Balancing a Storefront

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Imagine it: You’ve just opened your brand-new store. The floors are sparkling, the walls freshly painted, your outside sign brilliantly lit with neon, and beneath it is your tagline: Custom Apparel. You have a new Auto-clam Heat Press, shelves of fresh vinyl and a cutter just waiting to assist you on the way to greatness.

The door chimes as it swings open revealing your first customer. Elated, you offer them top notch customer service, and as they pay for their custom shirt, you realize that your dream has come true: You’re making money for something you like to do.

The customer gives you glowing referrals on your website, and soon orders start rolling in. Twenty-five shirts here, 50 shirts there, a few decals and tote bags. The orders keep on coming. Faster and faster.

Suddenly, you’re aware that your inbox has 15 new emails from customers who want custom designs from you, but you’re still working on that 50-shirt order for a local high school. You start jumping from one thing to the next just trying to get the emails answered and the shirts pressed and the customers in the shop tended to. Then, in the middle of all of this, the phone rings, and you try to keep composure as a customer explains in painfully slow detail exactly how they want their design. As soon as the call ends, a frustrating scream is heard somewhere in the shop. Oh, it’s from you.

Calm down. Hopefully it hasn’t gotten that far. If it has, get some chocolate. In the meantime, I’m here to give you some tips on how you can avoid the frustrating screams, keep your sanity and make your shop run smoothly.

Get Everything in Writing

I’ve found that while it’s wonderful getting orders over the phone, If I don’t confirm with an email, things tend to get forgotten or confused. You will save yourself a whole lot of headache and time by just getting everything in writing.

One of our policies is that we don’t take orders over the phone without a follow-up confirmation email. After we take down the information for their order, we send them a detailed email with all of the sizes, colors and design proofs. In some instances, I will even send them a sizing spec sheet for the garment they’re ordering. It’s better to be safe than sorry.

We instruct them to confirm that everything is spelled correctly, is in the correct size and has the correct colors. Until they confirm via email, their order is on hold. Once the order is confirmed, we start processing (and we don’t make changes).  We’ve been burned before by phone orders that get lost in translation. A customer says they want pink, but their version of pink and our version of pink are different.

Set a Workflow

I think we’re all guilty of hopping around projects once in a while, so it’s a great idea to set a workflow and stick to it. For example, we check emails about every 30 minutes. If no one has emailed, we go back to the task at hand. If someone did email, we respond with the necessary information or instruction, then go back to the order we were on. It’s helpful for us to have a projects-board. That board has saved my life more than once. With all of the correspondence, designing, and actual pressing, some projects may fall through the cracks (and that’s never good). Our projects-board is a large white board with numbers one-14 on it. Each time an order comes in, we write the order on the board. When we open in the morning, we check the board, start at number one and go from there.

Let Customers Know Your Schedule

Building upon the projects-board, it’s also helpful to let your customers know your schedule of orders; it’s where they would stand in line on the board. In most businesses, customers want their products pretty instantly. By letting them know where they stand in the order process, it will save you time answering their “where is my order” emails, and it may allow them to expedite their order, if need be.

Set a Standard Turnaround Time (and Enforce It)

I love the standard turnaround time; it’s a policy that I’m so thankful for. In the age of instant everything, we can fall back on this with relief. Our standard turnaround time is 5-7 business days, whether the order is 50 shirts or one. This lets them know when their order will be complete and sets a reasonable time for us to complete the project.

So here’s an example of what not to do: A regularly visiting customer comes in with a new order and they need an item in two days. That’s outside of standard time, but they’re a regular, so you comply. You’ve just set a dangerous precedent. That customer knows now that you’ll bend the rules for them, so they may continue to ask. They may even tell their friends. Now, you’re bending the rules for way too many people, and frustrations will start to build.

Stick to the time-frame.

Expediting Can be Costly

If your customers want something in two days, and you see that it’s doable, make them pay for the rush. Just because you can get it done without the headache doesn’t mean that they shouldn’t pay for the extra speed. When you expedite without charging, it lets the customer know that they can wait until the last minute, anytime, and still get their products. While we don’t want to actively turn a customer away, we can let them know that if they want their garment outside of the standard turnaround, it will cost them a little bit extra. In a way, this trains them to start planning ahead.

Follow-Up

Sending a simple email message with “just checking up with you” can save you so much time! Sometimes, customers will plan ahead and give you a due-by date a month in advance, but it’s still a good idea to check in with them if you haven’t received sizing or final proofing confirmation.

That’s where getting everything in writing comes into play, as well. Until all of the information is confirmed, the order doesn’t start. It’s never annoying to get confirmation or a follow-up, especially when communicating delays. It’s always better to let a customer know as soon as there is a delay rather than waiting until the day the garment is due and telling them.

Paying for Quotes Will Save You Time

Another helpful policy we have is paying for quotes. While some people think that quotes are gotten over the phone (don’t do it!) or are handed out like candy (free), having customers pay for their quotes saves you time in the long run. Have you ever spent time looking over a custom design or making a design for a customer only to have them tell you they’re going with someone else? Maybe they won’t respond back to your calls and emails at all. That’s an hour or two that you could have been cutting a design for an order or doing some marketing. Having a system in place where customers pay for design quotes helps you weed out the serious from the flippant ones. If they become upset over paying a quote, they likely wouldn’t be a serious customer.

Time to Open Shop

What time does your business open? How much traffic do you get in the first hour? Chances are that you probably don’t get a whole lot of business in the first hour of opening, so why not open later, but come in the same time as before? Our shop opens at 10, but my assistant and I come in at 9. That extra hour provides time to go over the projects, check the emails, check the project-board, or finish up a task left from the previous day. When you really put your mind to it, you can accomplish many things in an hour!

Under Promise and Over Deliver

Don’t you love hearing the doorbell ring and finding it’s the pizza that you ordered? You thought it would be an hour, but it was there in 30 minutes. Excellent! The same is true when completing customer projects. When they place their order, tell them the standard turnaround time. If you finish the garment early, let them know. They’ll be overjoyed that they can have their masterpiece early; they’ll tell their friends, your approval rating goes up, and you get more business.

Work While You Work

In other words, multi-task. Make sure to fill in gaps of time with work.  Are you going to wait patiently by the cutter for it to finish all of those jersey numbers? Instead of waiting around for that, work on designs. While you wait for the heat press to turn on, send some proofs or start weeding a design. Is your computer taking forever to save something, let it save and go cut transfer sheets. Tidy up around the shop while your rhinestone decals are cooling (a tidy shop is a happy shop).

There are so many little tasks to complete every day that can be finished in between projects.  I find it helpful to make a list of the small stuff to refer to if I have a bit of downtime in-between projects. It’s so satisfying to cross them off the list, even though I know there will be more things to add to the list tomorrow.

 

Setting these policies and considerations in place has helped Shirts and Stones keep production running smoothly while satisfying customers. People actually like guidelines and standards, as they set an expectation. You are taking your work seriously, and customers will appreciate that. As more customers come, orders pile up, and your business grows, those policies will save you in the long run.

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About Author

"It's time to get your bling on." Philip is a native of Sarasota. He manages Shirts & Stones, and has been with the company for nearly two years.

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