Build Your Business:

Keys to Success with Rush Orders

November 12, 2012

It’s coming, whether you are ready for it or not: the Rush Order Bombshell. You know the one I’m talking about — it’s that job that’s critical to one of your key clients, and it may just be over the edge of “Can We Pull This Off?”

Every shop goes through this crisis and, if you’ve built up your stable of clients over the years, you may find yourself going through it on a regular basis. That can be a good thing, as it means you’ve become the “go-to” shop that can get things done. Let’s face it: it’s in our DNA to try to accept every job that comes our way, as we’re all secretly scared we’ll never get another one.  So whether you are an industry newbie, or a longtime veteran, let’s look at some key traits that successful shops have when handling these types of orders.

Teamwork. Great apparel decorating shops have staffs that work together and will pitch in when needed to get an order shipped. This usually means they’ll roll up their sleeves and do some work that may be outside of their comfort zones. Examples could be customer service reps hang-tagging shirts, an artist cutting pellons in embroidery, the sales guy helping shrink-wrap the pallet in shipping — whatever it takes, as there’s a time crunch for the order and help is needed. I’ve even seen company owners applying hologram stickers to shirts as they come down the dryer belt. If you have really great team members, you barely even have to ask. They will just want to lend a hand. If that sounds like your company, then you are lucky, as you have a great culture of execution established already. Congratulations!

However, some companies don’t have that culture — or maybe it’s not fully embedded. There may be some mistrust, as a sales guy will want you to “do me a favor” to get the work scheduled, or the customer service rep will have to resort to baking cookies to bribe the production team to get a job out the door. Those types of situations happen, since the “front office” usually doesn’t understand the production end of things and the challenges that go with it. Instead of sweet-talking their way through things, they should work together to understand what’s involved with building a production schedule that works. With a rush order situation, the order usually will get produced, but another job that was scheduled gets moved out or ships late because of it. With a little bit of hard work, some training and a lot of communication and empathy you can make your company run easier. Here’s how:

Know Thyself. In order to get a firm grasp on how to introduce a rush order to your schedule, it’s crucial that you know your limitations and capabilities. Every shop is different, so I can’t list them here, but you should know the average production rate for your shop per hour for printing or embroidery, setup times, how long it takes to digitize, create art, burn screens or any basic task associated with the work your company does. These are the basic guidelines that you will use to determine the timeframe needed for that crazy rush order that your client just called you about. Get all the facts from the customer and then work backwards to let him know when the apparel blanks need to arrive, the art needs to be approved and — most importantly — how long the job will take to run to make the order available to be picked up or shipped.

Set Expectations. You’ll need to set expectations both internally and externally for rush orders. For internal expectations, it’s important that everyone in the company has a clear understanding of what’s expected. What are the time deadlines, work details, amount of labor needed or details that are crucial to the order? The sales or account representatives need to pull these out from the client when quoting the order, so that others can ensure adequate planning and preparation. How you communicate and the level of detail included on the work order starts the job off on the right foot, as all the information needs to be available and accurate. Of course, your staff also will need training on how to read the work order and to make crucial decisions based on the information included.

Ideally, if your scheduling system is set up correctly, the rush order will be clearly identified and can stand out from other orders. This can happen with a special job jacket, note in the system (we use a $ in front of the client’s P.O. number for easy searching with our computer system), different colored paper, a bright sticker or some other visual identifier. This is a great practice because it sets the expectation of “Work On Me First” as the job travels throughout your company. If you’ve trained your staff to look for this signal, it makes everything easier, as they don’t have to be told what to do.

For external communications with your client, it’s imperative that they understand the challenges you are facing by accepting their jobs with less-than-optimum time parameters. Have them agree on some expectations from you regarding what you need to make the order ship on time. For example, if you need a form filled out, art approved, goods delivered or any number of things from the client, set time deadlines for each of these requirements — if possible — and explain why. Most people don’t understand how or why certain things happen in your shop, and how long many tasks take. If you ever find yourself waiting on an art approval from the client so you can burn screens, or if you’re waiting on that case of black burn-out T-shirts to arrive before you can start printing, these are the reasons you have to set the expectations with the client about getting these items to you in time for you to complete the work. Make sure you also follow up if these items aren’t being delivered from the client. There’s nothing worse than waiting on an art approval from the client for a rush order, only to find out later that it got hung up in that person’s outbox and now your screen room staff has gone home. Make the phone call and follow up.

Also, sometimes a customer will hand you a job that is beyond your capabilities. Maybe you are too booked up, there’s not enough time to physically produce the job or the inventory isn’t available. In this instance, the worst thing you can do is say “No.” This is too negative and sets the tone that your company doesn’t want the business. Instead, offer a solution based on what you can accomplish. For example, if your client asked for 1,000 one-color T-shirts to be printed and ready by lunch, maybe your retort would be, “If you approved the art by 9:30 a.m., we could fit this in and print 250 by the end of the day with the rest available tomorrow.” Give customers an option and let them see that you are trying to work it out. Sometimes on a big rush order, the client only needs a portion right away and the rest are for later use. Find and manage that fraction first, and deliver the rest later.

Show Me the Benjamins. A rush order also can be an opportunity for you to charge more for your work.  Typically, there’s a lot of extra effort involved in pushing this type of order through. You’ll have more in-person communication, maybe some meetings and — in some cases — overtime labor.  During the quoting/accepting phase of the job, your sales or customer service representatives will need to work closely with the production staff to determine if there will be any extra labor or overtime needed to meet the deadline. If so, make sure your client agrees to any fees or extra costs up front and in writing. Don’t just have a phone conversation, as you’ll need that physical proof when the accounts-payable and accounts-receivable employees start arguing about the invoice later. If your fees or added costs are fair and proportionally charged based on the work, then you shouldn’t have any problem getting the customer to agree to them. People are accustomed to paying more for rush service.

Charging for rush orders also can help weed out the “fake” rush orders. From time to time, you’ll notice that once you apply a rush fee to an order that has a less-than-minimum production time frame, the customer may indicate that your normal turnaround is fine. They may have just wanted it sooner, but aren’t willing to pay for that extra level of service. This is a good thing, as it takes everyone off the red alert and your staff can go back to normal duties.

Planning. Since rush orders will happen occasionally, one great thing to do is to sit down with your team and plan for the occasion, just like a fire drill. Work out the logistics of the process with the people who will have to come together and execute. How will you communicate? Who is the point person? How will the job be noted in your system? What problems do we always have with rush orders, and what do we need to resolve that challenge? Have your sales and customer service reps learn and understand your production schedule so that they can know whether there’s availability on any given day.

Some shops dedicate special teams or equipment for hot jobs. They have enough rush work to dedicate that logistic to move through production this way. Others dish out all the rush orders equally each morning, so that these are the first jobs up on the presses when the shift starts. Regardless of how your team schedules this work, it’s vital that you work backwards to make sure you have the logistics, support, communication and teamwork in place.

Execution.  While it seems right to work faster on a rush job, this is when a lot of mistakes happen. Slowing down, reading and comprehending the instructions, and what’s required a moment or two before beginning your task, will be incredibly beneficial. There’s no sense in rocketing a million miles an hour into a task, only to discover that you forgot to choke the underbase plate, burned the screen on the wrong mesh, miscounted the larges or started printing the shirts on the wrong side, etc.  When people get stressed, one of the first things they lose is the ability to focus. That’s why it’s important to have great communication, lots of detail on the work order about the job at hand, and someone quarterbacking the process to ensure everything is being handled properly and smoothly.

I’m a big believer in the Ronald Reagan “trust-but-verify” system of following up. If you’ve trained your staff on what to do — and they are competent in their roles within your company — you shouldn’t have any worries. However, it always makes sense to follow up to ensure everything is functioning properly.

Also, for rush jobs, if you can get ahead with anything by completing a task beforehand, do it. If the job is a reorder, burn the screens early; don’t wait until the shirts arrive. If you know the PMS colors for the ink, make sure they are mixed or ready and waiting by the press. Anything you can do while you are waiting on another component of the job to be completed will maximize your progress.

Finally, some rush orders are crazier than others. I’ve experienced a few that required renting a truck or buying a plane ticket because overnight delivery just wasn’t fast enough. Whatever it takes, factor it into the cost of the job and move forward.  Rush orders are great for cementing a relationship with a customer, as some shops just can’t pull off the logistics. Whatever the case for your rush orders, just make sure you thank your team — as they are the ones that make you look good.

Marshall Atkinson is the chief operating officer of Visual Impressions Inc., and Ink to the People, Milwaukee. Atkinson has lectured on sustainability at ISS trade shows, and webinar industry panel discussions regarding the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act (CPSIA).  For more information or to comment on this article, email Marshall at or follow him on Twitter at @atkinsontshirt