Another Printing Disasters—and How to Avoid Them story…

One of my readers asked me to write an article about how to select a printer. I have been pondering this question for quite a while now, sifting through the many factors I consider when recommending the best printer for my clients’ projects.

In this increasingly virtual world, I still strongly prefer to work eyeball-to-eyeball with my printers. I want collaborative partners who will work closely with me as we create great products.

This means I buy local when I can, and if all goes well, I will be a repeat customer: I believe that building on past project successes makes subsequent jobs go more smoothly and produces better products.

So how do you find a printer with whom you will enjoy an eye-to-eye relationship and from whom you will get the results you want?

Referrals are Good

Finding a good printer is a lot like finding a good doctor—I value personal recommendations from friends. Ask a few trusted professional colleagues to recommend their favorite printers. Or, if you know any graphic designers, I’m sure they will be able to steer you toward a good-quality local printer or two.

Be sure to tell the recommender a bit about the types of projects you are planning to print and ask whether or not the printers they suggest have done similar projects for them.

Once you have a short list of printers to consider, call each one and arrange for a representative (often called a print rep or a rep) to call on you and present the company’s capabilities. If the person who has recommended the printer mentioned that their rep is great, ask for that rep by name.

When you meet, asking the right questions can help you determine whether the printing company is a good fit for your projects and for you. I call these questions the Four Ps of Printer Selection.

P1 ~ Products: “What types of projects fit your company best?”

A printer who can do a great job on simple two-color stationery or business cards might not have the right equipment to print a high-quality, four-color brochure or an oversized poster. Look for an answer like, “Print runs of 1,000 to 20,000 pieces fit us best, with a maximum art size of 20 x 26 inches.” Or, “We specialize in printing for small and medium-sized businesses and offer products like stationery, business cards, brochures, envelopes and booklets, in one to five ink colors.”

Run like hell from any rep who boasts,“We can do it all!” Oh, come now, that’s just not possible. A wise print rep will ask about the nature of your business and the types of printing needs you have, then tell you whether your projects will or will not fit them well. I have found that their frank assessment at this point is a very good sign—one that may lead me to call that rep the next time I have a project that does fit his shop, even if the current one does not.

If your project will have special requirements such as shipping to 150 locations or kitting components before shipping, you will want to describe them and ask whether or not the printer has those capabilities. If your project has a tight timeline, now is the time to talk about that as well.

P2 ~ Proof: “Will you show me examples of your work?”

Reviewing printed samples gives you the opportunity to assess the quality of the printer’s products.

Look for rich, even color, crisp lettering, cleanly trimmed edges, accurate, smooth folds with no cracking, and substantial papers that feel good in the hand. Take a close look at any photos. They should be in crisp focus and have plenty of detail in light and shadow areas. They should not look muddy or dark.

I like to ask the rep to describe what he or she think makes the sample particularly good, or what made the piece challenging to produce. This gives me a sense of his or her problem-solving approach and attention to quality.

P3 ~ Process: “What is your company’s working process?”

Printing companies work in a variety of ways. Some reps take your order and you don’t see them again until they return with printed goods in hand. But most have a clearly delineated process that includes a general timeline and milestones for things like price quotes and proof approvals.

You’ll want a process that fits the way you like to work with vendors. I look for answers such as, “We turn price requests around in 24 to 48 hours” and “Most jobs go through our shop in 7 to 9 working days.”

Many businesses are trying to go “green.” If that’s important to yours, ask about the steps the printer has taken to become a more conscientious environmental citizen. Many print shops have gained certification from environmental stewardship organizations like the Forest Stewardship Council and/or from strict city- or county-sponsored environmental initiatives such as the King County (WA) EnviroStars program. (Note: Debbie Kipp wrote a very thorough article about this topic. See Going Green: Questions to Ask Your Printer.)

P4 ~ Personality: “How well will we work together?”

You probably won’t voice this fourth question aloud, but I think it’s the most important one of all. Do you click with this person? Do you like his communication style? Do you think she listens well and responds to questions in a straightforward way? Does she offer money-saving and creative solutions?

Part of the print rep’s job is to advocate for your project and shepherd it through the plant. If you and the rep have a good working relationship, he or she will do a better job for you back at the shop.

That’s why working with the right rep is nearly as important as the shop’s equipment and capabilities. I say, trust your gut. If you have doubts about the fit, pick somebody whose style suits you better.

Some printing sales reps have an aggressive style that drives me nuts. If you and the rep are going to get along, you will need to be clear about the kind of follow-up that will or won’t be welcome.

For example, is it OK for the rep to just drop by without an appointment? (Eeek, I just hate that.) Can he check back once a month? Email you now and then? Take you to lunch? Come at coffee-break time, bearing treats?

Periodic check-ins; infrequent pre-arranged, in-person visits, and occasional bittersweet chocolate work for me!

Disaster Avoidance Tips

  • Take the time to visit and tour the print shop before you send a project to a new printer. You can learn a lot from a tour. Does the staff seem engaged in the work or surly and disaffected? Is the plant tidy? Organized? A clean printing plant produces cleaner products. One of the top compliments you can give a printer is, “This press room is so clean I could eat off the floor!”
  • Invite suggestions from the rep while your project is still in the design stage. An experienced rep will offer suggestions that will ensure the job’s success and often save you money.
  • Discuss your project expectations with the printer at the very beginning of the project, then follow up with written instructions in the form of a purchase order with clear printing specifications. (See Cover your butt with print specifications and Money-saving tip #4: be buttoned up.)
  • Show your appreciation for a job well done with a note or call of thanks to the print rep, and be sure to pay your bill promptly. Everybody loves that. These two actions will set the stage for an equally good outcome on the next project you send their way.

How did you find the printers you work with? Do you have other words of wisdom to add? If so, please share them by leaving a comment below.

© 2011 Nani Paape. All rights reserved.