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Printing Industry Exchange ( 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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Custom Printing: Handling Bad News in a Print Job

A client relationship is a precious and fragile thing. It deserves care and nurtutring. Then again, so is a vendor relationship.

I recently had a problem with a client’s job. The perfect-bound textbooks she had sent to press were proceeding smoothly, but the box the book printer had contracted out was hitting a wall. More specifically, the art for the boxes, which would be printed in black-only ink via flexography, had gone to press on a Friday, and the proof had not come back to my client until the following Friday.

Normally this would not have been a problem, but the ship date for the print books was firm. Therefore, the boxes had to be at the printer on time for cartoning.

My client had asked about the proof mid-week, and I had learned from the printer’s customer service rep that it had not yet arrived. Once it did (after a week’s time, in the afternoon), my client had to get approval on the box proof from her boss. This necessitated holding the proof until the following Monday.

The long and short of the story is that there was no time to print and convert the boxes after the proof had been returned to the box printer/converter. To meet the deadline, the printer (and my client) had to stop the outsourced production of the boxes, and produce them in-house at the book printer’s shop. This meant affixing a crack’n peel litho label to the box instead of having my client’s logo and the book title printed on the side of the boxes.

My client was upset. She had had no choice. She had been forced, by time and schedules, into accepting her second choice. And she had done nothing wrong.

Enough Responsibility to Go Around

Here are some thoughts on what happened and who’s responsible:

  1. The book printer initially said my client had held onto the proof for too long. She should have known that getting a proof on a Friday and approving it on a Monday would compromise the schedule.
  2. My view was that a proof received late on a Friday afternoon was essentially delivered on the following Monday (on their regular schedule, printers usually start early and end early in the day).
  3. My client’s view was that she had called to ask the status of the proof mid-week. She had been proactive, yet she had to settle for labels.

What to Do Next

The first thing I did was track the actual dates and times of steps in the production of the box:

1. Art submitted Friday.
2. Proof requested Wednesday.
3. Proof actually received on following Friday.

I brought this to the attention of the book printer and noted that my client had requested the proof after four days but had only received it in the afternoon of the seventh day. He agreed that his subcontractor had missed the mark. The proof should have been available on Tuesday or Wednesday (three to four days out). This would have provided time for a reasonable proof-approval turn-around schedule and for the days needed to print and convert the boxes in time to ship the print books when they were needed.

I also noted that when my client said she needed to hold the proof until Monday to get her boss’ approval, I had called the customer service rep to alert her. I had received to response, so I had assumed that Friday at 4:00 p.m. was pretty much the same as Monday morning.

Fortunately, the book printer has been very responsive. We have a long history. He softened his stance and noted that the subcontracted box fabricator had compromised the schedule. He also said he understood my client’s irritation at not being able to choose the “look” of the boxes (flexography vs. litho labels) due to the lateness of the box fabricator’s proof submission.

On the other hand, my client was happy to have been heard. She didn’t want to change the plan. She just wanted the printer to understand her frustration.

I’m not sure exactly what will happen at this point, other than that the book printer will take over preparing the boxes (small, custom boxes that will each hold 20 copies of the print book).

What We Can Learn from This

I’m still learning. Next time, when the schedule is tight and I can’t reach the customer service rep I won’t make any assumptions (or leave any phone messages). I’ll contact the sales rep directly and immediately.

Here are some things you can learn.

  1. It’s not whether problems will arise during a print job. They will from time to time. Guaranteed. Commercial printing is a process, and things will go wrong. What’s important is how the book printer (or any printer) resolves the problems to the satisfaction of the client.
  2. Don’t be afraid to change course mid-stream. My client had to shut down the subcontracted box production (flexographic printing on the sides of the boxes) and switch mid-stream to litho labels. The final deadline was more important than the boxes. Know your priorities, and work with the printer to meet them, even if that means changing the game plan.
  3. Anything subcontracted out cannot be as closely controlled as any operation your printer does in-house. The printer is responsible for the subcontractor’s work, but he’s not perfect, so it helps to know when subcontractors are involved.
  4. Some processes do need to be subcontracted. Most printers cannot do case binding in-house, for instance. Nor can they do flexography in house. Vendors who specialize in these crafts must be called upon in these cases.
  5. Sometimes all you need is to be heard. My client needed the printer to understand her frustration. However, she could live with the compromise.
  6. Conveying bad news is most unpleasant, but it must be done from time to time. Acknowledge the feelings involved and even voice them, but then move on to solutions you can live with (or ask your printer for suggestions).

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