As was apparent at our recent visit to Marketing Week Live, many end users have only a limited knowledge of garment decoration. Marshall Atkinson explains how to educate your customers

Let’s face it, as members of the apparel decoration community we produce items that a lot of people don’t have a clue about how they were made. What does it take to screen print, digitally print or embroider a shirt? What about adding rhinestone bling to a garment?

I just gave a shop tour to a potential client who told me he knew all about how shirts were printed. During the walk through it was apparent that he didn’t know what a flash unit was or why it was used on press. He had been buying T-shirts for years with another printer and somehow never asked or was never shown! It was an epiphany for him; now he understood that price list phrase: “Three colours on darks with a flash.”

Your customer base is the lifeblood of your business. They trust you for professional guidance and knowledge as you are the expert. As experts, we can position ourselves to teach our customers about the industry and strengthen our relationship with them. This is a tool you can use to sell beyond the price list.

1. Demonstrate your knowledge

It’s not enough these days just to hang a sign above your door and wait for customers to stroll in. You have to reach out and engage them to attract new business. A key part of that is demonstrating your expertise. So what’s the best method to do that? Simple – any method that works.

The most basic form of communication for your shop needs to be some informative ‘one-pagers’ that have the information required regarding orders. For example, you could write and design a sheet regarding art that includes facts about how to submit art files, acceptable file formats, the difference between vector and raster files, general placement and sizing guidelines for locations, or any number of items. Others could be how you handle compliance issues or Fairtrade requirements.

The idea is to get the processes and procedures that your shop uses down on paper, professionally designed and branded for your shop, and ready to deliver to your customer. String a bunch of these together as a multiple page PDF and call it your ‘New Customer Information Packet’.

2. Paint a picture

Another way you can demonstrate your knowledge is with pictures. Remember, a picture is worth a thousand words; so what do you think a collection of pictures might be worth? Take interesting shots of different aspects around your shop. Try to capture people doing the work, different types of jobs, inks used, equipment and the steps it takes to produce anything. I like to upload my shots about once a week or so to a Pinterest board called “Behind the Curtain at a T-shirt Shop”. Once a month I push out the link on social media and I get a good number of hits. It’s like giving a couple of dozen shop tours. When I talk to new customers (or even old ones) about something on the phone or email, I’ll forward the link and call attention to a particular shot that is applicable to the conversation. We also link to this Pinterest board on the About Us page on the Visual Impressions website.

Educating potential customers with your website is a good place to start. Typically, this might be the first place where someone looks after they’ve started an online search for garment decoration companies. Many shops just have a placeholder type webpage that offers little information. Put yourself in your customer’s shoes. Pretend you have a 500-piece order for a company outing coming up at the end of the month. If they went to your website could they tell if you are capable of doing that work? Could they see past examples with pictures or a portfolio? Could they get a quote online, or is there information on who to contact? Your customers judge you by your website every single day. The reason your phone isn’t ringing or your inbox isn’t full could be from this reason alone.

Nothing beats giving real shop tours. If you have customers in the building, I would highly advise walking them around and showing them how you create and produce all of your amazing designs every day. I like to have visitors touch a hot and freshly printed shirt coming off the dryer belt, or hand them a neatly folded and polybagged T-shirt. In embroidery, it is fun to watch them be amazed at how fast the needles on a row of embroidery heads can blur into a row of logos on a polo shirt or baseball hat. These are the experiences that move people beyond thinking of you as a commodity.

3. Teaching sells

People don’t want pushy, they want to be educated. The shops that sell only on price and just scream “Discount, discount, discount” don’t have any value to offer so this is the only song they can sing. The value that you bring is your experience and creative knowledge. You become a trusted partner the instant you solve that problem.

Sometimes it is about the garment: “I need organic T-shirts for a charity event.” Sometimes it’s about timing: “I need 24 T-shirts for an important client presentation on Thursday – help!” Sometimes it will make you smile: “My last printer botched the job on these performance tees for our gym – everything turned pink.”

Start with educating your customer by offering not only the solution to their present challenge, but maybe even an array of possibilities that they haven’t thought of yet. Will working with you open their eyes to a new realm of possibilities? Show them the difference between you and that other shop down the street.

4. Keep it simple

Make it easy for your customer to gain the knowledge that they are seeking. It’s important to share things, but keep it simple and brief. People will ask follow up questions, ask to stop by for a visit, or maybe indicate that they would like to see more if they are interested.

If you are emailing them a quote, be sure to include your new customer information packet. We also like to include a PDF of an article or two about our shop, and the link to the Pinterest board. This gives them the information that they are requesting, with a little more, but doesn’t overwhelm anyone like a crazy, used car salesman pitch.

If a customer is placing an order for a decoration method that they aren’t used to, for example, a direct-to-garment order, you can use this as an opportunity to discuss that type of decoration method. How is it different from standard screen printing? If they are in your shop, you might show them how a print is made using both direct-to-garment and traditional screen printing so they can see the difference. These are the interactions that build a large stable of repeat customers that are value-based.

5. Broadcast what you are up to

If you haven’t already written a social media marketing plan for your shop, I would suggest finding the time soon. One of the things that can be a key part of your social media outreach is simply showing what’s happening in your shop. You can’t just constantly yell “Sale!” and expect anybody to listen.

You have to make your social media posts interesting and relevant. Avoid screaming how cheap you are and instead focus on your quality, technical ability, craftsmanship and capabilities.

The key is to share not only the business end of things, but make it fun and interesting. Your customers are people too, and they will react positively if you show them how your shop dresses up for Halloween or participates in a charity walk event. While you are doing that, you can show them that you know how to print purple gel ink on a cuff, sew puff logos on hats, foil on some fleece, heat press numbers for a football team or print a logo on a stack of iPads.

It’s up to you to push out the content. So what are you waiting for? Start teaching!

Marshall Atkinson is the owner of Atkinson Consulting, LLC, a service firm focused on the decorated apparel industry for process improvement and efficiency, sustainability, employee training, social media marketing, and long term strategic planning. He has over 20 years experience in the decorated apparel industry and has championed two companies to become SGP certified sustainable printers. A frequent trade show and webinar speaker, he also publishes his own weekly blog.