Recently an epiphany of epic proportions struck me smack between the eyes: I’m nuts to be in a business as crazy as this one. This realization came as I was looking for a pen and the client didn’t know the brand, only that it was blue, made of plastic and had a clip! I started thinking about how much we must know to succeed in this business. To find just the right pen for a customer, we must have an overall grip (pun intended) on pens and know the difference between a ballpoint, roller ball, gel and fountain pen. We must know when to recommend a stick pen versus an upscale, brand name pen costing an arm and a leg. Does the customer need packaging and will the pen be silk-screened, laser-engraved or etched and do they have the correct art file needed? And that’s just a sampling of what we need to know to keep our families from living in old dishwasher cartons under a bridge. Below are six areas of knowledge we must have to stay competent and be relevant —product knowledge, imprint methods, art and graphics, color, wearables and, last but not least, technology.
Product Knowledge: The last thing I want to be is an order taker, but even order takers have to have some basic product knowledge. There are hundreds of thousands of products we can source, sell, imprint and deliver to our customers. Although I’ll probably never sell more than a few hundred of those, I better have a basic idea of all of them because inevitably my clients will want the ones I know nothing about. Like the high-tech clock that’s water resistant up to 12 meters (why?) with a compass, comb and meat thermometer incorporated into the design.
Imprint Methods: Knowledge in this area separates the wheat from the chaff. When our profession was but a cottage industry you could either silkscreen an item or you could silkscreen an item. Your choice! Today, you can silkscreen, embroider, engrave, hot stamp, etch, laser-etch, acid-etch, pad print or offset print. You can deboss, emboss, use a rubber patch or a metal logo; you can use a decal, a transfer or (heaven forbid) sell something blank. The imprint method you choose will depend a great deal on the imprinted product’s material. You can’t laser-etch plastic or embroider a stainless steel mug, at least not yet.
Art And Graphics: In the past, factories needed clean, black-and-white, camera-ready art on glossy white paper. Now if you mention camera-ready art to a supplier you’ll get that look of “What cornfield did you come from?” 99% of all art is digital so it can be e-mailed and tie up your computer for several hours because of its size. For most decorating processes, art typically needs to be a vector EPS file in Adobe Illustrator or Photoshop. Don’t send a TIF, GIF, bitmap or Word file and remember JPEG files and screen shots of a logo from the Web are the business card and stationery equivalents of days gone by. A basic understanding of art is imperative to be successful in this business.
Color: Once there was just the basic palette of primary colors. Then Crayola® came out with the 64-pack of crayons and colors like cadet blue, bittersweet, hot magenta and radical red. Because thistle is somewhat difficult to define as a color, we came to rely on something called the PANTONE® Color Formula Guide (a.k.a. the PMS chart). I suspect you’ve gotten really strange looks when you casually asked a client what their PMS color was, right? Until you explain PMS stands for PANTONE Matching System and is a way of matching ink colors, you’re going to get weird looks. And how many times have you found yourself holding a PMS chart up to a piece of stationery or a business card trying to match the color and decide whether it’s PMS 291 or 296, coated or uncoated and whether you can get away with using the factory’s stock PMS 287? And do you know what the PANTONE color of the year is? Emerald 17-5641, which makes me think of the Wizard of Oz for some reason.
Wearables: Many years ago, cotton T-shirts, neon hats and nylon coaches jackets were about the only wearables and materials I sold. Now, you can get jersey, piqué, mercerized, double-mercerized (once wasn’t enough), cotton, Pima cotton, Egyptian cotton, nylon, silk, polyester, performance fabrics and micro-mesh to name just a few. And if the obsolescence of a new computer is between 12 and 18 months, it’s anywhere from six hours to six days for clothing. But from T-shirts to tank tops, windbreakers to jackets, golf shirts to camp shirts we’re expected to be the experts. Wearables can be one of the hardest areas to master because of the variety of garments, fabrics, styles and manufacturers. If you’re good at selling wearables, you’re a giant step ahead of most in this business.
Technology: Years ago when the PC was but a few years old and faxes were non-existent my first computer was an Apple IIE. It was basically a glorified and complicated electric typewriter. Then came faxes followed by cell phones, even more complicated computers and software, and in the mid-’90s the beginnings of the Internet, which has changed our lives and businesses forever. Unless you r have an affinity for computers and lots of free time, trying to keep up with all aspects of technology is like trying to keep up with the movements of every star in the universe—impossible. My recommendation is to keep up with what you need and what you think you might need in the future. It takes copious amounts of time to stay current much less ahead of the game, but the alternative is to look like a Commodore 64 computer in a world of iThis, that and the other.
I have a client looking for a thousand pink baseballs imprinted in four-color process in two locations using a JPEG photo she has. The baseballs need to tie-in with a pink interlock jersey in sizes XS – 10XL and she needs it all in three days. I’m nuts to be in a business as crazy as this one, but I love it.