Build Your Business:

The Importance of Your Supply Chain

Schedule time in your shop for demos of new products, so your staff has an opportuinity to learn the proper usage and to offer feedback on the product.

June 2, 2014

There is one thing in common that all shops in this industry share, and it is the reliance on our supply chain. We all need ink, screens, emulsion, shirts and a multitude of other products to keep our shops going.

If you’ve been in business for any length of time, salespeople certainly have called you. Sometimes you make time for them, sometimes not. This article is about understanding the need to develop better relationships with your suppliers, why you should listen to that sales pitch, and how your supply chain can help your business grow and operate more effectively.

Suppliers: A Love / Hate Relationship
Every day, shops across the nation will have a salesperson drop in or call to schedule an appointment to promote their wares. Do you take that call or schedule that appointment? A lot of shops don’t. They are too “busy” trying to get the day’s workload produced and out the door. They already are stocked with what the salesperson is selling, so why bother? Besides, “we like the other company’s stuff better.” Here’s why that’s wrong:

     1. Information. It’s always better to get the information, try a new product, review a new pricing opportunity or understand other options. This is how your shop stays relevant and competitive in the marketplace. Suppliers are always trying to gain market share, and they do so by developing new products, techniques or even pricing discounts. You can’t make a good business decision if you don’t have the information. Does this make you disloyal to that salesperson with whom you already have a relationship? No. It makes you a good businessperson to be open to other opportunities and keep the information flowing your way so you can make good decisions for your company.

     2. Business Is Relationship Driven. We’re not a bunch of robots. Our customers rely on our expertise in this industry to solve problems, and sooner or later they are going to drop a big one on our heads. Ouch! How are you going to solve it? Sure, you can look it up online and spend an hour trying to decipher what “might” work. Or, you can just dial your salesperson and, in five minutes, have the solution on the way. Your suppliers don’t just warehouse inventory, they are also stocked full of industry best practices, as they are inside other shops, too. “What’s the best way to…?” They probably know the answer. So when you don’t take that meeting because you are too busy, you aren’t preparing yourself for that nuclear bomb that’s going to land in about a month. Developing that relationship takes time. Discussing your business needs with salespeople is the best way to develop this understanding so they can help you.

     3. Competition is a Good Thing. Not all companies last or are built the same. Sometimes, a product line you have counted on for years is discontinued. New products are developed that work better. If there’s one constant in the universe, it’s change. Suppliers in the decorated apparel industry are all in competition for your business, and that’s to your advantage. Need to solve the dye-migration challenge with a better underbase? Need an emulsion that will expose faster? Need a way to screen print without using masking tape around the inside of the frame, or the ability to clean 200 frames with one person before lunch? These answers, and more, are available right now. How do I know? Because these were my questions.

Maximizing Your Relationship
Companies in your supply chain will offer training on their products to help your shop become stronger. It’s a relatively easy request to have granted, as the companies want you to continue to use their products or services, and getting your staff to understand how to properly do so is to their advantage. This doesn’t happen at the drop of a hat, and takes some coordination for scheduling for all parties involved. Some thoughts:

     1. Hold a class. I had my shop’s ink rep come in and teach my customer service staff the importance of an underbase, and basic theory on dye-migration for polyester and performance fabrics. We do “lunch and learns,” where we will bring in lunch for everyone and hold an expanded discussion on a topic. The obvious benefit is that your employees get the information they need to become knowledgeable in different facets of the industry, but your supplier also will appreciate the opportunity to discuss their products at length and solidify their relationship with you.

     2. Do a demo. Interested in a new product? Many suppliers will give you small quantities to try for free. Sometimes though, you may also want to schedule some time in the actual departments in which the product will be used so that you can be assured that it is being tested thoroughly and with proper usage. After the demo, be sure to follow up with your staff on their opinions of the product. Did it perform to expectations? What did they like? What did they not like? Don’t just shove products out there without the interaction from your staff; after all, they are the ones using them every day.

     3. Attend a Trade Show. One of the great things about going to a trade show is that just about every one of your suppliers will be in one location. They may have new products to present, and will often have short “how-to” demonstrations in their booths. A good number of times, other shop owners or managers will be standing there and you may be surprised to learn that they are struggling with the same challenges that give you headaches. Comparing notes and joining in off-the-cuff discussions with suppliers and other shops can lead to some interesting solutions by everyone. Sign up today for the next Imprinted Sportswear Shows event.

Final Thoughts
Your supply chain is the life-blood of your operations. Keep it healthy and working toward your goals of continuous improvement by involving your salespeople with the opportunity to help resolve your challenges. Some tips that have helped me along the way:
     1. Too busy for that appointment today? Schedule it out late in the week or next week. Put it on the calendar.
     2. Involve your department heads. Don’t just make all the decisions yourself. Get the people that have to use the equipment, product or new method involved in the testing and discussion early in the process. It’s their pain you are trying to solve, so they should have a say in why something is going to be purchased.

     3. Look for unintended consequences in switching something. This is where testing a product really helps you understand it, as you can discover that it smells weird, doesn’t work on one type of shirt or causes too much trouble in another department. Solving one problem and creating three more isn’t being effective.

     4. If you are trying something new, make sure you are using it properly by having everyone involved. Sure, your manager may have been the one the salesperson trained, but now he has pawned it off onto his staff and only spent three minutes showing them how to use it. Afterwards, the feedback that is delivered is that the product doesn’t work, when in reality your people just weren’t trained correctly.

     5. Not all salespeople are created equal. Some are extremely helpful and can really assist you in resolving your challenges, as they’ve traveled that road before or will launch a full-scale assault on finding a solution. Some are used-car salespeople and just want a quick buck. If you encounter the latter, be sure to see if you can get someone else or there may be other options, as the company they are representing may have something that might work for you. Don’t settle.

     6. If you are a smaller shop, call your distributors and ask for a representative to make an appointment. Explain your business model, market and goals. All the large shops that all salespeople covet were usually at one time very small, just like yours. Most have had the same salespeople calling on them since their first month in business. A good many will tell you that “so and so” taught me everything I know! Don’t be afraid to ask questions or speak up and say you need help.

     7. If someone helps you, thank that person. Let their sales managers know you appreciate their extra effort. Post it on social media. This doesn’t make you a stooge…it’s just good manners.

I can’t end the article without thanking all the salespeople and reps that have helped me along the way over a few decades in this business. Some aren’t in the industry any longer, some still call on me and some I only see at trade shows. I can’t name you here in this article, but you know who you are.

Thank you again!

Marshall Atkinson is the chief operating officer of Visual Impressions Inc., and Ink to the People, Milwaukee, Wis. A frequent contributor to Impressions, Marshall also lectures on sustainability at Imprinted Sportswear Shows (ISS) events and has participated in numerous industry webinar panel discussions. He is on the board of directors for the Sustainable Green Printing Partnership (SGP), and serves on the SGIA Leadership Committee. You can follow him on Twitter @atkinsontshirt  or his blog,