Five tips for Successful Print Buying

To start off this series I want to come right out and give every print buyer reading this blog some handy tips for ensuring good results when they place an order. I have noticed that certain buyers consistently achieve poor results and are frustrated in their print buying, whether due to a lack of clarity, misplaced trust, or inexperience. Other clients are successful, no matter how large or complex their jobs are. I thought about the differences between these two classes of print buyers, and having distilled some categorical differences, came up with my top five tips for success when ordering print work. These are general best practices that anyone can make work for them, ?and the?aggravation avoided, cost savings (in reprints), and spared sanity will more than make up for the extra effort it takes to be precise, cost conscious, timely, humble, and organized.

1. Be Precise.

They don’t know what they don’t know.

Whether an amateur or professional buyer, when you are authorized to place a printing order, you are in charge of a business trasaction. In many cases, a very complex business transaction. This may be stating the obvious, and obviously once you place your order you will be expected to pay for it. What may not be apparent is that even if you place your order incorrectly or someone misinterprets your order you will be expected to pay for it. The print shop does not “know what I want” even if they “do this all the time.” Only you know what you are after before you get going. (And if you don’t, you have no business placing an order!)

Think about your printing order as an investment (whether a real, commercial investment or an investment in your own satisfaction). If you go into the deal reading the fine print, dotting your i’s and crossing your t’s, it is easier to realize that being precise as a print buyer is extremely important. This doesn’t mean you have to be a cheapskate and cut costs at every opportunity?unless that fits your goals as a buyer?in many cases spending a little more on a key feature will make you more satisfied with the print job only you will have to live with.

So how do you accomplish precision? Go over the features you want, start to finish. Ask about how the job is run so you understand the process and the turn around times. Writing a purchase order in most cases will help. Fully explain everything you expect to your printer, and either get a confirmation in writing or write one up yourself and give it to the person you placed the order with. Make sure you keep a copy.

Only when everyone is clear on the specifics of a print job is there a high likelihood of success.

Along with being precise goes checking your proof carefully. I will cover reviewing proofs in a separate post, but let’s just state here that proofs have to be checked with the same precision as quotes, purchase orders, and other specifics to a job. It is vastly more productive and important to be hyper-critical at the proofing stage than it is when you have a finished job in hand. NOW is the time to avoid mistakes.?

2. Get Quotes.

If your mind changes, the bottom line does too.

Have you ever bought a car? If so, then you know that a dealer will very happily advertise a low, affordable price for his base model vehicle, but when you start adding “extras” to the car, the price quickly goes up. Want automatic transmission? Air conditioning? Power steering? Leather seats? All those comforts you can’t live without soon add up to a less low, less affordable price for your new and improved car, but it’s something that you expect to pay for, right?This illustration has nothing to do with printing, but everything to do with buying custom products. For some reason, the printing industry is the only one I know of where customers regularly get quotes and expect printers to hold them no matter what has changed since. It isn’t fair, and no matter how you argue, a successful printer won’t listen. If you pick fancier covers for your yearbook, it will change the price.

Although a print shop has an obligation to let you know how much your job will cost you, changing the nature of the job in midstream will catch them by surprise. A craftsman will want to create anything you ask for, and hate giving you bad news. This is just human nature, and in a printer’s mind the price change is obvious, so why bring it up? Worse yet, craftsmen who love what they do, and who are in the middle of doing a good job for you sometimes have to be reminded about nasty business-related things like money. When their bookkeeper gets the paperwork, though, you can be sure the change will show up on the bill. Their accountants love what they do too.

To avoid surprises, drop by the print shop or call your printer and get them involved while you are still in the budgeting and design stage of your project. Tell them what your goals are and get prices for different options you might like to incorporate into your design. Then, when you are both on the same page, ask for a formal quote, in writing. Be precise. If there is anything you are still unclear about, ask for one or two options in addition to what you think you want. The printer will respond with prices for these variables in writing. Check these carefully for errors and keep this with your notes. It may be your last chance to catch a miscommunication! Assume that anything you change from that point on, whether in the schedule or makeup of the project, will cost more. (Don’t even assume doing fewer pieces in a print job will cost you less, unless you get it in writing. If the printer has a minimum or has already ordered paper for a big job, you pay for it.)

3. Stick to the schedule.

Rush jobs are bad for business.

I have a question for you. If I told you that you had to mow your lawn twelve times over the course of the summer, would it sound like a lot of work? If you don’t have a landscaper, you are probably already doing that work without a second thought. Now what if I said that you have to mow twelve lawns in one day? Sounds a lot harder, doesn’t it? How about if instead of mowing lawns you were clearing brush and small trees on twelve properties? Could you even do it in a day? Is there any amount of money that would make it possible without hiring additional help? If you did finish, how likely is it that you did a great job?

Printing an event journal in two weeks is easy. Small printers do it all the time. Printing the same exact journal in two days is nearly impossible, and even if successful you will probably pay overtime for a sloppy product. One of the biggest problems I see and loudest complaints I hear in print shops on Long Island is that customers’ deadlines don’t change, but the time they need to get the job ready keeps getting longer and longer. It’s hard to plan for, ends up costing printers money in overtime and more expensive stock, increases the chance for Murphy to sneak in and wreak havok, and reduces the time for Plan B if anything goes wrong. And something always does.

A good printer knows his or her capabilities. If the salesperson says five days, don’t turn in the art at 4:59 pm five days out. There isn’t a lot of work that can get done in that minute before they call it a day. (And if they are there late, it won’t be working on your job. It will be because someone else messed up a deadline first.) Your salesperson has a better idea of how much work that can be done in a day than you do, so defer to his or her judgement.

That being said, there are times when printers underestimate the time they need. They might get four, ten, or twenty big jobs all at once, without warning. Most of these will be late. When this happens, it is the printer’s responsibility to meet their obligations, but keeping your end of the bargain helps a lot, and your job will likely be moved higher on the priority list because you keep your promises.

Speaking of promises, it is important to be ready to pay for your work on time. Whether you have an account or are a walk-in customer, paying your bills is an important way to keep on a printer’s good side. If you are a C.O.D. or first time customer, show up with a check or cash in hand. Printers work very hard. Ask anyone who has worked in publishing and they will tell you; it is an unforgiving, deadline-driven, high stress environment. Costs keep going up, and profit keeps going down. When you show up for your first project and pay for it right then and there, your next project will be much nicer, and get done much quicker. If you pay for the next one on time, you will be put on a list with other rare clients who meet their obligations. Getting on this list is a good way to be treated like royalty in a print shop. Paying well and on time gets a lot of other sins (like being late with your art work) forgiven.

4. Don’t assume they know you.

Even if everyone knows your name, they might not remember what texture your business cards had the last time you were in.

Sure, a good printer will get to know his customers, and a great one will remember phone numbers, ink colors, and paper stocks like the back of his hand. Do you know how many hairs their are on the back of your hand? Y’know… the pale ones you can’t see without a magnifying glass? The more someone relies on memory, the more chances there are for bewildering mistakes in a print shop.

In my prepress days, I once wrote up an order for one of our favorite clients in under two minutes and sent the files to press. I knew the buyer’s name, the main phone line by heart, and saw that same job every month. I was absolutely sure I remembered the specs from the last time the customer placed the order, so when she said “same specs as last time,” I said, “no problem!” The pressman got a written order, and ran the job. The paper was in-stock, so the job was run and delivered early on the same day; a modern miracle of efficiency and printing speed. The only problem was we had printed 3000 more newsletters than necessary, and on the wrong paper. As it turns out, I was remembering a very similar job placed every month around the same time by a different client. It took a long time to live that one down, and to this day I check the specs on every regular job I do. Twice.

In this scenario there were many mistakes that I, the printer, made but the customer could have wiped away all of mine if they had just faxed or emailed a precise, written order rather than calling me on the phone. The buyer told me “same specs as last time” because she didn’t remember either. As a buyer, that just asks for failure.

Keep track of your job specs and communicate them clearly to the printer, whether you have placed the same order once or a dozen times before. You might get a new guy on the phone. You might get someone as senile as me. Whatever. The clearer you are, the more successful you will be. (And incidentally, having a written piece of communication is a great way of proving you were right when conflicts arise. It’s like having a contract if you can prove the other person saw it.)

5. Be Organized.

Don’t I just give it all to you and you take care of it?

Well sure, some printers have this luxury, but you will generally pay for it. It is along the same lines as rule #1 about being precise, but I share this tip specifically as a way of saving you money. The more complex your work is, the more a little organization will help you save money and decrease chances for mistakes.

Art departments charge by the hour. If they have to read your chicken scratch and explore a plastic bag full of paper to find each photograph, it will take them longer to put together your catalog than if you gave them a mock-up with clearly labeled paragraphs and a CD containing text versions of the same paragraphs and all the photos, with logical, corresponding names. A job that looks well-organized and is placed by a precise person on a set schedule will get done before a sloppy job with a wishy-washy timeline and poor ultimate goal. In many cases, the latter job wouldn’t even be quoted. Sometimes there aren’t enough hours in a day, and when it comes down to priorities, a printer will realize that reading a person’s mind for pay is a different business entirely.

Here are some ways you can be organized:

  • Send everything together. Finding twenty emails sent over a two-week period is difficult when you have dozens or hundreds of emails coming in each day, not including spam. Getting materials in one zipped file all at once, with one email’s worth of printable instructions is better.
  • Call to confirm when you send emails or upload to websites and FTP. Waiting a few days and then calling to see how a job is going can lead to a rather rude awakening if the printer says “When did you send it? I didn’t get anything!”?
  • Call after a day or two to see if there is anything else the printer needs. Printers are busy. They forget to make phone calls. They leave messages that aren’t retrieved, and don’t follow up. They print proofs, and assume you will be by to look at them.?
  • Know what you want. A printer could call at any time when they uncover something about which they have doubts. Whether you answer right away, or call back when you’ve had time to consult your notes, BE SURE. Anything you say will affect your printed work.?
  • Keep all your notes, your estimate, your purchase order, and a copy of the design proof and printing proof together. If you or your printer needs another copy for some reason, it will save time and confusion

I hope these tips have been a help to you. I plan on putting together a similar list for printers next. If you have any questions about me or M2 Imaging, feel free to leave a comment or email me (see my bio). I’m more than happy to give quotes on design work, printing, or brokering, and I promise I will be precise. :)

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