Marshall Atkinson advises on how to minimise errors and deal with mistakes

There are occasions during the working day when you need to deploy critical communication skills. What you say and how you say it can be the difference between resolving a potential problem, and kicking up to the next level in disaster.

Recently, I spoke to a shop owner who had completed a rush contract screen printing order. It was a simulated process, two-location job for a repeat customer. They do work for them constantly, and this particular job had to go out in a hurry. The client’s artist sent them the art, with each of the colours for the files already separated.

Because of the rush, and the fact that the client sent separated art, the shop neglected to send an art approval confirming the image. The art department didn’t think to verify that the separations matched the provided mock-up. The problem the shop faced was that an item in the design separations was the wrong colour. Nobody caught the mistake until it was out the door and already on an UPS truck. Uh oh!

The shop owner wanted to know from me what he should do about it.

In my view you have to get ahead of this problem. There wasn’t anything wrong with the technical aspects of the print. It shipped out on time, with the same fantastic print quality that the shop always produces. The initial issue was that they skipped their own internal review steps in order to ‘save time’. They just assumed it was okay because someone else did the work.

As professionals, it is our mistake when we let that happen. I’m sure plenty of shops would just say to keep quiet, or sweep it under the rug. After all, the customer provided the separated art files. What’s the big deal?

My take, however, is that the shop should have known better. There were several chances along the way to catch the mistake: In the art department, as the separations obviously didn’t match the mock-up; on the production floor, as they should have reviewed the mockup to the first strike-off for manager approval; and even on the catcher’s table, as the mock-up was available to review as the shirts were rolling down the dryer belt.

This is why the shop has to own up to the mistake and let the customer know. Sending an email or calling them with a ‘Please let me know your thoughts’ type of conversation builds trust. It’s the honest and professional way to handle the situation.

It’s always difficult to say you made a mistake. Those words never taste good. But trust me, these problems get noticed sooner or later. Especially with orders like this one that are destined to become repeat orders for a programme.

Also, I like the ‘Please let me know your thoughts’ sentence, as it isn’t introducing to the customer anything about a reprint, a discount or any financial band-aid. Maybe the art was changed and the printer wasn’t in on the loop. Maybe it isn’t a big deal. Maybe their world will come to an end and their head will explode like in the movie Scanners. Ka-pow!

But when you use the phrase ‘Please let me know your thoughts’, you are placing the question at the feet of the customer to decide how important the problem is to them. How much responsibility are they going to take? Is it a minor inconvenience or a major disaster? The client will decide if they need any sort of concession or reprint. Then you can negotiate what makes sense to your shop. Don’t just immediately go to ‘We’ll give you 50% off the order for the mistake’.

As it turned out, the shop owner took my advice and used the magic phrase. In this case, the customer actually sold out of the shirt quickly and had already placed a re-order. No discount was needed or given, and the client took full responsibility for the challenge. Some trust was earned with the headsup alert. Everyone vowed to be more careful in the future. No harm, no foul. They dodged a bullet though.

Marshall’s takeaway advice

Stick to your guns over procedures when you are rushed. It may be quicker to skip a step because you don’t have time; however, what would happen if that order had to be reprinted with the correct colour scheme? What if it was for an event? ‘Time-savings’ can be your enemy too. That’s when the cost of correction multiplies quickly.

Doing something twice is never faster. Slow down…

  • When taking the order, know exactly what the customer expects and clearly communicate that on all work order instructions. Yes, it’s your job in customer service or sales to be an art expert. This industry deals with images. Know how many colours it takes to do the job. Ask for help or training. Learn the industry vocabulary.
  • The art department needs to review the mock-up against the separated file and doublecheck it matches. If you are provided with art files, it’s your job to pre-flight them and make sure they will work as intended. Let’s face it, we work in a specialised industry. Choking an underbase plate in screen printing or tweaking a digitised embroidery file for performance garments so they won’t pucker is an art unto itself. Your job is to make what the client hands you work for the production in your shop.
  • While an art approval may not have prevented the particular problem I’ve outlined here, as the challenge was in the separated file, the shop could have sent one. Usually this step ferrets out challenges as the creative team would have been more attentive. For rush art approvals use action language such as ‘Your job is slated to print tomorrow, please approve this file by 2.30pm today so we can burn the screens and your order can ship on time’.
  • Send a digital pic of the first shirt printed. Especially with simulated process work, what the artist designs and what is pulled off the press may be different. Not everyone has great separation skills. If something looks odd, is critical or is a high-value print run, getting another set of eyeballs on the print can be a good thing. Know your production schedule and let the client know that they will be receiving a digital picture at 10.30am, or whatever. Be ready. Get good lighting and snap a photo. Zero in on key areas that may be a concern.
  • The production manager should compare the shirt to the customer-provided mock-up. Step one in starting any production needs to be quality. Have a quality control review. Check for print quality, registration, image location, ‘is it straight?’, moiré patterns in halftones… This is also your last chance to catch spelling errors. Compare the print to the art approval or a mock-up: I use my finger and just go one item at a time back and forth. This to this. That to that. Make sure you break out that PMS book and check the colours too. If anything is off, fix it.

Remember the old carpenter rule, ‘Measure twice, cut once’? That adage applies to our industry too. Doublecheck: order entry, artwork, screens or digitising, registration, production quality, colour matching, shipping address and labels…

Sometimes another review on something now prevents your shop from having a difficult conversation later on.

Marshall Atkinson is the Professional Services director for InkSoft, and program owner for the new InkSoft Production Manager software. In his Professional Services capacity, Marshall provides coaching to shops on operational efficiency, continuous improvement and workflow strategy, business planning and strategy, employee motivation and management and sustainability.