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Success Stories with Marshal Atkinson brought to you by S&S Activewear

Episode 6: "Sell Trust, Not Decorating"

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Episode 6: "Sell Trust, Not Decorating"
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A Transcript For The Readers:

Marshall Atkinson

Tracy, welcome to the podcast.

Traci Miller

Hi Marshall. Thanks for having me here.

Marshall Atkinson

Yeah, I can’t wait to get into everything and before we start talking, I want to share a short story. We met at ThreadX, I believe, the one in San Diego if I remember right…at the bar and you just came up and sat down next to me.

I was sitting there having a sandwich, I think, and a beer and we introduced each other and that’s how we got started on a relationship. Do you remember that?

Traci Miller

I do remember that…I had gone out to ThreadX. That was San Diego. You’re right. And I was there by myself. I really didn’t know anybody. And, um, you know, you look like you were hungry and could use a friendly face.

Marshall Atkinson

Yeah. Well, I’m usually hungry. So, uh, yeah. Anyway, and so, one of the things, the reason I’m wanting to bring that up is cause this whole topic about relationships is that you never know who you’re going to meet. And sometimes, you know, a new friend is only a handshake away.

And so I just want to throw that out there and that’s exactly how we met.  And here we are doing a podcast.

Traci Miller

Yeah. Who would have thought, but it’s great to meet you. Of course.

Marshall Atkinson

Cool. All right. So let’s get started with some questions. Okay. Here. So the first one is, I think many contract decorators get hung up in this business. Not by understanding that business relationships between the client and the decorator really matter.

So for you, what sets you apart from everybody else?

Traci Miller

No, that’s a great question. And you know, this industry has a couple of different sides to it and there’s the retail side where you’re working with your specific market and whatnot, it could be one-off jobs. They could be transactional, but on the wholesale side, you can look at one of two ways.

You could be a commodity and you could just produce a product and spit it back out. And that’s that. And whoever comes through your doors, your next customer. But I’ve never looked at it that way ever.

Um, for me, it’s about finding the right fit for the client and making sure that our core values even line up and we’re both working towards the same goals.

And when we do that, we form this great synergy together and they allow me to leverage, you know, I could be the leverage, I should say for them, right. To grow their business. So for us, it’s truly relationship-driven. It is all about finding the right fit and then making each other better as we grow together.

Marshall Atkinson

And it’s all about the long term. It isn’t about this one order that… you know, needs to be shipped by Friday. Right? Of course, we always get that stuff, but it’s also about, you know, having so many stick around for 10, 15, 20 years, and I’m sure you’ve got tons of stories like that.

Traci Miller

I do. And you’re right on with that, you know, we don’t, I don’t look for the next customer to come in and give me an order.

We look for the next client who we’re going to build a relationship with for a long period of time. Um, you know, attrition can really hurt you in this business. And, I learned that kind of early on that. When we really connect with the client, we want him to stick around forever. I don’t want them to have to look for another decorator ever.

We want to be that source for them. And to this day, we have a long history with a lot of great clients because of that.

Marshall Atkinson

So, what do you do to connect and just make sure on the same page is that you, uh, do something different or it’s a conversation, or you just have to be yourself and you’re engaging.

Cause you know, you’re awesome Traci, all the time. What is, what is your secret?

Traci Miller

Yeah. Oh, that’s a great question. And, I think, to be brief, the secret is just to be yourself and engage with people.

So the secret sauce, I guess, to the service side of what we do is really about the trust factor and our relationship with our clients. You know, these folks are out there selling.

They’re not, you know, they’re grinding it out, they’re getting their relationships going and then they get an order and then they’re sending it to us.

And, they may not see that order again, we could be drop-shipping right to their client and they have to trust that what we’re doing is of the quality. It makes them look, makes them look good in the end. So, yeah, but that takes a lot of trust in a relationship to be able to blind ship something out, and then your, your reputation is on the line, you know, and it matters.

It matters to them. We have clients, I call them two-twelves. So two-twelves around here is a core value term.

So what we talk about is that water boils and creates steam at 212 degrees. So two-twelve is going above and beyond it’s above and beyond for our clients or for each other, whatever it is.

So those are little awards that we give out to our staff, right?  And the two twelves we get back from clients. Tell that story about trust and relationship every time. You know, several times a week, I can get an email from someone saying you made us look good period. And that’s what our goal is. You know, our goal is to make you look good.

We’re behind the scenes.  We’re the quiet one. Who’s just putting it all together. Providing that service of decoration. I’m not out there in front of your client. You are, that’s what the wholesaler is.

We’re behind the scenes, but you know, we want to make you look good. And that’s really what we do really well. I mean, we have set ourselves up.

And I can tell you the story, how we started, and why in a second. But, you know, we set ourselves up to service our clients where they need us to service them. So do they need to make 50 phone calls to find out if a job’s going on time? They don’t because we’ve guaranteed. It’s shipping on time and we do it and we not only say it, we back it up with execution time and time and time again.

That is where the long term relationship comes from. You know, the integrity piece means what you say, say what you mean kind of thing. And we said, we’ll ship it and it will be quality and your client will be happy. And we do that. So that’s the basis of who we are and how we service really.

So we often get calls. Um, interestingly enough, from folks who have been using other wholesalers or have a different relationship somewhere else. And a lot of our new accounts we’ll come on, um, because. Stuff just didn’t go right with who they were using. So we had this one particular client who had an event and we know that events cannot be moved.

They are when they are. And, um, they came to us. Let me think about this. I think it was four days before the event. They had their product with another company waiting for their apparel to come in three months before the event, four days before. They didn’t get their stuff. And they said, yeah, we’re not going to make that date.

There are some back orders and whatever they gave them for reasoning. So they were desperate calling pretty much every I’m sure. But, you know, fortunately, I took the call and I said, Hey, you know if we can get product, we will get you what you need for that event. And we did it, we turned it around and basically three and a half days we ended up delivering and it was about a three-hour drive away just to make sure that they got it on time.

We weren’t really trusting the shipping situation cause they’ve already kind of gotten screwed, you know, with the chance that they could miss their event. And, you know, we saved the day for them in the end and they looked like heroes to their clients, which again is our entire goal is to make you the hero to your client.

So it worked out for us, for them. And they’ve been with us. Let me think. No. Uh, probably seven years since that event. So it’s been a long relationship and I hope we go at least seven more.

Marshall Atkinson

So that 212 degrees is the reason why they’ve been with you for seven years. So actually going beyond and driving the shirts to the event, which you didn’t have to do and doing, pulling out all the stops to get it handled is the reason why you develop that relationship.

Traci Miller

Absolutely. I mean, every while the jobs I’ll tend to be the same, you know, we embroider we’ve screened for whatever we do, but each time it was unique and it has maybe a little nuance that has to be handled and to go a little bit above and beyond, you know, it saves the day and it creates a lot less havoc too, sometimes trying to get an order through.

I get really frustrated outside of our industry when I’m trying to get service somewhere and it’s like, “Nope, this is it. We have to do it this way.”

And it’s like, but I just need you to do something a little bit different. Could you, could you just like, give me, I don’t, I can’t give you an example, but the idea is that, you know, we meet them where they’re at.

If you need something faster, we can do it faster. If you need a proof different, we can do it different. If you need a pre-pro, we can do that. You know, really just kind of going above and beyond what the standard operating procedures are. Get you there. Okay,

Marshall Atkinson

Okay, good. So for, as a contractor, embroiderer, you know, best what really makes a good ongoing apparel program work best.

So if I’m a promo distributor listening, How should I set that up for you? The decorator to just hit a home run consistently with every pitch, because it’s simple and it’s direct and you have everything you need. So describe that program for me.

Traci Miller

Yeah. So some of the most successful programs that we’ve worked with.  Um, we do a lot of corporate programs where we’re the backend of maybe a web store for a company.

So web stores are an extremely popular and extremely efficient way to sell consistently to a brand. And the most successful ones are set up kind of preset up.

So you’ve predetermined product. You’ve predetermined logos.  You’ve got the brand specs, all ironed out.

Prior to even sewing one shirt and, you know, we’ve gone through programs where we’ve done 15 different variations, but we’re ready. We’re ready for an order. We’re ready for whatever it is that they need.

You know, we’ll have the logo set up for a hat, adviser, a bag, and all those are different files because they sew better on different fabrics and things like that.

But all of that is predetermined and preset up. So we’re kind of ready to go. When the client’s ready to pull the trigger, you know, and I think that’s number one, the first thing that makes them successful and number two is, um, being realistic and the timing of how these things go.

We live in an Amazon world these days.  Right. And, a lot of people want things in like one, two days and they expect it to be Amazon prime delivered in two days.

But the expectation being set up front is extremely helpful when we’re doing custom, you still need a few more days in there to process an order quickly. Um, so the expectations being clear is definitely important.

And the third thing that we do is we really, again, meet the clients where they’re at meaning. If they have a program where they know those, sew X amount of pieces of gear, we’re working through a formula with them to get it priced to the point that they can sell one or 500 and it doesn’t change their embroidery price.

So we flat rate it and we get it to a point that makes sense for them. It makes sense for us and makes sense for their client. And that trifecta gets you a really strong program that has consistency.

A lot of programs are maybe two-year, three-year contracts. So we get that pre set up for that term and we just run and then you can just produce pieces and make people happy and deliver on time after that.

Marshall Atkinson

Yeah, I’ve done programs before where we’re keeping a minimum level of inventory on the floor so we can just pull it quickly. So we’re going to be embroidering. Um, you know, two pieces or a hundred pieces or whatever it is, and we already have the inventory, so it just makes it easier to get it up on the machine and a trend and steamed and polybag and out the door to the end client.

Do you do programs like that?

Traci Miller

Yeah, we do them all the time. Um, interesting thing. I think one of the trends that are happening more and more is that the risk of having inventory is not something I want people to take on. So, um, that’s where our programs of doing a one-off. And I guess with embroidery, that’s one of the benefits, you know, we have single head machines, we have multi-head machines.

We have just about every size machine you can imagine here now so that we can produce whatever quantity you need. Can’t tell you how many times an order gets placed and say, You know, they order 50 pieces and they, their client orders 50. Okay, great. We’re going to staff everybody up with shirts and then they get the call.

“I forgot Joe. I need one more shirt.”

You know, the order has already been done. Well, we can still do that one extra piece and that’s the thing within embroidery, you can do smaller quantities quicker. Um, Inventory pieces. We do stock some things. We stock blankets for folks too, so that we can make that Amazon-ish time frame.

So they’ll send us a PO and we’ll pull it out of our blank inventory, which is their inventory. We’ll decorate it and we’ll drop ship it out so we can turn things in probably three to five days. From start to finish in their client’s hands because of that inventory load. So it goes both ways, you know, you can get the blankets from our, you know, our S&S suppliers and whoever we get those in one day. And then I can turn around and spin that out in two days, or we can do the blank of, um, sew inventory that they want to have quickly so we can do it either way. And we have, it just depends on what the client needs and how big that account is for them.

Marshall Atkinson

And I would imagine because you have flat-rate pricing, so somebody is used to getting 300 shirts embroidered, and then now they need one more for Joe. And now suddenly the decoration costs have gone up. You’re making your clients happier by keeping everything the same. So it’s easier on the financial end of the stick.

Traci Miller

Absolutely. It makes them say yes, easier.

And at the end of the day, we all just want to say yes to the sale.

So, if you think about it, I mean, for the few dollars difference, it might be between that 500 mark and that one piece mark, it’s not worth risking the relationship for that. So that’s why we just made them where they’re at and get what they need and get it done.

And the flat rate helps do that. Um, does it make sense long term for me?  

It does because of the value of that relationship. Now, if you look at the cost of acquiring a new client, what does that cost? And that’s different for everybody.

But when I have clients for seven, 10, 15, 20 years, that value of acquiring that client has dropped dramatically over those over that term of time.

Right. So if I’m trying to attract all new clients every year, I’m spending a lot of money. And if one little thing like. You know, one shirt at the same rate is going to make the difference. I’m going to do that. You know, it’s, it’s just worth it. It makes them happy. Makes us happy too, for keeping them right.

Marshall Atkinson

It’s cause you’re creating raving fans and these people are so happy. They’re telling all their friends and said, Hey, you gotta, you gotta use color three. You gotta use Traci.

She’s awesome.

Traci Miller

But the truth is that a majority of our new clients come on by referral. Uh, I would say 85% of our new business is referral based because they’re frustrated. They say, Hey, well, who do you use? And they’re like, You know, we do have raving fans. We have people out there that will say, God, you gotta use them.

People change jobs. They go to different companies and they call us and say, I can’t believe they’re not using you. They have to. And then we get a new client. So it is the raving fans that have built our client base quite honestly.

Marshall Atkinson


Shifting gears, if you could go back in time and tell your younger self Traci one tip, that’s going to make a gigantic difference in how your business should run…what are you saying?

Traci Miller

On how my business would run? Okay. I would say find your focus, you know, starting out in this business, I kind of had the shiny object syndrome going on where I, well, I could do this. I can do this. This looks great. Oh, let’s go into schools. Let’s you know, I started off in retail to be honest, I was in retail for five or six years until I discovered the wholesale market and realized that was where I needed to spend my time.

That was my highest and best use of my skills was in that B2B market. And, once I pivoted that’s when the company took off and actually became solid and grew from there.

So I would say, find your focus fast. And, I could, I could say a bunch of stuff to myself.

Honestly. I could say, don’t listen to the naysayers.

You know, people are going to tell you you’re crazy. Don’t listen to them.

Value your time. I undervalued my time a lot in the beginning. Um, you know, that makes you price for profit appropriately when you value your own time. Um, but those are probably the big ones I would say.

Marshall Atkinson

Okay, cool. So, let’s talk a little bit about the help that you’ve had along the way. So, what has really led to your success is hiring, right? Or maybe reading a certain book or attending a show or partnering with a certain supplier?

What do you think has really helped you grow along the way?

Traci Miller

There have been so many people along my journey that have helped. This is definitely not all about me. I’ll say that upfront and wholeheartedly, the success of Color3 has been a team effort from the very beginning.

So, I have surrounded myself with really great mentors along the way and people that I can be honest with and show my vulnerability to.

So I’ve had a few, yeah, great mentors that, brought me through to this point. I still do today. I still, it, every level I get to, I look for another mentor, you know, there’s always.

My biggest fear is I don’t know what I don’t know. And a mentor or coach or consultant or somebody that has that information is the best tool I could ever give myself in all these years.

Team…let’s talk about team Color3.  We would not be the company we are today without the people that make it happen.

And that’s not me. That is everybody that works here. We generally, in all sincerity, work together as a team and everything I do, every decision I make, every risk I take, I weigh in what the risk is for them.

You know, I always say I have 40 mortgages to cover every month at minimum, you know, because they matter, there’s no way this could happen without all of those folks.

And you know, when it comes to hiring, even I hire for fit and train for skill. So we can train just about anybody to run an embroidered machine, minus one particular skill.

I can’t train this one thing, but, um, otherwise if they fit, if they get it, they want to do something better. They want to make people happy. They like quality. They enjoy that, that fast-paced vibe there fit for us.

And when we find them, we keep them. Um, and I’ve been really blessed with that through all the years and, you know, going to things like the ThreadX convention.

I didn’t do a lot of that stuff for a long time. I really kind of dove in, and was in the weeds of my business a lot. And then, um, sales reps would reach out.

Those are the folks I could touch base within the industry. But once I got out of the weeds a little bit and started to network a little bit more, I’ve found such great comradery in this industry.

And, you know, we all learn how to learn off of each other constantly and usually with a great beer in your hand or something, but, you know, you have a great conversation with people and you’re really supporting each other and sharing ideas. And I love that about what we do.

Marshall Atkinson

Yeah, I think, most of the really lot lasting relationships in this industry all started in a bar.

Traci Miller

There’s something to be said about that. Right. You know, or, well, I don’t know. I think I always said this industry made me drink, but, um, I shouldn’t say that out loud. Yeah.

Marshall Atkinson

Well, you don’t have to drink. That’s just where the people are. Right. You’re going to have a Coke, a glass of tea. You just got to show up where they’re at. And that’s usually where people gather,

I’ve actually been known to have a cup of coffee at the bar, actually.

So lastly here, so what trends do you see coming around the corner that you’re really excited about that you’re helping your customers with?

Traci Miller

I think the biggest trend, right now that I see, and I, we see it across all parts of this industry is the online platforms, the sales that are happening through stores.

I’ve seen so many great software companies doing great things, building those stores. And for us on the wholesale side of things, you know, our challenge and our trend that we’re working through is how do we service those stores so that you get the fast deliveries and you get people what they need on time, every time.

Um, but truly, I think it’s the online market that’s really booming the most. Uh, and the other piece is the fundraising side. I don’t know if you’ve, you’ve probably noticed though, especially all the. COVID situation. There’s been tons and tons of community support through the fundraising efforts that have happened.

Marshall Atkinson

So I don’t see that going away anytime soon. I think it might be the one thing, you know, people’s favorite t-shirt or hat that can bond a community together. And, uh, I think those trends are continuing.

And the one thing I think a lot of people forget is that apparel shows your personality. Shows you’re, it’s a billboard, right?

So that hat that you’re wearing, that shirt that you’re wearing, uh, the workwear that we wear, uh, while we work, really shows off what you’re doing. And I think that, uh, you know, especially for, so combining that with an online store for selling things, right, I think we need to keep in mind just how important the apparel game is for everybody’s well being and how, what they think about themselves.

And so, you know, so a lot of apparel, uh, is for branding. And so we look good, we look more professional or a, it makes us happy. It evokes an emotional experience. It shows that I like this band or this team, or, um, I participated in this event or I won this award or whatever it is.

And that’s all tied to emotions. And, and so if we think about things from an apparel decorator point of view, you know, a lot of times we’re all always just focused on getting that order out the door. And we don’t think about the end-user as much, but when somebody is getting that shirt, that’s making them feel better about their job.

That’s making them feel better about their vacation or the early super happy, or they won that award because they’ve been a safe manufacturing plant for the last year or whatever. Right. And so this is what we, as apparel decorators provide the world. And I know it’s. It’s kind of sappy.

Traci Miller

You know, but it isn’t, I mean, even in our side of it with the wholesale piece of it, if there’s a question about quality because it goes through the quality check, you know, somebody will say, Hey, is this good enough?

I’m like, would you wear it? Would you wear that and be proud to wear that? And if the answer is no, then it’s not good enough.

You know, because every shirt, I don’t care if we make 500, 1,000, 10,000, but it gets worn by one person.

So each shirt is an individual piece that is worn, enjoyed, loved very much.  People are proud to have it.

So what if they get that one shirt that looks like crap? Like you don’t want that shirt out there. It’s one piece at a 500 that could ruin when somebody say or make somebody’s day.

So you have to be mindful of that as you’re producing. And, um, I love that connection to people, honestly, Marshall, when you talk about that, that ability to make someone’s day through a shirt, hat, whatever it is, um, there’s an emotional attachment to that and a feel-good that happens.

And, um, we love doing that.

Marshall Atkinson

Great. And how involved are you with. Your customers and creating the artwork or, uh, do you do your own digitizing? Do you do multimedia where you’re trying to do new things with printing and embroidery or application? Or what do you guys do there at Color3?

Traci Miller

Sure. On the whole, since we’re on the back end of it, we don’t do a lot of creating art. Um, usually by the time it gets to us, everything’s been predetermined where I get to be creative is in the solutions to a product they want to use. So, you know, we do the embroidery, we also do screen print. We also do laser etching apparel.

So we’ve been able to do some combination pieces that are just really cool and unique.

Especially when they’re doing programs online like corporate programs, you see all the left chest polos, my God, how many millions of those are out every year? Right?

Well, in our corporate programs, we can also offer up, you know, the dry-fit shirt with the laser-etched design, going down the sleeve overseas, over zippers, and really funky spots that you can’t get to any other way.

So we tried, that’s where it gets to be. Creative is how we can. Provide that solution of taking the company brand, spreading it out over multiple pieces and doing something unique, you know, the laser stuff’s kind of awesome. Um, it just lets you do some really funky things that you can’t do with embroidery or even screenprint with some limitations there.

Marshall Atkinson

Alright. Cool. Well, Hey, thanks, Traci. For this fantastic look into what makes Color3 so special and how you’re earning your client’s trust. I appreciate you being so open with us today.

Traci Miller

Thanks for having me, Marshall. This was fun.

Marshall Atkinson

Yeah. So for anyone that wants to get in touch with you or learn more about what Color 3 does and how you can help them for their next apparel program, what’s the best way for them to get in touch with you?

Traci Miller

The best way to get us is to email us at info@colorthree.com. And that is. C O L O R number three, dot com. And then there’s six, seven people that will respond to that very fast

Marshall Atkinson

All at the same time?

Traci Miller

All at the same time. They’re all on it.

Marshall Atkinson

Alright, well, great. All right, well, thank you so much, Traci. You’ve been great.


Traci Miller

Thanks. Thank you very much. I appreciate it.

Oct 14, 2020