Sustainability Challenge – Embroidery Stabilizers

If you embroider apparel you are very familiar with this problem.  After your machine has completed the run, the next step in production is to remove the excess embroidery stabilizer (or pellon, backing, or whatever you call it in your shop).  Depending on the version, this could be tear-away, white, black and many varying thicknesses.  Most often you will have to cut closely around the item.  The remaining material is discarded.

And there’s the problem.  We just throw it away.  For the past year or so, I have been trying to find an after production use or strategy to recycle this material.  At Visual Impressions we run 120 embroidery heads with two complete shifts.  We nearly fill a dumpster every two days with this material.  We currently recycle every other material in the building: paper, plastic, cardboard, metal, batteries, light bulbs, electronics, etc.  Finding a source to pick up and use this has been proven to be the biggest challenge to date.

The stabilizer material is some sort of cotton and polyester composite fiber material.  I have discussed this with our vendor and salesperson, and although there is some interest in the discussion, nothing has developed yet.  To me, it make perfect sense that this stuff could be shredded and chopped up to be used for stuffing, insulation, filler, or maybe recycled back into its same form again.  I have shown it to about a dozen recycling companies now, and nobody has an answer.  This seems like a big opportunity for someone to step up.

So, if you are an embroidery shop out there in production-land, what are you doing with your stabilizer material?  Is it just going into the dumpster?  Are you recycling it somehow?  I would love to hear from you.  Maybe there is some way we can pool our voices and find a solution to this challenge.

Contact me at matkinson4804@gmail.com and let’s help each other!

Earning Trust

A lot of companies focus tremendous effort in finding and developing new customers.  You may use a lot of tools, advertising and various schemes to bring them into the fold, and start nurturing a relationship.  However, is that same energy and critical thinking being spend on your existing customers?  When someone does business with you do you make it easy for them, or are there a series of roadblocks that they have to navigate before they hand you their money?  Do they absolutely, with-a-doubt know that you value their business, and would like to ensure that they come back again?

In the past week, I had two experiences with my customers that boiled down to just one simple statement that I said during the conversation – “We aren’t selling t-shirt printing, we are selling trust”  Our customers trust us to get their job handled perfectly, on time, without an issue…every time.  It doesn’t matter if we ship a million orders, if just one goes wrong – that one order is all they are going to remember, as it is crucial to them.

Think about all the energy that you spend every day to ensure that each and every order is handled correctly.  Is it enough?  Do you feel that your customers trust you?  Are you in constant fear that they will go somewhere else for a nickel cheaper price?  Are you adding more value to the relationship than ever before?  Below are some ideas that may help you build better trust with your existing clients.

  1. Spend time with them.  A long time ago I heard the phrase, “People do business with their friends, not their enemies”, and that’s stuck with me all these years.  It’s crucial that you get out from behind your desk and get some face time with your customers.  Sit down and casually chat.  Let them see you and understand you.  It doesn’t have to be about business.  Instead of shipping their next order, personally deliver it.
  2. Be honest.  If you make a mistake, own up to it.  Resolve the problem quickly, eat the cost.  Don’t weasel out of it or try to blame them.
  3. Add value to the relationship.  Introduce them to new potential clients for them.  Share new ideas, books or articles.  Help them with their challenges.  Educate them on new techniques, different things to sell, or industry tricks that can benefit them somewhere down the road.
  4. Make it easy for them to do business with you.  Is your ordering process cumbersome?  Do you require a lot of sign offs and proofing?  Those are certainly necessary as part of the workflow, but is it difficult for your client to handle these?  Are they formatted correctly for your client to even open them?  Is there technology, software or something you could do to make this process simpler?
  5. Do what you say you are going to do.  Keep your promises.  If the order is supposed to ship on the 15th, make sure it does.  Better yet, have it ready to go on the 14th.  Now, multiply that by all the orders in your queue – can you repeat that forever without failing?  If not, what are you going to do about it?  If you don’t have an accurate production schedule, maybe this article will help you: http://impressions.issshows.com/shirt-printing-business/How-to-Build-an-Accu-1469.shtml
  6. Be realistic and know your capabilities.  Under promise and over deliver often fails, as it sets you up to project weak promises to your client to begin with.  Better, be realistic with what you are agreeing to and if you can handle it better or earlier then that’s a big bonus.  Exceeding customer expectations is fantastic, but to get a chance to over deliver you must first excite the customer with your original promise.
  7. Do it better than your competition.  Everyone can print a t-shirt or embroider a polo.  What sets you apart from them?  Chances are your competition is using similar equipment and techniques.  How is your customer service?  Your art department?  Your overall craftsmanship?  Look at your business from the outside in – what do you see?  Where are you weak?  What are you going to do about it?
  8. Listen.  Your customers talk to you all the time.  What are they saying?  What are their needs?  Seek them out on social media – what are they discussing there?  Don’t just cram your agenda or monthly super sale down their throat – maybe that’s not something they are interested in, but are ready to buy something else.
  9. Be Yourself.  Nobody likes a fake.  People admire and cling to sincerity.  Project yourself into the conversation and don’t be afraid to show yourself.  On the company front, does your firm have a company culture?  Does everyone from customer service to the shipping department interact with customers the same way?  There isn’t anything worse than to spend a lot of money marketing your company, and then at the point of customer interaction your employees fail you.  Check out this article I wrote about that – http://atkinsontshirt.blog/2013/02/02/why-customer-service-needs-to-have-a-big-dose-of-empathy/
  10. Empathize with others.  Show genuine concern and understanding of the situation.  If your client hands you something they honestly need help with – try your best to solve the problem for them.  They are coming to you for a reason.  Empathize and understand their situation, listen and comprehend what they need…and then go out and hit a home run for them.

Earning trust is usually as simple as being yourself, being honest and doing what you say you are going to do.  Extend that to your company, and that’s how you build your business.  I’d love to hear some examples of how you build trust, or how companies that you deal with have built trust with you.  Feel free to e-mail me at matkinson4804@gmail.com

Are You A Red Printer?

By now everyone is completely familiar with the ubiquitous term “Green” for environmental concerns.  Being a responsible steward of the environment is not only good for your overall karma, as it’s the right thing to do; it’s also proven to be great for business.

As we’re in the graphic communications industry, I’m sure you are aware of the color wheel.  The opposite of green on the color wheel is red.  So environmentally speaking, if you aren’t a “Green Printer” does that make you a “Red Printer” if you don’t develop a sustainability program?  Think about it.  What are you doing in your shop today, that’s environmentally friendly?

Just recycling your soda cans doesn’t count.  Is that the best you can do?

Have you ever looked at what it would take to get something going and really do it right?  The adage “A journey of a thousand miles begins with one step” is really true.  I am extremely proud of the fact that Visual Impressions, where I’m the COO, just became the next printer in the United States to become Sustainable Green Printing Partnership (SGP) certified (https://www.sgppartnership.org/).  Our journey took a little over a year, and with a lot of hard work, creative thinking, teamwork, research, and support we accomplished our goal.

Well, so what you ask?  What did you really accomplish you may wonder?  Quite a lot actually.

First we established a Sustainability Committee.  This is a group of interested staff members that are tasked to develop our program and give their mental effort to drive our actions.  We wrote a Sustainability Mission Statement that we use to guide our business, and for 2012 we voted to work to reduce our energy expenditure by 20%.

The committee developed SMART goals that focused our efforts, and laid the roadmap out for success.  We worked all year on this effort and employed many tasks, such as installing motion sensors for lights in common areas like break rooms and bathrooms; lowering our dryer temperatures to correct levels, adjusting the thermostats in the shop and office, fixed equipment to perform better, keeping equipment turned off when not in use and other ideas.  Small, easy and seemingly inconsequential things add up to big savings.  Did we reach our goal at the end of the year?  Actually no, but we did save 17.82% from our energy costs compared to 2011.  As we’re in a 100,000 square foot facility and operate on two shifts, this was a good chunk of money.  If you think about it in terms of your energy cost per imprint – we reduced it by 28.38%.

I also appointed a Sustainability Coordinator, Jake Gallas.  Jake is one of our key managers already, and he is a great asset for this initiative.  Most of the leg work moves through him, and he delegates the effort out to his staff.  He also is responsible for coordinating all the training and daily follow up with our crew.

We signed up for an Energy Audit from our local utility and they provided us with a detailed report on our energy consumption.  They also professionally validated a lot of our efforts and offered some tips to keep them moving forward.

Jake and I participated in several months of SGP support Peer to Peer webinars run by Marci Kinter from SGIA.  These were wonderful, hour long talks that walked us through all the different facets on building our program and preparing us for our third party audit that earns you the certification.  This was invaluable.

Through the SGP program we calculated our carbon footprint, measured our VOC’s and HAP’s, wrote policies and procedures on crucial aspects of the company (some were new; some were just formalizing existing ones).  We also designed a training program for sustainability, safety and hazard communication for all employees.  Because of the program, we also had some great conversations with our existing vendors and suppliers, and changed a few ways we order materials.

Our sustainability efforts weren’t just limited to our main goal of energy reduction either.  We also had worked on several challenges such as eliminating the use of masking tape in the screen room, reusing cardboard boxes in a better way, recycling our ink into a new color, finding a recycler to help handle our materials, sourced a new shrink wrap for pallet wrapping, and other projects all aimed at the three “R”s – Reduce, Reuse or Recycle.

We also are participating in two local Milwaukee Sustainability Programs – ME2 & ME3.   We started with the ME3 program (http://city.milwaukee.gov/ME3 – if you watch the documentary video we are featured) and obtained a grant that allowed us to bring in a team of engineers to audit Visual Impressions to help find ways to reduce our energy.  They gave us a short list of potential projects, and we chose to examine the efficiency of our natural gas operated dryers for screen-printing.  We are also using the grant money to convert our office lighting to LED’s.

The ME2 program (http://www.smartenergypays.com/) is also grant based, and its focus is helping companies with support for major capital investments, and we are using the money to acquire a new Kornit Avalanche direct to garment printer.  The sustainability savings here is focused on driving more orders to be digitally printed, rather than traditionally screen-printed – which requires more effort, energy and process.

Our 2013 SMART goal that our Sustainability Committee developed is to reduce our landfill by 50% by the end of the year.  We’ve finally teamed up with couple of recycling companies, and have put in place a program to segregate and recycle our waste cardboard, paper, plastic, metal, batteries, electronics, light bulbs, and waste chemicals.  One final material that we’re having trouble with is finding someone that can use our scrap embroidery pellon stabilizer.  At the time of this post, I have six companies working on it.  (If anyone is recycling this material, please contact me!!)

All in all, we have made tremendous progress from doing virtually nothing at the end of 2011.  (Then we just compacted and recycled our cardboard and soda cans)  Since then our sustainability program has provided a value of well over $140,000 (savings and grant money combined).  Not bad for a first year initiative.

So, if you are a “Red” printer and feel that this sustainability stuff is just a feel good, tree hugging exercise with little real value, think again. What are you waiting for?  Take your first step and start with some low hanging fruit.  Here’s what I would do:

  1. Contact SGP and learn how this program can help you.  https://www.sgppartnership.org/
  2. Start a sustainability committee.  Discuss what you can do with at your company.  Set some simple goals.
  3. Get an Energy Audit from your local utility.  It’s probably free.  They will come out and poke around your building and should give you a report on what you can do to save energy.  Follow their recommendations.
  4. Turn stuff off when not in use.
  5. Talk to your vendors, suppliers and customers – what can they do to help?
  6. Does your local area or government have any sustainability programs?  Contact your chamber of commerce, city or county government, or just simply Google some key words.  There is grant money available for switching out our lights, improving your building, even buying new equipment.

Hope this article helps you, and maybe even inspires you to do something different.  I authored an article in Impressions Magazine in 2012 that may help you too – http://impressions.issshows.com/shirt-printing-business/Why-a-Sustainability-2110.shtml

Remember, you can’t do it all at once – just getting started is the key.  You also, can’t do it alone; it’s a group effort.

I have many pictures of different sustainability ideas on my Pinterest board “Behind the Curtain at a T-shirt Shop” – http://pinterest.com/atkinsontshirt/behind-the-curtain-at-a-t-shirt-shop/

If you need help, please let me know and I’ll be happy to discuss how to get things going.  matkinson4804@gmail.com.Image

Is Your Shop Stagnant? Why Innovation is the Road to Success

Let me ask you some simple questions.  Be honest to yourself while you think about your answer.  Are you a shop that constantly seeks to reinvent itself, improve and get better?  Or are you the shop that sits there enviously and wonders “how do those guys do it?”  This is important, as I see all too many shops closing these days because they can’t compete.  The used equipment resellers are loaded for bear, and their inventory has never been more stocked.  Why is that do you think?

It’s not just the smaller shops either.  Bigger ones are going down in droves as different market forces and other factors affect their business.  So how are some shops not only staying in business, but actually growing?  Innovation.

Stronger, healthier companies are constantly seeking new avenues for continuous improvement.  They are looking toward the future, taking some calculated risks, experimenting, and driving change in their shop.  Professionals practice and develop their game.  It’s the ones with their heads down that just take orders and print, never looking up or facing the market that are going to be left wondering where their business went.  Below are a few ideas that I’ve been working on lately.  Think about how these might affect your shop a year or two down the road.

Innovation for Better Margins.  The margin is simply the difference between what it costs you to decorate the garment and what you are charging.  There’s always enormous price pressure in the apparel decoration industry, regardless of the market niche you are serving.  Yet, few shops really do anything to help build their margins.  Some can’t even tell you realistically what their actual margin even is.

  1. Sustainability.  Sure it’s good karma being “green”, but building a sustainability program in your shop forces you to review all of your processes, materials, and wasted motions to see if they really matter.  It’s hard work, and takes a good foundation of solidly trained staff members to pull off, but you can add thousands of dollars to of your bottom line by implementing a sustainability program.  For a more detailed answer check out this article I wrote for Impressions Magazine – http://impressions.issshows.com/shirt-printing-business/Why-a-Sustainability-2110.shtml
  2. New Products to Try.  Your vendors come out with new products constantly.  In fact, I’ll bet you have some unused samples sitting in the same box they were delivered to you in from six months ago.  You never opened it for whatever reason.  Too busy, didn’t ask for it, loyal to a competitive product, etc.  That, my friend, is foolish.  You should always be looking for the newer, better, cheaper product.  When was the last time you went to a trade show?  I try stuff constantly, and let the staff using the product gauge whether it works for them before deciding about it.  Some are instant hits, some are ok, and some are complete dogs.  You will never know unless you open the box and find out.
  3. Training.  Innovation by Training?  Sure…as unless your staff actually knows how to do something, how would they have a concept on how to improve it?  Taking someone from customer service and teaching them how to ship, or taking someone from the screen room and instructing them on how to set up a job….those just may be the next people on your staff to have the epiphany on how to do something better.  Here’s how you can effectively build a Cross Training Program in your shop: http://impressions.issshows.com/shirt-printing-business/Why-Cross-Training-I-6026.shtml
  4. Automation.  When was the last time you looked at the labor steps needed to do anything in your shop?  From typing in an order, all the way through production, to invoicing.  Many hands touch that job.  How much time would you save if you reduced the steps necessary for each task along the way?  Have you conducted any time studies?  Technology, software and help is out there and early adopters seize a competitive advantage when they understand their numbers so well that they can spend the capital it takes to acquire new technology.  Are you doing anything to innovate in these areas?  Why not?  Your competitors are.

Innovation for New Techniques.  Do you ever just “try” something to see if you can make it work or figure it out?  Other industries call this Research and Development, or R&D for short.  Stretching your creative muscles once in a while when it doesn’t matter and nobody is looking can reap big benefits as you could master a technique or even invent something new.  Take that new skill and bring it to market.  Make money on it.  Here are some thoughts to get you started:

  1. Listen to Your Customers.  What do they want?  Where are they going?  When was the last time you actually sat down with them over a cup of coffee or a plate of BBQ for lunch and asked them?  Partner with them and solve a problem for them.
  2. Experiment.  When was the last time you tried to foil a DTG print?  Print off the seam of the shirt?  Screen print on an inflatable toy?  Fold shirts differently to get a drop ship set in a smaller (and less costly) polybag?  Eliminate masking tape on screens?  Print eight metallic inks on one shirt, without pick up?  Print over hoodie seams without a special platen?  We’ve done all of those, and more.  The “What If” question is a big one.  How are you handling it?  Here’s a bunch of shots of our shop that I’ve taken and loaded on my Pinterest board “Behind the Curtain at a T-shirt Shop” – http://pinterest.com/atkinsontshirt/behind-the-curtain-at-a-t-shirt-shop/
  3. Ask Your Vendors.  I do this all the time.  I state the challenge that I’m trying to resolve and partner with them to work towards the solution.  Some are easy, as there’s a ready-made product.  A few aren’t really in their wheelhouse, but they may have experience or knowledge that could steer me in the right direction.  How good is your relationship with your vendors?  Do you treat them as partners, or do you put them off and keep them at arms-length?
  4. Adopting or Trying New Technology.  Still using film for screens?  Do you waste time digitizing your own files?  Have you looked into Direct to Garment printing?  Do you have an order entry system?  Do you have an online presence? There’s an old adage that says “The only constant in life is change” – this is true of business.  Either you adapt or you will soon become obsolete.  There is technology, services, equipment and expertise out there that can make your business stronger, faster, leaner, and more profitable.  What was the last thing you tried?

Innovation for Exercising the Creative Mind.  Unless you are a blank apparel distributor you probably don’t sell much undecorated product.    We all have our market that we sell to…but what have you developed lately that is creative and would set yourself apart from your competition?  Or, even worse, what are they doing that is going to take your customers away from you?  Adding value to your sales proposition should be one of your key strategies this year.  Have you even thought about it, or are you just like a lot of apparel decorators and just sit and wait for the orders to come in by themselves?

  1. Look to Other Industries for Inspiration.  Put your thinking cap on and try to see things from another person’s perspective.  How would a technology driven company or an equipment manufacturer look at the challenge?  Would they make the same choices you would?  Any material, training, process, or thinking that you could apply to your situation?  Being creative isn’t all art related, as creative thinkers are problem solvers.  Step outside what you know and see things from another’s viewpoint.  What would you change?
  2. Borrow Ideas from Others.  I like to watch the show “Chopped” on the Food Network.  The show’s premise is that they take four chefs and give them a basket of crazy ingredients to use to compete against each other for three separate dishes.  With each round, one chef is eliminated until there is a winner.  What’s creative about the show is that they are taking diverse elements that might not ever be paired together and forcing the competitors to create something not only new but delicious.  What if you took this idea and used it in your shop?  What list of weirdo things could you combine to make something that would sell?  This is where the “Gee, I never would have thought of that” ideas come from.  If you are only taking and producing orders you will never do this.  Get out of your rut!!
  3. Ask Your Staff.  Maybe you aren’t creative.  But I’ll bet you employ some that are very creative.  What’s the one thing that they have always wanted to try?  Find some time and have a shop contest to develop the wackiest idea to showcase your creative juices.
  4. Take a Field Trip.  This could be just to the mall or a trade show.  Bring a notebook.  Take pics.  What do you see?  Sit around the coffee shop later and debate what was really cool, and what would work for your shop.  The best discussions are the ones that are freely and unconsciously made.  Don’t try to squeeze them into a meeting.  Talk.

Hopefully this article is the catalyst that starts some innovation with your shop.  I would be very interested to know if you developed any ideas after reading this article.  I’m all about sharing ideas, so let’s trade!  E-mail me directly if you don’t want the world to know…  matkinson4804@gmail.com.

Don’t Be That Customer

Let’s face it, if you’ve had any sort of longevity in business you’ve probably had your share of really great, and also really bad clients.  When we are sitting at our desk in the morning, with a fresh cup of coffee ready to face the day, we all day dream about the perfect customer.  One that hands us tons of money for an easy job, is great to get along with, and just absolutely loves us.  Unfortunately, that’s not what this article is about.

This article is about the other one.  The mean and nasty one that just leaves you muttering under your breath, or forces you to go take a walk around the block before you strangle someone.  Read below, and if any of these are your traits, you may want to consider making some “small” changes.

  1. Too lazy to fill out a Purchase Order correctly.  If you are someone that just constantly can’t fill out a PO right to save your life, get some help!  To enter an order easily on our end, all of the information needs to be organized, accurate and correct.  Some examples are: the delivery date as 00/00/0000, missing information, wrong information, points to an e-mail that was sent three months ago, or was cloned from a previous order but now some of the information isn’t accurate.  This really could be a longer list, and I’m sure if you are customer service rep reading this you have about five thousand more to add.  However, the point here is that missing information makes it hard for someone to help you.  They have to stop what they are doing, try to contact you and get the information, and then get everything corrected and entered quickly.  Two minutes of work is now twenty.
  2. The Price Shopper.  Sure, everyone wants a bargain, it’s understandable.  However, what can be a big problem is when a customer hands us a laundry list of items to quote, all with big quantities.  When the order comes in, it’s only for two of the items and the quantities are minimal.  The words we don’t want to hear are “Congratulations!  You got the order, but for right now I just need these 50.  You can keep the same price as if I order 5,000, right?”  Uh, no.
  3. The guy that’s always late.  Are you that guy?  Every single order is a rush.  Artwork = last minute.  Shirts show up same day as production.  Freight expedited.  It’s like there’s a fire all the time.  Alarm!  Alarm!  Alarm!  Rush!  Rush!  Rush!
  4. The Diva.  You expect to be catered to like a movie star because you bring in big business.  You are condescending and rude to our staff.  Everything is your way or the highway.  After you leave, some staff members are actually crying.  We all wonder if this is worth it, but we put up with it because frankly we like the business.  The most commonly heard phrase after the door closes after you leave is “Wouldn’t it be great if she was just a little nicer?”
  5. The Perfectionist.  This is the customer that micro-manages everything, and absolutely has to complain about every single minor detail all the time.  No matter what…even things that aren’t related to a job.  Just stop it already.  We like it that you want to point out our weaknesses – and believe me, we’re working on them.  However, it’s not our fault that the UPS guy delivered the shipment twenty-two minutes later than yesterday, or the shirts you chose to use were from two different dye lots and don’t exactly match.
  6. Just Do Something Cool.  Just throwing this in from my days as an art director.  This is the absolute worst way to give a creative person some direction, and it holds true for building an apparel program.  Without some good information from you, our team won’t understand where to start and may end up wasting everyone’s time as our definition of cool might not match yours or your clients.  Before you find yourself saying “just do something cool”, spend five minutes and jot down a few things that you would like to see, and maybe five more with something that you absolutely don’t want to see.  At least we’ll have some direction.  Trust me, we don’t mind doing the work and being creative…we’re good at that.  What we don’t want to do though is invest three hours working on something that isn’t even remotely close to what you want, and we have to start over.  That’s not cool.
  7. The “Do Me A Favor” Guy.  Is this you?  Swooping in at the last minute like a seagull on a dock, and dropping off a present that everyone gets to work on?  Sure, we appreciate the business; but your event is in two days and we’ll really have to hustle to get everything accomplished by then.  Thanks for the over-time!  We all wonder if you have a calendar.  Planning?  What’s that?
  8. We aren’t telepathic.  Yep, you heard it here first.  Mind reading skills aren’t on our job descriptions.  So, when we send you an art approval, and your e-mail back reads “Change it”, we aren’t really sure what to do next.  Change what?  We understand that you are in sales and do a lot of business from your phone, but it would be better for everyone if you included more detail in the response.  This helps everyone!
  9. Professionals aren’t profane.  You aren’t Eddie Murphy.  We don’t need to hear F-bombs every five minutes.  You aren’t funny.  Stop it.
  10. Things sometimes go wrong.  Trust me, we don’t like it either.  We’ll make it right, and we always stand behind our work.  However, what separates a great customer from a bad customer in this area is how we’re working together to solve the problem.  Sometimes, it’s our fault – sometimes not.  Regardless, we want to make it better somehow. There is a lot of stress and anxiety in the air already.  The great customers know that empathy works both ways. The great customers don’t point fingers, but just work to resolve the challenge at hand – make the end user happy, and we’ll talk about the money part of it later.

So there you have it.  Just ten.  As we’re dealing with people, there are probably an incredible number of examples of bad customer definitions.  Am I missing any of yours?  Leave a comment…