually on the manager or owner level, but influential staff members can hold sway as well.  Just ask.  “Hey, I do this.  Know anyone who might need it?”  You have to ask.  Nobody sells you better than you.
  • Start a Company.  These days it isn’t too difficult to start a small company.  Create a name, file with your state, get a tax ID number and create your own LLC.  Keep good records and you can deduct your expenses.  There are tons of online legal assistance sites like LegalZoom or RocketLawyer.  Cheap and fast.  You don’t need to recreate the wheel usually.

Welcome to the Dark Side

Of course there is a rougher and darker side to this coin too.  Many people are pushed into this type of work due to circumstances out of their control.

In many areas, jobs aren’t as prevalent or easy to come by as in others.  This may mean that some people take what they can get, even if it’s not a good long term fit for them career wise.  People have bills to pay, so they work to be responsible.  Do you have folks like this in your shop?

I don’t think anyone ever sets out to be a t-shirt printer or an embroiderer.  However, a lot of great people have made wonderful careers out of “just helping out one day”.

Maybe they just migrated into this industry by the back door.  Believe it or not, my original plan was to be an architect.  I started a t-shirt company to pay for the tuition, books and supplies.  A few decades later and I’m still learning new things every day.  Which is probably the most fantastic thing about the decorated apparel industry.  It is a never ending journey.

I don’t know if that’s public knowledge though.

Shop Challenge

Here’s a challenge for you.  Do you have someone on your staff now that just seems to be marking time until something better comes along?  You know what I’m talking about.

What do they do for you?

What if you developed a career path and training program for your shop?  A to Z, soup to nuts, everything someone needs to know.  Chances are if you showed them that the entry level job is just a starting point to a bigger and brighter future.   They might just apply themselves and begin to grow roots with your company if you showed a little more interest in their development.  Paint the picture of what they could do and what it might mean for them.

Your absolute best worker five years from now could be this person that seems incredibly lost today.

Not all people are in the gig economy by choice.  Your entry level workforce doesn’t have to keep holding onto the revolving door handle either.  Can you help them earn their stripes on your team and scale their skill set?  I bet you can.

Have that conversation.

.

“It is better to travel well than to arrive.”  – Buddha

“The noblest search is the search for excellence.” – Lyndon B. Johnson

“To improve is to change; to be perfect is to change often.” – Winston Churchill

.

Thanks for reading!  Please take the poll below and don’t forget to share this article on your social media channels!

 

Finding Your Next Big Customer

finding-your-next-big-customer

In December of 2016 I posted on my social media channels a simple essay contest for decorated apparel shops that read this blog.  Send me a few paragraphs outlining your shop’s biggest challenge.  Using that info, I’ll craft a response as the basis of an upcoming article.  The winner receives an hour of free coaching help from me in return.

For everyone that submitted their questions that weren’t chosen, thank you very much!  Loved your questions, comments and appreciation.  You rock!

The winning question was submitted from Devon Brabenec from Superior Merch in Ashland Ohio.  You can check out Superior Merch by visiting superiormerch.com.  I’m sure they would love the traffic and business!

Here’s his quote:

“Our shops biggest challenge would have to be finding and obtaining qualified, bigger, or repeat clients.  Sure, we have some steady repeat business and a good handful of annual or one time jobs, but it’s far from enough.  Lately it’s been a lot of “We only need 7 shirts” or “I want 11 shirts with 3 different designs.

We are aware that it costs more to acquire a new client vs selling a previous customer.  Not trying to make excuses, but to give you some info: We’re in a small town of 20,000 with three main competitors + a few small, weekend hobbyist type printers based out of their house or garage.

I’m a self-taught entrepreneur and started to learn how to print back in 2006.  I was 16 at the time.  Fast forward 10 years and plenty of mistakes later, we now have a downtown showroom on Main Street, built up a portfolio and have won many awards, mostly for design.  Never went to college for business or anything, but lately I’ve been reading lots of books to sharpen my skills and I would love to / desperately need to take this to the next level.”

The reason I chose Devon’s answer was that it pretty much sums up the challenges faced by many readers.  My own consulting clients as well.  Does his story ring true to your journey?

We all want more.  We want to get to the next level.  We aren’t happy with the status quo.  We need growth.  Dadgummit, we got some big dreams!

I wish I could just say to Devon that all he has to do is just call this one guy I know and he’ll just hand over a ton of work.  It’s never that easy.  If it was, I’d be working five minutes a day and be on a beach somewhere.  Did I mention I have big dreams too?

Answering Devon’s query, let’s start by breaking everything down into smaller chunks for examination.   We’ll go through each one by one.

“Our shops biggest challenge would be to finding and obtaining qualified, bigger, or repeat clients.”

I hate to break it to Devon, but that’s every company that’s ever been in business challenge too.

This in a nutshell is why you need a Business Plan.

Shooting from the hip and just getting lucky only takes you so far.  A Business Plan is a tactical roadmap that you build with research and lots of discussion.  It’s work, just like printing an order.

You can’t skimp and get good results.

There are several questions that need to be detailed with specific answers.  These drive all your sales work and strategic planning:

  • What pain or problem are you solving for the customer?  Be logical and critical about what they need or want.
  • What makes you different?  Can you serve the same market better or in a different way than your competition so that it makes you unique?  If you don’t have anything different, can you change your work to find your blue water strategy?  Can you craft your elevator pitch so it resonates?  What is your value proposition?
  • Who is your customer?  It can’t be “everybody”.  Boil it down and focus like a laser beam on just a few set of key demographics.  How do they buy?  How much do they spend?  When do they buy?  Who makes the decision? What is the trigger to buy?
    • I know a shop where their minimum order is 1200 pieces.  If you don’t want the 7 piece order, where should your standard order quantity start?
  • Who is your competition?  I’d say not just locally in your city either.  Why are your customers using them?
  • What production channels make sense for the customers you serve?  If you are inundated with smaller orders, maybe that’s a signal to invest in DTG or at least a heat press.  Does your production fit the market you serve?  Idle machine time doesn’t make you any money.
  • The money questions.  How are you going to sell?  Where are you going to sell?  What are your operating expenses?  What is your monthly break even amount?  How much money do you want to make at the end of the year?
  • How are you marketing your shop?  What is your strategy to reach the customer’s you have defined above?
  • What are your top challenges to overcome to achieve your goals?  List these in order of biggest problem to solve first.  There could be only a few or maybe there’s a list as long as your arm.  It’s important to construct and work on the solutions by identifying them.

These are hard questions to answer.

Constructing a plan that has targeted goals will increase your chances to land those more valuable customers.

Also, the funny thing about that business plan?

It never just sits.  It needs to change.  There will be new competition in the marketplace.  There will be a new trend that you may need to follow.  Your business will need to adapt to some different pressure point.  Write the business plan and constantly review it to make sure it’s relevant to your circumstances.

You can’t have it just in your head.  Get it on paper.  Show it to people, especially in your company.  Tweak it.  Some parts of it won’t work.  Change them and try again.

There isn’t only one answer to the test.

“Sure, we have some steady repeat business and a good handful of annual or one time jobs, but it’s far from enough.”

I’d like to ask Devon how they are leveraging the repeat and handful of annual jobs?  Or just any job in house in general.

As I’m sure many shops around the globe can attest, that small order you did for someone can blossom into a huge opportunity if you please them enough.

What can you do to make them go from “just another customer”, to the most passionate advocate of your shop?  Are you just decorating shirts or are you shipping happiness?

What will make customers go bananas?

The number one thing that drives more sales than anything else is the Wow! factor.  “Look what I just got! Superior Merch is Awesome!”

If they go and brag about the order to their friends and colleagues you win.  That’s building trust with a capital T.

Personal recommendations on social media leverage that sale with their personal connections.  They could rave about your creativity. Maybe they express their love for your company because you pulled off that miracle order.  They could recognize to their friends the vibrant color or the smooth print hand.

Singing your praises shows the world that you know what you are doing.   Recommendations propel you to stratospheric levels above others in your area.

But to do this people might need a little push.

That’s why companies have Facebook or Instagram contests with “show us in your shirt” campaigns.  Maybe you can provide a funny cutout “Selfie Frame” in your shop for people to take a quick pic and post online when they are picking up an order.

What about a referral program where you do something if someone brings in another customer to you?  This could be some sort of deal or possibly a charitable donation.  Cause marketing works great.

Think about how you can get your customers to do to your marketing for you.  That’s what victory looks like.

“Lately it’s been a lot of “We only need 7 shirts” or “I want 11 shirts with 3 different designs.”

Sure, these tiny orders are a pain.  Lots of shops hate them.

Yet, let’s look at the other side of the coin.  Here is someone wanting to spend money with your company.  Are you going to take it?

Think about a hardware store.  I’m sure they would love to sell you that $1500 fully-loaded tractor that’s been chained up by the front door all year.  How many people walk by a day do you think?  They want to ring up that big order, you bet.

Yet, inside they’ll happily give you the greatest customer service ever if you just buy a bag of nails.  Because that’s all you need today.  And if you keep liking them, maybe you’ll be back for other stuff you need.  Including that expensive tractor.

Buyers are creatures of habit.  To get more customers you first have to sell them something.

The same is true for apparel decorating.  For a lot of customers, all they need now is seven shirts.

Create that awesome customer experience that absolutely stuns them.  When they get ready to place that gigantic order they need a few months later you will be their first phone call.

Smaller orders are easily handled with digital printing, sublimation or even plastisol based transfers.  You can still take those smaller orders if you don’t have those production channel in your shop. Just find a contractor that you can send these orders to and let them produce them.

Be in the customer pleasing business by just finding the solution.  Introduce your Wow!

You can still make money even if you don’t do the production.  Cost + Markup = Sale.  You are still winning in the end.

“We are aware that it costs more to acquire a new client vs selling a previous customer.”

It’s true.  New customers often cost as much as five times the amount than retaining an existing customer.

But what can you do to lower those acquisition costs?

Can you cross promote with another business?  For example, partner with an event planner and give them a package deal.  Now every time they book a wedding, retirement party, trade show, or bar mitzvah you are their apparel decorator.  Solidify just one relationship, and receive steady orders all the time.  Not to mention, if the people receiving the shirts get a promotional card or hangtag on the shirts, they might call you later for something too.

What other similar opportunities are there around you?

Paid search is huge right now.  If that works for you great.  Don’t change a thing.  But, if you can get the same results with optimizing your SEO, then that might lower the cost.

After all, your goal should be eyeballs on your webpage or your phone ringing with questions about how to order, right?  This is where your effort in defining your core customer is going to pay off.  Updating your webpage constantly with new material will give you a boost in your rankings.  Do this with additions of portfolio pics, new shop videos demonstrating techniques, blog articles, newsletters, or even an “in the news” feature.  Be sure to tag the items with searchable keywords with everything tailored to the customers that you are trying to reach.

Of course there is traditional social media marketing too.  You want top of mind, so your customers think of you first when they are ready to order.  If you have done a good job of identifying your customers, then it will be easier to follow them on social media too.  Like, share or comment on their posts.  Private message them when there is some personal interaction.

Social media is what it sounds like, social.  This doesn’t mean you just auto-generate posts and forget about them.  It’s all about engagement.

Once, I posted an embroidery picture on Instagram and got five good interactions with it within an hour. Three developed into new customers.  All in the behind the scenes with private messaging.

Creating a Pinterest page can show off not only your design work, but real-life examples of your production with happy employees smiling in the background.  Just take pics as you work all week and load them up on Fridays.  Every so often blast out a “virtual shop tour” post on your relevant social media channels.

Educate your customers and potential customers by demonstrating your awesomeness.

“Not trying to make excuses, but to give you some info: We’re in a small town of 20,000 with three main competitors + a few small, weekend hobbyist type printers based out of their house or garage.”

Nothing wrong with living in a small town.  Yet, when we look up Ashland, Ohio on Google Maps it shows that you are just north of I-71. About halfway between Cleveland to the northeast and Columbus to the southwest.  Both within a one day ground ship.

Cleveland is has a population of 390,113 (2013 census).  Columbus is 822,553 (2013 census).  That’s about 1.2 million people that your shop is nestled between.  Probably a bunch more in the surrounding areas or have moved there since the 2013 population census.  That’s a lot of people within a one day ground shipment.

ashland-ohio-map

There are two things to point out here.

First, you are always going to have competition.  Three printers in your area?  There are plenty of shops that have several dozen if not more in theirs.  Count yourself lucky.

You can’t be scared of your competition.  If you build your shop into the best kick-ass business it can be, then you will quickly outdistance them and they won’t matter as much.  You can’t service every single order that’s out there anyway.  Instead, target the ones that you can be profitable on and that makes the most sense for your business.

Focus on you.  How can you do it better?  How can you do it faster?  How can you design it more creatively?  Cater to your market.  That’s who you should be worrying about.

Secondly, Thomas Friedman was right.  The world is flat.

Where your business is located is increasingly a trivial matter.  A good number of businesses the world over will never come face to face with their customers.  Ever.  Who says you have to solely cater to the citizens of Ashland Ohio?  Especially since you are cradled between two bigger metropolitan areas.

Do the research on your shop’s demographic in the your surrounding areas.  Where are the opportunities? Draw out a bigger circle around your shop on the map.   Try a one day ground ship from you.  Can you identify the potential customers inside that circle?

If so, quit reading this article and get to work buster!

“I’m a self-taught entrepreneur and started to learn how to print back in 2006.  I was 16 at the time.  Fast forward 10 years and plenty of mistakes later, we now have a downtown showroom on Main Street, built up a portfolio and have won many awards, mostly for design.  Never went to college for business or anything, but lately I’ve been reading lots of books to sharpen my skills and I would love to / desperately need to take this to the next level.”

Devon, you are on the right track.  Believe it or not, overnight success takes years to develop.  I love it that you are investing in yourself, and applying your entrepreneurial mindset to learning.

Reaching out and getting help is a brave choice.  It’s a mature one as well.  It’s hard to face up and talk about what we don’t know, or admit that we don’t do a good job with something.

There are plenty of other ways you can find the help you need too.  I’m always available (Please visit my More Info and Consulting Rate page to see how I work), but here are a few choices as well:

  • Your city, state or the federal small business agencies.  I’ve recommended the US Small Business Administration free business plan template for years.  It’s easy to use, editable, and asks all the right questions (it’s up to you to find the answers).  Go to the SBA Website to get the template.
  • SCORE – offers business help and advice.  Visit the SCORE website for more information.
  • Your local bank.  They want to see you succeed too.  How can they help?
  • Your local Chamber of Commerce.  I know of shops in small towns that received some sweetheart deals for real estate, training, building improvements and other financial incentives for just bringing in jobs to the area.  What’s available to you?
  • Vistage Leadership Training – offers leadership training for CEO’s and business leaders.  Work on your leadership development by checking out the Vistage Website.
  • Local community colleges or universities.  Talk to a business professor.  Use your business and challenges as a student’s assignment.  I’ve done this several times and it’s great.
  • Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses program.  Several of my consulting clients are enrolled in this program.  It’s great!  If you want more information on how to start your journey here go to Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses website.

All in all, a lot of business boils down to a phrase I learned in college at a leadership training retreat I attended.

“Your best friend is only a handshake away.”

Meaning, you can’t be timid.  Stick out your hand and introduce yourself.  Ask the other person questions.  What are their problems?

Then, your job is to solve them.  Got your elevator pitch ready?

.

“Failed plans should not be interpreted as failed vision.  Visions don’t change, they are only refined.  Plans rarely stay the same, and are scrapped or adjusted as needed.  Be stubborn about the vision, but flexible with your plan.” – John C. Maxwell

“Arriving at one goal is the starting point of another.” – John Dewey

“The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” – Lao Tzu

The Deep Freeze

the-deep-freeze

Most of the time my articles are squarely focused on the business owners or shop managers out there in the decorated apparel industry.  

Not this time.

After receiving an email advice request from someone with a very personal problem, this article is going to be focused on everyone else in the shop, but more importantly that one employee that is being ignored.  

Is this you?

Let’s call that attitude you are feeling “The Deep Freeze”.  

If you are in the upper level of management or an owner of a shop, please read this and ask yourself if you are guilty of behaving like this and possibly think about what you can do to change it.  Yes, your attitude matters too.

The Deep Freeze occurs when your boss for one reason or another just stops communicating with you in a meaningful way.  Maybe there is just too much going on, maybe there are bigger challenges on the horizon that need to be solved, or maybe the guy just doesn’t like you.  For whatever reason, that awesome feeling you had when you got the job has now turned to doom and gloom.  You are the mayor of Suckville.

You feel like you are being cut out of the conversation at work, and at the end of the day you start taking things personally.  That cold shoulder is just pushing you out the door.

Do any of these sound familiar?

  • During meetings your boss asks other people what they think about something but never asks you anything.  Ever.  This happens even when the subject is about an order you are directly working on at the time.  It’s like you don’t even exist.
  • Not once does the subject of your future come up.  What job in the company are you aspiring to, what professional goals you may have, what extra training may make you a better employee?  Nothing.  You are a cog in the machine.  Just silently doing your work.
  • The two most important words your manager can ever say…”Thank You” are never heard for anything you do.
  • More than one conversation was had in the past about setting some goals and priorities for your job.  Now, your boss never has time for you and dodges any meeting you want to set up.  Those big ideas you had a year ago that everyone was excited about?  The hairs on the back of your neck and arm are telling you that your involvement in the company just isn’t needed.
  • When you suggest things to help improve or solve a problem they are often ignored.  Worse, is when your idea is taken but you don’t get credit at all.
  • At one point other managers, and even the owner of the company, liked you, but now they are all acting a little weird towards you.  Something is going on, you can feel it.
  • Small, even insignificant, problems often trigger outlandishly huge reactions from your boss.  There isn’t proportionality to the challenge.  Other staff members with similar instances will always be treated differently.  You however, are publicly shouted at, ridiculed and criticized.
  • Your boss changes your schedule, gives you extra work that will make you stay late, even demands that you cancel obligations, despite the fact that these disruptions could impact your life outside of the shop.  There is zero empathy for your time away from work and your other priorities.  In fact, when you mention that you can’t do something things get downright nasty.  Other staff members though, get concessions so they can still handle their life outside of the shop.  It’s unfair.

If more than one or two of these statements above rings true, I hate to say it…but your boss hates you.  For whatever reason, you are on their mental pick-on list and believe it or not, probably on the “first to fire” list too.

Tune up your resume, pal.

But wait, isn’t there anything you can do?  Probably, but it’s going to mean doing something that is very uncomfortable and could possibly backfire.

Namely confronting the problem.  

First, if your manager is acting like this towards you but not anyone else, they probably don’t respect you at all.  They’ve lost that lovin’ feeling.  (I hate that.)  

Having a brief private conversation could dig in a little bit and you can find out what’s going on.  Maybe something a year or so ago just triggered that response and you didn’t even know it.  Maybe they are just a clueless dolt and don’t even realize how their behavior is affecting you.  Maybe the confrontation is the last straw and is all it takes for them to fire you.  

It’s a risk.

Is it worth taking? Believe me, there are other jobs out there.  Better companies and better bosses to work for too.  

Talk to them about what is bothering you.  Don’t make it a yell-a-thon.  Just mention that you noticed that you are being treated differently than other staff members and you want to find out if there is something you can do.  Be specific.  Before the meeting, write down a few points so you can remember them.  Have the conversation.  You just might learn something.

Who knows, maybe it was your actions that is the source of the attitude shift?

However, as I’m sure you have been talking about this at the dinner table, with your family, friends, maybe even your co-workers in the breakroom…if something doesn’t change your job dissatisfaction is going to lead you to the conclusion that you need to look for a new employment anyway.  Having a brief conversation might just be the thing to shake things up for the better.

How’s that?  Feel better?

If you are a manager, owner or leader in your company…look inward.  Are you treating people like how I described above?  If so, people notice and they talk too.  Don’t earn a reputation as a workplace ogre!  

Remember, most employees don’t leave their jobs because of money, better opportunities, or for other reasons, they leave because of bad bosses.  Is that you?

Don’t be a jerk.

.

“Act as if what you do makes a difference.  It does.” – William James

“Good, Better, Best.  Never let it rest, ’til your good is better and your better is best.” – St. Jerome

“Every day is a new day, and you’ll never be able to find happiness if you don’t move on.” – Carrie Underwood

Help Your Employees Succeed

help-your-employees-succeed

In your business are your employees constantly working towards completing the tasks needed?  Probably not.  

We’re people, not a bunch of robots, so human centered problems can become obstacles in everyday work.

To get your staff to complete more tasks in a day, there are some things to consider.  Look inward and see if any of these fit.

Stuff Not Working

You would think that staff would speak up sometimes when things aren’t going their way, but they often don’t.  

They don’t want to be seen as troublemakers or maybe they just want to try to resolve the challenge themselves.  So when that computer workstation slows down and freezes, you are going to be the last to know.  Your staff will just simply restart and reboot that thing four or five times a day.  What a boat anchor.

Another challenge that constantly comes up is working with software.  I can’t tell you how many shops use licensed shop software, and they only get a limited number of them as they are expensive.  The problem that occurs is when you have more workers that need access than you have licenses for.  If you have had to send an email asking someone to log out, so you can work on a job raise your hand.  This has a direct impact on worker productivity, not to mention overall job satisfaction.  Is it really worth the money to skimp?  

Maybe there is a better way.  I do know that some shop software systems have barcode log in readers to more employees can have access to the system without as many licenses.  You should find out if the one you are using has that capability.

Let’s not forget when the server or wifi router shuts down.  With everything in your business connected, it can be an overwhelming experience to not be able to send an email or connect to the outside world.  These days bandwidth is at a premium.  With that notion, is the guy in the back office live streaming music?  What if more than one person is doing the same?  That molasses slow internet connection you have when you are trying to download that 100mb art file is due to that dude that has to get his Maroon 5 fix.

Making Extra Work

Let’s face it, not everyone thinks things through when it comes to their jobs.  Some people will just sludge through things and do them any ol’ way.  A crucial step for any manager is to make sure that your team isn’t making extra work for themselves.  

You would like to think that people just get their training by osmosis, meaning that just being in the building will allow them to pick up the right way to do something.  However, it doesn’t work that way in real life.  

You have to show people how to do something, sometimes several times, before they really understand what you are talking about.  

Have you ever trained someone in how to coat a screen with emulsion, pull (or push) a squeegee to print a shirt, or hoop straight for embroidery?  How many people get it right the first time?  Zero.  It takes practice to do it well, with quality and speed.  That only happens when they get the experience of doing that task.  

Are you letting them drive the car?  Sure, they will be slow and make mistakes, but that’s all part of learning.  Want more people trained?  You have to train them.

Sometimes other departments might make things tricky.  I went to a shop a few years ago and noticed the accounting file cabinets in the middle of the production area.  Evidently the accounting team thought that was a good open area to place them, as they didn’t want them cluttering up the office space.  So during the workday, the production folks had to walk around these to perform their tasks.  

Every.  Single.  Day.

A great trick to see how efficient your shop layout is in reality is to draw a spaghetti diagram of the floor for each worker.  You simply detail a quick diagram of the space, and draw with a pen a line that corresponds to their steps as they move around the shop working.  When you see that they are constantly going across the shop for something, ask them about it.  It may turn out that they are borrowing a tape gun from another department ten times a day because they don’t have one.  That’s a $10 fix with instant impact.  Or, in the example above, they are circling around something on the floor that can be easily moved.  Straight lines are always quicker.

What is the way of your staff from working faster?

Work Instructions

I’m sure you would like to think that your team knows what to do each day, but do they know what is really important?  

Unless you stress that this certain order has to ship, or that report needs to be completed by noon, they can get sideways with their day and run out of time.  Have you heard that before?

How are you triaging and prioritizing your day?  Does everyone in the building know what to do next?  Is there a way to easily look up the priorities without having a major meeting?  If your team can’t function and know what today’s priority work is without stopping everything and having a discussion, you aren’t doing it right.  

Here’s a quick quiz that you can do to find out.  Today, go ask the crew what they are working on next, and even the job after that.  Will they have the answer?

Today’s work should be set yesterday.  Tomorrow’s work should be made ready today.  Think things through.

Also when it comes to work instructions, jobs don’t go to the floor with missing information.  Either the job is ready to work on, or it is on hold.  This all happens from the sales and order entry end of the stick.  

Get everyone in the building set up for success by organizing the job in the beginning.  If your art staff has to ask what color shirt the job is for, or if your production team has to stop what they are doing as there is a box of youth shirts to print and the design won’t fit; there is a hole in your process.  Your work orders are your blueprints for success.  Make sure they are complete early on.

Also, if any work instructions change (especially shipping from ground to expedited freight), your office staff needs to get up out of their chairs, go find the work order, and replace the outdated information with what’s new.  It’s not ok just to put it in the system or send and email.  Production staff are busy working, not necessarily looking for messages.  I know it is a pain to walk across the shop, but it is minor compared to being chewed out from a client because disaster just struck with that order.  Trust me.

Work Attitudes

A long time ago I learned the rule of thirds when it comes to groups of people.  The first third is comprised of the go-getters, the A-listers and the rockstars.  These are the fantastic folks that every group says they can’t do without.  I’m sure just reading this sentence you can name a handful of people in your company that you would describe this way.

The middle third are the people that just aren’t quite at that level.  Sure they do good work, but they loaf around occasionally, sometimes are late for work, make dumb mistakes, and probably could use some extra training or support.

The bottom third are the worst workers in your company.  These are the people that are on your list when you need to downsize.  They will be the first to go.  They have been written up before, maybe even suspended.  They cause trouble.  They have crappy attitudes.  People often think, “I wonder why Fred is still here?  How come management doesn’t do something?”

If you are a leader in your company your goal should be to always make the top third happy, try to move the middle third up to the top tier, and to train up or eliminate the bottom third.  The more you do this, the better your organization will become.  Keeping anyone on the bottom third just poisons the well and sometimes makes for an unhappy work atmosphere.  

I’m positive you’ve seen it and experienced it before.  That comment about Fred?  That’s really about your leadership team.

Work Conversations

Your staff doesn’t work in a vacuum.  You should be constantly inquiring and discussing with them about their job.  Is everything ok?   Do you have what you need?  What isn’t working?

At least twice a year sit down with each of them and discuss their job performance and set some goals for improvement for the next six months.  Ask them what they would like to do.  Are they happy in their current capacity?  You’ll find that a good number of the people on your team have higher aspirations than what they are currently doing for you now.  Some are happy just doing their job, and that’s fine.  But for the ones that want to grow and learn, are you supporting them?  

Pulling this information out and setting some training goals will help your overall bench strength with your staff.  I don’t care what company you work for, you are going to need new workers; and in every department.  

People quit, people get fired, people move away.  One of the top questions I get asked constantly is “Where do I find trained help?”  

My answer is, right under your nose!  

When you are hiring for your basic worker staff, don’t just think that this person is going to fill that slot forever.  Hire for attitude, train for skill.  During the hiring process try to find someone that has the innate capabilities to learn a job three or four levels above what you are hiring them for during the interview.  I’ve found that during interviews, it is the people that are asking tons of questions, taking notes, and wanting to learn all about the company that make the best employees that you can train.  The people that just sit there like a statue usually won’t go anywhere on the training journey you need.  Look for that enthusiastic curiosity.  

It is Up to You

Work staff job performance is all about leadership.  Are you getting them what they need to succeed?  Clear expectations on what needs to be accomplished.  The right tools for the job.  Working equipment.  Training for more skill.  An extra hand when they need it.  

Most of the time there are plenty of clues out there.  You just have to have your eyes and ears open and receptive to gathering that information and making good decisions.

This means you can’t manage by sitting in your office.  You must constantly go and see.  When someone asks you “Hey, what do I do next?”, that’s the tip that you have something broken in your company.

At the end of the day, work staff job performance is a direct result of the interest and effort you put into developing them.

.

“Nothing can stop the man with the right mental attitude from achieving his goal; nothing on earth can help the man with the wrong mental attitude.” – Thomas Jefferson

“Our greatest weakness lies in giving up.  The most certain way to succeed is to try just one more time.” – Thomas Edison

“Job training empowers people to realize their dreams and improve their lives.” – Sylvia Matthews Burwell

There Is No Cure For The Internet

there-is-no-cure-for-the-internet

Sure, your company is online.  Hey you have a webpage!  Woohoo!  So how is that working out for you?  Driving tons of business your way I’ll bet.

Except when it isn’t.

Don’t you feel that sometimes you are standing there on the curbside of today’s business highway while all the really great orders are zipping past you like a Ferrari hitting fourth gear.

Zooooom!  There goes another one.

Think about how your company is situated online for a second.  What do you think is going on that might be causing that anxiety or stress of non-performance?  Let’s take a look:

Robots are Taking Over

First, nobody really makes decisions anymore with online rankings.  It’s all handled with fancy algorithms and AI programs.  Despite what the folks at Bing or Yahoo will tell you, the de facto cutting edge is about how Google ranks you. Search isn’t processed with people, but instead Google uses a RankBrain algorithm that learns on its own based on experiences and evaluations.  It is self-updating, like the computers in sci-fi movies that always go awry.  That is of course until the next brainiac invents a better way to do it.  Which I’m sure will happen twenty minutes from now.

When your customer types something in the search window, RankBrain is what determines the results.  The results of your company’s webpage position or customer’s product keyword search query is based on a learning interface and you don’t have much (any) control.  What does help, besides just outright paying for ads, is to continually offering fresh information and content.  So if you haven’t touched your webpage since 2008 you are taking a huge hit, compared to your competition down that street that might be updating stuff constantly.  RankBrain just sees those other webpages as more interesting, so they get pushed to the top.

Think of your webpage as a produce stand.  Unless you are constantly putting out new tomatoes and melons, most shoppers are going to be passing you by.  Does anyone want some zucchini from eight years ago?  Make sure you are giving them something to squeeze and thump.

Or just pay the big bucks and get to the top of the list with paid ads.

Virtual Reality

You’ve seen those goofy looking scuba mask-looking headsets that everyone is touting as the new face of digital.  Look at that picture above.  Is that where we are heading?  How is that immersive content going to rule marketing in the future?  Will you or your competition be the first to plant a flag into this new software and use it as an advantage?  How expensive do you think that will be?

Web users are always on the hunt for more interactive experiences.  What will shape the future in days to come?

Fashion VR apps are the wave of the future if you believe the hype surrounding some major fashion brands.  Why lug yourself all the way to the store when you can just sit at home and try on outfits in a make believe store?  Don’t believe me?  Read this article.  It’s true, at least in their minds.

Unless of course that VR headset thing just doesn’t go as far as some people think.  How many people bought a pair of Google Glasses?

I just don’t see myself ever wearing one of these things.  Of course I also defiantly stated that I would never get a cell phone either.  Look at me now.  Wrong about that for sure.

Social Media

Who doesn’t love social media?  Well actually almost everyone.  Most social media users don’t post for business, but just seem to be ranting about politics, posting pictures of food they are about to eat, cats that are afraid of cucumbers, or just plain ol’fashioned insulting someone because they disagree with them.  Those trolls have to live somewhere!

Ok, I’ll admit it… there are some people and companies that are really good at positioning themselves and making a difference with social media for their sales.  To some degree though it’s just all so much noise.  Is there a benefit?

You bet.  But you have to do it correctly.

When I talk to shop owners about their social media marketing, almost to a person they state that “they don’t have time for that.”  Those that do, almost always just throw some younger person into the deep end of the pool and hope they can figure it out.  I guess it’s because they can type faster on their phones that anyone else in the office can on a keyboard that gets them the gig.  That doesn’t mean they are qualified or even know what they are doing.  But hey, if you are the owners daughter that just graduated from college and haven’t found a job yet, you are hired!  “Might as well start an Instagram account, honey.”

Will that work?  Maybe…

Social media is all about connecting with your customers where they thrive and hang out online.  Interacting, commenting, sharing and liking.  Just posting you having a sale a few times a week doesn’t get you the following you crave or even those sales for that matter.  Eventually you’ll just get tuned out or even worse, unfollowed and ignored.

Be careful.

A better approach is to think about social media as going to a party.  You want to be included in the cool group (your customers), so be sure to walk over there and start talking.  At a party, you wouldn’t just start blabbing about how you’ve got this great deal next week.  Nobody would listen to you.  Instead, good conversationalists (and marketers) will get interested in what this chatty group is talking about, sharing and work their own point into the conversation.  Sure, it takes more effort, but it works better and is real.

Create your own content.  Videos, pictures, blogs, infographics.  If you can do something different, funny or helpful you’ll stand out.  Get on a regular schedule and post the content that matters to your customers.  Use the channels that your customers use.  Hunt where the deer live.

Get Personal with Data

How are you doing with using your customer’s information to push your marketing?  You have loads of it already just sitting there.  Do you use it?

I’m not talking about reselling it or any nefarious mustache-twisting evil ideas either.

Customers fill out forms constantly, and we have loads of order information usually in our database systems.  Does your website offer personalized search results for customers, a way to save information or be able to target them later with a follow up?   Is it easy to order and get set up for automatic reordering?  Are you suggesting “other customers purchased this” with similar items?

When was the last time you sent them a thank you card, or maybe a personalized newsletter that contained information based on the items that viewed the last time they visited your site?

Another idea might be to search your own system and pull out all the customers that ordered jackets, sweatshirts or hoodies and shoot them a flyer that shows them some new colors and styles that are available this year.  Call the program your shop “Idea Generator” and let them know you can get them on the production schedule pronto.

What can you do with the information you have in your system?  Is it time for that big order again?  What if you set a reminder to pop up a few weeks early and contact them?

When a user on your webpage abandons their shopping cart, do you send them a follow up inquiring if there are any questions regarding their experience?  Have you even thought about this?  “Hey we noticed that you didn’t complete that order…any questions?”  That might go a long way for someone.

Most of the time we get so focused on all the stuff on our plates that we can’t think through our problems and see that we actually have a lot of information already at our fingertips that could make a huge difference with our sales outreach if we just used it.

Data mine your own system for some new customers once in awhile.  If you number your customer’s accounts how many do you have?  Of those, how many have an order in the system right now?  What are the rest doing?  Want to find out?

Keeping Up with the Challenges

So what is around the corner?  I know some companies haven’t even upgraded their sites to work on mobile phones, so the next phase of the online experience is really going to throw them for a loop.

The big question isn’t so much “can we keep up?”, but will the next thing be accessible quickly enough to make a difference for us?

The really great thing about using technology in your business though is that it makes things easier.  That’s the real benefit.  The struggle is to learn what’s available and how you can use it in your shop.  Usually this just means tinkering with stuff and seeing if you like it.  I do this a lot, and it is even sometimes fun.

Sometimes.

It’s always a challenge, as there is no cure for the internet.  It’s evolving.

.

“We’re still in the first minutes of the first day of the Internet revolution.” – Scott Cook

“The first rule of any technology used in a business is that automation applied to an efficient operation will magnify the efficiency. The second is that automation applied to an inefficient operation will magnify the inefficiency.” – Bill Gates

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.” – Marcel Proust

Drowning Staff Needs a Lifeline

drowning-staff-needs-a-lifeline-marshall-atkinson

I was recently speaking with an owner of a shop that was lamenting about the lack of talent, drive and knowledge in her shop.  She was very frustrated that she couldn’t find good workers to help get her business growing and wanted to know the best way to attract better employees.

During the conversation, I asked her to describe her current workforce, their in-house training program and what they do to help employees move up the ladder.  My thought was maybe her current staff members could rise up and fill the needed positions easily, as they already have a lot of internal workplace knowledge.

Her response shocked me.

“Oh, we don’t have time to train.  I’m not going to do that.  I expect people I hire to know what they are doing.”  She then went on to tell me that they barely get 1,000 impressions from any of their automatic presses a day.  She was 100% adamant that it is the worker’s responsibility to learn how to operate the equipment for production success.

I don’t know about your shop, but if my production crews were only printing 175 pieces an hour, I’d be looking at finding out why, getting them some training and holding them more accountable.

I’m certainly not trying to embarrass anyone here, but I did want to point out that as shop owners or managers it is up to you to ensure your team’s success.  Transferring the responsibility to learn industry knowledge to your work staff is tantamount to disaster.  It’s too complicated and frankly, changes so much, how do you expect them to keep up? Who was decorating Dri-Fit stuff at our current level ten years ago?  Just wait until we have to start decorating 3D printed garments, or apparel that has built in sensors.  Some days just diagnosing why a job won’t register seems impossible.

If your mentality is to just hire people and push them into the deep end of the pool and expect them to swim, who’s fault is it when they drown?

This industry is difficult enough on it’s own without hamstringing your staff by not working with them to master their craft.  Training shouldn’t be a DIY course.

Sadly, this isn’t a rare occurrence.  I’ve read in online forums, met people at trade shows, and even have received emails from people that want to grow and succeed in this industry, but are being held back by their managers or owners from learning something new.  “Sorry, but they won’t teach me how to print, I’m on my own.”, was what one young worker wrote recently.

These employees are reaching out from the deep end of the pool looking for someone to help them.  Who is going to throw them that lifesaver ring?

Where do you stand on this subject?  Are you on the side of the fence that demands your staff acquire their work knowledge on their own?  Or, are you constantly investing in their industry education and training?  Maybe a little of both?  Be honest.

Did you train anyone do do anything new in your shop yesterday?  Today?

This topic has me a little concerned about how shops manage their staff.  While the common outcry has long been “we can’t find any good workers”, I just don’t see many companies that have significant training programs.  Your new printer or embroiderer is already working for you now.  I’ve spoken with some of the best industry thought leaders on this topic over the years, and all agree that the best long term staff members on their teams were “grown” with continual education starting at the entry level.  They all have significant training programs, built on learning different aspects of the business, not just one specific task.

When you meet with your team members during performance reviews, do you ask them where they see themselves in your company in three years or so?  What would they like to do for you?  This is important, as when there’s little hope of advancement or dreams of learning something new, self-motivation and curiosity abate.

It’s no wonder this lady has so many personnel problems in her shop.  Every position there is a dead end job.

Take my poll below!

Also, if you are doing something special with employee training in your shop or would like to enhance this conversation, please leave something in the comments section.  Thanks!

Don’t Make Me USE ALL CAPS

CAPS-LOCK-SMACKDOWN-Marshall-Atkinson

Frustrated with work challenges that involve people?  Me too.  Don’t you want to just send that jerk-wad a full fledged e-mail rant using all caps to really show them who’s boss?  I know you know where the caps lock key is on the keyboard.  Time for a left pinky smackdown…

KA-BLAM!  UNLEASH THE FREAKING FURY OF THE ALL CAPS RANT!

However, most of our daily work challenges come down to the fact that it’s our own fault.

Huh?

Yes, you.  Me too.  Ok, stop snickering.  I’m serious.  It’s all about how your company insists on accountability, empowerment and expectations.

Think about it.

Look Inward Young Man

Maybe your challenges are all internal?  There’s that manager in your shop that sits in their office and only judges people by black and white numbers, and isn’t interested in the human element of working.  “People smeople”…that attitude just sucks the motivation right out of the room.

What about that sales guy that always dumps some last minute project in your lap with a “Do me a favor!” smile and nervous laugh?  You’ll be working on that turd for hours on end trying to make it smell less.  Thanks.

Let’s not forget the production manager that shoots off an e-mail about sending the crews home early on Friday, even though they haven’t started that big order that has to ship Monday.  That’s when you realize that tuft of hair in your left hand came from your own head.  Personally, I don’t have that much to spare.

Is the Customer Always Right?

Did your customer really just send you a “PO” that was handwritten on a napkin?  That’s the best they can do?

How about an order request via text message at 11:32 pm at night and expect an immediate response?  Those soccer moms can be brutal.

What about “professional” artwork that is created in PowerPoint?  …or worse, it’s on the other side of the napkin PO.

Don’t forget about that rush order you spent the weekend producing that’s now been sitting in your pick-up area for eight days; it’s almost mocking you at this point.

What is the Weakest Link in Our Supply Chain?

Of course let’s not forget our supply chain too.  Four boxes of youth shirts that you didn’t order is mixed in with your just delivered shipment, but all of your mediums are missing.  When you call to get the story they act like it is your fault.

Don’t even get me started about internet providers…

You ordered a part online and the one thing in the box that was shipped is the packing slip.   Good thing that came in overnight priority.

Or maybe the only person that knows how to fix your machine has been out to lunch for two hours…all you need is a simple question answered.  I guess cell phones don’t work at that Subway.

Let’s not forget the drivers from “big brown” that delivered your shipment to the wrong address for that event…and there’s nothing they can do to correct it without authorization.  Ok, you are authorized.  Go fix it.

Schadenfreude

Is your head about to explode and make the shrieking sound of a steam freight whistle like in a cartoon?  There are thousands of other horror stories that I’ve heard about in this industry.  You’ve seen them probably in some Facebook or LinkedIn group.  We all like to share our tales of woe.  

Schadenfreude at its glorious best.

This type of behavior though isn’t tolerated in other industries and businesses, so why does it always seem to happen in ours?  Frankly, I think it’s because to some degree we are scared of our employees.  Scared of our customers too, because we need them even more.  Scared of taking a stand.  Scared of them not coming back.  Scared of what they might say.  Scared of being flamed on a Twitter post or other social media outlet.  Scared that clients are going to take their dollars and spend them with our competition.  Scared that our employees are going to go over there too and take all of our “secrets”.

Nobody wants to be the ship that the rats are fleeing from.  So nothing get said.  This time.  That time.  Another time.  Everything just builds up to the point that there is a hurricane inside that just has to come out.

Unleash the beast!

So before you go full tilt bozo on someone and shoot off that venom laced e-mail, BECAUSE YOU HAVE TO GET THIS PROBLEM OFF YOUR CHEST, take a minute and reflect on how these behaviors happen in the first place.

Why the Blaming Finger Points at You

Internally, what rules do you have in place that set the standards for behavior and workplace expectations?  Is it the wild west, where anybody can do anything because there isn’t a written guideline to follow?  If you want a different outcome, what do you think needs to happen?

Set some expectations.

Maybe if you had an easy to use online order form on your website (mobile friendly of course), you could direct your customers to use that instead of getting the handwritten napkin or late night text message.  Will it stop knuckleheads from doing that completely?  Probably not, but it is something you can train these customers to use if they do it the wrong way.  “Here Fred, just click this link and follow the order instructions…using this form for order entry is how we help keep your costs down.”

Artwork too.  I once had a customer send in a photo of a person wearing a t-shirt with their logo printed on the back as their art for an order as we asked for “camera ready t-shirt art”.  My response after the forehead slap?  I politely forwarded our branded company art requirements that specified vector art created in Illustrator or saved as a .pdf.  We received the correctly formatted file the next day.  Sometimes people just don’t comprehend our terminology.

What is second nature to us, is esoteric to everyone else.

One thing to remember is that a good number of our customers don’t understand what we do for a living.  We take it for granted as we’re around it constantly.  To them though, it’s magic.  How many times have you given a guided shop tour and the folks you are walking around are amazed at the wonder of how shirts are decorated?  It’s like you are pulling back the curtain in the Wizard of Oz and exposing the darkest secrets.  For us, it’s just another day getting orders completed to ship.

Simplify

To that end, if you want a process to proceed correctly, then spend the time and energy setting it up so that there’s only one way to do it.  This is our standard.  The right way.  “Our” way.

How many ways can you order from Amazon?  One.  Can you call it in?  No.  Can you send them a PO for ordering?  No.  Do you have to use their website and follow each prompt along the way?  Yes.  It’s the only way.  They don’t even have a phone number to call for help if you get stuck.  They have simplified the process to the point that it is their norm.

Think about your processes in your shop.  What are your standards?  How many different ways do you have to do something?  Having a challenge with a process?  What if you made it easier by eliminating all the ways it could possibly go wrong?  Simplify the steps.  Eliminate the problems by making it impossible to fail.

How can you do that?  Easy.  Let’s chart out the steps necessary to simplify anything.

First describe your current state.  What’s going on?  List the things that are good.  List the things that are bad.  Who is involved and part of the process?  Are there time constraints?  Write all of this out so it describes the challenge.  Be as detailed as you need to be to paint an accurate picture.  Here is one example…try writing yours:

“For XYZ Apparel Company, orders from customers are taken in person at the front desk, over the phone, by e-mail, with a purchase order, through our website, and on hand-written order forms.  A team of customer service representatives inputs all of the order information into our system, and paper work orders are produced and distributed to the appropriate production group.  Most of the orders are entered the same day, but some take a few days to gather all of the information for the order.  On average one rep can enter eighteen orders daily; less if there is work quoting jobs or sourcing apparel to purchase for orders.  Our average turn time is seven to ten business days.  We have a department manager daily production meeting to determine what orders will be worked on each day.  Currently we are four business days behind in our production schedule.”

Then write out how you want the process to work.  Use the same descriptors as your current state, but describe the Utopian point of view for the process.  Write this out so that it describes where you want to go.

“For XYX Apparel Company, orders from customers are downloaded from our website into our production system instantly as they come in.  Nobody touches anything.  All of the information and artwork is loaded by the customer from our website only, and the system is built to check for accuracy on the front end.  Images are handled on the web, and pushed to the appropriate digital production team without the need for human intervention.  Orders are automatically queued by ship date, in-stock inventory pulled via smart tablets, and production is processed without paper work orders.  Jobs are synced by ship dates, produced, and shipped in three business days or less.  The company interacts as a team, and staff is trained to use the system to make decisions.  There never is a production meeting, and everyone is accountable and trained to push their work to implement the speed needed for maximum efficiency. “

While this solution may seem far fetched, the goal is write how you want your future to work and then find or create the tools necessary to get there.  The question you need to ask yourself is how to bridge the gap between where you are now and where you want to be somewhere in the future?

The important work is to determine how to make that happen.

Do you need software?  Different people?  More production equipment?  More automation?  Better training?  A new system?  Maybe even a better functioning website?  New processes and procedures?  Maybe even firing a customer or two or dropping a production method altogether to make another area work better?  Do you need to bring in someone to help that has the experience championing change?

Make your grocery list of what you need to do to solve your own problems and then gather your resources and execute your idea.

Close the gap between your current frustrated state and the perfect future, by building the bridge between them.   Just ask what is wrong now, and what do I need to change?

After all…

IT IS UP TO YOU.

(I can neither confirm nor deny that the title of this blog was inspired by the Tennessee Department of Motor Vehicles.)

“I rant, therefore I am.” – Dennis Miller

“If you could kick the person in the pants that is responsible for most of your trouble, you wouldn’t sit for a month.” – Theodore Roosevelt

“Instant gratification takes too long.” – Carrie Fisher