15 Ways to Find New Apparel Decoration Customers

Finding new customers starts with business planning and effective marketing strategies

How to find customers (aka marketing) is the second most discussed subject we cover with NNEP members and apparel decoration business owners on a daily basis. Many embroiderers and apparel decorators are not sure where or how to find customers. Many new business owners guess about what kinds of marketing will work for them, or even worse, do no marketing at all, yet they hope for the best — that their business will take off. Here I will cover ways to market your business that you can do, afford, and that work!

My goal today is to help you make the mental shift, if necessary, from thinking of yourself as an embroiderer or apparel decorator to thinking of yourself as an entrepreneur and a business owner. This is important because our industry is populated by three kinds of people: producers, sellers, and entrepreneurs —and the entrepreneurs are the ones that are profitable. I want you to be in the third group! And getting into that last group, the entrepreneurs, is totally within your abilities and your control.


Ask yourself the following questions:

  • Do you want a business that makes no income?
  • Do you want a business that makes a little bit of income?
  • Do you want a business that replaces an existing income?
  • Do you want a business that makes a lot of income? How much is a lot? $25,000? $100,000? $1 million? What is your “big sexy number?” Write this number down somewhere where you will see it every single day. “I want my business to bring in $______!”

As it has often been said, when you fail to plan, you plan to fail. That is especially true for independent business owners. We get so busy doing the “work” of filling orders that we overlook the importance of building a solid foundation for our business. Today, we are going to think about exactly that — the foundation upon which we are building our dream businesses. We need to set aside time to work on our businesses, not just in them.

Without a plan and a big picture view of our company, it is really challenging to achieve that objective! I have learned, after helping thousands of business owners, that success is possible when you step back, fly high, and look at your business, often from an angle and from a higher elevation. In order to see the terrain of your business and where you want to go, you need to view it from 40,000 feet and see what is going on within your company, your market, and this industry. Then you need to take what you see and build that into a marketing plan that will take you where you want to go. This plan becomes your roadmap. Without a map, how do you know where you are going? More importantly, how do you know when and if you get there?

I’m going to give you marketing strategies that you can begin using immediately. They are not expensive. They are not tricky. That being said, they are not easy either. Doing any of these strategies will require that you think, and then you have to act; you need to actually do something in order to benefit from them.

It all starts with marketing because marketing is the first step that then leads to sales. Marketing produces contacts, contacts become prospects, and finally, prospects become customers.

What is marketing?

Marketing is one of those fuzzy words — even for me, and I have training and years of experience in it. What does it actually mean? Marketing is the action or business of promoting and selling products or services. How to bring your marketing plan to life — that is where things get interesting. Think about your marketing objectives as real conversations that have a life cycle of their own. Once you know the flow of these conversations and what to do at each stage of the conversation, you will move forward!

As apparel decorators and embroiderers, we are doing so much more than providing products with logos and designs on them.

  • You are a key part of your customer’s marketing team
  • You are part of their branding
  • You are a problem solver and solution provider
  • You help them build community
  • You help them create unity
  • And you do all of this through the logoed apparel and products you provide

So, are you beginning to see what I mean about changing how you think about marketing and your role as an entrepreneur? When you think like this — that you are a branding partner — you are thinking like an entrepreneur. When you think that you need to make 48 shirts today, you are thinking like a producer, a doer.

Both kinds of thinking are necessary for your business, especially if you are an army of one!

The key to your success lies in the fact that you have to take active control over your time and determine how you make the most money. Then you have to make sure that at least 50% of your working time, every week, is spent on that task. In addition, there are only two ways you make money as an apparel decorator – either your jaw is moving up and down as you are communicating with customers, or your machine’s needles are going up and down as you produce orders!

Think of your marketing from the perspective of what your business is about. Successful companies are “up to something,” and they are very clear about what that is. FedEx is committed to getting packages there overnight. What are you committed to? Write it down right now.

Marketing strategies to find new apparel decoration customers

I promised you real strategies that you can execute to grow your business. Here are 15 strategies that I think you could use this year and have dramatic results. It does not matter if you have a storefront, operate from your home, or have a huge commercial operation. Do these things, and you will see growth! Remember, when you plan to work on your business and not just in it, you will see growth! Your goal is to get specific and transform these ideas into actions.

1. Do your homework

“Marketing research” is a meaningless phrase to many business owners. Or people assume that only big companies do market research. Let’s make it relevant to your business with three simple questions:

  1. What is the average dollar amount of your orders?
  2. How much do your customers spend with you annually, on average?
  3. How often do your customers place an order with you?

With the answers to these three simple questions, you can then determine the dollar value of every customer and every sale. If your average order from a trades business owner (plumber, builder, painter, electrician) is $250, and they place orders three times a year, it makes sense that each of these kinds of customers is worth $750 per year. If your “onesie” and gift customers spend about $50 once a year, clearly, these customers are worth $50 per year each.

Which group of customers do you want to get more of, gift and onesie customers or tradespeople? Go back through your past years’ sales. Take the time to do the research to understand your customers. What groups become evident? What are their average sales? How often did they place an order? Do you see any spikes in activity based on something you did — such as a mailing, a networking event, or a show? You will see patterns emerge that will help you target more customers like the ones that are making you the best income. Once you know who they are, it becomes much easier to find more like them!

By looking back over the past several months of orders, patterns will emerge that will help you know where to invest your marketing time, money, and effort so that you can attract more customers like your best groups of customers. High turnover industries equal ideal customers — such as restaurants, labor, construction, and landscapers.

2. Replicate your top five

Grab your pen — right now — and write down the name of your top five customers, jobs, or orders. If you are struggling to name five, you may be fairly new or a small business, and that is OK! Write down at least one person or job.

My question to you is this: Would you like five, 10, 20, or 50 more just like them? First, why did you write them down? Are they nice? Are they easy to work with? Do they pay on time? Does their design sew well? Was that order profitable, or really profitable? What is it about them or that order that made them top five worthy? Ideally, you picked a customer or job that provided a healthy profit for you.

Now evaluate these top customers. What industry are they in? What was the order size? How can you connect with other customers that have some similarities to these top five? Market to companies and customers that have parallels to your top five customers, and you will bring more top five type work to your business. Why market to people that are like your worst nightmare customers? Stop marketing to them completely! If they walk in, sure take the work. However, 100% of your marketing messages, efforts, and money should be going out towards the top five candidates!

3. Your B.E.L

Look at your Before, Embroidery (or another decoration process), and Life to see if you have hidden opportunities. What are you interested in? With what groups are you connected, maybe even have some sway? For example, I should not sell to horse farms, as I know nothing about horses. Sell into groups where you have involvement and knowledge!

4. Business cards

Dollar for dollar, this is the best money you can spend to share the key basics about your business with anyone, anytime, and anywhere. Always include your full phone number (including the area code) and your postal zip code. On the back of the card, add a coupon, lines for notes, or even your favorite quote.

5. Sexy sells

The machines we use to put logos and designs on products are sexy — they are fun to watch in action. Showing a machine going is one of our greatest marketing assets. When people see the machine running, they often become enchanted enough to buy something that was done on it. Harness that power, as it is likely that they will continue to buy from you well after the initial event.

Shoot 20 to 30 seconds of video of an order being created. Include this video as an attachment the next time you email that customer or when you send them their invoice. It is highly likely that they will share that video with the people they work with, their family, and their friends! You can also post these short videos on your social media accounts.

6. Enthusiasm is contagious

When you are given the opportunity to talk about your business, be prepared to briefly explain what you do in a catchy, enthusiastic manner. If you can barely manage to say you embroider on jackets for companies, you will probably lose the interest of the person rather quickly. If you come up with a quick, memorable answer, you may open the door for a conversation about what you do and how you can help them, leading to the opportunity to do business with them in the near future.

Over the years, I have used countless answers to the question, “So, what do you do?” Some have been more effective than others. The answers have ranged from:

  • “I am a logo specialist, putting your name where it counts.”
  • “I am the jacket lady here in town; we make the school jackets.”
  • “We put logos on everything, from boxers to briefcases!”
  • “We get our customers dressed in the morning.”

Take the time to develop your answer and to practice it — so that the next time someone asks you about yourself or your business, you are comfortable opening the door to that conversation and that potential customer.

Stop saying you do embroidery! Or worse, that you are an embroiderer-er! People do not know what “doing embroidery” means, and it creates a mental image of a granny, in a rocker, doing something with her hands. That is not the image you want them to have in their head about you and your business!

7. Contests

Contests are a fun way to attract the attention of new customers. Embroidery lends itself very well to a contest format, “Guess how many stitches are in this design?” Run an ad in the local paper with a printed version of the design, and invite the public to stop in to see the actual embroidered sample. Offer the winner a free jacket, shirt, sweater, or sweatshirt with a stock design of their choice. For the cost of the ads, one shirt, and one stock design, you could attract a large number of new faces to your business.

Make the contest fun, even a bit wacky, and be sure to really talk it up around town. Post flyers on the bulletin boards at the grocery stores, laundromats, libraries, and everywhere else you are allowed. If you can get a buzz going around town about your contest, then this effort is working. Plus, you should be able to get some free publicity at the end of the contest. You could even get the local paper to run a photo of the contest winner holding or wearing their winning item, along with the answer to the contest in the accompanying blurb. Begin an annual tradition, and you might be able to create a phenomenon that will work year after year.

8. Ask for referrals, reviews, and testimonials

When you ask for a referral, be sincere and direct. Many folks are intimidated when they even think about asking for referrals. If done correctly, the customer will be flattered that you asked and will volunteer names without hesitation.

The secret to asking for referrals is in how you present the idea. When a customer picks up a job and is thrilled with your work, that is a prime opportunity to gently ask for referrals. Make sure you are prepared with a pen and paper to collect or dig up all the information you will need to follow up. Ask for permission to use the name of the person that gave you the referral, and then be sure to follow up on the leads you receive.

You can also say something like, “I’m glad that you’re pleased with my work. I’d really appreciate it if you’d pass my name along to anyone else you know who would be interested in custom apparel and products. May I leave these extra business cards with you?” Leaving extra business cards with them makes it easier for them to pass your name and contact information to someone else. In addition, capitalize on past customers by asking them to review your business online or let you quote them in a testimonial. Always ask permission for “bragging rights” before bragging and before using images of their designs in printed materials.

9. Create a visual portfolio of samples

In many fields, professionals are hired based on the quality of their portfolios. For some reason, our industry does not seem to get this concept. Make a very high-end portfolio of samples so that your work can speak for you. Do not toss some random scraps or printed shirts in your bag. Take the time to create a portfolio, all on the same material, with designs cut out to the same size. Ideally, you would also include a testimonial from that same company on their letterhead or a copy of an email they sent you. A professional portfolio creates a professional image of your company. If a picture is worth 1,000 words, well-presented samples are priceless.

10. Be your own best marketing

Wear your best work on your personal time. I have lost count of how many business cards I have handed out at the grocery store, waiting in line at the dry cleaners, and sitting on the sidelines at our kids’ school events. I am always wearing bold, splashy apparel that I made around town. I have a stack of sweatshirts for the spring and fall that are the bulk of my weekend wardrobe. Make sure you and your family are wearing your work whenever it is appropriate. In addition, take the time to make it good — designs and products that will be noticed! Even when my kids were four years old, they could say, “Mommy did it — ask her!” It is the perfect setup to offer the interested person a business card and the invitation to stop by so I can show them what I can make just for them.

This is a key phrase — nowhere is the word sales, selling, embroidery, or screen printing! And a lot of these folks have stopped by and become long-time customers simply because I was so casual and sincere in my invitation. One lady told me she simply was so curious to see what else I could make that she stopped in the next week and made the trip specifically to come to my business as she lived on the other side of town. My husband always had cards in his wallet and needed to refill his supply frequently.

One of my favorite stories is about a passenger seated next to an embroidery business owner on a flight. The other passenger was a very athletic, macho New York City police officer. “So what do you do for a living?” he asked my friend, Jim. Jim replied, “Embroidery.” The officer leaned away from Jim and gave him an incredulous look. Jim quickly pointed to his shirt (embroidered, of course) and said, “We do logos like this.” Then it began to dawn on the officer what embroidery was all about. Next, Jim pointed out the fact that the officer was wearing a Yankees cap, Nike shorts, and a country club golf shirt — all of which were embroidered.

By then, he fully understood what it was that Jim did. Furthermore, he wanted to know more about Jim’s business and became a potential customer very quickly. Never discount the importance of wearing decorated apparel in public, especially your own logo. Always look for that extra edge in the marketing game.

11. Garment care hang tags/stickers

When your customer places an order for shirts for their business, they know where these shirts come from, but do their employees know? On the front of the hang tag, put washing and drying instructions. On the back of the tag, include your logo, phone, and website information.

12. Internet presence

If your business cannot be found on someone’s smartphone, you do not exist. You must have a web presence — and that does not necessarily mean a website. Get at least a Facebook business page. Tell stories, show photos, and share videos on it. It is not a salesperson for your business; it is a marketing tool! Many first impressions are a digital experience, and more and more, it is a mobile digital experience.

13. Cohesive and comprehensive

Everything that your customers see, touch, read, and experience in relation to your business is a marketing opportunity. Boxes, invoices, catalogs, actual products, vehicles, quotes, and how you answer the phone should all be giving the same impression about your company. Big brands invest massive amounts of money into creating and then protecting their brands, logos, and colors for a reason — they are at the heart of that company’s value!

Stop creating or distributing “marketing junk!” Marketing junk is all the advertisements, websites, brochures, Facebook posts, and blog posts you created because it seemed like a good idea at the time. It is anything you wrote quickly, without much thought or focus, because you were too rushed or too broke to hire a professional. Marketing junk is the stuff that looks like it could belong to any of your competitors.

Here’s a good way to remember this strategy: think like a non-profit. By that, I mean to think like the Grand Canyon National Park. They can rest pretty darn peacefully knowing that a new grand canyon is not going to open up just down the road, right? Your competition is real. We can’t pretend they do not exist. What you can do is adjust how people see you with information and images that go outside of the expected. If everyone brags about how fast they are, tout your delivery service. If your competition is all about price, focus on quality and product selection. If your competition is known to be slow with delivery or missing deadlines, pump your messages out on time, every time.

14. Know your competition

What do people say about the other apparel decoration businesses in your area? Are they expensive or inexpensive? Hard to get in touch with? Miss their deadlines? Make your business’s marketing message a specific counterpoint to the businesses around you. The objective of marketing is to make it easy for someone to recall your business right when they have a need that you can meet. Create a message that has “mental peanut butter” so you stick to the top of their brains!

15. Employee data tracking, bagging, and invoicing

Make it easy for your customers with multiple employees to do business with you. Set up a basic spreadsheet for that customer and track what sizes each employee ordered of specific items. When it is time for the company to place another order, give them a copy of the list of employees with the items and sizes already filled in. Create a custom order form with a due date that can be handed out with payroll or posted in the lunch area. When the job is finished, sort the products by employees, bag them, and label each bag with the employee’s name. This level of customer service is unusual, so much so that it is likely that they will tell other people about it.

Here’s the thing — your real competition is not what you think it is! Believe it or not, your competition is not the other businesses that sell decorated apparel in your area!

Your potential customer has a finite amount of money, and they have an infinite number of things they need to spend it on — from a new copier at their business to a new roof to their child’s wedding to new tires because some of theirs are bald. These completely unrelated needs are your real competition! Your goal is to be visible to them when they need to solve a challenge with logoed and decorated apparel moves to the top of their priority list — that is when your marketing pays off.

Going forward

No matter what approach you take to build your business and attract new customers, keep in mind that you should fine-tune each effort on a small scale before investing in that effort on a larger scale. Also, remember to let each effort have a fair shot at working before you abandon it. Most importantly, remember that unless the person has a need for your decorated apparel at that exact moment that they are seeing your message, it doesn’t matter anyway. So, keep your company visible and accessible so that when the customer does have a need, you are already in place in their mind.

jennifer cox

Jennifer Cox

Jennifer Cox is one of the founders and serves as president of the National Network of Embroidery Professionals (NNEP), an organization that supports embroidery and apparel decoration professionals with programs and services designed to increase profitability and production.

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