Finding Your Next Big Customer

In December of 2016 I posted on my social media channels a simple essay contest for decorated apparel shops that read this blog.  Send me a few paragraphs outlining your shop’s biggest challenge.  Using that info, I’ll craft a response as the basis of an upcoming article.  The winner receives an hour of free coaching help from me in return.

For everyone that submitted their questions that weren’t chosen, thank you very much!  Loved your questions, comments and appreciation.  You rock!

The winning question was submitted from Devon Brabenec from Superior Merch in Ashland Ohio.  You can check out Superior Merch by visiting  I’m sure they would love the traffic and business!

Here’s his quote:

“Our shops biggest challenge would have to be finding and obtaining qualified, bigger, or repeat clients.  Sure, we have some steady repeat business and a good handful of annual or one time jobs, but it’s far from enough.  Lately it’s been a lot of “We only need 7 shirts” or “I want 11 shirts with 3 different designs.

We are aware that it costs more to acquire a new client vs selling a previous customer.  Not trying to make excuses, but to give you some info: We’re in a small town of 20,000 with three main competitors + a few small, weekend hobbyist type printers based out of their house or garage.

I’m a self-taught entrepreneur and started to learn how to print back in 2006.  I was 16 at the time.  Fast forward 10 years and plenty of mistakes later, we now have a downtown showroom on Main Street, built up a portfolio and have won many awards, mostly for design.  Never went to college for business or anything, but lately I’ve been reading lots of books to sharpen my skills and I would love to / desperately need to take this to the next level.”

The reason I chose Devon’s answer was that it pretty much sums up the challenges faced by many readers.  My own consulting clients as well.  Does his story ring true to your journey?

We all want more.  We want to get to the next level.  We aren’t happy with the status quo.  We need growth.  Dadgummit, we got some big dreams!

I wish I could just say to Devon that all he has to do is just call this one guy I know and he’ll just hand over a ton of work.  It’s never that easy.  If it was, I’d be working five minutes a day and be on a beach somewhere.  Did I mention I have big dreams too?

Answering Devon’s query, let’s start by breaking everything down into smaller chunks for examination.   We’ll go through each one by one.

“Our shops biggest challenge would be to finding and obtaining qualified, bigger, or repeat clients.”

I hate to break it to Devon, but that’s every company that’s ever been in business challenge too.

This in a nutshell is why you need a Business Plan.

Shooting from the hip and just getting lucky only takes you so far.  A Business Plan is a tactical roadmap that you build with research and lots of discussion.  It’s work, just like printing an order.

You can’t skimp and get good results.

There are several questions that need to be detailed with specific answers.  These drive all your sales work and strategic planning:

  • What pain or problem are you solving for the customer?  Be logical and critical about what they need or want.
  • What makes you different?  Can you serve the same market better or in a different way than your competition so that it makes you unique?  If you don’t have anything different, can you change your work to find your blue water strategy?  Can you craft your elevator pitch so it resonates?  What is your value proposition?
  • Who is your customer?  It can’t be “everybody”.  Boil it down and focus like a laser beam on just a few set of key demographics.  How do they buy?  How much do they spend?  When do they buy?  Who makes the decision? What is the trigger to buy?
    • I know a shop where their minimum order is 1200 pieces.  If you don’t want the 7 piece order, where should your standard order quantity start?
  • Who is your competition?  I’d say not just locally in your city either.  Why are your customers using them?
  • What production channels make sense for the customers you serve?  If you are inundated with smaller orders, maybe that’s a signal to invest in DTG or at least a heat press.  Does your production fit the market you serve?  Idle machine time doesn’t make you any money.
  • The money questions.  How are you going to sell?  Where are you going to sell?  What are your operating expenses?  What is your monthly break even amount?  How much money do you want to make at the end of the year?
  • How are you marketing your shop?  What is your strategy to reach the customer’s you have defined above?
  • What are your top challenges to overcome to achieve your goals?  List these in order of biggest problem to solve first.  There could be only a few or maybe there’s a list as long as your arm.  It’s important to construct and work on the solutions by identifying them.

These are hard questions to answer.

Constructing a plan that has targeted goals will increase your chances to land those more valuable customers.

Also, the funny thing about that business plan?

It never just sits.  It needs to change.  There will be new competition in the marketplace.  There will be a new trend that you may need to follow.  Your business will need to adapt to some different pressure point.  Write the business plan and constantly review it to make sure it’s relevant to your circumstances.

You can’t have it just in your head.  Get it on paper.  Show it to people, especially in your company.  Tweak it.  Some parts of it won’t work.  Change them and try again.

There isn’t only one answer to the test.

“Sure, we have some steady repeat business and a good handful of annual or one time jobs, but it’s far from enough.”

I’d like to ask Devon how they are leveraging the repeat and handful of annual jobs?  Or just any job in house in general.

As I’m sure many shops around the globe can attest, that small order you did for someone can blossom into a huge opportunity if you please them enough.

What can you do to make them go from “just another customer”, to the most passionate advocate of your shop?  Are you just decorating shirts or are you shipping happiness?

What will make customers go bananas?

The number one thing that drives more sales than anything else is the Wow! factor.  “Look what I just got! Superior Merch is Awesome!”

If they go and brag about the order to their friends and colleagues you win.  That’s building trust with a capital T.

Personal recommendations on social media leverage that sale with their personal connections.  They could rave about your creativity. Maybe they express their love for your company because you pulled off that miracle order.  They could recognize to their friends the vibrant color or the smooth print hand.

Singing your praises shows the world that you know what you are doing.   Recommendations propel you to stratospheric levels above others in your area.

But to do this people might need a little push.

That’s why companies have Facebook or Instagram contests with “show us in your shirt” campaigns.  Maybe you can provide a funny cutout “Selfie Frame” in your shop for people to take a quick pic and post online when they are picking up an order.

What about a referral program where you do something if someone brings in another customer to you?  This could be some sort of deal or possibly a charitable donation.  Cause marketing works great.

Think about how you can get your customers to do to your marketing for you.  That’s what victory looks like.

“Lately it’s been a lot of “We only need 7 shirts” or “I want 11 shirts with 3 different designs.”

Sure, these tiny orders are a pain.  Lots of shops hate them.

Yet, let’s look at the other side of the coin.  Here is someone wanting to spend money with your company.  Are you going to take it?

Think about a hardware store.  I’m sure they would love to sell you that $1500 fully-loaded tractor that’s been chained up by the front door all year.  How many people walk by a day do you think?  They want to ring up that big order, you bet.

Yet, inside they’ll happily give you the greatest customer service ever if you just buy a bag of nails.  Because that’s all you need today.  And if you keep liking them, maybe you’ll be back for other stuff you need.  Including that expensive tractor.

Buyers are creatures of habit.  To get more customers you first have to sell them something.

The same is true for apparel decorating.  For a lot of customers, all they need now is seven shirts.

Create that awesome customer experience that absolutely stuns them.  When they get ready to place that gigantic order they need a few months later you will be their first phone call.

Smaller orders are easily handled with digital printing, sublimation or even plastisol based transfers.  You can still take those smaller orders if you don’t have those production channel in your shop. Just find a contractor that you can send these orders to and let them produce them.

Be in the customer pleasing business by just finding the solution.  Introduce your Wow!

You can still make money even if you don’t do the production.  Cost + Markup = Sale.  You are still winning in the end.

“We are aware that it costs more to acquire a new client vs selling a previous customer.”

It’s true.  New customers often cost as much as five times the amount than retaining an existing customer.

But what can you do to lower those acquisition costs?

Can you cross promote with another business?  For example, partner with an event planner and give them a package deal.  Now every time they book a wedding, retirement party, trade show, or bar mitzvah you are their apparel decorator.  Solidify just one relationship, and receive steady orders all the time.  Not to mention, if the people receiving the shirts get a promotional card or hangtag on the shirts, they might call you later for something too.

What other similar opportunities are there around you?

Paid search is huge right now.  If that works for you great.  Don’t change a thing.  But, if you can get the same results with optimizing your SEO, then that might lower the cost.

After all, your goal should be eyeballs on your webpage or your phone ringing with questions about how to order, right?  This is where your effort in defining your core customer is going to pay off.  Updating your webpage constantly with new material will give you a boost in your rankings.  Do this with additions of portfolio pics, new shop videos demonstrating techniques, blog articles, newsletters, or even an “in the news” feature.  Be sure to tag the items with searchable keywords with everything tailored to the customers that you are trying to reach.

Of course there is traditional social media marketing too.  You want top of mind, so your customers think of you first when they are ready to order.  If you have done a good job of identifying your customers, then it will be easier to follow them on social media too.  Like, share or comment on their posts.  Private message them when there is some personal interaction.

Social media is what it sounds like, social.  This doesn’t mean you just auto-generate posts and forget about them.  It’s all about engagement.

Once, I posted an embroidery picture on Instagram and got five good interactions with it within an hour. Three developed into new customers.  All in the behind the scenes with private messaging.

Creating a Pinterest page can show off not only your design work, but real-life examples of your production with happy employees smiling in the background.  Just take pics as you work all week and load them up on Fridays.  Every so often blast out a “virtual shop tour” post on your relevant social media channels.

Educate your customers and potential customers by demonstrating your awesomeness.

“Not trying to make excuses, but to give you some info: We’re in a small town of 20,000 with three main competitors + a few small, weekend hobbyist type printers based out of their house or garage.”

Nothing wrong with living in a small town.  Yet, when we look up Ashland, Ohio on Google Maps it shows that you are just north of I-71. About halfway between Cleveland to the northeast and Columbus to the southwest.  Both within a one day ground ship.

Cleveland is has a population of 390,113 (2013 census).  Columbus is 822,553 (2013 census).  That’s about 1.2 million people that your shop is nestled between.  Probably a bunch more in the surrounding areas or have moved there since the 2013 population census.  That’s a lot of people within a one day ground shipment.


There are two things to point out here.

First, you are always going to have competition.  Three printers in your area?  There are plenty of shops that have several dozen if not more in theirs.  Count yourself lucky.

You can’t be scared of your competition.  If you build your shop into the best kick-ass business it can be, then you will quickly outdistance them and they won’t matter as much.  You can’t service every single order that’s out there anyway.  Instead, target the ones that you can be profitable on and that makes the most sense for your business.

Focus on you.  How can you do it better?  How can you do it faster?  How can you design it more creatively?  Cater to your market.  That’s who you should be worrying about.

Secondly, Thomas Friedman was right.  The world is flat.

Where your business is located is increasingly a trivial matter.  A good number of businesses the world over will never come face to face with their customers.  Ever.  Who says you have to solely cater to the citizens of Ashland Ohio?  Especially since you are cradled between two bigger metropolitan areas.

Do the research on your shop’s demographic in the your surrounding areas.  Where are the opportunities? Draw out a bigger circle around your shop on the map.   Try a one day ground ship from you.  Can you identify the potential customers inside that circle?

If so, quit reading this article and get to work buster!

“I’m a self-taught entrepreneur and started to learn how to print back in 2006.  I was 16 at the time.  Fast forward 10 years and plenty of mistakes later, we now have a downtown showroom on Main Street, built up a portfolio and have won many awards, mostly for design.  Never went to college for business or anything, but lately I’ve been reading lots of books to sharpen my skills and I would love to / desperately need to take this to the next level.”

Devon, you are on the right track.  Believe it or not, overnight success takes years to develop.  I love it that you are investing in yourself, and applying your entrepreneurial mindset to learning.

Reaching out and getting help is a brave choice.  It’s a mature one as well.  It’s hard to face up and talk about what we don’t know, or admit that we don’t do a good job with something.

There are plenty of other ways you can find the help you need too.  I’m always available (Please visit my More Info and Consulting Rate page to see how I work), but here are a few choices as well:

  • Your city, state or the federal small business agencies.  I’ve recommended the US Small Business Administration free business plan template for years.  It’s easy to use, editable, and asks all the right questions (it’s up to you to find the answers).  Go to the SBA Website to get the template.
  • SCORE – offers business help and advice.  Visit the SCORE website for more information.
  • Your local bank.  They want to see you succeed too.  How can they help?
  • Your local Chamber of Commerce.  I know of shops in small towns that received some sweetheart deals for real estate, training, building improvements and other financial incentives for just bringing in jobs to the area.  What’s available to you?
  • Vistage Leadership Training – offers leadership training for CEO’s and business leaders.  Work on your leadership development by checking out the Vistage Website.
  • Local community colleges or universities.  Talk to a business professor.  Use your business and challenges as a student’s assignment.  I’ve done this several times and it’s great.
  • Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses program.  Several of my consulting clients are enrolled in this program.  It’s great!  If you want more information on how to start your journey here go to Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses website.

All in all, a lot of business boils down to a phrase I learned in college at a leadership training retreat I attended.

“Your best friend is only a handshake away.”

Meaning, you can’t be timid.  Stick out your hand and introduce yourself.  Ask the other person questions.  What are their problems?

Then, your job is to solve them.  Got your elevator pitch ready?


“Failed plans should not be interpreted as failed vision.  Visions don’t change, they are only refined.  Plans rarely stay the same, and are scrapped or adjusted as needed.  Be stubborn about the vision, but flexible with your plan.” – John C. Maxwell

“Arriving at one goal is the starting point of another.” – John Dewey

“The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” – Lao Tzu


  • Got a funny story…when I first started my screen printing business, back in the early 90’s, I purchased one of those “built for screen printing” graphics computers that were specifically loaded with graphics software, came with sweet hardware for making positives, 250,000 pieces of clipart, etc, etc…$8,025 system, complete with two printers, scanner, etc…
    At the time, I had no experience with a computer at all! I just bought it, and learned from scratch…
    In the process of figuring out things, I thought it would be a great idea to create a database of the members of the local Chamber of Commerce, input all of their info, specifically their FAX numbers, and use my Fax-Modem to auto-send an ad that I created in CorelDraw, to each end every one of them, with the intention of driving business.
    Well, with my lack of knowledge in computers, I had no idea what it meant when I kept getting a popup message when I hit “Send”, stating “Not Enough RAM to Send”….LOL….which ultimately meant that I wasn’t getting the ad delivered correctly, but each and every member of the Chamber was getting the Cover Page, with my contact info…THAT’S IT…
    THE FUNNY PART…is that as a result of the curiosity of so many members of the Chamber, they all began to call my phone number to see what it was that I was trying to send! RESULTING IN MANY MANY INITIAL BUSINESS CONTACTS…in THREE MONTHS, I DID $36,000 WORTH OF BUSINESS FROM MY MISTAKE! Small town, Bellefontaine, Ohio….
    End of story…I think I’m gonna try it again!

  • Outstanding read! Sound knowledge, sprinkled with common sense. Sent this article to myself and will use some of the ideas listed for our business this year. Thank you Marshall and all the best to you in this New Year.

  • natethegreat

    Yikes – please forgive my broken english – above…

  • natethegreat

    Great read. Good insights. and YES- these questions weigh on every shop owner’s pillow each night… But like mentioned having a solid plan and knowing you did achieve what you set out to do that day- each day ( remember you only are responsible for what you can control and do ) will lighten your head and soften your pillow at night. Knowing you are eating that “big elephant” one bite at a time means you are making progress and the results you are focused on are the bites… Often times we look at the big picture and fail to see the small progress.

    Your goal might be $XXXXXXX annual income by 201X. So you did a facebook post – got 10 views 2 likes 1 share and no sales… Stop beating yourself because it was not what you expected… DO THIS.

    Follow the money – follow the engagement – follow the behaviours that lead to sales… Many people focus on what they don’t have on what their competition has but fail to really learn from what they do have and no matter the daily outcome from your efforts – if your efforts are consistent and you focus on the money, engagement, and sales you have – you will find your time invested will soon become a greater ROI… You’ll be answering these questions and leading others to do the same and really it is all about learning the behaviours of your customers.

    I could offer the same everything as my competitor – be priced higher and lower quality but if I’m aligned and in tune with my sales and understand the buying behaviour of the market better – i can have a conversation that my competitors fail to have and the vsiual difference can be really small but the return rather large.

    I’m forming collabetitons in 2017. Groups of focused action and we analyse sales behaviour not your typical spreadsheet “big data” info but real sales data and do it each week… We treat marketing like surfing and we ride the waves all the way in and then review together and go out again together until the sun falls each day…When we see out collaborator catching huge waves we discuss and when we see sharks or danger we shout – but our communications are in action and our talks are in review.

    Go farther in 2017 together…

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