Print Brokers and Contract Packaging companies (co-packers) are facing increased demand from brand owners to become true turnkey, one stop shops.
Brand managers are looking for a co-packer that can facilitate all their filling and packaging needs, to act as a single point of contact. This does not necessarily mean the co-packer must invest in every service under the sun, though, when the same services can be offered through close relationships with partner companies.
In the same way, brokers are frequently called upon to make referrals to packaging suppliers and fulfillment companies to round out their print offerings.
"The superior man understands what is right; the inferior man understands what will sell." – Confucius
Of course this assumes vendors can be found and genuine partnerships built. It's critical to partner with companies who share your business goals, values, philosophy, and ethics. Absent these corporate compatibilities, co-packers and print brokers may find they have grossly misplaced their trust and pay the ultimate price – lost business, lost customers, and a tarnished reputation. Often, the partner vendor that failed to deliver will escape unscathed, while co-packers and brokers bear the brunt of a disastrous project. After all, they are the face of the project, even when their partnerships are completely transparent.
Trial By Fire
Commercial label printers are a critical part of the process, particularly when failures occur, because label printing and application are one of the final steps in production. The opportunity to hustle and double down to meet a looming deadline is a luxury early or midway through a project, whereas label problems may not be discovered until the final packaging stages, or worse, after the labeled product is in the customer's hands or on the retail shelf.
“Calamity is the test of integrity.” – Samuel Richardson
We've all worked on projects that test our patience. We've all encountered hiccups or unforeseen complications that slow down or completely derail a project. Maybe you have even had a project where Murphy's Law was in full effect, and it has taken every resource, every favor, and a healthy dose of luck to complete it on time and without compromising your company's standards. Vendors that were by your side through it all and sacrificed to help see such a difficult project through can become the most reliable and trustworthy partners.
But then there are the companies who are more interested in assigning blame, covering their own profits, and who may even walk away from a difficult project right in the middle of a crisis.
The "Test Project"
Ideally, your print partnerships won't have to be forged in fire. Taking extra time to get to know potential partners is always a best practice. When local partner companies can't be found, it can be tempting to handle long distance relationship building over the phone, but it will always be better to meet face to face, preferably with a few team members from both sides. This can also be accomplished with one or two meetings attended by small groups. This investment in time and travel could save you exponentially over future problems and lost business.
Often, the meet and greet is skipped and the potential partner is given a test project – a simple in-house project, or a low pressure print job. The test project is a great tool, but on its own you may not learn much.
The problem with the test project, without meeting your partners or visiting their facility, is that you will be no closer to understanding the vendor's business and whether it is truly compatible with yours. The test project is just that, a test. A print vendor trying to capture business or land a new account will undoubtedly put their best foot forward, devoting exorbitant company resources to the test in order to pass with flying colors. If you're lucky, they will apply that effort to every project, but has that been your experience so far?
Again, the test project is a great tool that can help iron out the logistical gremlins that might otherwise be missed. To truly get to know a printer or other vendor though, a test project alone may not be enough.
"Assumptions are the termites of relationships." – Henry Winkler
A More Meaningful Measure
Some aspects of a potential partnership are easy to quantify; capabilities, geographic location, technology, shipping costs, lead times, and of course prices and rates. Others are not, such as company culture and personnel.
Even if a company operates in a way you can relate to, that company's goals and business philosophy could leave you (and in turn your customers) disappointed.
"It's not what you pay a man, but what he costs you that counts." – Will Rogers
Even if face time meetings don't take place, a simple method to discern culture is to ask a few key employees the same questions:
- How should problems be overcome?
- Who is responsible for what?
- What is an ideal outcome for a difficult project?
Look at past projects that have gone wrong, how other vendors reacted in a real-world crisis (both good and bad), and measure that against a potential partner's responses.
Questions like these are great predictors of future incompatibilities, especially if they are asked conversationally, rather than in an interview question setting. Try anecdotal tales of challenging projects, followed by a "it was a difficult project for us... how have you handled these situations in the past?".
Even if you will be working directly with the owner of a vendor company, the success of your project will still depend on some cooperation with their staff. Make a point to talk to more than one person, and have more than one person from your company speak to your point of contact. If a vendor provides affordable quality work but accepts no ownership of deliverables or has no concern for any other contributor's time or money, you may lose both.
Ask And Ye Shall Receive
You know what you're looking for in a partner, so don't check off a few boxes on their application and hope they will mesh with your company culture. Ask up front about more than shipping rates and rush charges. If a potential partner company claims to put the customer first, ask for an example of when that was truly tested, and the result.
The more turnkey your operation, the more integrated your partners need to be. Relationships, indeed friendships, are key to long-term success for everyone involved. With shared goals, similar philosophies, ethics, values, and cultures, compatible technologies, and fair prices, your business relationships with be less stressful, less problematic, more reliable, and more profitable for all parties. Good luck!
"All lasting business is built on friendship." – Alfred A. Montapert