Two Cops and a Ladder

December 30, 2006

The Blue and Red Lights were flashing in the neighbor’s driveway . . .

Police Lights

They were thinking that this was a real waste of time, and they were probably right. It was just an open door, after all. But why would the upstairs balcony door be open with the neighbors out of town?

One of the kids noticed the open door as we were coming back from dinner in Wonderful Robins. We parked the car, walked next door and checked out the situation. Downstairs doors were locked. Everything looked good through the windows.

The balcony is easily 10 feet off the ground. It wasn’t likely that even the most enterprising burglar could climb up there, ransack the house, and leave with all of the neighbor’s valuables. Still, I didn’t want to be the one to find out. And I wasn’t really very thrilled with the idea of climbing up a ladder to check the situation out in someone else’s house. Not my job. I called the cops.

We live in the small town of Perry, a few miles south of Macon, GA. Everybody knows everybody here (and their business) and the attitude of Perry’s finest usually reflects the friendliness of the community. That was only partially true this evening.

I was only a little surprised when the cruiser doors opened. All I could see as I approached the car were two heads in the front seat. The driver’s door opened and an attractive, smiling policewoman emerged. We walked toward the front of the house and I explained why I had called and pointed at the open door ten feet above. She nodded and we discussed the options. I offered to get a ladder and she nodded again.

I hadn’t heard a thing from the partner and I didn’t see her at all until I turned to head back to my house. At first I thought she was a bear, but then remembered that bears don’t live in Perry, GA. She was four feet away from me and I couldn’t tell you how she got there. I said something cordial, acknowledging her presence, and she responded with a noncommital grunt.

The ladder was propped up on the balcony with the help of the friendly police lady. We tested the stability and she climbed carefully up to the balcony. There was a rumbling sound behind me and I was barely able to step aside as the partner vaulted up the ladder, over the railing and into the open doorway. It was a thing to witness. The image evoked was definitely bearlike: muscular, strong, fast and a little menacing. She slammed the door after going inside.

Flashlight beams flashed through the curtains and venetian blinds as the partners explored the house. I waited for them outside, naturally curious about what they were seeing. When they emerged, I asked the communicative policewoman if everything was OK.

“Have you been in the house?” she responded. “Would you know if anything was out of place?”

I know the neighbors, but not well. My father-in-law visits with them regularly, but I’ve never been inside. “No.” I responded, as it occurred to me that something could be very wrong inside. I could sense the bear’s presence nearby.

She asked the question again. I repeated my answer. I told her that I had looked through the windows downstairs and checked the doors, but couldn’t see anything that looked amiss. I asked again if everything was alright. She loosened up a bit, stating that nothing appeared to be disturbed, then asked for my identification and how to get in touch. I was beginning to feel like I was part of a scene from Law and Order, and wondering if the partners thought that I was a bad guy.

The friendly police lady left me with a case number and her name. I didn’t get the partner’s name. Perhaps it was Ursula. The bear had vanished as silently as she had appeared. I saw her seated in the police cruiser as I carried the ladder back toward our house.

It was an odd encounter, a little disconcerting. There was certainly nothing unprofessional about the behavior of the two policewomen. Even the bear, as bizarre as her actions and demeanor seemed to me, did nothing that could be interpreted as out of bounds. Somehow, though, in an almost undefineable way, my worldview had been changed.

Ordering Scallops Online

December 24, 2006

mailbox.jpgI thought briefly about opening the email from Herron Mole. The sender name wasn’t really very creative, but the subject line, “Scalloped!” caught my attention. To me, the names and subject lines that accompany junk e-mail are just as fascinating as the subject matter isn’t.

Here’s one of the best ones I’ve received lately: Remuneration P. Linoleum. I wonder what the P. stands for. I suspect that he is kin to Transforming R. Pachyderm, another of my favorites. One of my acquaintances informs me that these unusual epithets are created by some sort of random name generator. This does little to satisfy my curiosity; it only makes me wonder about the warped brainpower that could program such a thing. It’s like the IRS. What if you took all of that energy and manpower and focused it on something productive?

Spam is about as non-productive a venture as can be conceived. With the sheer volume of it out there, it’s hard to imagine that a mass junk e-mail could ever produce any business. It does definitely obstruct business, especially in a line of work like printing, where proofs occasionally get mistaken for digital junk. But it’s difficult to suppose that even the most deranged hacker could get much satisfaction, fame or return by adding his junk (even by the thousands) to the millions of unsolicited missives zooming through hyperspace.

There was a time when printers were very concerned about e-mail marketing as a threat to direct mail. Direct mail, even for a shop the size of AlphaGraphics, represents a chunk of business that we could not do without. Most of ours takes the form of letters and postcards. A lot of the volume is from schools and non-profit agencies who communicate with parents, prospective students, donors and supporters.

Admittedly, there is a nuisance factor to direct mail. We order odd-sized boxes and packaging supplies from a very good company, U-Line. Over the years, we’ve ordered a lot of stuff from them. I would love to be their printer. AlphaGraphics receives catalog after catalog from them. We keep one around to use as a reference for orders and throw the rest away. We just don’t need an additional catalog each week by mail. U-Line could save a lot of money and reduce their printing costs by sending a catalog every 6 months and a postcard every now and then telling us that a sale is running.

The good thing about direct mail is that it is ultimately governed by economic rules that (obviously) don’t apply to spam. Direct mail has to produce a return to justify the investment. And it has to be well conceived to produce a return.

We can always tell when a mailpiece will be a one-time run. Generally, the printed piece is poorly crafted. The message is not clear and there’s too much information. The mailer thinks that every recipient will read every word, so they pack paragraphs onto a 5 1/2 x 8 1/2 postcard. Wrong. It won’t work. There will be no response to the mailing.

And then there’s the mailing list. A similar attitude can prevail. The mailer thinks, “We’ll send this mailing out to everyone in town, because they’ll all want to read it and place an order.”

Wrong again. The result will only be that more people will throw the mailpiece away. Even though we might get one large mailing job, the end result is ultimately bad for AlphaGraphics. We’d much rather do regular targeted mailings that work for a customer than a massive mailout that flops. And somehow or another, the failure always seems to rub off on us a little. Shoot the messenger. Blame the printer.

Here are some tips for effective direct mail campaigns:

  1. Keep it simple. Make the message easy to understand. Aim for an impression. Most of the impact of direct mail is like mortarfire. It softens the ground and makes the customer more receptive to your other selling and marketing efforts.
  2. Target. Fire rifle shots, not shotgun blasts. Keep a comprehensive customer or audience database. These are your best candidates for a response. Use narrow criteria for purchased lists. Printers and mail houses have some interesting sources for specialized marketing lists. If you run a wedding-related business, mail to subscribers to Bride magazine in the 312 zip area instead of all households with women between the ages of 18 and 25.
  3. Personalize. It’s pretty simple to merge name data into the message on a postcard. It’s even cooler to send customized versions to different customer categories.
  4. Make an offer or a call to action. This is the equivalent of a salesperson asking for the order. Give the potential customer a reason to respond.
  5. Repeat, Repeat, then repeat again. The impact of the first mailing will always be weaker than the fifth. Responses and resulting sales grow as the direct mail message is repeated and built upon with subsequent mailings. Refine the target list, but make sure that the best prospects receive regular communications.
  6. Follow up. Integrate direct mail into the rest of your selling and advertising efforts. If it is possible or practical, have a human being follow up with the potential customer to ask for an order or at least gauge interest.

I did think briefly about opening the email from Herron Mole. I doubt I’ll ever here from Mr. Mole again, though; and I’m not sure that I’d buy scallops from him. I’d only order seafood online from a reputable, established company; one with enough financial wherewithal to send me a postcard or two. Mr. Mole, if you’re really out there, call us . . . we can help.

Can’t you print it while I wait?

December 16, 2006

One of my graphic designer friends comments:

How about an explanation of all the steps required to produce a printed piece?

I really love clients who want projects turned around in a matter of minutes. Maybe, with this bit of information, people will understand that while all this wonderful technology does make things faster, it doesn’t make thing instantaneous.

Ok, we’ll give it a go.

It is not uncommon for a customer to ask the question, “Can’t I just wait for it?” We call it copy shop mentality. The customer is picturing a big box with a paper tray on the end of it. No matter what the size or complexity of the project, you just press a green button, the machine makes a little noise and the finished product comes out the delivery end.

In truth, there are some jobs that can run exactly that way. AlphaGraphics still has a couple of conventional copiers. If a customer comes in and requests a few copies and one of the machines is open, we’ll usually put the job on the machine and tell the customer about how long it will take. Sometimes we’ll ask them to go to lunch and stop back by after they’re through.

But we’re not a copy shop. This type of job represents less than 3% of the revenue of our business. Most of this work used to come from small and medium sized offices that now have fairly good copying capability in-house. The jobs that go to a printshop are the ones that are too complex to do in-house or require a level of quality that cannot be produced on an office copier.

The projects my designer friend is talking about usually fall in both categories at once. She is one of the designers that printers really like; with the (unfortunately somewhat rare) combination of artistic talent and technical competence. Producing one of her pieces on a copy machine would be like re-casting Michelangelo’s David in concrete.

The way a job progresses through the printshop is called workflow. Let’s take a look at how it works at AlphaGraphics:


Prepress has been called the black hole of the printing business, and it can be. Prepress is literally everything that happens to a project before ink goes on paper. It can be very easy or amazingly difficult, largely depending on the customer.

In the case of my designer friend, prepress is easy. She submits files that are usually ready for press. Her customers have approved the art and their changes have been made. We will simply check her files (this is called preflight) to assure that all of the fonts and images we need are there. She’ll get a final .pdf proof or a hard copy if the customer requires it. Once the proof is approved, we’re on to production.

Or, we can do it the hard way. For example, today I received files for a 36 page booklet. The page size specified is 5.5″ x 8.5″. The files were provided in Microsoft Word on an 8.5 x 11 page size (see my previous post Why Printers Hate Microsoft). That means a lot of work before a proof can be produced, then revisions, then proof approval, then printing and binding. This is where the black hole can appear. The timetable is largely dependant upon the customer. If they respond quickly to proofs and revisions are uncomplicated, the project will go smoothly and reasonably quickly. Alternately, they can require multiple revisions, review by committee, and stretch a four day project out for a month. This is the stuff that another blog post is made of.


In our shop, print production can be either on a conventional offset press or a digital machine. We will usually suggest one or the other depending on run length and quality requirements. I used to say that the digital machines were “copiers on steroids,” with the printer’s predictable preference for conventional presses. I really can’t say that any more. The quality gap between offset and digital color has narrowed immensely and the price barrier for digital color has come down a good deal. This means that digital color is suitable for more jobs and for longer run lengths.

Digital production is faster than press, but neither is “instantaneous.” AlphaGraphics (and any other good printshop) uses a production scheduling system that allows us to control the workflow through the shop. We can and do give priority to a job according to the customer’s deadlines, but this has obvious limitations. All jobs cannot be “hot” at the same time. Depending on the time of proof approval, digital printing usually occurs the same day or the next day. Press work usually takes a little longer, with a 1 – 2 day lead time on simple work and 3 – 4 days on process color.

Guess what? Longer runs take longer to run. It takes longer to print 20,000 brochures than it does to print 2,000. And the same consideration applies for everything that is done after printing is complete (see Bindery below).

Another consideration is drying time after press. Conventional inks are oil (or soy) based. They are tacky when they are applied to paper. There are several ways that printers can reduce drying time, but it remains a time and temperature equation. A large block of solid ink will not be dry when it exits the press and should not be handled until it is. This means that extra time may be required for certain projects. If your printer tells you that he can’t cut your business cards because the ink is still wet, believe him. He doesn’t want to wreck your job or redo it and you don’t want him to.


If prepress is everything that happens before ink goes on paper, bindery is everything that can happen afterwards. Simple bindery operations are scoring, folding, and cutting. More complicated operations are bookletmaking, coil binding, die-cutting, laminating, foil-stamping or embossing. Bindery can also include esoteric operations like specialized gluing.

Production time in bindery is largely dependant upon the mechanical capabilities of the printshop. A small shop may still collate and staple booklets by hand. This means that their production time will be much longer than the shop that uses an automated bookletmaker or saddlestitcher for the same process.

No printshop does everything in house. For example, presentation folders require large presses, specialized diecutting and gluing equipment for production. Most printers have a relationship with an outside supplier that specializes in this item. Because presentation folders are outsourced, lead times are longer. Die-cutting, embossing, and foil stamping also fall into this category for most small and mid-sized printers.

Another consideration is handwork. While most of us continue to invest in bigger, better, faster equipment to minimize manual operations, handwork in a printshop is inescapable. Doing work by hand is slower and more expensive. If we see a job that will have a manual component to it and we can suggest a better way, we will. If the customer wants it the hard way, we’ll produce it that way if we can. But, it will take longer and cost more than the automated alternative. Examples of this are very small or odd-sized booklets, specialty folds, and stuffing really small invitations into really small envelopes.

Last Words

Thanks to my designer friend for playing the role of muse. I could write on about this for a while, but I think that I’ve made the points that she asked for. Here’s the last words:

  1. Ask the questions and listen to the answers. Your printer (or an experienced designer) will have an idea of the best way to produce the product you want. In many cases, minor changes can save big time and money.
  2. Plan ahead, proceed calmly and be realistic in your expectations. Your sense of urgency will not cause the ink to dry faster. Also, there is a definite tendency for major mistakes to occur in projects that are done in a hurry.
  3. Establish a good relationship with a good company. It is natural for a printer to give their best service to their best customers. At AlphaGraphics, if we have a customer who is great to work with and depends on us for their printed products, we’ll pull out all the stops if they need something in a hurry. We’re not so anxious to do that with the customer who uses us for quotes all the time and only gives us a job when no one else can do it.

Hope this helps, P . . . .

The Full Moon

December 7, 2006

Gravity is always bringing me down.

The full moon has an effect on tides, people and machinery! It’s really hard to explain, but things sometimes go badly awry around the printshop as the moon becomes full.

We had two critical projects going into last week. The first was a challenging, but not unusual trifold brochure for one of our best customers. Heavy ink coverage, process color with some color critical builds on a cover stock; it should have turned in two days. The second was a run of 7500 booklets, color cover plus 16 text pages. This one should have taken 3 days in press, plus a couple of days in bindery and another one to mail. That’s what should have been.

But that was before the change in the force of gravity. The full moon doesn’t negate all of Newton’s formulas, it only offsets them a wee, wee bit. Enough to make Rickie, the pressman, decide that he’d work on Thursday morning despite a 102 degree fever. Enough to kill a Xerox color machine. Enough to combine with high humidity and turn our smoothly performing Hamada 452 press into a paper shredder. And just enough to make AlphaGraphics look really bad to a couple of good customers.

I’ve written before about machinery problems. Before I became a printer, I thought that this was just Item #1 in the standard list of printers’ excuses. It’s not. Printing machinery is precisely tuned. When it gets out of tune, the printing becomes . . . imprecise. We don’t do imprecise. Add into that equation a human being with a fever who wants to battle the machinery into submission and the result can be disastrous. What started last Tuesday as a small scratch, stripe, and redo on Project #1 above, ended up with ink problems on Project #2, two days down time and a visit from Bob the Press Magician.

It’s expensive to call in Bob the Press Magician, but it’s even more expensive not to call him in. I’ve been waiting for the opportunity to write about Bob. He’s one of the more amazing characters I’ve ever encountered. Bob’s over 50 now, but has retained the energy of a 3 year old on a chocolate high. I am entirely convinced that there is nothing that Bob cannot fix. His sense of machinery is uncanny. He helped me fix a press once by listening to it over the telephone. He’s that good.

Bob came in with his brother Steve. Steve’s just moved in from the West Coast to join his brother’s service company. The two are not really alike in appearance or personality. Bob talks incessantly. Steve eats incessantly. The common heritage seems entirely accidental; they could easily be brothers born of different mothers and fathers. I think Steve’s going to be a real asset, though. If Bob the Press Magician understands the mind of the machine, brother Steve relates to the zen of the monster.

We’ve enjoyed a long run without a major breakdown. This one made up for it. Two days ruined printing plus two days down. It took the Magician and the Zen Master 12 hours to track down all of the problems and fix them. We were back up and running this morning, but basically 4 days behind.

We’ve been in communication with the customers. Customer #1 (the color piece) is OK. She would have liked the trifold last week, but they’re still on schedule. Projects for Customer #2 are always on a tight timetable. The due date is usually the day before we get the order. We had set a tentative timetable with them last week when the problems looked minor (and recoverable). Then we discovered a problem on one of the sheets that had already been printed. We talked again on Friday, when we thought we’d be up and running on Monday. The project finally came off press today. It should have gone into the mail today. We talked again this morning. They’re not happy with us.

I wish I really could blame it all on the full moon. Maybe we could just take a couple of days off each month or something. Unfortunately, printing problems are far more unpredictable than the phases of the moon. We try our best. We do our best. We pray a lot. Maybe we’ll take a cue from the Zen Master and talk to the machines.

“Shall we print something now, grasshopper?”

They used to hang horsethieves

December 5, 2006

Hangman’s noose

There’s always someone to test the lowest common denominator. It’s the opposite of what the test pilots used to call “pushing the envelope.” It’s more like rolling around in the mud with pigs.

As I was leaving the shop this afternoon, I noticed that a fax had fallen from the machine onto the floor. I presumed (correctly) that it was late afternoon junk; a solicitation for a little known stock that no one in their right mind would consider or something like that. I was right and I was wrong.

Here’s what the headline read:

Please forward to Customer Service and Sales Representatives

Full Time Immediate Opening for an Outside Sales Representative Covering the Macon, Warner Robins, and surrounding areas.

The fax went on to describe the job and listed a website where the potential prospect (who only incidentally happens to be currently working at my company) could apply for this great new job. Nowhere was a company name mentioned . . . just the website. Someone was soliciting our employees on our own fax machine!

I have a curious nature. I checked the website, which let me to a Tucson, AZ company. Headhunters, hired guns, cannibals.

I am trying very hard not to sound too possessive, paternalistic (read Godfather) or old fashioned, but it’s tough to get and keep good people when you’re a small businessperson. And the last thing you need is some sleazy headhunter trying to steal them away!

I am blessed at AlphaGraphics with a very fine team of folks, all of whom feel a connection and responsibility for our business. We care about our customers and try to give them our best all the time. We take care of each other. Our group knows when we make money and how much and when we lose money and why; and I think that most of them see a direct connection between the success of the business and their own success.

I resent an attempt to lure these folks away to “greener pastures” as much as a working cowboy in the 1890s would resent the attempted theft of his roping horse. I am not implying a comparison between the horse and our employees. Unlike the horse, any of our team members can act on his or her own volition. They can apply for the job if they want to. But, there’s actually little distinction between the horse thief and the headhunter, and no ethical difference at all in the two situations.

Times have changed, though. In 1890, horse thievery was universally condemned. Horse thieves were hanged. A businessperson today has little recourse.

I thought about applying for the job, just to find which one of my competitors had hired the sleazeball. I’d at least get the satisfaction of asking them if they approved of what their hired guns were doing. When I got to the website, I found that to apply for the job you had to have a resume. Haven’t had one of those in years, I’m happy to say.

There was a contact name on the website. I sent an email, as follows:

Mr. _____,

This afternoon, I received a fax from your company that solicited job applications from our sales and customer service people. They are all currently employed. Please do not send further solicitations to our company or to our team.

There was little satisfaction in the sending of the email. It’s been a lot more fun sitting here in the living room practicing my knots.