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.

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…