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Printing Industry Exchange (printindustry.com) is pleased to have Steven Waxman writing and managing the Printing Industry Blog. As a printing consultant, Steven teaches corporations how to save money buying printing, brokers printing services, and teaches prepress techniques. Steven has been in the printing industry for thirty-three years working as a writer, editor, print buyer, photographer, graphic designer, art director, and production manager.

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Book Printing: What Do You Do in an Emergency?

What do you do when a job goes south? It can happen in any number of ways. I have a client who regularly prints a color-chip book for fashion. I’ve written about her work a number of times in this blog. Her product is akin to a PMS swatch book for make-up and clothing based on one’s complexion. It is small (3.54” x 1.42”); 118 pages in 4-color process, produced digitally on an HP Indigo; and then drilled and assembled on a metal screw and post assembly. Depending on the particular press run, my client might print anywhere from 3 to 30 copies of each of her 22 master copies (each master copy addresses people with particular hair and facial complexion). Because of the ultra-short press run for each master copy, my client’s job needs to be produced digitally.

The Backstory

About two months ago my client put in an order for copies of her color swatch book. It was the first time the current commercial printing shop had done the job. To be safe, we had asked the printer to produce a complete, untrimmed set of all colors used in the 22 master print books as a test. Each swatch had the CMYK percentages noted below the solid color as well as my client’s proprietary name for the hue.

To determine if there would be a perceptible color shift once the sheets had been laminated in the final press run, we had the custom printing vendor produce one set of laminated, untrimmed swatches (as many as would fit on an approximately 12” x 18” press sheet) and one set of unlaminated swatch pages. I had seen in prior iterations of this job produced by another printer that some of the colors in the blue range had shifted slightly. I wanted to make sure that if there were color problems, they could be definitively attributed to either the custom printing or the lamination.

So we thought we were ready to go, once my client and her business partners had approved the test sheets. We also thought this would be a good way to ensure consistent color if we should ever need to change commercial printing vendors. After all, the prior printer had gone out of business just after one of my client’s reprints: hence the need to move the job.

My Oops

What we hadn’t foreseen was a simple error in the specification sheet: The covers had to be laminated, but somewhere in the process this notation had been removed from the specification for the text pages. Due to the heavy ink (actually liquid toner) coverage, without lamination the heavy solid colors on the swatches could easily be scratched. I actually tested this on a sample, and I found the problem to be marginal on light colors and more pronounced on darker colors. (This was due not to the toner coverage but to the eye’s tolerance for flaws in yellows, for instance, but not in dark purples.)

So the job came back with laminated covers and without laminated text. The printer’s customer service representative had caught the error (the inconsistency between the initial laminated but uncut proofs and the unlaminated text sheets in the actual press run), but he had assumed—without asking–that it was intentional. He had deferred to the specification sheet.

It was not the printer’s fault. It was mine, as the commercial printing broker. So I cut a check to my client to cover the printing. Fortunately I had not needed to do this up until this point in my history as a printing broker. It was unpleasant, but it kept my client happy.

The Next Steps

At that point, my client had a full run of unlaminated color swatch books. The colors were superb, but the pages were fragile since they were unlaminated.

Since my client had effectively paid nothing for these (since I had reimbursed her), she then paid the printer for a reprint—which turned out to be a much longer run. This one would be laminated.

Fortunately, my client still had 96 salable books (albeit salable for less than the usual price, since they were not laminated). I encouraged her to use these to keep her clients (she has a 4,000-name client list) happy while waiting for the new, laminated print books. I explained that she had an equity base. The books were usable. This would be a good, temporary, public-relations fix.

The Reprint Process

The reprint process didn’t go as well as planned. It was supposed to be a three-week turn-around. I understood that the lamination film had to be hand loaded, a sheet at a time, by the printer. There was going to be a lot of hand-work, but the good news was that all steps in the process, including the drilling, round cornering—everything—would be done in house.

The problem was that this printer is a small shop. In terms of service, that’s a good thing. I have been working with the printer for more than a decade, and I have always received a premium print job for a lower-than-usual price. In fact, I just sent this commercial printing vendor my sales commission invoice for the hundredth project we have done together.

But being a small shop, the printer had been hit hard recently when a number of key employees had to be out for health reasons, deaths in the family, and any number of other crises.

You may say that I’m naive. I believed the printer because of our ten-year-plus history. What I did do, however, was work out a plan with my client for daily (or every two days) status updates from the printer.

Initially, the job just seemed to sit there. But after a few days, things were back on track, and the job actually shipped today. I just looked at the calendar. The entire process had taken four weeks instead of three.

What We Can Learn from This Case Study

Sometimes things that look really bad can be salvaged. I salvaged the relationship with my client by paying for my mistake (and fortunately it was not a huge job). And what looked like an endless wait for the reprint turned out to be only a one-week delay.

I firmly believe it was because of a few important things:

  1. I had had a long, mutually beneficial, business relationship with the printer. This was not the first job. I made it clear that continuing the relationship was a priority. I also noted that other printers had not done as good a job with the color fidelity (which was clearly of utmost importance to my client for her color swatch book).
  2. Based on the length and quality of the business relationship, I was kind. I didn’t blame the printer. My goal was to complete the job to my client’s satisfaction, not to lay blame. Therefore, coming up with a way to leverage the initial printing to make my client’s clients happy while they awaited the new print books helped resolve the situation, as did requesting email updates from the printer (the written word seemed to make the process more formal and quantifiable).
  3. I focused on solutions. (Another job had gone south one other time in my 30-year history of buying custom printing. The printer went out of business during a textbook printing job. He had no credit and could not buy paper. So I urged the company I worked for at the time to purchase the paper for the print books at its own expense and then deduct this amount from the final payment to the printer. In this case, the printer was able to finish the books in satisfactory condition before closing his doors.)
  4. I did ask this printer to notify me in the future if anything seemed the least bit inconsistent in a job, between the specification sheet and any other verbal or email instructions.

In your own print buying work, think about the approach I have described. Just because you can blame the printer, pull the job, and send it somewhere else doesn’t mean you should. After all, a trusted vendor can often step up and work wonders, even in the midst of a crisis.

Oh, and one other thing. Read and reread your specification sheet—again and again. Even if you do this, once in a great while you will miss something, and you may have to pay for a reprint. Ouch. After all, the specification sheet is your contract with the printer. But the more often you check and recheck it, the less likely you will be to let a costly error slip by.

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