Fabric graphics experts outline three important themes that allow their digital printing businesses to thrive.
By Holly O’Dell
Whether you operate a small print shop or oversee hundreds of orders a day, those who work in the fabric graphics industry know that it can be a very competitive—even cutthroat—business. We talked to printers and other industry experts about making smart business decisions, and they have identified three necessary factors in making your shop effective and profitable.
Build on customer service
It sounds obvious—quality customer service translates into good business. But are you using every tool at your disposal? “Customer service starts with up-front communication,” says Rich Thompson of AdGraphics in Pompano Beach, Fla., which uses proprietary software to follow a project from the moment a customer inquires about one. “We provide them a quote, and then if they proceed with the job, we can track the different stages it’s in and keep customers apprised of where we are in the process.”
“Good customer service comes through a process of educating the client from the beginning,” adds Bruce Flora of Kiteman Productions Inc. in Kissimmee, Fla. “We ask a lot of questions like how they’re going to use the banner, whether they’re going to be used inside or outside, how long the product will be outdoors, what size banner they need and so on.”
A thorough understanding of your customers and their projects can lead to better customer service. “Each customer is different, but you need to have a conversation with them so you know their expectations,” says Jan Schieffer, managing director of the Fabric Graphics Association, a division of the Industrial Fabrics Association International. “Don’t be afraid to ask questions. When you understand the project, the customer knows what you can deliver.”
What’s more, printers should take care not to oversell their services. “When a customer says they want a black with a multicolor print backdrop, and you know you can’t deliver a true black, you are not on the same page,” Schieffer notes.
According to David King of MarketKing LLC in Lancaster, Mass., consistency contributes to good customer service. “Each project is set up and run the same way,” he says. “First, we determine what results the client wants from their graphics, then the solution is determined and quoted to the client.” King then sends the projects in PDF form to the client for approval. “Steps are taken to ensure we match the PMS colors, and each step of the way we have a quality control process.”
Of course, working with customers is not without its obstacles. “Everybody wants everything yesterday,” Flora says. “It’s a high-speed world that way because with some of these events, things don’t get figured out until close to the start of the event.”
In particular, Flora has clients who don’t understand the importance of deadlines. “One of our biggest challenges is getting customers to understand how long the process takes and why it’s so important to not wait until the last minute,” he says. For instance, if a customer deems that there are problems with the colors, there may not be time to address the situation. “There’s only so far we can go before it’s too late and we just can’t get these things done on time. We have told customers, ‘If we don’t have the file by a certain time, you will probably get rush charges.’
Further delaying projects in some instances is the point person assigned by the client. “Often, the people we are working with are in the middle,” Flora notes. “They’re either in the graphics department or another department that does not represent the real end user. So we will send them design samples, and then we have to wait another day for feedback because they’re going back and forth on their end.”
Of equal importance to customer service is designating a main contact from the printer’s end. In the case of Fabric Images in Elgin, Ill., the company assigns a project manager to each job as a liaison between the client and the different departments.
“We do everything in-house, so therefore the project manager knows where all the artwork is, where it is once it gets into pre-press, when it’s going over to the transfer machines and what sewing is doing to prepare materials,” says Pat Hayes, chairman of Fabric Images, adding that project managers take a proactive approach. “They don’t wait for the customer to call them. They’re communicating with clients on a daily basis.”
Nurture existing relationships
Regular customers require the same amount of attention that new ones do. As such, nurturing these existing relationships builds trust—and repeat business. “Stay in touch with the customer on a regular basis, and always deliver what you say you will do,” King recommends. “If there is an issue, always fix it and never say, ‘Who is going to pay for this?’ Understand that the client does not care how you get the job done. They just want results.”
Thompson agrees. Taking care of repeat customers means “making sure they are satisfied at all times, and when they are not, you do what you need to do to make things right,” he says, noting that dealing with customers, especially those who are very demanding, takes patience and extra effort. “Everybody will have problems at some point, but it’s about how you respond. You can’t give customers an attitude when they ask questions. You need to step up to the plate and make them happy.”
Even if customers have infrequent projects, it’s crucial to stay in contact. “If a company does only one trade show exhibit every two years, it’s hard to build a relationship,” Schieffer acknowledges. “But you can keep in front of customers by telling them about the other services you offer. Hopefully, they will think about you for their next job.” She suggests keeping track of customers through press releases, news stories or their community involvement.
Exceeding expectations through value-added services can lead to better relationships. For example, Kiteman Productions will ask a client to send a picture of where they envision the banners going. “Our graphics department will superimpose the banners into that photograph and make them curve like they’re blowing in the wind,” Flora explains. “We also do a lot of before-and-after shots where we can show people the impact that banners can make.”
Market your services
To attain new customers, marketing is a must. Attending trade shows and developing targeted advertising in trade publications and on websites are two common ways to get name recognition. “It helps to educate potential customers because they may not know about adding graphics to an awning and that it will last outdoors,” Thompson says.
Many fabric graphics printers and service providers rely on word of mouth. “That’s how I get most of my customers,” King notes, but he doesn’t stop there. “They then go to my website and see the projects I have done, and this sells them on my services. My website is crucial to my success.”
Don’t be afraid to share your success stories, either. “If you can relate what you did for a customer and how they felt about the project, it’s a great way to promote your company,” says Schieffer, who encourages that printers have a lot of photos of successful jobs on hand to share.
“Our marketing is our own product,” Flora adds. “I received a call from someone in England who had seen our banners at Walt Disney World and they asked if we could supply them with banners.”
Differentiating yourself from competitors can give you a marketing advantage. “You just have to find that one strength you are good at, and then play on that point,” Schieffer says. For instance, a special designation, such as green certification, can appeal to those customers looking to print sustainably. Furthermore, IFAI offers the Master Fabric Craftsman Certification, Fabric Graphics specialty. The MFC program provides recognition for superior skills and knowledge in all phases of product design, craftsmanship and fabrication.
Entering awards competitions allows printers to market their abilities to potential customers. Schieffer cites the IFAI International Achievement Awards. “Fabric graphics companies can submit their projects with photos to tell a story,” she says. Winning projects receive media exposure, including press releases written and distributed to trade and consumer media outlets.
From that initial contact with a potential client to the end of a project and beyond, fabric graphics printers and service providers that take care of their customers—both old and new—have a better chance of strengthening their business. “It’s about totally understanding everything the customer wants, and then matching their desires with your capabilities to give them the best end result,” Hayes says.