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How Subcontractors Become Picture-Perfect Partners

Weighing the risks and rewards of outsourcing services beyond the printed graphic.




ONE HAD the slightest inkling of a problem – particularly one that had nothing to do with the application of the ink – until it was almost too late. The graphics met every expectation of the client, a national athletic company promoting a new product, but print quality wouldn’t matter if the vinyl would not adhere to the rigid substrate prior to the promotional display’s unveiling the next morning.

Technically, it wasn’t the printer’s fault that the surface was too dirty. However, David Kaiser, owner of Tualatin, Oregon-based Digitype Design, says he and his team had accepted the responsibility the moment they took the job, along with the risk that comes with relying on a subcontractor for installation. That risk was acceptable not only because the nature of the product – a traveling display – made outsourcing essential, but also because the company trusted its partners to help manage it.

In this case, trust was well-placed. The install team worked through the night to meet the deadline, cleaning the material to prevent the potential catastrophe even before the customer became aware of it. Had things turned out differently, it would have been up to Digitype to “make things right” however it could, Kaiser says. Yet, he’s found that such cases are rare. With proper vetting, most subs can be “a great addition” to a wide-format printer’s team. “Trying to be all things to my clients costs me in time, health, and finances,” he says about leveraging third-party vendors.

A survey of recent Brain Squad responses reveals many of his peers wholeheartedly agree. They also outsource more than just installation, whether to expand their own capacity or capability or to gain a competitive advantage through outside expertise. Respondents also had plenty of advice for building and managing vendor relationships. Here’s a closer look at what they had to say.

Partnering Is Standard Practice

Most respondents reported outsourcing services for one reason or another. Although Squad members’ attitudes differ on how to approach this conversation with customers (see the sidebar at right), virtually everyone agrees on the value of truth and transparency. “There is nothing to be gained by hiding the facts,” sums up Jim Dittmer of Creative Color (Gresham, Oregon).

The simplest reason to outsource is because a PSP is unequipped or unqualified for a necessary service. A bucket truck or lift, or specialty equipment for cutting and laminating, can be a significant investment, even without accounting for training, workers’ compensation, and other potential costs. Building capability also takes time. As long as they can be trusted, third-party providers can bridge the gap. “Before we purchased our first digital press, we outsourced all of our digital printing for almost a year,” says Gary Schellerer, CEO of ER2 Image Group. “We did the same with braille printing, dye sublimation, and CNC routing and laser cutting.”

Although ER2’s capabilities have expanded, the company outsources installations that are too far outside their homebase of Chicago. That’s just fine with Schellerer. “Experienced buyers understand that subcontractors are a standard component to ensuring project success.”

Digitype also relies on a national network of installation partners. However, logistical challenges aren’t the only reasons for outsourcing, Kaiser says. Installation best practices have evolved along with technology, he explains, citing advancements in LED lamps, ink systems, and flatbed printing that enable “putting ink on almost any flat surface” (including sidewalks and even tree bark). Meanwhile, increasingly educated customers are demanding a greater variety of ever-more-creative wide-format work. “With the technology advancing yearly in print and substrates, not one sign or graphics provider can meet all the needs,” Kaiser says.

In short, the industry is becoming so specialized that outsourcing might be the best way to satisfy a customer, even if it isn’t technically necessary.

Everyone Carves a Niche

Other respondents echoed Kaiser’s appreciation for the expertise of specialists. “Finding a source that has unusual talents may be the value you bring to the table,” says Rick Mandel, president of Mandel Graphics Solutions in Glendale, Wisconsin. In his case, a “unique source” for visual P-O-P item enhancements helps ensure an important customer “comes to us when they have projects they can’t figure out how to engineer.”

Mandel also mentions outsourcing vehicle wraps, which he says require “experience and a bit of artistry.” In nearby Milwaukee, Brian Adam of Olympus Group feels similarly about custom wallpaper hanging, which he says is better left to professionals than an in-house team that’s more familiar with peel-and-stick vinyl. Christine Walsh, president of Alpha Graphics in Baltimore, mentions a preferred installer who “does wraps on everything, and has a lot of experience with different material. He tells us what the right material may be, and what bleeds he needs, as well.”

Other common examples of outsourcing include not just installation, but also finishing services ranging from die cutting to foil stamping and letter pressing. Still others include areas of specialty expertise, such as ADA signs (that is, those that comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act). At Creative Color, one of Dittmer’s closest partnerships is with a company that specializes in dye sublimation on metal. “It would make no sense for us to compete with them,” he says. “Because that’s all they do, they are the best and we want them on our team.”

However, many examples involved simpler work that PSPs are perfectly comfortable doing themselves but prefer not to. Walsh, for example, says outsourcing mailings during particularly busy periods enables staffers to focus on more important tasks. Ann Durso, president of Express Sign & Graphics in Chelmsford, Massachusetts, tells a similar story. Some customers “do not understand what a vector graphic is,” so many logos must be formatted correctly before they can be printed. Rather than doing the work in house, Durso prefers to let her own employees focus on boosting production or sales. “We have a great company who can vectorize a logo in hours and get it back to us at the right price,” she says. “It’s a great service for clients because the vector file is provided for future use, and it saves us time.”

Whatever the reason for the practice, “PSP” stands for print service provider, and Brain Squad members are in this business because they believe they have an edge in providing that service. They also seem to understand the same is true for their partners, however complementary their specialties may be. Finally, they recognize customers generally care only about the final product. The best approach is often to admit, as Walsh puts it, “We may be able to do it, but not as well as someone else can.”


Reliable Relationships Take Work

With a team of only five, one of whom is part time, Express Sign & Graphics has long relied on vendor partners to stay nimble while providing a comprehensive service. “By not bogging down with fabrication on products that require more space and expensive equipment, it actually saves the customer money,” Durso explains.

Another way to save the client money is by avoiding shipping costs through drop-shipping outsourced products. Nonetheless, “99 percent of what we do” goes to the shop for inspection first, she says. Although some partnerships have been in place for more than a decade, quality control – straight, clean edges, and consistent PMS (Pantone Matching System) color – deserves particular focus.

Her overall advice for subcontracting? “Definitely get references. Even start with a small project and make sure you’re happy with their quality and service. Then move to larger projects. Make sure your installers are insured.”

These comments echo those of the rest of the Brain Squad. In addition to insurance, others note the importance of carefully reviewing partnership terms (such as indemnification, cancelation, and non-solicitation policies) and ensuring potential partners have the necessary certifications. They also recommend taking note of a potential partner’s size, volume, experience level, and track record. Check the Better Business Bureau and seek out online reviews. A face-to-face interview, whether in person or online, can help evaluate a potential fit.

Vetting begins with finding out who you’re working with in the first place. As secure as you may be in your own printing capabilities, contracting with an installation company owned by another wide-format printer probably isn’t the best strategy. Jared Smith of bluemedia in Tempe, Arizona, cites the state’s corporate commission – a regulatory body for businesses – as a useful initial tool for researching potential partners.

Installers might also decide to get into printing independently, Mandel points out, noting that a roll-to-roll printer and laminator can be had for less than $50,000. In these cases, non-disclosure agreements can help protect relationships with customers, he says. Such an agreement might also contain confidentiality language to ensure everyone – particularly observers on social media – understands the contractor is representing you.

From there, Brain Squad members take various approaches to evaluating subcontractors’ performance. At ER2 Image Group, Schellerer and his team have developed an online vendor tool used internally to rate partners after jobs on various metrics. Many respondents review photos of installations, and some insist on overseeing at least one in person before continuing a relationship. Whatever the approach, many respondents emphasized the importance of regular, honest communication. “Pick up the phone and call them if you think it warrants a discussion rather than just giving them the job and seeing how it comes out,” Walsh says.

Being Human Pays Off

Smith’s way of describing bluemedia’s approach to contractors perfectly encapsulates attitudes that filter through in many of the responses. “We all make mistakes, and the truth always makes sense,” he says. “So be human. Be vulnerable. Be real and be cool. It works like magic.”

Being human implies treating others how you want to be treated. For Kaiser, this might mean “extending grace when we can. We realize we are all human and even in the greatest companies with the best practices, things can go sideways.” Durso takes a similar view. “We have worked with many of our vendors for 20-plus years. All have had some ups and downs with pricing and quality and delivery schedules at some point, but they always bounce back,” she says.

Brain Squad survey respondents also emphasize the importance of prompt payment. Kaiser says ensuring vendors are paid “as soon as our customer is satisfied” helps keep “a relationship on best terms.” Durso uses similar language, noting that paying vendors on time “helps keep the relationship positive. There is nothing worse than doing great work for someone and waiting forever to get paid.”

Being human also implies being empathetic and understanding partnership goes both ways. The deeper your understanding of your partners’ operations and workflow, the easier you are likely to make life for them, and vice versa. If possible, Dittmer says he prefers to tour the plants of vendors that might work with Creative Color. “Talk to as many people as you can about the process,” he says, specifically citing managers, salespeople, customer service representatives, and shop floor personnel. “Don’t forget, you need to sell this to your client, too. Your clients come to you because they trust you; they need to extend that trust to the people you partner with.”


Constructive Conversations

How awkward would it be to tell a customer “My crew will be there at 8 a.m.” only to have the actual install crew show up with a different company name on the truck? What if the customer asks for the crew’s contact information, only to find it doesn’t match your company’s data?

Jared Smith of bluemedia says this is the kind of thing that can happen when a wide-format printer gets too sheepish about using subcontractors’ essential installation services. The best approach is honesty. “While we do not go out of our way to send a list of every sub we use on a project, we make no effort to hide them either.”

He makes a particularly colorful case, but overall, this was a strong consensus emerging from responses to our most recent Brain Squad survey. However, members differed in their approaches to broaching the subject with customers. Here are a few examples:

  • If the customer doesn’t ask if we are subcontracting, we do not necessarily offer this information. The most important condition to our clients, especially since so many are seasoned buyers, is the job is done on time and executed impeccably. How the person is classified is far less critical to them. No matter what, they’re a part of your team, even if you don’t W-2 them. — Gary Schellerer, ER2 Image Group
  • I am transparent with my clients that our installer is not our employee and does this for a living and is amazing. When discussing finishing that we do not do in house, I simply say I am going to have our finisher complete this part. — Christine Walsh, Alpha Graphics
  • I don’t hide the fact that we have strategic partners. Everyone does. Be proud of who you choose. — Rick Mandel, Mandel Graphics Solutions

  • There is one installer we partner with on certain things, and it drives the cost up. I “sell” it by letting clients know our partner is one of the best in the business – so good that he trains others to do what he does. No one has ever said “no” to that. — Gina Kazmerski, Image360 Woodbury
  • We view and treat our partners as an extension of ourselves, and we are not ashamed to let our customers know we will use partners we trust to help ensure they get the best product and best service. — Brian Adam, Olympus Group



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