Posted by: brandextenders | February 26, 2010

Gotta Love this Business

Recently an epiphany of epic proportions hit 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 specific pen. The client didn’t know its name or even who made it—only that it was blue, made of plastic and had a clip! This got me thinking about how much we must know in order to do well in this business. To find just the right pen for a customer, we must have an overall grip (no pun intended) on pens and know the difference between a ballpoint, roller ball, gel and fountain pen. We must know when to recommend a basic stick pen versus an upscale, retail-brand pen costing an arm and a leg. What supplier will you use? Does the customer need packaging? What about the imprint method: silk screened, laser-engraved or etched? And what are the benefits and drawbacks of each method? Does the customer have the correct art file needed for any of these imprint methods?Whew, I’m already tired and that’s just a sampling of what we need to know to bring home the bacon and keep our families from living in old dishwasher cartons under a bridge. After giving it some thought, however, I came up with six areas of knowledge we must have to be consultants to our customers—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. (You know, like the high-tech-looking clock sitting on your desk or the bathtub at home—because it’s water resistant up to 12 meters—with a gel pen and compass incorporated into the design as well as a lighter, comb and meat thermometer.)

Imprint Methods: Knowledge in this area separates the wheat from the chaff. Years ago, 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 not only silkscreen but also 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!) and if you offer those as choices, even your client will know you’re not the brightest bulb in the pack!

Art And Graphics: In the past, factories needed clean, black-and-white, camera-ready art—not a business card or stationery, but the art you still see from time-to-time now (mostly in museums) on glossy white paper. Now if you mention camera-ready art to a supplier (especially someone not in the business very long), you will probably get that look of “What cornfield did you come from?” because a high percentage of all art is digital. And it can be e-mailed to a supplier and tie up your computer several hours because the file is so large. Instead of camera-ready art, it’s digitally compatible art. For most decorating processes, art typically needs to be a vectored EPS file in Quark, Adobe Illustrator or Freehand and sometimes (although they’ll look down on you) Corel Draw. 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. To stay in this business, you better get a handle on digital art soon, or you’ll be the proverbial dinosaur in our industry.

Color: It was easy when 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 took over our lives. Because suppliers wouldn’t have a clue what color we meant if we said to imprint in thistle, we came to rely on something called the PANTONE® Color Formula Guide (a.k.a. the PMS chart).Now, be honest. You’ve gotten a really strange look at least once in your career when you casually asked a client what the PMS color was, right? It doesn’t matter if it’s a man or woman; until you explain PMS stands for PANTONE Matching System and is a way of matching ink colors, you are going to get those weird looks from the uneducated. And how many times have you found yourself holding a PMS chart up to a piece of stationery or a business card and trying to match the color only to be stuck over whether it’s PMS 291 or 296, coated or uncoated stock (and you wonder if you can get away with using the factory’s stock ink color of PMS 287)? Color matters, and if you get it wrong, you may lose a client to someone more color savvy than you.

Wearables: When I first started selling promotional products 17 years ago, T-shirts, neon hats and coaches jackets were about the only wearables I sold. Now, the choices are mind-boggling. If your client asks for it, you can get it in jersey, piqué, interlock, mercerized, double-mercerized (once wasn’t enough), cotton, pima cotton, Egyptian cotton, nylon, silk, polyester, polynosic and tencel. Keeping up with what’s popular isn’t easy either. If the obsolescence of a new computer is somewhere between 12 and 18 months, it’s anywhere from six days to six months for clothing. But, from T-shirts to tank tops, windbreakers to jackets and golf shirts to camp shirts, we’re expected to be the experts. I suspect wearables is one of the hardest areas to master simply 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 who know there is a difference between an Egyptian cotton and polynosic T-shirt but just aren’t sure what it is!

Technology: When I started in this business, the PC was but a few years old and faxes were non-existent to the masses. My first computer was an Apple IIE I found in a corner of the warehouse where I worked. It was basically a glorified and complicated electric typewriter. Then came faxes followed by cell phones, even more complicated computers and software, and, finally, in the mid-’90s the beginnings of the Internet, which would change our lives and businesses forever. Unless you really 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. I just taught myself PowerPoint because more and more clients ask for proposals in that format. It makes it easier to digest and forward on to others in the decision loop. On the other hand, I’ll most likely never need something like CAD/CAM to do my job.So, the question is how do we keep up with all of this stuff? Here are my thoughts: attend regional shows, and take all the classes you can with the ultimate goal of earning your CAS then MAS designation. And volunteer with your regional association or at the national level to meet others in this crazy business and learn from them. I’ve made many new friends working with my regional association and as a delegate and board member of RAC.

I have also learned that we all face the same challenges, just in different locales of the country.And now, I need to put some of my 17 years of knowledge to work. I have a client looking for a thousand pink baseballs to imprint in four-color process in two locations, and the best she can offer me is a JPEG of the art. She wants the baseballs to tie in with a pink interlock jersey in sizes XS-4XL and she needs them in three days. Gotta love this business!

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