The Art of Writing a Purchase Order – What Your Clients Need to Know

A common challenge with a lot of shops is the effort and time it takes to sort out a client’s purchase order.  You would think that because this is the instrument that they are using to communicate regarding their order, that some effort is put into it to ensure that the information is complete and accurate.  How much time and effort is wasted following and double-checking items on purchase orders in your shop?  Some shops have gone to charging a “PO Correction Fee” to get the correct information from the client.  I’m not sure if that is a sustainable practice, as eventually I think the client will just want to hand off their same orders to someone else that won’t charge them.

I thought I would take a moment and list some of the most common problems with purchase orders and maybe shed some light on how to give some feedback to your client to proactively prevent these challenges from occurring.  Mistakes and oversights happen, and if more communication exists regarding challenges maybe awareness can help alleviate them from happening.

  1. Cloning.  Nope, we aren’t talking about cloning in a science-fiction movie sense, but rather cloning an original order to build the documents for a reorder.  Seems like a good idea for most people, but where the problem occurs is when New Information, such as shipping dates, shipping addresses, quantities, special instructions such as “sample needed”, or other items from the first order are not updated or deleted.  This can cause a lot of confusion, and if the order is just entered as it was sent in, a lot of problems on the back end.  To correct this, have a quality control discussion with your client and review these problems.  Have a few examples ready, and show them the time and effort it takes to change them.  Outline the potential financial disaster looming for both parties if the mistakes aren’t caught.  The solution is an easy one; it is as simple as having someone proof read the purchase order before forwarding it on for production.  All it takes is some effort.
  2. Pricing.  Most business relationships are based on agreement on a common set of rules to work with, and a pricing structure is one of them.  If your client has your price matrix, it should be an easy to understand document that they can use to build pricing for an order.  Whatever you have for charges or fees they need to be simple to understand, clearly listed, and up to date.  A common problem is client’s not listing every charge on the purchase order for items that clearly should be present.  Some even forget to charge for one of the locations.  Your staff has to be on their toes and review all purchase orders as they come in for pricing challenges.  These need to be reported before the order is placed in your system.  Trying to get alignment after the job is completed and invoiced when you are standing there holding your hand out for payment can be tough sledding.
  3. Timeframe.  A huge problem that shops face constantly is juggling production orders on their schedule.  Which job ships when, and what is more important?  For some reason, clients will send in a purchase order with 00/00/0000 as their specified in hands date.  When reached, they will say that they can’t pick the date and whenever it is ready will be fine.  However, we all know that they are the ones screaming the loudest when after ten business days that job isn’t complete yet.  They are also the ones that won’t review the order acknowledgements when the job is entered with the date that was created in the system so they are aware of what was specified.  A better plan is to educate the client on the reasoning behind using real dates that are based on when they would actually like the job completed.  Internally, these dates are reviewed against the production schedule and adjustments can be made to hit the date.  (see this article about creating a production schedule – http://atkinsontshirt.blog/2012/12/23/keys-to-success-building-an-accurate-production-schedule/ )  If you can, always get your clients to use real dates!!
  4. Shipping Information – Including Drop Ships.  This one is a doozy.  I’m not sure why, but a certain percentage of clients always wait until the last minute to hand over this information.  I realize that they have to get it from their clients, but the timing is usually the biggest challenge.  A good rule of thumb to follow is that if you have enough information and the need to place an order, getting the final shipping information nailed should be included also on the purchase order.  An Excel spreadsheet with the drop ship information should also be reviewed for accuracy too.  It doesn’t matter how good of a printer you are if the box of shirts doesn’t make it to the destination on time or accurately.  Getting the right information into the hands of your shipping department is crucial.
  5. Matching Purchase Order Numbers with Inventory.  If your client is drop-shipping you the inventory to decorate, it’s always easier to receive the goods into your system if the purchase order number is on the box of shirts that come in.  You can match it up in your system with what’s on the order.  What’s difficult is when your receiving team has to try to guess what box of shirts belongs to what order.  A really great help is when the client’s printing purchase order number is referenced on the packing slip of the shirts that come in.  This makes it incredibly easy to receive and match up to the order in the shop’s system.  This can be entered in the “Reference” field.
  6. Clients That Make It Easy.  You know the ones.  Their purchase orders are perfect.  They contain all the information needed for the order and are always 100% accurate.  Usually they are more technology based, and have a robust infrastructure to support their sales team.  The leadership from these companies are usually industry veterans with tons of operational experience and understand that if their orders can go through your pipeline easier, they are the ones that will go to the head of the line faster.  Missing information, questions, or anything that looks weird are just speed bumps that slow the order down.  They also spend a lot of time training their reps, and they have a good system for accountability.  These are the guys that you love to work with.

Purchase orders are such a key part of the everyday world that you would think more companies would devote a bigger chunk of their time to make sure that they get it right.  It is worth the time though to try to work with your client’s to understand that unclear or inaccurate purchase orders present a challenge to your shop as they are potential landmines, and also may increase your transactional cost just dealing with them.  The more time it takes you to sort out the purchase order, the less time you have to spend on other things that probably matter.

What is the Voice of the Customer for T-shirt Shops?

Let’s pretend that you have some sort of science fiction mental telepathy mind meld with your customers. (Uh, you mean you don’t already?)  You can see and understand their every thought, just like reading a book.  It’s all right there.  What do you think they are saying about your company?

Based on my personal experience, here are some top ideas to get you more connected with your own customers.  (Sales gurus everywhere call this understanding the “Voice of the Customer”)

  1. Price.  For a lot of customers, incredibly it’s not always about price.  People are willing to pay more if they like the sales experience, or see that you are providing value.  The apparel industry has somewhat of a reputation of companies undercutting each other and eating the dead.  Here’s a fact: There’s always someone that’s willing to do it cheaper.  However, not many companies are willing to do it better.  The guy that does it better is the one that typically has larger margins, and is more successful.  Add value to your sales proposition, and don’t give away the shop.  Charge for your work.  “Price shopper” type clients will never be loyal, but the customer that sees and understands your value and trusts you with their relationship will always be there.  That’s who you want.
  2. Expertise.  Position yourself as the expert in the field.  Build your shop reputation with demonstrating your vast industry knowledge.  Customers want and need someone to solve their problems for them.  Is that something you can offer?  Do they know to turn to you for guidance?  Get the reputation as a problems solver and watch your client base grow.  Demonstrate that expertise by doing things other printers can’t, including keeping your quality up and hitting deadlines.
  3. Partner.  Long term clients are seeking a solid foundation to expand their business.  You are not selling printed t-shirts, you are selling trust.  Your customers want you to be integral to their success by constantly hitting home runs for them.  Make that relationship easy.  A few times, you may have to help them with something without getting anything in return.  Earn that trust by being a good partner and provide the value your customers are seeking.  Missing deadlines, quality issues, making excuses, being hard to deal with, or other challenges erode that trust.  It’s hard, but not impossible to earn it back.
  4. Listen.  Trust me, it’s not about you.  Your customer wants you to listen to them.  Close your mouth and open your ears.  What are their problems?  What are their challenges?  Remember the old Stephen Covey rule from 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood”.  This is profoundly true in your customer relationships.  Don’t just sell them a box of printed shirts – solve a problem for them.  Stop “selling”.
  5. Make It Easy.  Make your buying process easy for the customer to do business with you.  Regardless if you are a brick and mortar shop or online, the more hurdles people have to jump over to hand you their money, the less likely they are to do so.  Make the check out or buying process smoother by thinking it through.  Provide accurate and timely information for them.  Help with artwork or digitizing.  Discuss creative solutions for problems.  Suggest different ways a client could structure their order to save time or money.
  6. Avoid Problems.  Customers see you as the expert.  Help them understand situations by explaining ways they can avoid problems by doing something proactively.  Anybody can “sell” them something.  Not everyone can walk them through the process and provide them with good information to proactively avoid a challenge.
  7. Be Creative.  Let’s face it, not everyone is loaded with creative talent.  Customers will often turn to you for help with their art.  If your art department rocks, then so will your sales.  If you are somewhat lacking in this area, think about how beefing this up can help strengthen your business.  Don’t have the money for a full-time staff?  There are tons of freelancers out there.  It’s no secret that the top shops around the country have the best art departments.
  8. Professional.  Have you ever looked at your company through the eyes of your customer?  When they walk in the front door are they greeted by someone warm and friendly?  Is your shop clean and orderly?  Is everyone on your staff courteous and helpful?  Do you have preprinted information handy that is branded and well-designed?  If your customer experience is somewhat lacking, or your staff has the social skills of a doorknob, put some thought and effort into revamping this area.  You wouldn’t expect any less from stores or companies that you use, so why do you put up with it in your shop?  If your customers aren’t raving to you about your staff and how awesome they are, you aren’t doing this right yet.
  9. Connect Personally.  It seems that the larger the shop grows, the less likely they will personally connect with the people behind their orders.  Purchase orders come in, are routed through your system, invoices are paid.  There might be little face to face or human interaction.  Get out from behind your desk every once in a while and go say thank you.  Personally deliver the next order.  Be sincerely appreciative.  Don’t have time for all that?  How about a five minute phone call.  Don’t talk business, just say thank you and ask about them.
  10. Value.  Yep, #1 was about value too.  It made the list twice as it’s that important.  Trust me on this…everyone can print or embroider a shirt.  You have a lot of competition.  Like other industries, your competition is moving online.  It’s a commodity.  Do you know what your value proposition is for your company?  What do you offer that can’t be matched?  Artwork?  Quality printing?  Customer service?  Turn-around time? Your customers want value for their money.  This is what you develop and market.   Brand this idea, and constantly talk about it.
  11. Bonus – The UnexpectedFor each order, your customers come to you for whatever they are ordering.  What can you do to make the experience so over the top that they rave about it to everyone?  “Because you are such a great customer”…  Throw in a few extra embroidered polos or printed sweatshirts with the next order for free.  Maybe some coozies with their logo printed on them.  Deliver it a day or two early.  Waive the screen fees.  Have it delivered with a box of doughnuts or a pizza.  Be creative.  Your goal is to wow the customer to the point that all competitors fail in comparison, and they will brag about you to everyone they know.

Hope these ideas help you with your shop.  If you’d like to explore some of these points more in depth, please contact me at matkinson4804@gmail.com and let’s set up a time to chat.