Start the new year off on a positive note by giving your business a much needed yearly MOT. Erich Campbell explains which areas to focus on for maximum return

The holiday shopping is over and purse-strings have been pulled tight. The long nights of last-minute stitching are quickly fading from memory as you settle in for the start of a new year and the flipside of all that busy work: the January lull.

If your shop is like many of those I’ve worked in, the ‘hangover’ of holiday labour and the initial sales drop can leave you low on resources, but luckily, flush on time. For production-minded owners, it’s easy to focus on in-house tasks like maintenance and cross- training employees, but it’s sometimes easy to forget that without a push for new orders or a direction for the upcoming year, growth can simply stall.

All those tasks that you’ve known you should do – those plans for promotion, those opportunities for sales and those operational tweaks suggested by industry experts (the implementation of which just couldn’t top the immediacy of keeping the needles moving in busier days) – this is the time to execute them. Although it is important to work on technique, overhaul equipment and train staff, it’s equally important to work on the commercial side of your commercial embroidery operation: preparing, planning and building those neglected parts of your businesses that don’t directly impact the production chain.

By spending your January lull looking in on current customers, preparing plans for your content marketing and pushing yourself beyond your current boundaries, your business will be in better shape to grow and profit, even when production demands increase to fill your days. This is the time to redirect and reinvigorate our businesses.

Stitching for self-promotion

Though I suggested you should get yourself out of the ‘production-only’ mindset from time to time, creating self-promotion products is a great way to involve production stain your marketing and identity. Show that you believe in the promotional power of embroidery by creating garments and accessories featuring your shop‘s logo. These pieces are great for sales calls, customer incentives and as uniform pieces for yourself and your employees. What’s better is that it doesn’t have to break the bank: use ‘dead stock‘ items, create cover patches for rejects or incorrectly decorated pieces, or take advantage of low-priced closeouts, sale items and self-promotional deals from your favourite vendor. Crew decked out in logowear are walking advertisements for your shop, and customers receiving your promos will have your brand at the front of their minds for reordering as well as spreading the word. You could even carry unsized promo products to make a presentation for on-the-spot sales opportunities.

Prominent local events are not only fantastic opportunities to sell embroidery direct to the organisers, but also offer a chance to sell additional products like these promotional items. Getting involved can also lead to the organising group placing its own year-round orders that were influenced by your work on the event

Local events have their own following; posting items related to these events and/or sponsoring these events can expose you not only to the businesses and groups involved with organising them, but to the entire attendance if done well

Revisit for reorders

Sales often focuses on the wide side of the funnel, but it’s in retention that we are most secure in our potential success. With the cost of set-up being such a large part of embroidery, the savings inherent in the repeat order write their own sales pitch. The inherently simpler order process, without the art discussion and approval, makes embroidery reorders fast, no-nonsense transactions with a lower per-piece finished price. Take advantage of these benefits by contacting existing customers. Simply by showing some care during your downtime, you can prime the pump for purchasing and referrals by confirming how important their business is to you.

This confirmation should go beyond the standard email contact if you’d like to stand out from the rest: call personally, send a handwritten card or perhaps even take time to personally deliver a bonus decorated product. Surprising customers with thoughtful contacts or a small gift, even self- promotional products, can create a positive impression. Make sure to ask questions that show interest in your customer‘s business or club and ask about any upcoming plans. Listen carefully and you’ll not only show how engaged you are with them, but also identify potential opportunities to serve their needs and form preliminary proposals for a future contact.

Even if a customer is clear about not wanting to plan ahead, asking satisfied customers to help out in the coming year with referrals and reviews is still worthwhile. It may be that this is a quiet time for your customer too, in which case they may be more likely to spend some time reviewing and referring while they aren’t bogged down in their own projects.

Festivals and events aren‘t all about the official contract for vending; this design is one of hundreds for the individual balloon teams that will attend Albuquerque‘s International Balloon Fiesta. All the local teams want their own customised gear aside from the official offerings, leaving plenty of opportunity for sales if you market correctly

Content management systems like WordPress, shown here, allow you to create and pre-schedule posts for release at a specific time and date. During downtime, you can write and schedule posts to fill out your content calendar. Address the festivals and seasonal sports openings and weather related-wardrobe changes for a topical trail of content

Cultivate content

To be found online you not only need to be where the people are, you also need to have the information that they are looking to find. If you want to make a name for your company, creating content that is useful and entertaining to your potential client while answering critical questions is sure to have an effect. To pull inbound traffic, you want to have your content local to your site and shared via social channels; this content helps you establish yourself as an expert in the field as well as catching those searches. You need to create a regular content stream, something that can be hard to manage when volume is high on the production floor. There’s no better time than now to start farming ‘evergreen’ content to fill out your stream.

Though you will sprinkle in timely, reactive content throughout the year, you can answer the concerns that consistently come up with customers, profile products that are staples in your stitching or offer technique information to help customers select the decoration that suits them best, and create a calendar of content that’s ready to roll out on a regular basis between the reactive posts. Start a list of these evergreen topics and use this slower period to write and capture images for as many of them as you can to build up a content catalogue.

Make sure that you always focus on providing value to the customer first. Make topic and content generation a habit: always take notes and capture images and video when you see something interesting in and around your shop. The foundation of content you create when production is slow will buoy your efforts to be consistent and allow you to tackle publishing in the available time without scrambling for topics and resources.

Anticipate advertising

Ideation is the largest initial cost of almost any project; coming up with concepts for advertising can be difficult when deadlines are looming so looking to seasonal trends and local events before the year is underway can help you be prepared to promote the right products at the right times. Page through your calendar and fill in seasonal changes as well as prominent local events, making sure to mark promotional projects for each a month in advance of both. Brainstorm the kinds of products that would suit each event and make notes for your eventual advertisement or promotion and how you would showcase embroidery on each. With time for customer contacts and promotion in media built in, you’ll be able to use the awareness of events or seasonal needs to boost your own promotions.

I‘ve always advocated taking notes on the production floor so that you don‘t miss the birth of a new technique or forget that possible improvement you imagined or potential product revelation. The same tactic goes for capturing concepts for marketing and for working on the direction and purpose of your business. On those times you are evaluating and working in the business, never be far from somewhere to take notes. My old low-tech way was to cart around these composition books, and I still think that writing makes ideas stick better than typing, but I‘ve graduated to using voice assistants to take notes into cloud-based apps so that they are searchable and can be ‘recalled‘ anywhere. Sometimes just a topic idea is enough to make it easier to create content for your business later in the year

With an inexpensive headset and screen capture software, you can record videos of your digital work and informational presentations in which you can educate your customers about your business practices. Imagine when you need to discuss a digitising fee if you were able to email a link showing your customer the work required to digitise a design, narrated by staffers they know. Add that to the fact that these videos translate well to social media content and blog entries, and even those among us who don‘t feel comfortable writing blog posts can create valuable content with minimal eort. If you can put together just 12 short videos and 12 blog posts, you have a bi-weekly content stream as the backbone for your marketing year

Evaluate and estimate

Any attempt at growth, whether it‘s a matter of making simple efforts like those above or opting for more far-reaching reorganisation, requires tracking progress and making sure that your activities are aligned with your goals. If you haven‘t been keeping an eye on costs and profits as you should, this is the time to start, but this analysis of purpose and direction should go a bit deeper than the books. The ultimate end to this evaluation should be a concrete vision of what you would like your business to become, to be known for, to achieve beyond simply surviving. In the short term, simple goals can be worthwhile, but having and expressing an overarching purpose can help you maintain focus and motivate your team to push for progress.

If you are having trouble with purpose, take some time to think about a customer and community perspective: what place does my shop have in the lives of those who patronise it? What roles does it fulfil in my community and where does it fit in the larger community of embroiderers and decorators? What role would I like it to take? Who would I like it to serve? What would this version of my shop look like, what would it be doing in a year, how would that play out and where would it be in five years? Take time to form a picture of this version of your shop; though we all know that plans change and you will likely refine your vision, simply having a target and a purpose in mind can help us break free of running our shops in the moment-to-moment, wholly reactive mode that robs us of perspective.

With a long-term vision defined, we can engage in a little mental time-travel to define immediate goals. Imagine looking back from this same seasonal dip next year: what would you like to record as your company‘s accomplishments for the year? How will your embroidery shop have grown? What will you be doing at that time that you aren‘t doing now? Once you have a picture of that progress in your mind, rewrite these imagined observations as goals, listing the first steps you believe will get you closer to each. At this stage, you will finally get closer to simple direct actions; if your goal is to be the local shop that can take on large jobs that your production capacity made you turn away in the last year, it may be time to evaluate how and if additional equipment or partnerships might allow you to profitably produce those larger orders. If your goal is to have the most efficient and satisfied workers and you find your operators constantly frustrated and searching for supplies or always pacing from place to place, it may be time to re-evaluate the production floor layout and examine the flow of goods and supplies through your shop. Even large and seemingly ‘fuzzy‘ goals like becoming a beloved local fixture or giving back to your community start with connecting with people, planning for a fundraiser or participating in a single event.

If you find that, even with your goals in place, you can‘t conceive of the first actionable steps, stop and make a list of people who might help you in your particular aim and make your first step to contact them and do additional research. Set reasonable dates for the completion of your first steps and stick with them; try to execute at least one step before business usually starts to ramp up to give you a quick victory and momentum on which you can build.

Recharge and recommit

Whether you choose to revise or revolutionise your business plans, take this moment to recharge and recommit to your business. Make regular appointments to check in on yourself and your goals; don‘t let another year pass by before you take stock. Like one stitch follows another to become the beautiful decorations you provide to your customer, each concept, each step, each simple task builds to become the future of your business. With some forethought now, and many daily choices to move forward in the near future, you can make something equally impressive to look back on at this time next year.

Erich Campbell is an award-winning digitiser, embroidery columnist and educator, with 18 years’ experience both in production and the management of e-commerce properties. He is the partner relationship manager for DecoNetwork in the USA.