Top Tips to Improve Communication in Your Shop


Communication is such an important part of everyday business that you would think that we would all be better at doing it consistently.  However, in talking to apparel decorator shops constantly it’s apparent that this is one of the main challenges that shops face.  Some don’t even realize it until you start discussing their issues and then it dawns on them.  Those are the guys that are just constantly heads down, pulling squeegees or sewing logos, oblivious to the speed-bumps they bounce over constantly along the way.

There are two types of communication, internal and external, but both deal with really the same issue: Transmitting information and expectations.  An example could be regarding something with an order, such as the ship-to address; or an employee requesting a vacation day.  There are so many variables for instances, that I’m obviously not going to cover them all.  Instead, here are some general suggestions and tips that you might use to be able to improve the level of communication in your company.

Active Listening 

Active listening is a skill that needs to be developed and championed in your shop.  This is the method of actually being present in the conversation when someone is speaking.  All too often we as people are just waiting for the other person to finish talking so we can get our point in. (Don’t even get me started on interrupters!)  Instead, as listeners we should be processing the information that the speaker is giving us, while comprehending the meaning behind what they are saying.  Does it feel sometimes that conversations are like a tennis match, but with both players wearing headphones? Points are being volleyed back and forth, but nobody is really listening.  If you can get your staff to champion the art of active listening, you will find a more engaged work force, happier customers and a clearer understanding of situations.

Part two of active listening is only having one conversation at a time.  It is impossible to listen to what someone is saying while you type a text message or an e-mail.  People will understand that you are busy and want to finish your thought, but you need to simply stop typing and start listening.  Not to mention, you are being disrespectful and rude.  Stop. Typing. Please.

Try this experiment.  Today in your shop watch how other people (or even you) engage each other to answer questions and solve problems.  One person will walk up to another and ask something.  Does the second person stop what they are doing, turn and face the first?  Is there true engagement?  Look at their feet.  Are they squared around facing the person?  Tip: True engagement should look open; with both participants parallel to each other, head up with eye contact.  One person talks, the other person listens.  Conversation happens, problem solved.

Take Notes

As a long-time “to-do” list maker, I find it much easier to remember something if I write it down. (Check out my article on making to-do lists by clicking here)  The same goes for having a difficult conversation, organizing a meeting, or giving a talk to a group of employees.  Jot down some ideas in outline form so you can use them to flesh out your conversation.  Doing so helps you ensure that all your points are made and thoroughly discussed during the dialog.  On the flip-side, if people are listening and commenting on your points make sure to write down what they say for follow up later.  Taking notes will assist you in remembering the conversation and following up on the points you need to address.  I don’t know about you, but my memory isn’t perfect.  I take notes constantly so I can communicate better and more effectively handle some pretty tough challenges.  Tip: Always carry a pen and a piece of paper with you as you go around the shop.  If something comes up along the way, jot down some notes for action later.

Related to taking notes, is putting notes on an order.  If you use a system in your shop, you need to train your staff to constantly add notes to the order in your system as they process their chunk of the task.  Purchasing can add tracking numbers for inbound freight, sales can add notes that may be relevant to placement or post-production, art could add notes regarding details to watch out for in production, production could add notes regarding a key tip for alignment on press, shipping could add notes regarding if the order shipped with another, etc.  If each department adds the notes to the order, when your customer calls you inquiring about some challenge, every detail about the order has been recorded and you look extremely professional when you can recall that information at your fingertips.  These notes don’t have to be lengthy or take too much time to enter.  Tip: Regarding notes on orders there is one cardinal rule that you must follow and that is No Handwritten Notes on the Order.  Handwritten notes can’t be seen in the system, or recalled later once the work order is filed.  It’s like yelling into the wind.  Get the notes in the system and train your staff where to look and what to read. 

Repeat Back & Ask Questions

A great technique to deploy when trying to solve a challenge for someone is to repeat back to the person the issue they just outlined for you.  This not only lets the other person know that you fully heard what they said to you, but it helps frame the problem in your mind and gets you primed to start working on the solution.  After you have repeated back, start asking a few follow up questions.  This absolutely works great when dealing with sticky customer service or difficult personnel crisis challenges.  Bonus points if you take some notes simultaneously.

You are on the Clock

Somehow along the way our culture has lost any sense of patience.  Nothing is more annoying to customers than to send an e-mail or leave a voice mail and not get a response back immediately.  Even if you don’t have the answer they are looking for you to respond, at a bare minimum, with a “got your message, I’ll have an answer for you in xx minutes”.  By setting up that you have received their message, understood what they want, and are working on the answer, your client can be assured that you have their best interests at heart.  Whatever timeframe you outline in your response should be conservatively estimated, and your job is to beat it.  If you say an hour, try for thirty minutes.  For most non-emergency situations I try to always follow the “sunshine rule”, which is to try to respond to the request before the sun sets.

Don’t Be Offended

Have you ever read an e-mail and was suddenly taken aback by the tone that the writer used?  Sometimes e-mails can be misinterpreted with an attitude that is completely unintended.  It’s just the voice in our head that’s making you read the e-mail a certain way.  If this happens to you whatever you do, don’t blast out a response in a huff.  Take a minute, maybe read the e-mail in another voice in your head.  (I like to use Morgan Freeman’s voice sometimes)  When in doubt, pick up the phone or go see the person.  Just start the conversation with flatly stating “Just got your e-mail…” and stop talking.  The other person will fill in the void and then you can quickly tell if they are really insulting you or not.  Most likely, they aren’t.

Set Clear Expectations

Most employees just want to follow the rules, but if you are a small shop that hasn’t spent much time developing job descriptions, personnel procedures and policies, or even a simple company handbook, then your staff may be wondering how to handle different situations.  Part of having effective communication in your shop is developing a set of written guidelines for different aspects of your business that can be used for reference.  If you are a member of SGIA, you can download these from their website and use them as starting points to write your own.

Job descriptions are great tools to use in your shop as they set the guidelines for what to expect for each employee for tasks, pay range, hours worked, supervision and skill level.  You should write one for each type of employee on your payroll.  These really come in handy when posting an ad for an employee too, as the job description details exactly what you are looking for in a potential employee.

Employee Handbooks are also great communication tools as these set the standards by which the employees must follow every day.  You can be as detailed and chock full of legalize as you want, but at the minimum you should cover the essentials that matter to how you want your company to run.  What’s the policy on getting paid if you don’t show up for work after a holiday?  What are your work hours?  Do you have a cell phone policy?  What about social media?  What happens if you get injured on the job?  All of this and more should be covered in your handbook.  These are the standards that your employees should follow if they work for you.

Written Communication – a. Work Order

There is tremendous power in words.  How you use the written language for e-mails, work order instructions and anything else says a lot about you and your company.  In order for words to have the power, you must first use them.

There is nothing worse than the blank stare and questioning look of a production employee that asks “How do we do this?” when there isn’t anything communicated on the work order to instruct them on how to complete the task.  Sales people are notorious for leaving off instructions.  It’s almost like the attitude is “I closed the sale, what more do you want from me?”  A good place to start regarding written communication in your shop is how your staff completes a work order to send to production.  This is essentially the blueprint to your staff that you are going to use to construct the job.  If you were building a house, would you leave off the section that illustrates how to install the roof?  Of course not.  Details matter.  Department by department you need to have the correct instructions listed so your staff can make independent decisions regarding the work order and based on the instructions listed, hit home runs every time.  That’s not going to happen if you leave off details regarding the job.  Tip: Every time someone from production calls or comes up front to ask “Hey, what’s this mean?”, or “How do I do this?” use this as an opportunity to review how you put together your work order.  It’s great that your staff is asking questions, but this is also a signal that you are failing them in your communication.  If someone had written down the appropriate instructions your staff would be handling the task instead of wasting time asking about it.

Written Communication – b. E-mails

While there’s no denying the importance of e-mails, quite a few people actually write them with a sense of good communication.  How many times has someone sent you an e-mail and you wanted to call them only to find that there phone number wasn’t listed in the signature line and you had to look it up somewhere else?  For your shop, here are some tips to follow:

The subject line has to include a brief description regarding what the e-mail is about.  If this is about an order, it has to use the job title and work order number.  If it is to a client, be sure to use their PO number.  Using these as the basic standard for titling your e-mails can go a long way in ramping up your communication as it’s already setting the stage with some key information that someone would start to retrieve.

If you are attaching art files or anything that is large, if the file is over 1 mb please use Dropbox to send the file.  You can get a Dropbox account for free, and it’s a great way to share large files.  The user simply downloads your massive file from the internet cloud with a few clicks.  The problem with sending large file attachments is that not everyone has enough mailbox space to get the file, and there’s a big time delay and some frustration if it is an important task.

If you are a Mac user, learn how to attach the file to the e-mail so that the image isn’t embedded.  Not everyone knows how to save files set up that way, and there’s always the phone call or e-mail requesting this.  Save yourself the trouble, and just do it the clumsier way, but with one that could potentially result in someone not asking you to send it again.

Signatures are important.  Be sure your staff members are all using the same one and that it contains all of your company’s information.  You can set up signatures in Outlook, Gmail or whatever program you are using.  One trick that I see constantly is placing icon links to the person’s or company’s social media underneath the signature.  This is smart marketing.  I have a personal Gmail account and use a free program called WiseStamp for this.

Watch what you write.  Sometimes written humor doesn’t translate well, and instead of being funny you end up being insulting.  If you absolutely have to write that quip, be sure to use a smiley face at the end of the sentence so someone can tell you are joking.  J  If not, you may come across like an ass.  Be double sure that your intended reader appreciates your humor first.  One rule though: Absolutely Never Joke About a Client.  I’ve seen too many of these e-mails unintentionally get sent to the client by mistake.  If you have to joke about a customer don’t have it written down.

Be brief.  I know, as I’m the king of writing stuff and tend to be a little verbose.  I can’t help it, and I’m always looking to shorten what I write.  People don’t want to read War and Peace.  Use bullet points if you have to, but try to be succinct.

Phone Communication

These days instant communication is expected.  If someone can’t reach me at my desk, they will try my cell in the next heartbeat.  Some clients prefer to communicate by phone and not e-mail, so it’s important that you are available.

When answering your phone, state your name and try to have a smile on your face.  It’s been proven that the smile can actually change the tone of your voice, and is an effective tool in improving communication.  Telemarketers or customer service call centers regularly use mirrors by their desks to make sure they are smiling during the call.  Try it!

If someone leaves a voice mail, absolutely call them back before the end of the day if possible.  If it was important enough to leave a message it’s important enough for you to call them back.  I’ve left plenty of messages with people and nothing is more frustrating than not hearing back from someone for a day or two.  Even if you don’t have the answer, just call with the “Got your message, we’re working on it” response.  It’s just good, basic customer service.

If you are in a meeting or on another call and you can’t take the call on your cell phone, many current devices offer an option that will allow you to have prewritten text messages that can be sent with a push of a button.  “I can’t take your call right now, but I’ll call you right back”.  This is a great feature…but only if you call them right back.

When calling a customer regarding an order, but sure to have all the facts in front of you before dialing.  Get the work order, or bring the order up in your system.  Have all of their current answers, plus try to anticipate what follow up questions they may have.  This will put you over the top in the customer service books, trust me.

In closing, I realize that I barely scratched the surface here but I hope I offered a few points that you can use to improve the communication level at your shop.  At the end of the day it is important to try to improve the one thing in your shop that is a roadblock to your success.  Communication can be an express lane, with information flowing quickly to those who need it; or a filter with each person along the way questioning something and stopping what they are doing.  It’s up to you to improve it.  Ask some questions, dig a little deeper; always insist on excellence every day.  You can do it!


9 Core Skills Every Apparel Decorator Should Master


When I go to trade shows or industry networking events, I’m constantly amazed at the completely different stories from people about how they got into this industry.  It’s one of my favorite questions to ask, as it reveals so much about the other person and where they are on their journey.  Some have a business background and started their shop because of an opportunity.  Some, like me, have an art background and got involved because it gave them a paycheck to go along with using their creative skills.  At the end of the discussion though, you find that everyone lacks something and we’re all searching to fill in that gap.  Great business people aren’t really good artists.  Creative people are often not very skilled in business.  Then there’s the actual craft of learning to print or embroider.  Below, I’ve ranked the top 9 core skills that I think every shop should work towards mastering, and maybe a tip or two along the way too.  If I left something out, or you don’t like my rankings – leave a comment!!  Participation is a good thing.

  1. Communication.  That’s right; I’m not ranking “skills as a printer” or “skills as an embroiderer” number one.  Here’s why.  I asked my 9 year old son the other day why he had two ears and only one mouth.  His response was classic for him, “so you can turn your head to listen while eating a cookie”.  Almost right.  As I’m sure everyone knows the old adage is “so you can listen twice as much as you speak”.  Effective communication in your shop by your entire staff is the number one skill that you should constantly focus on developing.  This is outward, customer facing; as well as throughout your shop with your staff.  Information has been, and always will be the key to success.  Most of us (sadly including me) aren’t really listening all the time; they are just waiting for the opportunity to reply.  Communication in your shop includes how you handle everyday tasks, but also how you write an e-mail, talk on the phone, hold a meeting, and build a work order.  Obtaining all of the correct information from your customer, and then processing it effectively so that it travels through your company on the work order is imperative for everyone to do their jobs correctly. Tip: For more discussion on work order skills – read this – Blueprint for Success: Your Work Order 
  2. Skills as a Printer/Embroider.  Yep, it’s number two.  Although many will argue it should be number one, for shop success Communication has to top it, as there are so many other facets and people involved than just printing/embroidering.  Still, at number two it ranks high on the list and importance.  This is all about craftsmanship.  Probably the most wonderful thing about the decorated apparel industry is the mixture of art and science for business.  You have to do things correctly in each step along the way in order to have your final production run come out consistently perfect.  That takes a tremendous amount of effort in developing those skills.  Standardizing how your shop operates, training your staff, and developing the core production skills will be the main drivers for success.  I see all too often printers/embroiderers accepting jobs that are beyond their skill level, reaching out on the internet forums for help at the midnight hour.  Think you might have to print on a 2-ply jacket, turn a CMYK job, run a puff embroidered hat, or print over hoodie seams?  Spend some time researching, attending a trade show how-to seminar, or just mess around with it in your shop and learn how.  Take some notes.  Keep a journal or log book and record what you did, what worked, and what didn’t.  Build a recipe for success that you can come back to six months later when someone requests something out of your norm.  By then, maybe you are an expert; or at least skilled enough to know if you can do the job or not.  Keep pushing the envelope with your skills, and insist on excellence and quality on your shop floor.  Regardless of your decoration method, the key is to keep improving, training your staff, and learning!
  3. Business or Marketing Plan.  I talk or e-mail a good number of shops all over the world these days.  Some have challenges that relate to their sales.  All want more business coming in, and are looking for a magic bullet to make that happen.  The first question I ask is always “Have you written a business plan?”  Surprisingly few have.  A good business plan is a living document (it can change!!) that outlines your company, your customers and set some obtainable goals for the next three to five years.  Who are your ideal customers?  How are you going to reach them?  Who is your competition?  What are your company strengths?  Weaknesses?  The business plan aims your company in the right direction and sets the course of your actions.  Instead of shot-gunning your efforts all over the place, the business plan can help guide your efforts with better precision as you will have the direction you need to work on achieving goals you have set.  A marketing plan is similar, but outlines the communication and branding efforts for your company to achieve your established business goals.  The value in spending your time and effort in writing these plans is that they give you the tools and direction to aggressively target your core customers and bring business in, rather than passively waiting for orders to trickle into your company.  Ready, Fire, Aim usually doesn’t work.  So, if you are reading this and you haven’t written a business plan and set some goals; what are you waiting for?  Do yourself (and your company) a favor and grab a cup of coffee and get busy!!
  4. Sound Business Decisions – Pricing.  I talk to a lot of shops, and read on the forums, regarding companies taking orders that aren’t priced to be profitable jobs.  “I’ll charge less now and increase the pricing on the client later”.  Be careful of what you give away too.  Some shops give their art, screens or some other item away for free. This strategy ultimately doesn’t always work, as when you try to bump up the price they will just go elsewhere.  Instead, have a rock solid methodology on your pricing and build your stable of clients that are based on your value proposition and don’t revolve around nickel and diming you to death.  You want to be around ten years from now right?  Be competitive, but your value proposition is what will drive your success.  Tip: for a more in depth look at this discussion read this – Race to the Bottom: Pricing Wars 
  5. Training.  The bedrock of running a successful business with employees is developing your core skills with a training program.  By hiring people with great attitudes, you can develop their skills over time by giving them the opportunity to grow and learn on the job.  This makes for a happier workforce, and a stronger company.  Key tasks within your business should have at least three people that know how to do something.  This could be quoting an order, separating an art file, digitizing a logo, registering screens on press, or shipping an order, etc.  You can’t have your entire business dependent on it coming down to the fact that if “Fred” (insert your key employees name here) is sick or on vacation that job can’t be produced today.  Tribal knowledge that is centered on skills can bring your company to a standstill.  A better plan is to list the top ten or twenty things each core skill that is needed in your company.  How do you do “x”?  Take pictures or screenshots.  Build a guidebook.  Use this as the key expectations for handling tasks successfully in each of your departments.  Give employees the opportunity to learn different tasks.  Tip: for a more in depth look at cross training read this – Why Cross Training is Critical for Your Shop 
  6. Counting & Keeping Track of Inventory.  We do a lot with math every day, mostly in multiples of twelve.  In receiving and in production, make sure the quantities add up to what they are supposed to be several times along the way. (Calculators are allowed! It’s ok…).  At a minimum your receiving team should count and verify everything the same day the goods come in.  Checked against the packing slip and your internal work order, every item on the job should be accounted for before anything is staged in production.  Any challenges should be reported immediately for action by the account rep or salesperson.  In production, the goods should be verified to be 100% complete before running the job.  During production, your crews should count and check off from the work order as shirts are being produced to verify that your quantities match up.  At the end of the run, all of the numbers should add up and be consistently the same.  Misprints and defective shirts during the run should be culled out and reported on the job too.  Why insist on perfect counting?  This is an easy question to answer from a pure economic standpoint.  Just think of each shirt as dollars instead of garments.  Would you misplace a box of money?  Smaller shops look at this problem and may not comprehend why it even exists…but the larger your shop grows, the more people that touch things along the way, the larger your schedule and stress increases.  Insist on excellence along the way.
  7. Creative Artwork.  A great art team can define a shop and send huge waves of business your way.  Most of your clients are not artists, and they are going to rely on you to provide them with artwork and ideas.  You need to wow them.  Finding, obtaining, and harnessing this creative talent can be a great thing for your company.  Unfortunately, learning the skills needed to design and separate artwork for this industry can take some time to develop.  They don’t teach simulated process separations in design school; it’s all on the job training.  Your art team should reflect the market that you serve, and understand and follow design trends and techniques.  Remember, production friendly art is always a good thing.  Some shops are known for their art, and have such a unique style or perfection with their work that people will come to them to use that skill.  Want more business?  Find a great art staff and pay them well.  Can’t afford to have artists on the payroll yet?  Find a network of great freelancers to use.  Unless you are a shirt distributor, shipping blank inventory isn’t part of the business model for most companies.  You are being judged on your ability to design, separate, digitize and create the most fantastic and wonderful art you can every day.  Tip: If you are new to this industry you might want to check out this article – Creating Art for t-shirts – Common Rookie Mistakes Defined 
  8. Continuous Improvement.  One core skill to possess is the desire to get better and constantly tweak how your shop operates.  This can be a people training initiative, centering some thought on workflow efficiency, or automating a task with some new equipment.  Every project that you start, finish and master will champion your efforts to improve your business.  Highly successful shops are always learning or developing something in order to obtain a competitive edge.  Think about your shop.  How many projects do you have right now, where you are trying something out?  A new chemical, ink, emulsion, process, technique…whatever.  The journey that matters is trying to find new ways that are better or cheaper.  This is hard work.  It requires teamwork, communication, leadership and brain power.  There is a lot of failure along the way too, and that’s important as that is where the learning comes in.  It’s ok to fail.  Keep trying, and eventually you will succeed!!  Also, this is where attending a trade show, taking a class, listening to your ink sales rep, posting a question on an internet forum or group, or using a consultant to resolve a challenge, can really pay off.  Other people have traveled down the same road you are traveling now.  How did they do it?  All it takes is a question.  Are you ready for the answer?  For more information read this: How to Increase Efficiency & Maximize Workflow
  9. Sustainability.  Yep, here I go again on this topic.  Why do I always talk about sustainability, and why should it be a core skill that every shop should master?  Besides being the right thing to do for health or environmental reasons, the main reason is purely financial.  Starting your sustainability journey will be the best choice you can make today to start lowering your operating costs.  Every shop uses energy.  Every shop uses materials.  Every shop can recycle.  We are essentially manufacturers, as we have production and use commodities to make things and ship orders.  This is an easy thing to talk about, but harder in reality as it takes work, thought, time and actual leadership to complete.  Do you want to make more money at the end of the year?  A sustainability program is an effective tool to lower your operating costs.  To get started, get a committee together in your shop and brainstorm on what would be a few easy projects to score some quick touchdowns.  Get an energy audit from your local utility, start a recycling program, look to see if you can reduce some of your materials you consume, maybe even invest in new equipment that will operate more efficiently and with less cost.  Depending on your geographic area, there is grant money available or low interest loans that you can qualify for if you investigate them.  I highly recommend that you look into getting third party certified by the Sustainable Green Printing Partnership (SGP) –   Tip: for a more in depth look at sustainability read this article – Why a Sustainability Program Makes Economic Sense for Your Shop

So, did I cover everything that would make your list?  What did I miss?  Feel free to comment and let’s have a discussion!!  Want to see how I run Visual Impressions?  Check out our Pinterest board Behind the Curtain at a T-shirt Shop