Opening Pandora’s box

It’s been a while since Poor Richard has written about proofing (see Just Do It . . . I Trust You!). At the printshop behind the red awnings on Poplar Street, we generally follow Poor Richard’s Rule #1: Proof Everything. When we fail to follow Rule #1, it is usually because the owner decides to make an exception, allows one of our customers to convince him that they do not need a proof, and gets totally burned in the process because something goes awry or does not meet the customer’s expectations.

If the CIA was really intelligent, they would store all of their Top Secret, classified, very sensitive documents in the basements of printshops across this great nation. Because we see so much text come past our eyes, printers don’t really read much of it.  At Gralpharaphics (name changed to protect the delicate sensitivity of the franchise), we used to do internal proofs of hard copy prints for much of what went through the shop. We were looking for low resolution graphics and the general composition of each piece ; whether it would fold correctly and if there were font errors.  Today, for much of what we print, preflight software will indicate many of the technical errors and our internal proofing process is focused more on how the piece will finish (through bindery) than the general composition. In short, we don’t read for context and we don’t always catch spelling errors.

The phone call of the month for December was from a customer that had discovered a typo in a brochure we had printed for them . . . in September. In fact, it was an exact repeat of the same job printed for them about a year before.  And that job was a redesign of a file that came to us in .pdf format sometimes shortly after Adobe Acrobat was invented, opening the possibility that the misspelling could potentially be over a decade old.  Naturally, the customer wanted the job reprinted . . . for free.

We checked the proofs. Sure enough, there was the typo buried plain as day right in the middle of a long paragraph in the center panel of the inside of the brochure. It stood out dramatically in 11 point Times New Roman; so evident that the customer missed it totally when they signed off on the proof.

Who has the responsibility? Proofs do place the onus of responsibility for the final appearance and accuracy of each printed piece on the customer. This is customary in the printing trade and spelled out clearly in the proof policy that our shop sends with every proof.  While some customers may see this as a catch, printers consider it a necessity. Even if we could completely check everything we print for absolute accuracy, this would not compensate for the vagaries of syntax, composition or customer taste. There have been many occasions where Poor Richard or one of my associates has corrected grammar or spelling only to have it uncorrected by the customer. Likewise, the design or composition of many of the projects we print may be more pleasing to our customer than to our unrefined tastes.  This really is the critical point for most printers: the project must meet the approval of the customer. The signed proof signifies that it does.

Back to the problem of the month. Another of Poor Richard’s rules that falls pretty near the top of the list (like #2 maybe) is this: Customers are important. These days, they’re also pretty darn hard to come by.  We understood the customer’s problem and offered to help them with the reprint.  Mind you, this is not customary practice among printers. Margins are very tight in our business and printing at cost is spinning the wheels at best and at worst a missed opportunity for profitable use of time and equipment. Nonetheless, customers are important. We offered to make the correction and reprint at a discount.

After the correction was made, the competent Gralpharaphics team followed Poor Richard’s Rule #1 and sent the customer a final proof for approval. At least, we thought that it was final. The proof was returned with a request for another change.  Technically, this request crossed the fine line between correction and revision, but the change requested was minor and we chose not to sweat it. That’s when we opened Pandora’s box. We made the revision and sent another proof.

The proof response came back with a Microsoft Word file attached. We were now well beyond correction and decidedly in the realm of revision.   Poor Richard tried not to reach the conclusion that the customer’s stated need — to correct a typo — might not have been their actual objective. Without questioning the customer’s motives, we explained that the discount had been offered to help with a correction. The scope of the revisions requested had essentially changed the project from a reprint to something like creating a new brochure.  We would have to charge for the additional layout and prepress time incurred for the changes.

There are times when Poor Richard is able to predict the future before it even happens. I could see this spinning out of control even without a crystal ball. The conversation was polite, the customer didn’t really understand, and the project was placed on (permanent) hold.  Chances are that we lost a customer. Bummer. Not good.

Because we’re a small business in a small market, we’ve never had the luxury of dealing only with professional “print buyers;” folks whose expectations are to some extent shaped by their understanding of and interest in the art of printing. We have had the privilege of working with some very nice folks, many of whom wanted to learn a little about print as we produced their projects. I think that there was a general appreciation among our customers of the value of the tangible product we created and of the work that went into it; but now this appreciation may be fading.

The last 18 months of struggle have brought a sea change to the printing industry and to local printers like the shop on Poplar Street.  While we continue to compete with one another for business, we also compete against a host of other choices for communication. Increasingly, our customers’ expectations are molded by the other choices. It’s no problem to correct a typo on a web page. It doesn’t require a reprint. The fact is that we have fewer customers who are interested in print and they are much less willing to deal with the complexities involved.  Price and speed have become more important and many customers are actually less concerned with quality than ever before. To paraphrase Robert Heinlein, “they don’t want it good, they want it Wednesday.”

This presents a real challenge to folks like Poor Richard. The old rules of printing (like proof policies) seem necessary to me. It is important to do things right and because almost all of the projects we produce are essentially custom made, there has to be some understanding between printers and our customers.  We can’t sell labels produced for Jim Bob’s BBQ Sauce to his competitor Billy Bob.  If Jim Bob doesn’t want the labels, they’re trash.

How do we adapt? As our customers become increasingly less patient with the print process, it is tempting to just bend the rules and take our chances.  Waive the proofs, forget the rules, just print it and hope it’s right. Throw Pandora’s box wide open.

If we do that, how long will it take for the snakes inside to bite us?

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3 Responses to Opening Pandora’s box

  1. jim says:

    Check this prepress site out Richard. There’s a thread about your blog and a printer who has dumped hard proofs.

  2. DCR says:

    You hit this nail squarely on its head — with Mount Rushmore! You certainly did the right thing to offer a reprint at a discount, but yes, the mission creep was utterly inevitable. You suggested the client might have gone elsewhere: He will have to pay full-boat there. Why not use you to do the revision?

    We proof via PDF exclusively these days. Yes, wholesale changes can be just as onerous on an InDesign file as on a printed proof, but the scrawled, hard-to-decode handwritten “edits” are minimized by the PDF’s sticky notes.

    Several of us review the longer products before they go out, because peer review works. Fresh eyes, and all that. And changes, mods and updates will indeed come back from the client. One may still be subject to crazy revision cycles, but, bottom line, nobody is pushing a Print button (or a Send button — to Printer) until the client has signed an approval.

  3. poor richard says:

    Just for clarity, we do proof via .pdf, but will print hard copy at the customer’s request. The trend I am seeing is this: the customer’s interest in and involvement with print is waning, along with their willingness to take responsibility for what they create. We are increasingly being asked to share responsibility for an area (proofing) that was clearly in the customer’s realm only a year ago.
    In the current business environment, we can’t afford to ignore or irritate our customers, but I am also sure that we can’t afford to subsidize their mistakes.

    –Poor Richard

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