The curveball technique: how to find out more about your print suppliers

Have you ever been stuck for an answer in a job interview?

Chances are that at this point you had nothing prepared for an answer.  You felt stuck.  And that meant that you started talking about yourself very openly.  After all, you had no pre-prepared information to fall back on.

The interviewer found out exactly how you were.

This is a technique that is used fairly commonly in job interviews.  I heard it called various things.  My favourite name for it is the curveball technique.

The curveball technique is also a very useful technique for people evaluating print suppliers

Print companies need to be asked searching questions by buyers

Print companies need to be asked searching questions by buyers

Buyers who ask curveball questions are more likely to end up with print suppliers that they can trust.  They are more likely to get a sense of the true culture of the company.  And they are more likely to uncover any problems.  These buyers will remain in better control of their supply chain.  The will have a better chance of having their supplier achieve what is required.

Buyers who stick to standard questions only may have nasty surprises from their suppliers at a later date.  Suppliers are well practised in answering standard questions.  It’s only when they are asked unusual questions that their true company culture comes out.  So buyers who avoid these questions may not discover what a prospective print company is really like.

So what sort of curveball questions should you ask?

This will depend on your exact requirements as a buyer.  However, you should always try and throw in at least one curveball question.

Here are three that I regularly use.

What is your staff turnover?

This may seem an odd question to ask.  Does it really matter what the staff turnover is?

Staff turnover can be a very useful indicator of what the company culture is like.  The average staff turnover at most companies is about 12-13% a year.  If lots of people are regularly leaving a company it suggests that there is a problem.  Staff clearly do not like working there.  This is usually not just an indicator of low pay.  Many staff will continue to work at a company that they like despite low pay.

A very low staff turnover can also suggest a problem.  If nobody leaves, then few people are recruited by a company.  That means that people with new ides are not joining.  A company can become very set in its ways.

However, this is not the only way to look at a company culture.  Here is another question that reveals a lot in this area.

Can you show me an example of your quality control paperwork?

Most print companies claim that they have excellent quality control.  However, it can sometimes be a different story when they are asked to prove it.  Rather than rely on what I am told, I like to see actual examples of the quality control in action.

This is a great question to ask on a factory tour.  I like to point out a random job and ask to see the quality control paperwork connected with it.  This has allowed me to see which companies really practise quality control.  It’s allowed me to see which companies merely talk about it.

This question has caused embarrassment at a factory more than a few times.  Here’s another question that can cause red faces.

What training do you give your staff?

This question allows you to see if a company really does invest in its staff.  Or does it just expect people to work as hard as possible.

Some buyers may say that there is no problem with a lack of training.  However, a print company without training may not come up with the most inventive solutions for its customers.  It may also not be fully compliant with safety law.

I find these three questions tell me more about a company than their answers may suggest.  Some buyers are not so convinced by these questions.

Isn’t this taking evaluation too far?

Some buyers prefer to rely on gut feel to evaluate a factory.  The trouble is that gut feel is not enough.  It can be influenced by how well you get on with an individual.  That can lead to you being too generous to a company.  Or to not giving a company enough of a chance.

However, the questions do need to be managed in the right way.

Make sure you put the answers into context

You need to understand a company’s situation to evaluate the answers fairly.  For instance a company may have an unusually high staff turnover if it is dealing with seasonal work.  Other reasons include a competitor recruiting or a change in production equipment.

Once you take these factors into account, the answers to these questions can still provide powerful information.

Here are three action points t get you started with your questioning

  1. Arrange a meeting with your three most important print suppliers
  2. Make sure you ask the three questions during the meeting
  3. Discuss the answers with a colleague after the meeting

Remember that difficult job interview?

That’s just how you want your printer to feel.
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