The Death of Customer Service in the Decorated Apparel Industry

Stack of Red T-shirts - Marshall Atkinson

I’ve been thinking a lot about customer service lately.   Mostly with our supply chain.  Maybe my article title is a bit dramatic, but I want to make a point.  There are superstars in this business, there are folks that are ok most of the time, and then there are those that just leave you shaking your head and mumbling to yourself.

I wrote another article about this topic, but I’m not going to publish it.  That article was about a few suppliers who have in the past two weeks utterly amazed me with their lack of customer service.  So luckily for you, I’m not using that one.  It is the written equivalent of a Yosemite Sam tirade.  “%#@*&@!%” at it’s cartoon best.

Nope, instead let’s explore the beating heart of customer service and what makes up the basic core expectations of that idea in the modern world.  Think about these below and use them for some basis to grade your suppliers.  How would they rate?  If you are a decorated apparel supplier, use this as a self-assessment.  Not trying to bitch and moan, but improvement on the supplier horizon would be a good thing.


This is critical because all customer service is based on helping the other person through a challenge.  Whether it’s simply putting in an order, or actually solving a big problem, good customer service thrives on the quality of knowledge presented.

So does this mean the rep needs to be an expert?  Not really.  It means that they know how to obtain the knowledge easily.  This is where the ability to find the answers and solve someone’s customer service riddle comes in handy.  Sometimes you don’t even need a rep.  A good website will do the trick too.  (Don’t believe me? Try calling Amazon – you can’t because there’s not a phone number published)

I know you’ve been on the other line when a customer service rep fumbles their way through the task of finding a simple answer.  I know I have.  You sit there thinking about all the other things you could be doing to get out of the office at a decent time today.

So what makes that rep go from the bumbling stooge to a rock star?  Training.  A good information system.  Experience.  A good support system.  Probably many things.  But what we want more than anything is fast, accurate, and complete answers.  How hard is that?  Sometimes very difficult it seems.

For our industry, what happens when your online apparel ordering platform doesn’t load?  That knowledge isn’t presented now.  We order those blank shirts somewhere else.

What happens when only one person in the department knows the answer?  It’s good to have an expert, but if they aren’t available it’s a huge issue.

What happens when we have to order parts and either your part ordering platform is non-existent or hasn’t been upgraded since 1997?  Usually frustration.

What happens when the outside sales rep helps with training and support, and hands industry knowledge over to us like a gift on a silver platter?  That company is linked to us forever.  Why don’t more companies do this?  Imagine how much more business they would obtain if their customers actually knew how to use their products and select the right one for the job?


Trust is established over time.  Trust is also established in the aesthetics of how you present things.  Do you have a website built that is easy to use to find answers?  Do your reps have fact sheets, price lists, and information at their fingertips to forward?

Why is trust important in customer service?  Because without it, our natural inclination is to keep searching.  And believe me, we will.

Trust in customer service is built when you do what you say you are going to do.  Sending that quote on time, with all the information…and even a few more details that weren’t asked.  That builds trust.  For example, it’s not enough to just send me a quote with a part number.  If someone sends me a quote with a part number, checks inventory levels and indicates that if it ships ground I can have it Tuesday, well, that’s much better.  See the difference?

If I don’t like the answer, or that quote…I may just go out and find another.  However, if the answers are presented to me and I have a firm basis of trust with what I’m given, I’ll probably complete my order.

So, how do we establish trust in this industry?

It’s ok if you don’t have the answer off the top of your head.  Just say, “Let me look that up and I’ll get back to you in a few minutes.”  Then, get back to me.

I had two different vendors have to do some research on some items last week.  One resolved the matter in minutes, the other took four days to answer my question and I had to follow up a few times with some e-mails to remind them that I still needed help.  If these were tests, which one do you think gets the F grade and a Yosemite Sam impression?

I shouldn’t have to remind you to do your job.  Trust? Oh, boy…


Personality they say, goes a long way.  I agree.  The absolute best customer service people are at ease with themselves.  Nothing is forced.  They are pleasant to talk to, humorous in their approach, and sincere in their delivery.

This is a trait that can’t be taught.  It’s just comes down to who the person is deep down inside.  If you think about your best or favorite interactions with people in a professional setting, I’ll bet one or two really stick out in your mind.  That could even be why you do business with that company.

When I think of the companies in my supply chain, each has it’s own flavor and personality regardless of size.  Some are very corporate, for others even though they are extremely huge; work very hard at being human.  You can tell the difference between the successful companies, the up and comers, and the ones that are struggling, just in their corporate personality.

I think that comes down to the leadership of the company.  Who are they letting in to play ball with us?  Frankly, there are a few people that I’ve encountered over the years that I’m surprised that they even have a job.

What’s amazing to me is that there never seems to be a change.  I know what I would do.


This is a big one.  Awesome customer service people can think ahead.  Waiting to see what will happen sometimes is the worst thing you can do.

Following up to make sure that the delivery is on track, that the tracking number was sent, that the last part of that order is being completed on time, or my favorite…reviewing order history to see if they can help with something that always comes up annually.

What I like about proactive customer service people is that they think ahead and anticipate your question or problem.  They aren’t just shoving orders in the system like a robot, but actually being mindful about each one.  What could go wrong?  What needs to happen, and in what order?  

They also check up on all orders in their queue often.  Any challenges?  If something doesn’t look right, they will investigate.  By phone, e-mail or getting up out of their chair and asking.

When I get an email question from a customer service rep outlining a potential challenge, offering a suggestion to solve it, and asking what is my opinion?  At that point, I always think to myself how lucky I am to be partnering with this supplier.  That always counteracts the low price point argument that their competitors are always raving about.  Sometimes price just doesn’t matter as much.

Detail Oriented

The devil is always in the details.  Great customer service people have to have the ability to comprehend what’s needed and read a purchase order, email or work order thoroughly.  If something gets missed, this potentially could be a huge problem.

Recently I had to order a part and sent the manufacturer the model number and serial number of the equipment, as the part I needed wasn’t listed in the owner’s manual or on their parts section of their website.  I traded emails with a rep regarding some questions, and then they stated that they could only help me if I provided the model number and serial number of the unit.  Doh!

I think sometimes we go too fast in our work and just gloss over the details.  Like some lazy speed reading course.  Zip.  I’m done.

Getting the details right means slowing down.  Make some notes on a pad.  What does this mean?  What does that say?  Great reps get the details right as they practice good reading habits.  If on the phone, they make notes on a pad or in the computer while the customer is talking.

This also can be company wide in how they present their goods and services.  For example, there is a major apparel manufacturer that consistently mixes up skids of shirts.  Instead of shipping them organized by color and size per skid, it’s like they completely randomize the skids.  You couldn’t shuffle cards any better.  We took delivery of their last shipment (of 44,000+ shirts) a few weeks ago and it took six people three hours to sort it out.  Once we found a case of youth mixed up in the order, we cracked open every box.  There were over 1,200 youth shirts mixed in the order by mistake.  Details, people.  Details.

This is something that has been discussed with them numerous times previously.  Evidently there’s “nothing they can do”.  My opinion is a different one.

So how did I reach my conclusions above?  Well, I’ve been lucky in my career.  From a supply chain perspective I’ve worked with some of the best in the business over the years.  (Thank you Tom, Buddy, Peter, Carl, Rob, Dave, Cassy, Marci, John, Steve, Chris, Syd, Val, Dan, Randy, Mark, Marty, Carol, Ray & many, many others)  It’s easy to see the shortcomings of others when the top people in the land walk into your office with a smile on their face.  The gift of their time has made me better. 

Also, at Visual Impressions I’m proud to work ten feet from an excellent staff that epitomizes everything I’ve listed above.  We have two reps that don’t even work in our office, as one is in California and the other in New England.  They manage our in-house customer’s orders from different states.  That is rock star status if I have ever seen one.  I thank our lucky stars for technology and for their skill every day.

A lot of money is spent in this industry in marketing.  I see the ads.  I go to the trade shows and visit the booths.  You do too.  All that is wasted money when the actual business practice and habits of our suppliers doesn’t match up to that glossy photograph of perfection.  The real truth is practiced in the daily grind.  What happens then?  Sometimes it surpasses the photo.  Sometimes it’s like getting that cheeseburger that looks like a rhinoceros sat on it before it was served to you.  Something just doesn’t add up.

The first rule of business should be to keep the customers you have.  Yes, invest in ways to obtain more business…but don’t forget about all the people already at your party.  They need you to show them support and love too.

That’s what customer service is all about.



  • Great article! Lots to think about.

  • I don’t ever comment here, but your writing has helped me quite a bit in the last few months, or is it the last year?… I’ve been in the trade forever, but I’m a better printer than businessman, so I find your blog eye opening. Please keep it coming. I have always told our employees that you count them out when you open them and lay them out, other than the initial check for mislabeled boxes; if everything matches the sales order, then they won’t be printing too many or too few of a size. We also strive to stay on top of each job and give the good customer service, frequently customers thank me for taking the time; why wouldn’t someone take the time to talk to potential customer?


    • First, thanks for your continued readership…I appreciate it! Next, I’m happy you took some time to comment and say some nice words. They mean a lot. All we can do every day is try to get better. Continuous improvement is a journey.

  • As a high volume printer, I cannot stress enough the fact that if you are blindly accepting what your vendor says they shipped versus checking and counting in the actual product, you are putting your faith in the wrong place. Every vendor does their best to get you accurate product, but those products are still going through a supply chain that has people in the mix. People make mistakes, period. When you blindly trust, without covering your own butt, you are part of the problem, the customer will be affected. We stress taking the time to do something right, once. We also factor in double checks, second looks etc, and we still make mistakes. The reference to the 44k shirts and getting 1200 pcs wrong is not uncommon, if your vendor makes mistakes on smaller orders they will make mistakes on larger order too. That is simply the law of averages. The good vendors, the ones we continue to work with throughout the years, will promptly and courteously fix those mistakes and your client will never know. The bad vendors, you know who you are… will pass the blame, delay responses or solutions and eventually cost you more in the long run. Drop them, immediately. Great blog Mr. Atkinson.

  • Norman Linton

    Well said. Brought back memories of a distributor years ago who had a tagline that read…”We Sweat the Details so you don’t have to”. I strive to live by that in my business today!

  • Stephanie Klein

    So how does one count 44k shirts? Your supplier picks to 99.9’% and yet you still count?

    • Yes, we check them in. Don’t count all the shirts. But, we crack open cases to check to see if color and sizes match the label on the box. For orders over 144 pieces, full cases are assumed to be correct in count. Any extra pieces are counted. For orders less than 144 we count every shirt. You would be surprised at some if the things we catch.

  • There are always mistakes but it sounds like you are working with the wrong company. Don’t get complacent. If your supplier isn’t upmt Most. Change suppliers. You to the distribuitors that stay with substandard service that enable these companies to survive.

  • Wow Marshall, I think that you nailed it with this week’s Blog on Customer Service. One other point that I would make is that it’s unrealistic to expect your suppliers to get be 100% perfect every time. The best companies aim for absolute perfection in each and every transaction and demonstrate a fanatical commitment to make things right in those occasions where they do come up short of customer expectations.

    • Yes of course. My point is that far too often the obvious things are overlooked. Mistakes will always happen. But when they consistently occur and nothing changes…that’s when there’s the screaming sound of money being spent elsewhere.

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