Business Cards and Nuclear War

“Hi, is this a printshop?” mutters the voice on the phone.

“No, this is NORAD headquarters. Could I have your identification number please?” runs the thought in my head, but I resist. “Yes, this is AlphaGraphics. Could I help you?” comes the answer from my mouth.

“Do you do business cards?” is the question.

“We control the largest nuclear arsenal in the entire world from this little bunker two miles under an undisclosed mountain in Nevada or somewhere. Why would we ever trouble with business cards?” I suppress the maniacal laugh and say, “Of course we do. If you’ll tell me a little about the cards you’d like to produce, I’ll try to help you.”

“What do you mean?” says the voice.

“I mean that if I press that little red button . . .”

The “business card call” is regularly received at AlphaGraphics. It’s a fair assumption that other shops receive this call, too. Business cards are the bane of a printer’s existence. They are the proverbial bucket with a hole in the bottom. They waste valuable time and they can jeopardize valuable accounts. Screw up the boss’s business cards and you may not get a look at the $4,500 catalog job the company is planning for next month.

But that’s not the topic of today’s post. Today, we’re going to tackle the thorny problem of pricing: how to ask for it and how to evaluate it. The example above is what not to do!

In a printer’s dreams all of our customers know what they want. Price is not the primary consideration. They listen to us and accept our advice on how to get the job done the best and most economical way possible. They have allocated the necessary time for their project, they have a reasonable budget and their primary interest is in the quality of the final product. Sounds reasonable, doesn’t it? Wake up, Richard!

Poor Richard’s Rule # 33: The accuracy and quality of a printer’s estimate is directly proportional to the quality of the information provided by the customer.

You will note that I am talking about estimates here. A smart printer does not provide an unqualified quotation. There are just too many variables involved, including the capability of the customer to make the decisions needed before production. All of the variables in printing have a cost. There is even a cost involved in producing an estimate in the first place. Here’s what we need to know to provide a good budget estimate:

  1. What is it? This is a good starting point. Tell us what you will call the project. Especially if we’re doing more than one project at a time for you, let us know that the project is. The project is the Alumni Invitation Set.
  2. What’s included? Be specific about everything involved. The Alumni Invitation Set will include a folded invitation, an outbound envelope, a response card, a response envelope, and a heartfelt request for large donations.
  3. How many? This is a really important question for us printers. “How many” will determine the best way to produce your job. If the “how many” for the invitation set is 5,000, this is going to be a press job. if it’s 500, we may do it digitally. If it’s 20, we may give you a few sheets of some nice cover stock and suggest that you print it on that $190 HP inkjet you got for Christmas.
  4. What colors? Along with “how many,” the amount of color will determine the best way to produce your project.
  5. What paper? No, we don’t expect you to be a paper expert. With all of the changes in the paper industry in recent years, it’s hard for us to keep up with what’s available. If you know exactly what paper you want, let us know. We’ll check to make sure that it is still available. If not, describe the paper. The invitations should be printed on a heavy stock with a texture and a light cream color. We’ll suggest a paper that meets your criteria.
    Please note: the paper selection can have a significant impact on the project cost. If you specify an expensive paper that can only be purchased in cartons of 1000 25″ x 38″ sheets and you want 500 business cards, guess what? Your business cards are going to be so expensive that you’d wish we had taken the nuclear option.
  6. What specifically would you like us to do? For instance, you’d like us to print, fold, stuff, address and mail the invitations.
  7. What is the timetable? If today is Wednesday and the event is on Friday, there’s no need to get an estimate. You should get all of the room mothers together and start telephoning. Printers love customers who set a timetable early on in the project and then stick to it. We like the other 95% of our customers OK, but we love the ones who can schedule. Always discuss timetable with your printer, especially when it is tight.
  8. What is the budget? Admittedly, this is a little counter-intuitive. Why would you tell the printer what you have to spend if you’re asking for a quote? If you’re asking us to quote caviar and your budget is sardines, we need to know.Believe it or not, we will try to fit your budget. Your printer can save you a bunch of money by suggesting changes in paper, colors, sizes, and exactly 342 other factors that are way beyond the scope of today’s blog entry.

Back to Poor Richard’s Rule: the better the information you provide, the more accurate the estimate. And here’s the first corollary:

  • If you provide the same information to multiple printers, it will be easier to compare the estimates.

This does not necessarily mean that you will always be comparing “apples to apples,” but you might get as close as “cumquats to nectarines.” Because of the number of variables involved in most print jobs, the likelihood of two printers coming in at exactly the same price is roughly the same as the probability of snowfall in Macon, GA in June. But at least you will have tightened up the specification.

Now, let’s talk about some other aspects of evaluating the prices:

  1. Is the printer reliable? Can they do what they say they will do and will they do it when they say they will? It is probably best not to try a new printer with a lower price when today is Monday and opening night is Wednesday. Ask a new printer for references. Give them a try with a smaller, low-risk job. Envelopes are good. Business cards are not (see above).
  2. Does the printer match the project? At AlphaGraphics, we love a run of 5,000 color trifold brochures. This is the perfect job for our color press. If you ask us to run 105,000, we’ll refer you to a friendly local competitor with great big presses. Buyer Beware! All printers do not follow this practice! There is a school of thinking that advocates accepting all projects and outsourcing those you cannot do in house. This is fine for some specialized items (like presentation folders), but can create real problems if the wrong vendor is selected for a project. Ask where the project will be done and why.
  3. Can the printer produce the quality you need? A small press that may produce acceptable quality for a form may not be able to hold the PMS color you need on your fancy letterhead. Simple process color may look ok when produced on a 2 color press. Heavy ink coverage may be a disaster. Ask for samples. Look at the quality of the work the printer is producing.
  4. Can the printer meet the timetable? Will he discuss the specifics with you? Discussing timetables requires commitments from both you and the printer. Do you have the assurance that he will meet his commitments if you meet yours?
  5. Is the price in line? Is it competitive? Does it meet the budget? It is very rare that the lowest price provider will be able to also provide high levels of service and quality. Again, see above regarding the discussion of budget prices with your printer.

If your goal is to find cheap business cards, don’t beat around the bush. The printer on the other end will be thinking about the nuclear option. If you’ve got to have cheap business cards, just ask! The printer on the other end of the phone will send you to one of the office supply superstores where you’ll get exactly what you deserve.

On the other hand, if your goal is to build a relationship with a printer who can produce the heartfelt request for large donations the way you need it, on time, and within budget; follow the guidelines above. We’d be happy at AlphaGraphics if you called us . . . but don’t ask about business cards.

2 Responses to Business Cards and Nuclear War

  1. Jim Kulpa says:

    Richard-
    Speaking of business cards, who do you reccomend as a substitute for card in place of BCT. We are looking for another vendor and would love any recommendations.

    Thanks again.

    Jim

  2. Nice blog I will recommend you to all my friends. Thank you.

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