Rumination

October 22, 2010

Sometimes we get too busy to ask the why questions.  We just swallow all that’s in front of us, without digesting, and go on along with the whatever that we have to deal with at the time.

I like Chik-fil-A.  There’s a lot to be said for cows and they do make great chicken sandwich advocates. There might also be something in their digestive systems that’s worthy of investigation. Rumination . . . chewing the cud. Cow’s swallow it first, then chew it up later before finally digesting it.

“Gross” would be the response of my 14 year old daughter, Madeline; and she may well be right.  After the grass is consumed, why bring it back up for re-examination? Even if there’s something to be learned, the whole process seems just a little . . . ummmh, nauseating?

Nonetheless, here we go . . .

Poor Richard’s Printshop (formerly something like Gralphagraphics before the franchise became incensed at his blog) has been reasonably busy since late August. At least, it feels busy because there are only a few of us to get the work out the doors and we’re all working very hard. I’m very thankful for this and appreciative especially of the customers who have stuck with us through all of  the “recent unpleasantness.”

It’s a little hard to put my finger on it, but there’s something about the work we’re getting that’s just different.  As an example, we printed 50 football program books this week just in time for the last game of the regular season. Football programs used to be a big deal . . . large saddle stitched booklets with lots of ads printed in decent runs in time for the first game of the season. This one was thrown together as an afterthought, perhaps to keep the businesses who purchased ads from asking for their money back?

Two weeks ago, we printed a very nice invitation for a health care customer.  Expensive paper, process color, good press run, scored and folded, tabbed 3 times to meet USPS specs and mailed at the very last minute, probably a week later than optimum to reach the target audience.

We have an end of the fiscal year audit booklet in-house for a municipality whose fiscal year ended June 30. We thought the book was due by September 30. It’s been stuck in our hold bin for over 2 weeks, waiting on revisions from the customer.

And then there are the envelopes printed for a communications company in a hurry, that have been sitting on the shelf waiting for pickup since October 5; the business card design for the new company that had their grand opening scheduled for October 11; and the display board and banner stand that actually did get designed, proofed, completed and shipped in 5 working days, thanks to UPS Second Day Air and our very good tradeshow exhibit supplier.

Actually, it’s not hard to identify what’s happening at all. It’s busy, but it’s not normal and Poor Richard’s stomach is a little upset.  We are reacting to our customers’ lack of planning and in some cases we’re getting burned and in some cases they’re getting burned, which is worse. (It’s worse mainly because we might take the blame.)

Our customers are firing before they aim. This is probably better for us than when they don’t fire at all, but I think there might be a better way.  It’s something to ruminate about . . .

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OK, Let’s see if we can get this straight

July 8, 2009

“My sorority is sponsoring a beauty pageant,” says the well spoken young lady at the counter, “we’d like you to do the program for us.”

“And we’d love to do the program,” says Poor Richard, because this is exactly the kind of job that the printshop behind the red awnings (Gralpharaphics . . . use of real name discouraged by the franchise) does really well.

“Can you give me an idea of how much it will cost?” asks the young lady.

It’s a very reasonable question. We discuss paper, whether the booklet will be in color or in black and white, and who will be doing the layout. Everything’s coming together smoothly until Poor Richard asks the devastating question, “and approximately how many pages will it have?”

The sorority president opens her mouth and all of a sudden she’s speaking Chinese and Poor Richard is speaking Latin! Neither of us understand the other. Finally in exasperation, she holds up her fingers. One, two, three, four, five, six, seven . . . counts Poor Richard.

“Es tut mir leid, aber Bücher mit sieben Seiten kommen nicht,” exclaims Poor Richard. Booklets don’t come with seven pages (or if they do, p. 8 is blank).

“Jeg er redd JEG ikke gjør det oppfatte i det hele tatt,” responds the young lady in Norwegian. She doesn’t understand at all.

“Animal, vegetable, or mineral?” I ask with a smile on my face.

It happens all the time. A customer is counting sheets and I’m counting pages. I get 16 and she gets 4. Let’s see if we can get this straight.  We’re going to look at a quickly designed sheet with four pages on it.

page

Single Page

So, here’s Page 1. We’re going to assume that the finished size of our little folding document is the size of a standard sheet of paper, 8 1/2 x 11 inches.  That means that a page measures 8 1/2 x 11 inches.

A page is printed on one side and in many (but not all) publications is assigned a number.  Page numbers are very convenient if you wish to use a table of contents or list topics in an index at the back of a book.  They’re also extremely helpful to the folks who operate the bindery equipment that puts booklets together. It’s their responsibility to make sure that Page 5 follows Page 4 and is succeeded by Page 6.

Our illustration uses only one sheet, but the same principles follow in a larger booklet, which by definition has more 8 pages/2 sheets or more. Typically, a booklet is stapled or saddle stitched in the center. Because there are four pages to a sheet and all of the sheets collate (nest) together and are folded to make a booklet, this means that arranging the pages on the sheets is an art unto itself. This arrangement is called imposition. The sheet size for an 8 page booklet with a finished size of 8 1/2 x 11 is 11 x 17. Two pages are positioned side by side on each side of each sheet. 4 pages are positioned on each sheet (2 to a side). In an 8 page booklet, page 1 and page 8 would be positioned on the same side of the same sheet. Page 1 is the front page and page 8 is the last. On the inside of the sheet would be pages 2 and 7. This arrangement is called a printer’s spread and is probably a little further on up the road than we want to go in this post.

Inside Spread/Reader's Spread

Inside Spread/Reader's Spread

So, back to our illustration. Here are pages 2 and 3, which take up the inside of the sheet.  In a booklet, these would be the center spread and because the pages are in order, the spread is called a reader’s spread. In a booklet with more than one sheet, the pages in a reader’s spread would actually lie on different sheets. The center spread always contains two sequential pages on the same side of one sheet. This is a good thing to know for designers, because it’s always safe to place an image across the pages on the center spread.  It might not work so well on other pages where the alignment of the sheets may not be exact. Confused yet?

OK, two pages on one side of a sheet. Now let’s look at the other side of the sheet.

Outside Pages/Printers Spread

Outside Pages/Printers Spread

You’ve seen Page one earlier in this post. In our example, page one is backed by Page 2 and Page 4 is backed by Page 3. Four pages to a sheet.  In a booklet, fronts and backs will always be sequential, but left and right facing pages (on the same side of the sheet) will only be sequential on the center spread. Now you understand why the sorority president was speaking Norwegian.

Here’s the good news . . . you don’t have to worry about imposition. Deliver your booklet to your printer in page order (1, 2, 3, 4, etc.) and let them worry about setting it up for print.  We’ve done it before and we’ll usually get it right.

Here’s what you should remember from all of this . . .

  • A page is what you read. One side finished size. One half of one side of a sheet.
  • 4 pages to a sheet in a booklet
  • Tell your printer how many pages, not how many sheets.
  • Use your fingers and get an interpreter if necessary.

Finally, page numbers are good. When you’re thoroughly confused you can just check the page numbers to find out if everything is in order. Verstanden?

Isn’t life grand?

Insincere apologies to Brian, Todd and the memory of Alfalfa.


Relationships

May 30, 2009

relationshipsThe older gentleman was not seeking a relationship. He had called earlier for pricing on a book. 250 copies perfect bound with 160 pages. Finished size was 8.5 x 7, a little different, but not unheard of.  Like many of our customers these days, he had no real knowledge of paper . . . something nice but not too expensive. Brian provided an estimate for the job and felt good about it.

A couple of days later, the gentleman called back. “How much would it be just to do the binding?” he asked.

Now, in better days the answer to this question is “Sorry, we’ll pass.”  Binding someone else’s printing provides opportunities for all kinds of problems.  There is a need for setups and waste . . . meaning you have to explain that if the customer brings 250 book blocks and covers, the binding equipment is likely to eat a few. Covers have to be cut a certain way for perfect binding and space has to be allowed for the spine. There’s the problem of trim and margins and where the page numbers go . . . all things we look at when we print a book. All things that a customer who has never printed a book before doesn’t know.

But Brian liked the fellow and we certainly needed any kind of order, so he said “yes” and tried to explain all of the complexities that the old gentleman would need to know. Brian also asked why we wouldn’t be doing the printing.

“Office Despot beat your price on the printing,” was the reply. “But they couldn’t do the binding.” was the part he didn’t say.  Besides, when getting the lowest price is the object, the details don’t matter, do they?

We have been fortunate to have some really wonderful customers over the years.  For instance, the consultant, whose books we have shipped all over the US.  She works with government agencies and is really suffering from budget cuts now, but we’d do anything for her.  Or the school that seems to understand just how tight things are right now and sends checks almost instantaneously after jobs are complete. Or the construction company that is always in a hurry, but so very pleasant and easy to work with. Or so many more . . .

We’ve had a few customers that have strayed and come back; and lately, with the bad times, we’ve lost a few.  Some have disappeared altogether – out of business. We lost the educational establishment that was so devoted to the local community that they sent all of their printing to the low bidder in Atlanta. We’ve also lost a couple that have trimmed printing out of their budgets altogether.

The one that hurt the worst was a long-term account, a non-profit. We never did all of their printing, but for years we did the bulk of it and we supported them with fairly frequent donations.  I was worried a little when management changed a couple of years ago, but we continued along for awhile. One day, I received a request for pricing on all of the items we had printed for them.  I was led to believe that it was budget time and that numbers were needed to prepare for the next year.  I was naive . . . they were going out for bids and I missed it. We lost most of the business.  Shortly thereafter, Poor Richard received a request for donations for the following year.  They wanted a relationship, but not the kind that works for everyone involved.

Back to the gentleman and his book. Poor Richard grumbled and tried to make sure that the i’s were crossed and t’s were dotted. Both Brian and I had the same conversations with the customer.  First, we tried to convince him that it would be much better if we were allowed to do the whole job. He had already committed to Office Despot. All of their specs were the same, he said, but the price was cheaper.

Then, we tried to go over the details and repeatedly emphasized that we would not be responsible for waste or misprints. The old gentleman said that he understood.

When the job came to us, it was not a surprise. He delivered exactly 250 books. The quality of paper was poor and the quality of print was mediocre. Best of all, the book blocks had been miscut. Page sizes varied by about 3/8″ within each book. We pointed this out to the gentleman and did the best we could.  We did not put the finished product in Alphagraphics boxes.  The old gentleman did not complain, but he did not receive a good value for the money he spent on the project.

It’s difficult not to worry about the state of things  . . . of business in general, the printing business in particular and our business in specific. Poor Richard still maintains that printing does not make a good commodity. Too much detail is required and every project is different. The products of printing turn out best when printers and customers work together, when they have a relationship.

Poor Richard is decidedly old school . . . I like dealing with people. I prefer to buy things from salespeople and whenever possible from local businesses. It’s difficult to have a relationship with a website or WalMart.  I enjoy the relationships we maintain with our customers and I try to make sure that they are mutually beneficial. And I still believe that even in a depression, value trumps price every day.

But perhaps Poor Richard is idealistic . . . or naive. It’s tough turning 50.


Expose’

May 20, 2009

The phrase that kept coming to mind was “showin’ tail,” which can be defined as either the southern pronunciation of that age old and established grammar school activity where every student brings a frog or a doll or a younger sibling to talk about; or the presumably accidental revelation of the anterior part of the anatomy.

This one’s liable to get Poor Richard into big trouble. It’s not just that I’m making fun of a customer (again), but this time it’s a church. Worse, it’s my church.  I’ve resisted writing this short entry for a couple of weeks now and I guess I could resist some more. Or, I could use Flip Wilson’s excuse, “The devil made me do it!”

The church that beautiful wife and I attend is a small town congregation. It is a friendly, loving group of folks for the most part, with the occasional unpresentable member Paul talks about in 1 Corinthians 12. Like many small congregations, there are many folks there who “do church” on Sunday, a few who are really into church work, and some who really want to find out where God is working and join in.  It’s the last group that I’m probably going to be in the biggest trouble with, because what I’m writing about is their undertaking.

The undertaking is undeniably good.  It is Celebrate Recovery, which started as a ministry for those suffering with addictions at Saddleback Church. There has been a Celebrate Recovery program in Warner Robins, a larger city to the north of Perry where I live, but nothing in south Houston County, despite the fact that Perry is indeed the center of both the known and unknown universe.

Problem PostcardEnough rambling . . . after all, it should have been a simple enough task.  Poor Richard was asked to print and mail a postcard advertising the new ministry.  All well and good . . . at least until the art came in.  The photo of an obviously distressed woman weeping in front of a closed door was effective. It conveyed a message of desperation and would perhaps lead someone in that state to search for an answer beyond themselves.

But one aspect of the photo was just a bit distracting. The woman pictured is wearing a nightshirt and is sitting with her legs propped at an angle.  Technically speaking, she isn’t actually “showin’ tail,” but to continue in Southern vernacular, “she purty near is.”

I actually don’t know where the photo and concept came from. It’s possible that it could have been supplied by Saddleback Church as part of the promotional package for Celebrate Recovery.  If so, maybe the definition of “nearly nekkid” is different in Rancho Chimichanga, California or wherever it is that the megachurch is located. It is also possible that one of the ladies at our church found the photo and thought it appropriate.  Not having a depraved male mind, I suppose they could have missed the distracting part.

It really doesn’t matter much . . . Poor Richard’s never been much on printing photos of scantily clad women.  Not that we haven’t been asked. I’ve turned down a calendar job or two over the years and an exotic dancer once threatened to sue me for not printing postcards featuring her topless image.  (She really got angry when I told her that she looked better with her clothes on).  But I digress . . . this one just didn’t pass the propriety test, especially coming from my church.

I emailed the lady who had sent the art. “Approved by the pastor,” came the response.  Unfortunately, the pastor was out of town for a week and the postcard needed to hit the USPS before his return. I emailed a couple of respected leaders in the church. They agreed with me, but didn’t offer much in the way of suggestions.

Many of Poor Richard’s readers will understand that the way decisions are made in churches is unpredictable and occasionally unfathomable. Frequently, the cardinal rule of ecclesiastical decision-making is not to decide at all. So, after much prayer, some good advice and with godly wisdom and great courage; Poor Richard decided to sit on the project until the pastor returned.

What Poor Richard lacked  was only a bit of common sense. Fortuitously, the pastor brought some of that back with him from vacation.

“Put the church logo over her bottom,” was the essence of his short email response.

“Duh . . .” thought Poor Richard.

We did and the postcard was in the mail and not “showin’ tail.”


Measuring Value

May 6, 2009

My customer’s “tweet” says, “We’d like to know why creativity and concept development have no value in the ad world.”  Poor Richard knows what’s behind this one.

We used to call them “take the cake” episodes. When I was a teenager, my friend’s mom used this expression a lot.  I can still see Mrs. K, hands on hips, very exasperated with something that her daughter, me or one of our other friends had done.  Drawing a deep breath and pushing her eyeglasses up her nose with the back of her right hand, she would exclaim, “Well! doesn’t that just take the cake!” This was followed by a perfect military turn and usually a slammed door as she left us to contemplate the consequences of our misdemeanors.

We had a “take the cake” moment today. Brian, our production manager, received the customer at the door. He had come to inquire about business cards . . . not unusual.  Specifically, he had come to inquire about business cards we had already printed for his company. The cards were designed by an agency we work closely with and were produced for them. He wanted to know our price to produce the cards, because he felt he had been charged too much.

We already knew that there was some dissatisfaction with the original run of the cards.  His cards had originally been produced them on our house 80# stock and then we’d been asked to run them again on a heavier and nicer stock. Brian, wisely reasoning that it was better for me to get into trouble than him, excused himself and ran for the back where Poor Richard was actually about to cut the second set of cards.  Brian briefed me on the situation, but I don’t think I really grasped what the fellow had come for. I grabbed a sheet of the uncut cards and headed for the lobby.

I went to the front counter and introduced myself, handing my customer’s customer the sheet of cards and explaining that they would be ready very shortly. He examined the cards and stated that he didn’t realize they were being reprinted.  He objected to the size of a line of type and proceeded to ask again how much the set of cards would cost.  He stated an amount that he had been charged by the agency and that he had been purchasing printing and cards for years and thought the amount was excessive.

I explained that while our price to the agency was less than the dollar amount he had stated, it is quite understandable  that an agency would charge for the work they do.  Our customer, the agency, created the design, did the layout, provided the proofs and handled the details of printing. It should be expected that they would add a charge for their work to the cost of the actual cards. I also tried to assure him that he was working with a talented and capable group and that they had done a great job with his design.

The conversation remained polite, but just went off track at that point.  My customer’s customer explained that he had gone to the agency needing a name and logo for a new company, website work, and consultation for search engine optimization. He had ended up with a name, a logo, business cards and other such stuff; when all he had really needed was the website work. In fact, he had created the website himself for $50 and had received a lot of compliments. He fished a few times more for the price of the cards.  He didn’t say it outright, but it was evident that he felt he had been taken for a ride.

I tried, but I don’t think that I was successful at dealing with the real problem. The problem was not the price of the cards, but their perceived and actual value. Our customer’s customer perceived some value in the cards he had received, but little in the work that went into them. Even though he was unable to create the name and do the layout, he didn’t assign any value to those services. I’ll also guess that it took a little time on the part of the agency to get him to come to a decision.  He didn’t assign any value to that time, either.

Poor Richard has a lot of respect for the agency in question.  They are a good customer of AlphaGraphics and also friends of mine. They understand marketing and the current trends. They are practical folks. They know what works. I think they understand the budget constraints of small business.  And they are very creative, very patient, very kind people.  Their creativity, expertise and their patience all have value and they rightly charge for it. If I had to bet, it would be that their customer received much more in value than he actually paid for.

There is a move afoot to convince printers that we should become “marketing service providers.”  This sounds good at first, because content is moving online and the volume of print is dropping dramatically. That means that many of us are no longer making money. We need something to hang our hats and our hopes on. But we also need to define what the new phrase really means.

Poor Richard has written before on the difficulties of trying to integrate creative design into a production environment (see The Trouble With Printshop Design).  If being a marketing service provider means taking on customers like this one, printers will fail miserably and many will go ballistic in the process.  Most of us are production people at the core. We like machines, gadgets, and ways of getting things done.  The value we create now is mostly in tangible products. It is conceivable that we could get involved in handling customer data and doing the implementation of some aspects of a marketing program, but  printers in general are not good at conceptual work.  Most of us don’t like it and we don’t have time for it.

I empathize with the exasperation my customer expressed in the Twitter post cited above.  Most people don’t do well with ideas. Very few people think them through carefully before implementing them. Even fewer measure their effect after implementation, then correct and try again.  These are the things that a good creative agency does well, if their customers will let them. There is great value in this capability and it can be measured by the return that their clients reap as the result of a well conducted marketing campaign.

I guess it’s necessary to explain and re-explain the value proposal. Value is created when a vendor provides something for a customer that the customer cannot do or does not want to do himself (or cannot do correctly or efficiently by himself). The customer chooses to pay the provider for the value of the service or product. In this case, the customer got confused. He thought that he was buying a product (business cards) and didn’t assign a value to the conceptual and design work necessary to create them.

lemon-on-scaleIt’s not that the concept and the product aren’t related.  Concept and product aren’t apples and oranges.  I guess they’re oranges and lemons, but one has to precede the other.  My customer’s customer perceived his agency as a a project shop.  He thought he was buying the orange and assigned no value to the lemons that were a necessary part of the package.  Poor Richard is sure that my customer’s customer received good ideas and practical suggestions from the agency he chose. He suspects that much (if not all) of that proposal was ignored and that the agency ended up developing “stuff” rather than engineering a marketing campaign.  And the value the customer assigned to the “stuff” was not equal to the time and energy that was spent developing it.

I’m very sorry that my customer is exasperated. They don’t deserve to be. Poor Richard was a little exasperated, too. I quit cussing a few years ago, but I thought of Mrs. K.  As the gentleman left the shop, I pushed up my glasses with the back of my right hand and exclaimed “Well, doesn’t that just take the cake!”  Executing a brisk military turn, I marched off to the back of the shop. If there’d been a door to slam, I would have.


Let’s Talk

April 13, 2009

telephone

8:30 AM

“Need Pricing! Please Respond Quickly!” reads the subject line of the email.  Thinking that this might just be the order I’ve been waiting for all week, Poor Richard quickly opens the email in Thunderbird.

“My boss wants to do some postcards. How much will 1,000 be?”

“No clue,” responds Poor Richard’s brain as his eyes scan the rest of the post for more information, or at least a phone number to call.  Phone number found, fingers are dialing.

“Hi, you’ve reached the voicemail of (let’s call her Nancy Jean . . . don’t think I have any real customers called Nancy Jean) Nancy Jean, I’m not able to come to the phone right now, but if you’ll leave a message, I’ll get back with you just as quickly as possible.”

“Nancy Jean, it’s Richard at AlphaGraphics.  I received your inquiry by email.  I’ll be happy to get you some numbers on the postcards, but I’ll need some details.  Specifically, if you’ll let me know the size you’d like, whether they will be in color or black and white, coated or uncoated paper, who will be providing the art, and whether you’d like us to mail them.  Let me know and I’ll get back with you as quickly as possible.”

On to other things.

9:45 AM

“Need Pricing! Please Respond Quickly!”

“Haven’t I seen this before?” says Richard’s brain.

“Got your voicemail. Let’s do regular postcard size in color. Thanks, Nancy Jean.”

“Just quote something,” says Poor Richard’s brain, “maybe it’ll turn into an order. We need an order.”

The fingers follow instructions and produce an estimate for 1000 4.25 x 6 postcards on gloss cover. Still hoping beyond hope for something like a real job, the fingers include pricing for mail services. Because Poor Richard’s brain still has no clue about the design of the postcard, the fingers include the standard AlphaGraphics caveat:

Prices are for production only.  Additional charges will apply for layout, design, or file modifications required before printing.

“Nancy Jean,” says Poor Richard’s brain,” what that means is that I still don’t know what you want to do or what will be required to do it.”

It’s 10:00 am when Poor Richard clicks the send button.

12:15 pm – lunchtime. Check the email.

“RE: FWD: Need Pricing! Please Respond Quickly!”

“Richard, can you help with this?” writes Nancy Jean, responding to her boss’ terse notation:

“Nancy Jean, you’ve got to do better than this!”

Poor Richard’s fingers dial once again.

“Hi, you’ve reached the voicemail of  Nancy Jean, I’m not able to come to the phone right now, but if you’ll leave a message, I’ll get back with you just as quickly as possible.”

“Right,” thinks Poor Richard’s brain. “Nancy Jean, I’ll send you a couple of alternatives that can reduce the cost a little. If you’ll please call me to discuss, I’d really appreciate it.”

Poor Richard’s fingers add color one side and black ink two sides to the estimate and press the send button. It’s 12:30.

3:00 PM – done with bindery work downstairs. Let’s check the email.

“RE: FWD: RE: RE: FWD: Need Pricing! Please Respond Quickly!”

“Can we do something bigger?” writes Nancy Jean.

“Isn’t 4.25 x 6 a little small for a postcard?” writes her boss. “How much would a bigger card cost?”

“Bummer,” says Poor Richard’s brain, now beginning to realize that this is likely to turn into nothing.  Poor Richard’s fingers revise the entire estimate for 5.5 x 8.5 cards. The postage estimate is revised to reflect the cost of mailing a larger card.

“Nancy Jean,” types Poor Richard’s fingers, ” here are revised estimates for larger cards. If you could please call me to discuss, I’d really, really appreciate it. We’d certainly like to help with your project and if you could call to discuss the project, I’m sure that we can find a way to make this work for you.” The fingers click send.  It’s 3:15 PM.

5:30 – Poor Richard is thinking about going home. Last check of the email. Sure enough . . .

“RE: RE: RE: FWD: RE: RE: FWD: Need Pricing! Please Respond Quickly!”

“Richard, we really need to get these postcards in the mail. Can you call me in the morning?”

8:15 AM the next morning. Poor Richard’s fingers are dialing.

“Nancy Jean, may I help you?” comes through the receiver. Poor Richard’s brain becomes momentarily hopeful again.

“Hi, Nancy Jean, this is Richard at AlphaGraphics. I’m calling about the postcards we corresponded about yesterday.”

“Oh, Richard,” says Nancy Jean, “we really needed to get those postcards in the mail yesterday. When we couldn’t get all the information we needed, the boss decided not to send them. I’m sorry.”

“Thanks for thinking of us,” says Poor Richard’s mouth.  Poor Richard’s brain isn’t working at all. “Please let me know if you decide to try again. And if you’ll let me know the budget, we’ll try our best to find a solution that will work for you.”

“Richard, you know my boss doesn’t work like that,” replies Nancy Jean. “Hope you have a good day today!”

“Nuff said,” says Poor Richard’s brain.

“Bye,” says Poor Richard.

Poor Richard’s fingers hang up the phone. Time to check email.  Maybe there will be an order there . . . we could really use a good order.

It’d be a lot funnier if it wasn’t true.





Diagnosis Charges

March 9, 2008

Doctor with Clipboard“He wants to speak to the manager,” were the words I heard. I looked through the glass into Brian’s office. His eyes were rolling just slightly and he had that sardonic half smile that he wears when one of those, “you’re the owner, you have to deal with this” events happens. I almost think he enjoys it.

“This is Richard, may I help you?” I said to the as yet unidentified voice on the phone. The voice introduced himself as the new general manager of an organization we’ve done occasional business with over the years.

“You’re doing some business cards for us,” he stated, “and I need to talk to you about these charges.”

I was familiar with the job and the company. Sharon, our salesperson, and I had visited our contact at the company weeks before. The company has gone through a lot of changes in recent years. We printed a newsletter for them at one time; letterhead, envelopes and other “stuff” that organizations use. Our contact has always been friendly, but the attitude of the company had changed. Most of the print had been eliminated to cut costs. They had reverted to “do it yourself” with the newsletter. What little was left was handled from a corporate office in Atlanta. All that was left for local production was the business cards. Disappointing, but easy enough; at least, that’s what we thought at the time.

It took a while for the order to come in. Sharon had to answer lots of questions. Estimates were prepared and presented. You will note the word “estimates.” That’s what printshops should provide, not quotations. It is only possible to provide a hard quotation for a static set of specifications. When the specifications change, so do the costs and so should the price.

On AlphaGraphics estimates we always include a special caveat. The language goes like this:

“Prices are for production only. Additional charges will apply for layout, design, or file modifications required before printing.”

We do not estimate design or layout charges because it is absolutely impossible to predict the amount of time a customer may require from us to achieve the finished layout that they desire. We simply keep a log of the time required for the job and charge accordingly. We regularly explain the caveat and offer our advice to keep layout and design charges at a minimum. Our advice is frequently ignored.

For instance, we may suggest that a customer provide us with a digital logo and a rough sketch of a business card design rather than try to prepare it themselves. Often, more time is required to unscramble a file from an inexperienced designer than to put it together from scratch. Or we might suggest that it’s best not to proof by committee. Everyone involved will feel compelled to make changes, increasing the confusion, and requiring more time for changes and proofs before the job is ready to print.

Time is the valuable commodity in a printshop design or prepress office. Prepress is the inevitable bottleneck in any production shop. I’ve written before about the challenges of printshop design (see The Trouble with Printshop Design ). It’s not that the equipment or the employees in the design office are so all-fired expensive, but that the opportunity cost of tying up the workflow can be tremendous. An inexperienced or inefficient designer can hold up a $3500 brochure run and 2 or 3 employees while they are engrossed in the layout of a $50 business card. Prepress time is valuable simply because it’s what keeps the rest of the people and equipment productive.

The time has a measurable value and we charge for it. It’s like going to the doctor. If you go in with a complaint, see the good doctor, and are told that you are perfectly healthy; you still pay the doctor for his diagnosis. You pay him because his time is valuable. If you fail to listen to your doctor, you can run into real trouble. If you fail to listen to your printer, the result can be the same.

We had provided a production estimate with our usual caveat to the customer mentioned above. What started out as an order for 4 sets of business cards had turned into 6 sets. We were told that they would send the art for the card. We received a low resolution logo and a basic layout pasted onto an 8.5 x 11 page of a Microsoft Word file. We received the names to typeset and were later told that two of the cards had a reverse side. Proofs were required . . . 4 of them to be exact. Because the changes had become excessive, Brian sent a revised estimate to the customer showing additional layout charges of $60. The phone call ensued, providing Brian with an opportunity for entertainment at my expense.

There’s no real need to go into the detail of the conversation with the new manager. Suffice it to say that our proviso regarding additional costs was of as little importance to him as the three weeks of indecision which had delayed the production of his cards or the multiple proofs. It was his responsibility to “watch every penny,” and he simply did not understand why there had been a delay or how the cost could change from his original estimate.

“I’ll have to let you know if we’re going ahead with this,” was his concluding statement.

I haven’t scratched the job from the production list yet, but I really don’t expect to hear back from him. I’m not so naive to think that he won’t get his cards somewhere. He’ll probably send the inadequate art off to one of the internet bandits and be satisfied with what he receives because he saved so much money. Or maybe he’ll find another printer who thinks that there’s lots more business to come and will put up with his indecision.

I’m sure that my expression betrayed my thoughts as I hung up the receiver and glanced back through the glass into Brian’s office. I’m always disappointed when a customer is upset. It’s just one of those things that happens occasionally in our business, and it’s never pleasant. Good customers are hard to come by and good reputations are easier to destroy than to earn. We try very hard to do each project well and really do go a long way to diagnose and accomodate the needs of each customer. Like the doctor, though, we have to cover the cost of the diagnosis and of special treatment provided. We have to keep the office running in order to help the next patient.