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How to Know When to Turn Down a Garment Printing Job

Do not agree to a job that is foreign to you until you know all that it entails, including the processes you'll need to use, what supplies you will require, and how much time and effort you will have to put into it.

By Greg Kitson, Founder and President, Mind's Eye Graphics

Asking the right questions is the first step to avoiding the job from hell.

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  • I once got a call from a local volleyball team that wanted 12 custom tote bags. They had already picked out the style they wanted from a catalog, and since printing on bags is generally easy and profitable, I was only too happy to accept the job.

    What I learned the hard way was that there are huge differences in the types of tote bags. Some are made of a single material (i.e., cotton canvas), while others are made of multiple materials. In addition, bags often have zippers, straps and buttons that can make them more challenging to print.

    In this specific circumstance, the tote bags were made out of nylon, polyester and acetate. I called the manufacturer to find out what the body of the tote was constructed of, and found out it was nylon. "No problem," I thought, "I can use a nylon ink."

    This order was only a few pieces into production when I heard a scream from the other end of the dryer, and hurried over to see what had happened. There I saw four tote bags with melted, un-useable shoulder straps.

    After dumping the carnage, I called the manufacturer to ask why this happened. I was told that, while the nylon could take the dryer heat, the acetate in the handles could not, and they must be air dried. If only I had known this prior to printing!

    In retrospect, I should have looked over the product information more carefully, and when I called the manufacturer, made sure that I asked about each type of material listed. Had I done that, I would have turned down the job upon finding out I could not run the bags through a dryer, as my facility is not set up to use air-drying inks, and the size of the order didn't merit enough profit to give it special consideration. Or, of course, I could have asked the volleyball team to select a different bag style.

    I'm sure every veteran printer has a similar tale to tell. In the course of our daily rushing around to get things done, we sometimes agree to a job without taking the time to make sure we understand all that's required.

    Lost time and money are unfortunate negative consequences of this. In such a situation, avoiding an unhappy customer requires replacement of the damaged goods and/or re-doing the job.

    Making a gross error in the estimation of how long a job on an unfamiliar substrate will take is another common scenario that can cost you time and money. For example, you might guess a job will take four hours, while it actually takes more like 10.

    Sometimes it makes sense to take on a new type of work if you believe that, by learning it, you can offer a new service, which will increase sales. A good example is printing in nontraditional locations. Yes, it takes longer to do, but you also can tack on an upcharge for this type of work, so learning how to do it may pay off.

    Making Exceptions
    Now, there are situations where I feel spending extra time on a job is worthwhile. If we get a request to do something we've never done before, and we think there's potential to get similar, profitable jobs in the future, the extra time is considered an investment in our education and an expansion of our services. We don't charge customers for the time it takes us to learn.

    Printing on nontraditional locations is a great example, and very popular right now. The design might go up over the collar and the sleeve, under the armpit or entirely around the shirt. Our normal expectation for press production is around 550 shirts per hour, but inevitably, loading a shirt with a nontraditional location is going to decrease this output.

    So there's a learning curve to figure out how to print nontraditional locations at production speed. We may take that job because we want to learn from it. In addition to figuring out how to do it, we also want to determine how much to upcharge for it. Only by doing the job can we learn that maximum capacity will be 300 per hour, and that allows us to price them correctly in the future.

    So even though we may lose money on the first one, it becomes a value-added service our customers are willing to pay for, and we are able to make money on down the road.

    This melted sample of a "poly whatever" tote bag printed with an ink that required a trip down a textile dryer at 330 degrees to cure the ink is a perfect visual example to show a customer of what can go wrong, and why you may be suggesting another product or process.

    Asking Questions is Key
    The best way to avoid taking a job you might regret is to ask lots of questions. In nearly every circumstance in which I have gotten stuck with a job I didn't want, it's because I didn't take the time to fully understand the parameters. Of course, sometimes you don't know what questions to ask, but as a general rule of thumb, always get as much information as you can about a job, especially if it's taking you into new territory.

    In my 30-plus years of printing experience, I have learned that some jobs are not going to pay. Here are some examples for you to consider, and evaluate if you would accept this work, turn it down or pass it on to another shop better suited.

    1. Jobs that involve a tricky substrate, complex process or costly supply you've never used before and may never use again.
    Fifteen years ago, I accepted a job to print a list of names on trophies for a tournament. We are a textile shop, but I thought all we had to do was purchase a quart of red ink to get the job done.

    I soon found out that I also had to purchase a thinner specific to the quart of red ink I bought to apply it correctly. On top of that, I discovered adding the thinner to the ink changed the color. To combat the changing color, I had to buy a chemical retardant.

    When it was all was said and done, I had a quart of specialty red ink, a gallon of retardant and a gallon of ink thinner, all of which are mostly full. I still have those three rusty cans in my shop, and will one day have to pay a HAZMAT company to dispose of them properly.

    The lesson from this story: Do not agree to a job that is foreign to you until you know all that it entails, including the processes you'll need to use, what supplies you will require, and how much time and effort you will have to put into it. Instead of immediately accepting a job, tell your customer that you'll have to find out what is necessary to get it done, and that you'll get back to them with an answer about whether or not you can do it.

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    2. The customer's expectations outweigh his or her budget.
    Often, a customer will come in with an expectation based on what he or she saw on a NASCAR racetrack, at the Super Bowl or in a Foot Locker store. The order may involve a 15-color, special-effect all-over print, but this client has only a six-dollar per shirt budget.

    You know you cannot produce what the customer wants for the price he or she is willing to pay, but if you turn the job down, you may lose a valuable client, or risk him or her spreading a negative image of your shop. If you take the job, the end result will not be a product the customer is happy with, and you will have to fix it to avoid a tarnished reputation.

    One option is to point your customer in another direction. Instead of screen printing the design, show them what you can accomplish with direct-to-garment digital printing, or with your heat press. If the customer agrees to an alternate method to achieve what is wanted, you have earned the business without compromising your quality, or your customer's opinion of you. However, if you cannot get your customer to agree to a fair price for the work that meets his or her expectations, turn it down or refer him to another shop.

    Just because the customer comes in with the item and asks you to screen print it doesn't mean you can't suggest an alternative method. If it's a pain to screen print, ask if you can use heat-applied graphics or digital printing.

    3. Accepting a low-profit job that will interfere with your ability to get higher-profit work done.
    During peak times, taking on a job that is going to interfere with already scheduled production is not ideal. For example, if you are running a high-volume fleece order and receive a secondary request for 20 printed tote bags, first think about the sequence of tasks necessary to ensure all orders get done correctly, and on deadline.

    After working with thousands of sweatshirts, you will have lint flying throughout your dryer and shop, which will require a deep cleaning to remove. If you do not clean your dryer properly, the tote bags will come out of the dryer with lint stuck in the ink, and your customer will not be pleased with this.

    Do you have the manpower and time to clean your shop for a 20-piece order by the requested delivery date? If your space needs cleaning anyway, and your staff can work extra hours, then go for it. But if the preparation for this low-volume job will be a hindrance to getting more profitable, high-volume orders done right, don't accept it.

    It's tough to tell customers you can't accept an order, which is why I prefer to see if I can use an alternative method, (e.g., direct-to-garment printing or heat-applied graphics). If not, I ask myself if I know a decorator to whom I can contract the work. One of these two options usually works out, so I do not have to turn my customer down directly.

    Another consideration when deciding whether or not to take on a job is what's going on in your shop at that moment. Are you going to have to clean up, do special prep work or switch out all your platens to do a small-quantity, low-profit job that will disrupt current higher-profit production?

    4. The order causes conflict between you and employees.
    When you (the boss) agree to a job that requires one or more members of your staff to learn a new process, you may feel some pushback, especially during peak season. Some of your employees may be responsive to learning something new, while others may just hate the idea, and want nothing to do with it.

    Before agreeing to a job that means more effort on the part of your staff, consider if they have the time and ability to tackle it. If they don't, there's a good chance the order will create tension that may not be worth it.

    5. Finishing a difficult job, and hoping you won't be asked to do it again.
    If a job was more of a headache than you realized, you have to let your client know you cannot repeat this type of order in the future. If you keep accepting this job, it will continue to disrupt your production flow, and you'll be caught in a downward spiral.

    In some cases, if it's a good customer, you really don't want to send him to someone else. I have been known to contract out the work, and accept that I won't make any money on it. I might even lose a little money. To me, that's just servicing my customer, and ensuring I don't lose the part of his business I want.

    6. Avoiding job remorse.
    What you learn every time you encounter an order you should have turned away is that you must increase the questions you're asking upfront, because what it all comes down to is customer expectation. In order to meet each customer's expectations, you have to dig that information out of their mind's eye, to find out what exactly it is they want.

    If you get stuck in a situation where you know you can't achieve what a customer wants, then you need to thoroughly explain why. Don't just tell him you can't do it. Keep samples from jobs gone wrong, and use them to show customers why a specific process on a certain substrate will not result in a nice end product. By explaining the "why not" to customers, and having proof of what could go wrong, they will leave feeling as if you've saved them from potential disaster.

    All photos courtesy of Mind's Eye Graphics.

    Greg Kitson, a 30-year industry veteran, is the founder and president of Mind's Eye Graphics, Inc. (Decatur, Indiana). Mind's Eye Graphics provides custom and contract screen printing to decorated apparel professionals around the world. Kitson and Mind's Eye Graphics offer industry-specific technical training and business consulting at their production facility, as well as in client locations. He is a frequent author and presenter for industry publications and seminars.

    This article appeared in the SGIA Journal, May/June 2012 Issue and is reprinted with permission. Copyright 2012 Specialty Graphic Imaging Association ( All Rights Reserved.

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