Build Your Business:

How Shop Owners Can Think Like a Customer

September 7, 2016

As a shop owner or staff member who is daily entrenched in the decorated apparel business, you probably no longer think about the minutiae involved in the production process for great-looking apparel.

Sorting and counting hundreds of garments has become methodical and easy. When you see one vibrant color on a black shirt, you know it’s really two. Your shop is your second home, and is as familiar as the back of your hand.

Many of the things we take for granted are exciting and fascinating for our customers, who only get to dip their toes into the world of customized apparel. Their focus is less likely on the weeks of careful work required to produce the final product and more so on the moment when the box is opened to reveal their custom products.  

In a business built on clearly communicated details, things are bound to go awry at some point. Customers are looking for a decorator they can trust. After all, they are spending a chunk of their hard-earned money on something they can’t return.

Plenty of other shops can lay down ink or stitch designs, so customers have choices for where to take their business.

Why should they work with you? If you’re the best, it’s because you think about what your customers want and need before they do.

Staying a step ahead of them requires you to consider your shop, the process and the final product from their unique point of view. Every interaction — direct and indirect — is a chance to serve them. It’s the little things that count, as peace of mind is worth its weight in gold. Consider the following three scenarios that affect shops of all specialties and sizes.

1. Your Shop
Your Interpretation: Tomorrow’s shirts lying around to be inventoried, a stack of invoices to be filed and lint that is a result of production.

Customer Interpretation: A cluttered,  dirty mess.

Your shop is an extension of you, and many high-value customers are likely to be turned off by a workspace that appears to be in disarray. Sure, you know all the hard and dirty work that is necessary to keep your business running. It seems silly to expect five-star levels of cleanliness.

Step back and think like a customer. If your press is covered in lint and ink; a pile of messed-up shirts are in the corner; and a foot-high stack of jumbled papers sits on the front desk, customers may second-guess what their finished shirts will look like.

Taking the extra time to tidy up your shop shows your customers that you’re a professional, even if you work out of your garage. By doing something as simple as folding your test print shirts neatly, you can take what customers see as possible mistakes and transform them into useful production tools.

2. Your Process
Your Interpretation: A proof is a representation of the final products.

Customer Interpretation: What every final piece will look like.

The critical stage of artwork and proof approval is your last chance to get ahead of 
possible issues. As an experienced professional, you know that mockups and proofs are just a representation of the final products, and that your “canvases” can vary in size, shape and color within a single order.  

Customers, however, may not consider variations in design across sizes, colors or materials. When they lay all the garments out, will they be surprised by how small the design looks on a 2XL shirt, or the way their logo looks from one shirt color to the next?  Talking through the application of your customers’ designs and possible variations in their final products will save you both headaches down the road.

For example, a two-minute conversation about design proportion may help them see the value of a second set of screens rather than feeling upcharged for a service they don’t fully understand.

3. Your Final Product

Your Interpretation: A complete order in the box ready for on-time delivery.

Customer Interpretation: A jumbled mess that will take forever to organize.

Putting shirts into a box for delivery generally is a routine process for decorators. 
If your shop prints thousands of garments a day or you’re on a tight deadline, you and your staff may be content with them just making it into the box.  

It’s easy to think that just because the print or embroidery looks good, the customer will be happy. From your customers’ point of view, this is really just the beginning. Opening a box of shirts packed without care sends the message that their orders or time may not be important to you.

Before throwing shirts into boxes, think about the entire order and how customers will deal with them on their end. Those in charge of ordering apparel often are responsible for many other aspects of an organization or event and have a million things to do. They don’t want to be overwhelmed by the hundreds of shirts they now will have to count and organize.

If shirts arrive neatly folded with packing slips for each clearly labeled box, their time now can be spent on other important things. Customers will 
remember that feeling of ease when it is time to choose a printer again.

No matter how large or small your business is, it is important to step away from your routine,  think from your customer’s perspective and see things through their eyes. If done strategically and throughout the entire process, it can eliminate problems before they arise, while also increasing customer satisfaction.  

When problems do arise with an order, always be patient with your customers. Never assume they have prior knowledge of the processes and challenges unique to apparel decoration — and your shop, in particular. Invite customers further into the 
process, and consider asking for feedback on what interaction, big or small, could improve their experience next time.

Keirstin Townsend is the co-founder and operator of The Pittsburgh Shirt Co. She specializes in shop logistics and order management, with a passion for improving ladies’ apparel sales interactions. For more information or to contact Keirstin, email