Regaining Control of Prepress

Learn how to avoid substandard artwork so that your customers stay satisfied and your reputation and profitability remain intact.

If you're like every other printer out there, then you've suffered this problem: The client--or the client's agency--insists on preparing the art for a job that you'll be printing. The customer might even go as far as providing you with film separations. Your production run is about to become a living hell!

 

Salespeople are of no help. Their main concern is closing the deal and moving on to the next one so they can meet their monthly sales goals. The sales force often receives directives from a manager or the owner of the company to get the work in and let the other details take care of themselves. They see no harm in leaving the "mundane" aspects of production to the people on the shop floor. Production employees are the experts, right? They'll figure it out--they always do.

 

A common thread runs through all of these situations, one that is either overlooked or ignored: Improperly prepared art will cost you a fortune. You're dealing with the very survival of your reputation, not just press delays and excessive setup times. When someone sees your work, they don't know whether it's your best or worst or whether the artwork was yours or the customer's; they only know that it came from your shop.

 

If you work with a client's shoddy art and the job ends up looking bad, you will take the full hit for the deal, regardless of how much you forewarned them. Even if the client accepts the job, you can bet that they will tell all of their buddies just how bad a printer you are and how disappointed they were with the work you did for them. Not a very satisfying reward for all of the extra time you spent trying to make their film work.

 

The vast majority of problems with artwork for screen printing arise from ignorance. Clients simply do not know enough to make the right decisions. Just think about how hard it is for you to find production artists who understand the processes and procedures involved in screen printing. If you can't find good artists and prepress technicians, how can you expect an agency or design studio to have enough talent to get the job done right?

 

Luckily, you can solve this dilemma. The fix involves maintaining a clear understanding of your capabilities, developing a sensitivity to clients' costs, and investing time for education. But most importantly, it involves taking the time to establish an effective, open line of communication between your shop and its clients. Ignorance of the screen-printing process is at the root of your problems with customer-supplied art. By maintaining an open dialogue with customers and helping them understand the capabilities and limitations of the process, you not only remove stumbling blocks from production, you demonstrate a genuine concern for quality and customer satisfaction.

 

Where to start

 

Before you can clear up the situation with clients, you need to get your own house in order. By this, I mean you must know how your operation is doing. What jobs run great, good, so-so, lousy? What is the difference in profitability between two similar jobs that run great and lousy? Where did the art come from in each case? What made each run either succeed or fail? Are you tracking any of this information? Do you really know what makes things "click" in your own organization?

 

Keep details about every job that you produce during a period of one or two months. This exercise will be a pain, but it really is necessary in order to get to the source of your problems. Look for similarities between jobs that worked and ones that did not. You need to play detective here. The more information, associations, and characteristics you can identify, the better off you are. When you complete this exercise, you'll be able to predict success or trouble before a job goes to press.

 

Your ultimate goal should be to use prepress as a filter for profit. Production will be a snap if you do your job right in prepress. But if you blow it by allowing the customer to provide unknown or suspect art, files, or separations, you effectively condemn the profit on the job. In fact, you may be hurting yourself much worse than you even suspect. Any money you lose as a result of poor prepress must be made up by skimming from future profits. Not only does this practice snatch away earnings from the rest of the month, it eats into production time that could be spent generating much greater returns. You simply cannot allow this to happen.Mark Coudray

 

I've heard just about every excuse there is for accepting client-supplied art. But the bottom line is that you must take responsibility for the jobs you choose to run. If you take a job knowing that the original materials are suspect, you must also take the responsibility for any problems that these materials cause. Are you willing to be held accountable?

 

These situations only exist when you allow them to. If you do let them occur, it's likely because you fear losing the work. If you lose the job, it costs you money and robs your profits. Then your competitor gets the job. That's the nagging zero-sum irony of this scenario. You lose either way. But it doesn't have to be like that.

 

Making the rules

 

The client is more than happy to provide art because of two key factors: cost savings and control. The savings are relative and can be easily supplanted by savings in production. The control issue is more difficult to address.

 

To regain more control over prepress, you must first determine the client's definition of control. You can probe this during the course of a normal conversation, saying something like, "We're always concerned about delivering the very best quality at the most competitive price. We realize that our customers are motivated to save money and retain as much control of the process as possible. We agree with this but need to understand more about what is important to you in order to tailor our services to match your needs."

 

<P>Next, follow up with questions designed to get to the heart of what is important to your client. You may be very surprised by what you hear. The responses you get might not have anything to do with cost and everything to do with protecting the reputation and position of the person you're dealing with. In other words, if you make the client look great, cost will no longer be the main concern. Sometimes a customer just needs a change in perception. As the expert, you can present new ways for clients to define and experience both quality and control.

 

Don't let a lack of professional confidence prevent you from ushering a customer in a certain direction when it comes to supplying art. Your shop needs to stand up for what is important. Your relationship with customers should be similar to that of a doctor and patient. Patients rarely challenge a doctor's diagnosis or treatment plan. Physicians are trusted because they're specialists. Their years of medical education and training make patients feel that their best interests are always kept in mind. However, printers--the experts in graphic reproduction--allow clients to intervene all the time. When clients are responsible for key elements of the production equation that have a material effect on the outcome, the results are most often negative.

 

You have two options to avoid such difficulties. The first involves establishing the right expectations about what you will deliver. For example, I once had a client come to me on a referral from another customer. (This was good because it meant I had a certain degree of credibility with the client from the start.) The customer said, "We heard you do great work, and we would like you to do our next job." This set the stage in a pivotal way. When client expectations begin at the very top, the only place to go is down. If I hoped to meet or exceed the client's expectation, it was critical that I maintain complete control of this job and the materials that it would be produced from. So I replied, "Thank you very much for the compliment. We work very hard to deliver beyond our clients' expectations. We've been largely successful because our long-term customers listen to our professional advice and work with our guidance to create great programs."

 

If the client still wants to provide you with their art, it's time to turn to the second option--establishing explicit guidelines about what you require in customer-supplied artwork. Here, education is everything. You should embrace clients who provide their own art, but only when you can direct the process.

 

Start by sharing your design guidelines with the customer. Next, discuss what constitutes substandard art and how the customer wants to handle the cost overruns and myriad problems that can occur when such art is submitted. Be realistic in your discussion, but avoid creating a tense environment. And by all means, do not set an overly pessimistic tone. You want your customers to realize their responsibilities and accountability. To bring them fully onboard, ask if they're willing to risk the integrity of their brand, logo, product, or service in order to shave a few dollars off the invoice. If they are willing to take the risk, chances are that they're not the right clients for your business.

 

In the driver's seat

 

Prepress is a hugely important part of the screen-printing process. The decisions you make in prepress largely determine the efficiency you achieve in production, the quality of your prints, and the profitability of your business. By letting clients control the most crucial element of prepress--the artwork--you're crippling your shop's ability to deliver and satisfy their expectations. If you control what comes in and how it makes its way through production, you drive your business toward profit. Letting someone else behind the wheel is not only irresponsible, it's dangerous to the financial health and the reputation of your shop.

 

 

 

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