Turning Whiners Into Winners

Stack of blue t-shirts - Marshall Atkinson

I stumbled onto a great quote by Teddy Roosevelt the other day “Complaining about a problem without proposing a solution is called whining.”

Love that.  It’s such a perfect quote for the decorated apparel industry.  How many whiners do you think you are surrounded by on a daily basis?  It seems all we do is complain.  Hell, I’m one of them!  Ha!  Most of my blog articles start off with some sort of bitching.  It’s ok.

So let’s explore the situation a bit.  How do we get to the point that we not only recognize the problem that someone is complaining about, but get that person to help suggest the solution?  What do you think are the top things people whine about in this industry?  Well, good thing I’ve prepared a list…


“Our pricing is too high!  We’re losing business!  A customer just went with a quote that was cheaper!”  Have you ever said that?  Maybe you’ve even posted that online in a forum or Facebook group.

What’s the remedy?

First, get it out of your head that you have to compete on price.  That can’t be the only reason someone does business with you.  Sure, you’ll have to be reasonable as nobody is going to pay some outlandish charge to get something produced; but what you want your customers to know and understand deep down to their core is the value you bring to the table.  What is the experience like when they place an order?  Is it memorable in a good way?  Do you make things easy for them, educate them on industry esoteric terms or techniques, offer creative services, or skills that are difficult to replicate in other shops?

Any stooge can print a t-shirt or embroider a polo, just like anyone can belly-flop into a pool.  It takes a certain level of skill to pull off a reverse 4 ½ in a pike position and not leave a ripple in the water.  Is that you?  Do you want it to be?

On another note, how do you treat your own supply chain?  Do you switch ink vendors if someone’s white is a dollar a gallon cheaper?  Do you remain loyal to that same rep that just showed you how to set up your press to be more efficient, or get better results when embroidering tiny type, or spend time with you demonstrating better ways to coat your screens?  Before you ask why someone would leave your business for another company because the quote was cheaper, look inward at your own buying practices.  Do you put your money where your mouth is on a daily basis?

Customer Habits

“I hate it when my customer sends me a text and expects me to jump like a monkey and use that as an order.”  I’ve seen that statement more than once these past few months on some industry group comments.

There are a few ways to react to that.

First, understand that customers only operate the way you let them.  Can you just waltz into a restaurant kitchen and order lunch?  No.  Can you see a doctor without filling out a stack of forms and providing insurance information?  No.  Can you get a ticket to a movie by texting the theater?  No.  Can you manipulate the media by stating outlandish comments to get more mega-maniacal ego driven attention and run for president in the Republican party? Of course, with a capital T.

So why are you letting this behavior drive you crazy?  Instead, offer an easy solution for your customer to do business with you.  Have a website ordering platform or at the very least a simple order form that you can send them.  The next time you get that weekend midnight text order, just shoot them a prepared response on how to do business with you.  Make it easy for them, but you have to educate and train your customer in how you operate.   Without rules, people will invent their own behavior.

This goes for “friends” too.  I’ve been in the business a long time, and sooner or later a relative, acquaintance, crazy barista with green hair, buddy from high school, roommate in college, or whatever, is going to want to place an order and get the “special rate” because they know you.  They will drive you crazier than any of your nuttiest customers.  Don’t let them.  Have that methodology worked out in advance.  “Here’s what you have to do to place your order, and here’s the discount that I’m allowed to give.”  That’s it.  Be firm, but polite and don’t let it phase you.  “It’s company policy, sorry.” is all you have to say if they don’t like it.

Remember, nobody does business with their enemies.  But that doesn’t mean you need to reach for the vodka bottle in the bottom drawer every time you get frustrated.  Relax, write a policy and stick to it.

Staff Members

“I can’t believe that my supervisor asked me to do that.  I don’t get paid for that job!”  Breakroom complaints and gossip.  The larger your company grows, the more insidious and destructive one complainer can become.  Some people are like verbal cancer.  They infect everyone, and in a matter of days you don’t know why the entire mood of the shop changes.

Your company culture has a lot to do with that.

Empowerment is the cure.  Do people know and understand that they can affect change?  Someone insisting over and over, “That’s the way we’ve always done it” isn’t about teamwork or growth.  If your company is a speedboat, who are the ones that are always throwing out anchors?

Are they stopping and slowing growth?  Do they always complain?  Have you ever really sat down with them and asked them to be part of the solution?  One way to foster more growth is to give more people the opportunity to affect the change they seek.  “Man supports what he helps create” is an old adage that I’ve always admired.  Turn those whiners into winners by enveloping these folks into the process for a solution.

Or maybe it’s time for them to have an opportunity to work in someone else’s company.  Don’t settle.  Nobody is guaranteed a job for life.  Document the problem.  Take disciplinary action.  Find someone else that’s better.  Don’t put up with that crap.  Life is too short my friend.

Skills gap.

“I don’t know how to do ________.  Someone help me please!”  Do you wish you knew how to embroider puff hats?  Print four color process, discharge or high density designs?  What about building a website for your company or getting better with your social media?  Maybe sales or simple accounting.  These are known as the skills gap.  It’s the distance between where we are now and where we want to be with our skills knowledge.  “I just don’t have time to learn” is the whining most often heard.  Sure you do.  

The two words here that you should learn are “time management”.

Instead of checking Facebook, read a real book.  Watch a video on something you know little about.  Self educate.  Learning shouldn’t stop with school.  Master what you don’t know by researching it.

Take an hour every Friday to experiment.  Get out into the shop and practice.  Whatever you are the most uncomfortable doing is what you should do first.

Book a fake job in your system that requires you to produce something that’s just beyond your skill level.  Schedule it just a like a customer’s order.  Don’t worry if you ruin it.  The time spent working on it and figuring it out is the payoff.  After it’s complete, review your results and then immediately book another one.

Pour yourself a cup of coffee, and write a story about the reason why you got into this business.  Do a word count when you are finished writing your article.  My guess is that it the length of the article may surprise you.  Once you get going writing it all down will become hard to stop.  Who knew you had that much to say?  Click spell check.  Publish this.  It’s your first blog article.  Share it on social media.  Write another one.  (hint: it does not have to be perfect)

Go to a trade show and take a class.  Talk to other people in the class.  Guess what?  They don’t know how to do it either!  Exchange business cards and keep in touch.  It’s more fun and easier trying things and sharing the experience.

New Business

“Business used to be pretty good.  Over the years it has slowed down, and now I’m barely able to make ends meet.”  I hear this all the time from established shops, and read in forum groups about companies that are struggling.  Nobody seems to know what to do.  Here are some thoughts.

Don’t let complacency step in.  Value your customer base that you have first, and make sure that they are comfortable and happy with you.  Wow them daily.  It’s hard enough trying to get new customers, but worse if it’s a sinking ship.  There are plenty of options out there for customers to shop around, and competition is fierce, so don’t give anyone reason to seek out another decorator.  When was the last time you visited them or thank them for their business?  Spend some time with your customers and get to know their needs.  Deliver on the value that they are seeking.  Solve their problems.  All of the online apparel ordering platforms in the world can’t compete if you humanize your business more, and make it relationship based.

For new business, how are you marketing your shop?  Do you sit like a spider in a web and just wait for the orders to come by naturally?  Write a marketing plan based on the demographics of your best customers.  Who are they?  When do they order?  What does your dream order look like?  Remember a goal without a plan is just a wish.  Write a plan that outlines the result you want to happen.  Fully capitalize on social media that specifically targets the demographic that outlines the business you want to obtain.

Find and partner with other businesses.  There’s nothing stated that you have to just do business with your core customers.  Think about your geographical area and try to develop new opportunities.  Can you partner with another business to develop an apparel line?  (Think gyms, teams, resorts, event planners, bars or restaurants, promotional marketing, retail stores, clubs, etc.)  Can you help an embroidery shop with their printing, or a printing shop with their embroidery?  Maybe you could partner with a sporting goods shop, or bakery, or park?  Maybe you have an altruistic streak, and want to build a new business based on helping others.  It all starts with a conversation.  Pick up the phone and call someone with your wacky idea.  The worst thing that will happen is they say no.

Is there a market segment in your area that is not being fulfilled currently?  Maybe other shops don’t do embroidery well, or deliver, or have a kick-ass art team, or print with water-base inks.  Whatever that is, master that technique and make a big deal about it.  In no-time you’ll be the “go to guy” for that process.

Network.  People won’t do business with you if they don’t know you.  In your area there are many, many opportunities to get out there and meet people.  Don’t just sit in your office and be a wallflower.  The more people see and hear you as a person from your company, the more they will have a direct connection with someone in the business.  These people can either buy from you or recommend you to someone else if they have a need.  Networking doesn’t happen if you don’t go to the event.  These people would love to meet you.  Bring business cards.  Ask others at the event to tell you about themselves.  Eventually it will get around to you telling your story and what you do.  Practice describing your company and what you do so you can describe it accurately in a few sentences.  You know, the old elevator speech thing.  Follow up later with anyone you meet.

Have an open house.  When was the last time you held an event at your shop?  Do people even know where you are or what your capabilities may be?  Invite them in for a lunch or at least for the nickel tour and a cup of coffee.  People are constantly amazed at what it takes to embroider or print on apparel.  Nobody understands it, and it looks like complicated magic to most folks.  This is your chance to be the expert.  Educate them on everything that makes you special.

Here’s the last one:  Comment on how you solved a challenge and turned something you were whining about into a winning idea!  Share!


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