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7 Strategies for Beating Your Competition

Screen printers who want to differentiate their business must demonstrate their value to customers.




Every business has competitors. This means customers and prospective customers have options, and they need compelling reasons to pay for whatever you do. If you don’t want them to take their time and money elsewhere, you must prove your worth every day (and for those low-ballers out there, dropping your price to gain customers is a no-win scenario – it simply means you have nothing else to say). Here are seven ways to differentiate your business:

1. Get to Know Your Customers

Dig in and fully comprehend everything about your target customer – that is to say, your ideal customer. This will be the most profitable and easy-to-acquire type of client you can handle.

Not all customers are alike, or even good ones to have. Some are hard to deal with or constantly try to nickel and dime you over the most inconsequential things. Send those turkeys to your competitors.

Instead, map out your “bullseye” customer – the one that deserves laser-beam focus. All your research efforts need to focus on this.

Questions to ask include:

  • What do they typically purchase?
  • When do they buy it?
  • Who makes the decision?
  • What do they love? What do they hate?
  • What are they struggling with, and how can you help?
  • What is important to them?
  • How will they be using your product or services?
  • What does quality mean to them?
  • Think about location. Where are they:
    • Physically? (Their address.)
    • Digitally? (Their social media accounts.)
    • Socially? (Their causes, organizations, associations, or memberships.)

When you understand your customers, all the way down to their quirky personalities and favorite bands, you can better align your product or service offerings with their needs. Understanding requires spending time with them, whether in person, on the phone, or in a Zoom call. Whatever works.

You can also send surveys or questionnaires, but people don’t always respond, and it’s difficult to have any meaningful follow-up questions that can creatively turn into a brainstorming session. Face time (not on the phone) is best.

2. Look for Alignment

Not everyone can be your ideal customer. The most effective way to scale your business is to build a company focused on customer experience. How do your customers view your business? What is it like to do business with you?

Furthermore, how are you helping them solve problems or challenges? Sure, you want to sell them products or services, but is this what they really need?

Customers may need helpunderstanding or even knowing what they need. Instead of instantly jumping into the quoting process, start asking questions, such as:

  • How will you use the garment?
  • What is the most important thing about this order?
  • Is there an important timeline or deadline we should follow?
  • What are your expectations?
  • Is this a priority for you?
  • What would failure look like to you?
  • Have you ever experienced challenges with ordering this in the past?
  • What would make you the happiest about this order?

You’ll notice these questions are not about color, style, art, fit, or anything else commonly associated with placing an order. You can always get those answers. What you’re researching here are the clues to how your future relationship will be built. The answers to these questions help determine whether this potential customer will be a good fit. You can also use the information to suggest creative solutions to challenges that they may have yet to consider.

3. Ruthlessly Execute Your Processes

Let’s face it, decorating a shirt is not that difficult. Plenty of this industry’s largest and most successful businesses started in an outbuilding, basement, garage, or dinky space. What separates the best from the soon-to-be going out of business is the ability to do things correctly and consistently. This can be achieved by having well-defined processes for everything.

If you want customers who stick with you, your team must flawlessly nail every job. However, this becomes more difficult as your shop becomes larger and more complex. There’s a big difference between handling 100 jobs a month and 100 jobs a day. Eventually, missed deadlines, quality issues, or an overly complicated ordering process can result in customers leaving because you’re not meeting their expectations.

To avoid this scenario, you’ll need set-in-stone processes for everything to scale and execute at a high level. Here are some tips:

  • Start investigating Lean and Lean Six Sigma for ways to measure and improve your processes.
  • Ensure there is a shop “way” of doing everything. There can be no room for personal preference. Processes must be defined, and everyone must be trained to execute them the same way.
  • Cross-train multiple staff members. No matter the task, you can’t depend on only one person to handle it (for instance, you’ll need to mix ink even on days when Betty is out).
  • Measure how long things take. Work to improve that.
  • Measure how many things you can do in an hour. Work on improving that number.
  • Base pay on performance, not how long someone has worked at the shop.
  • Give clear expectations on what success looks like.
  • Ensure everyone knows what to do next without being told.

Essentially, you must design your business to produce the desired outcomes. What do you want that to look like?

4. Be Clear About What You Want

What is a good order? What is a bad order?

Think about it. Plenty of industry businesses have soul-crushing schedules jam-packed with low-profit work. Others manage to be more profitable with only a fraction of the volume. What’s the main difference?

You are 100 percent in charge of who you want to work with.

The main difference is the customer. More importantly, it is the customer’s order. While you may want to “beat” your competition in your local market, one way to ensure success is by taking all the juicy, profitable work and sending everything else away.

That’s right. Just say no.

It’s easier to say no when you’re crystal clear on the type of orders you want and the reasoning behind that focus. Ask whether any given order is:

  • Below the established minimum? Just say no.
  • Not paid 100 percent completely up front? Say no to that, too.
  • Customer-supplied goods? Can’t mark that up, so that’s a no.
  • For a cheap customer that requires a lot of hand holding and revisions? Why bother? No.

You get the idea. If there’s one takeaway from this article, I hope you remember: You are 100 percent in charge of who you want to work with. It’s OK to fire a customer. You have only so much time in a day. Are you using that time for maximum profitability or wasting it with high-maintenance, low-profit work?

Other questions to ask might include:

  • What is the most profitable type of work that you do? Think about quantity, number of colors, decoration locations, turn-time, etc. Can you create a sales process that focuses on bringing in more of those orders?
  • Who do you really want to work with? Are you talking to the right people?
  • Do you have customer evangelists for your business that bring in other customers? What if you concentrated on that?
  • How can you automate your sales process, so it is easier for you to find new customers?

7 Strategies for Beating Your Competition

5. Explore Strategic Partnership Opportunities

Newsflash: You don’t have to go at this alone. One tried-and-true method of expanding your reach is to partner with another business.

Consider your best customer. Other companies and industries serve that customer, as well. To reach other, similar prospective customers, you may want to reach out to other vendors about potential partnerships. The relationships each entity may bring to the table can reduce costs for both businesses.

Examples include:

  • Marketing partnerships. Can you collaborate on a few marketing projects, events, or opportunities to highlight both businesses? This could be with white papers, videos, presentations, or even a local invite-only tradeshow.
  • Supply partnerships. Can you align your services to help other businesses cater to the same market? What promotional packages or bundles could you offer? The idea here is that your collaboration adds value to the whole.
  • Creative partnerships. You work in a highly creative industry. Fact: Not everyone on this planet is creative. You can maximize your creative thinking potential by partnering with others that don’t have that same talent.

Of course, partnerships work only when everyone agrees on the outcome and value of working together as a team. Be crystal clear on the details, especially if things take off or when problems occur. In fact, you should have a written contract or agreement that includes:

  • A list of everyone involved and their duties in the partnership.
  • Fixed services, tasks, or contributions each party will make with deadlines established.
  • Specific terms, including the duration of the agreement.
  • Signatures from authorized representatives of all parties.

6. Innovation

This industry is constantly evolving. New products, equipment, software, and techniques are being developed daily. How are you using these new ideas to push the boundaries of what you offer?

Innovation happens only if you are constantly trying new ideas on for size. This means you have to be OK with failure. Not everything will work out, and that’s OK. What matters is what you’ve learned from the experience.

Although plenty of people like to keep track of success, keeping track of your failures also can be worthwhile. In fact, this could be a new KPI (Key Performance Indicator): How many failures do we experience per week?

This is not to suggest that failure is a good thing. Rather, it’s an indicator you’re trying something new. Also, what constitutes a “failure” anyway? Is it an attempt that just didn’t quite make it? It was almost there. What if you’re just one or two tweaks away from a major financial development? Those failures will count.

By the way, your competition might not be putting in the developmental work you are. This is how you distance yourself from everyone: by doing the hard things, and maybe experiencing failure, but also constantly learning.

Growth, change, and progress all happen by trying new things. FAIL, by the way, is an acronym for “First Attempt In Learning.”

7. Teamwork Makes the Dream Work

The last and probably most important item on this list is your team. Your employees are the most important asset of your business. Do you treat them as such?

Think of any championship sports team. At the end of the season, they won the most important game by working together unselfishly as a team and focusing completely on the goal. Usually, though, that isn’t repeated much. Players and coaches come and go. New teams step up their game.

The case is the same in business. How are you maintaining a championship-caliber team?

Also, are you working diligently to bring in new talent? Don’t forget that not all of your staff has to work at your physical location these days. With remote workers, virtual assistants, or help from outsourced labor companies, you can build a fantastic team with folks who never set foot in your office.

Here are some key elements of a great team culture:

  • Respect. Do staff feel it? Do you treat their ideas and suggestions seriously? Do people work without a lot of micromanaging?
  • Supportive leaders. People usually don’t quit their jobs because of money. They leave because the boss is a jerk. What type of leaders do you have in your shop?
  • Core value alignment. Does your company exhibit and live the core values you profess?
  • Benefits. Do your employees receive benefits other than a paycheck? Competitive companies offer more.
  • Learning and development. Are you investing in your employees’ training and career development?
  • Collaboration. Do employees voluntarily participate in activities designed to help the business run better? Are their ideas implemented?

7 Strategies for Beating Your Competition

Domination Ahead!

There you have it: seven steps toward achieving success. However, there’s actually an eighth idea: Action.

Building ideas, programs, changes, and improvements into your business requires an action mindset. On a scale of 1 to 10, how good are you at starting and finishing things?

If you really want to dominate your competition, get into the habit of finishing the things you start. Taking action can be the main driver for success.

Want more from The Marshall Plan? Read all of Marshall Atkinson’s columns at here.


Marshall Atkinson is the owner of Atkinson Consulting, LLC, based in Mesa, Arizona. He coaches apparel decoration companies on operational efficiency, continuous improvement, workflow strategy, business planning, employee motivation, management, and sustainability. He is a frequent tradeshow speaker, author, and host of two podcasts, as well as co-founder of the Shirt Lab educational company. He can be reached at



Let’s Talk About It

Creating a More Diverse and Inclusive Screen Printing Industry

LET’S TALK About It: Part 3 discusses how four screen printers have employed people with disabilities, why you should consider doing the same, the resources that are available, and more. Watch the live webinar, held August 16, moderated by Adrienne Palmer, editor-in-chief, Screen Printing magazine, with panelists Ali Banholzer, Amber Massey, Ryan Moor, and Jed Seifert. The multi-part series is hosted exclusively by ROQ.US and U.N.I.T.E Together. Let’s Talk About It: Part 1 focused on Black, female screen printers and can be watched here; Part 2 focused on the LGBTQ+ community and can be watched here.

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