Problem sewing contractor

From my mail:

I’ve learned from you and the forum that I have to be careful what I say to sewing contractors and others, because “everyone knows everyone.” So how do I tell this guy, ‘send me back my fabric, samples and materials or tell me when I should pick them up’ without hurting my own business? Am I suppose to act nice, or tell him how unprofessional I think he is? do I call or send an email? I am very very upset.

There’s some history from the forum. She’d written previously:

I had a meeting with a local sewing contractor back in mid November, and they said they would make samples for me to see how they should price production. I sent the requested fabric, trim, etc. and some sample product. I knew the Christmas rush was coming up, so I didn’t bug them before the holidays, but after the new year got here, I called and the supervisor said that he would do it “soon, I promise.”

We’re coming up to the end of the third week of the new year. Should I bug him again? Is it typical for sewing contractors to take their time with samples, or should I call once a week until they actually give my samples a go? Is this a sign of the kind of service I should expect from this company, or is this typical because they are so busy with other current customers?

She followed up on 22 Jan 2008 with:

Well, I just got off the phone with the sewing contractor. “Oh, just by chance, we are doing your samples today!” He was also sort of hinting to me that he’d like me to commit to a run because he has some employees he might need to lay off if he doesn’t have my job.

I know that I’m the naive one here, and it’s probably a pain in the butt for him to deal with people who are new and don’t have a history of this level of production, and I know I’m vague with some numbers because I can’t get solid order numbers before I have product, and I can’t commit to product before I have numbers. I felt pressured to commit to something when I don’t even know if they can do a good job on making my product.

Maybe I’ve just got a bad attitude because of the long delay. I almost told him, never mind, send me back my fabric. But he’s doing the samples, he said, so I’ll see what happens.

Is it common for sewing contractors to voluntarily make samples, or do you usually have to pay for them? He just asked for fabric and said he would make them, gratis. Does that give him the right to do it on his own time, months after asking for the fabric?

Apparently the contractor hadn’t made the samples as he said he had since she emailed me Friday with more of the same. Frankly, I’m at a loss in these matters. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a variation of this story chapter and verse. Do you have any ideas? Have you employed any successful strategies to get your contractors into compliance? Alternatively, if you’ve been in this spot before, explain how you feel that a contractor can make things right with you in the event of delayed sample or work delivery. Thanks!

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  1. Mary Beth says:

    Gratis samples…hmmmm, seems that the job of doing the run is all “sewn up” and this is the contractor that will be getting the job? There is no competition? OK. Where did that idea come from?
    A manufacturer just might finish existing orders before doing free samples and that just might take 2 to 3 months. So the time is now to do the samples, and a quick visit to discuss the results is in order. Would a visit be possible? It would be better to meet face to face to work out strategy and timing. In that meeting you can make your deadlines very firm. And possibly even work out pricing based upon the dealines.
    I wouldn’t “pull” the work because of a delay in free samples. But that’s my take on it as a sewing contractor.

  2. I’m shocked – and amazed.

    I used to do custom sewing for museums and re-enactors, often taking on the jobs that others wouldn’t or couldn’t, and one where 2 previous contractors had kept the deposit and done nothing before handing back the materials!

    I would be emabarrassed beyond belief to treat a customer that way. If I had a problem or delay, I was on the phone letting them know before they called me. How do contractors stay in business with customer relations like this??

  3. So if I understand correctly, the contractor is dragging his heels on bidding on a contract?

    I would be tempted to say that if the samples weren’t ready by X date that I would have to assume that the contractor wasn’t that interested in the bid after all, and what time would it be convenient for me to pick up the materials and take them to another contractor/bidder?

    It’s quite usual/normal for people to say what they think you want to hear (or what they wish were true) even if it isn’t exactly true, but in this case you aren’t looking for usual/normal. You are looking for reliable and professional, which unfortunately aren’t always the same thing. To tell the difference, when you drop off the materials, you have to *ask when you will see the samples.* Someone who promises tomorrow and delivers in a month is not who you want. Someone who promises in a month and delivers in three weeks, is.

    You can’t just drop things off and then try to guess when you are supposed to expect them back. You have to ask them to set a date. A date far in the future is not fun, but if that’s what’s realistic you need to know that. What you are looking for is someone who can commit to a date and meet their commitment. Otherwise you can’t plan.

  4. Alexzandra says:

    I really like Alison’s comment and think it’s helpful. It’s nice that he’s willing to work gratis (which isn’t usual in my experiences), but he still has to show that he’s reliable and does good work.

    Also, I would not commit to a run with him until you have Salesman’s samples, costs/pricing, and orders, so that you know exactly how much of what to have made. Kathleen discuses this in her book. Take your orders, then produce the product. Don’t make anything that you don’t know you can sell.

    Good luck, I hope that things work out, even if you have to go with someone else.

  5. Jess Latham says:

    Free samples or not, if someone says they are working on the samples and then you find out later they haven’t been that’s a deal breaker for me and I would go elsewhere. You’re getting the runaround now so why would you expect anything different in the future?

  6. Audra says:

    I would move on. What’s that quote? “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” (Just Googled, and it’s an Oprah quote.) Nobody’s perfect, but if this is a chronic issue of missed due dates and poor communication — I would definitely look elsewhere.

    Regarding Kathleen’s discussion questions… I think it’s much easier to keep looking for a contractor that will work *with* you, rather than trying to make someone comply. I have been in this spot before, and the only way that a contractor can make things right is with good communication. Sometimes it’s okay if work is late — I won’t be thrilled about it, but I understand that things happen — and I need to know to plan accordingly. We had discussions with a sewing contractor, and eventually got samples back — but decided not to work with them (even though their pricing was very attractive) because of the missed deadlines and lack of communication.

  7. Suzie says:

    It is so hard to find competant contractors. I have had nightmare after nightmare with contractors. I was in the same situation as you and not knowing the standard practice of the industry. I gave my first contractor $5000.00 to start production, 6 months later I was still waiting for samples. I eventually had to walk away with losing the deposit and he had also lost most of my patterns never mind the $7.000 worth of fabric that was sitting there that I was paying interest on. I had to start all over again.

    I would demand a date and if it’s not ready by then you should walk. Also anthor word of advice is even if the sample looks up to your standard you need to go in during production and see your work.I have found more often than not that the sample looks good but production is not up to par.

    It has been a really long haul for me to find the right suppliers that deliver the standard that is required to make my brand successful. Slowly but surely I’m getting the right ppl on the bus.

    Good Luck and hang in there.

  8. Johnny says:

    Shop around till you find a more reliable contractor. At the very least he should inform you the moment he suspects that he can’t make it in time for the deadline.

  9. J C Sprowls says:

    I agree with Suzie re: sewing quality. I began working with a new client whose original samples were beautifully sewn despite the fact that the patterns were horrible. I don’t know what magic the sample stitcher was able to do at the sewing desk; but, s/he did an excellent job.

    This client’s subsequent “orders” – and I use that term loosely – were atrocious. Looking at the patterns, I understand how issues were introduced to the floor (i.e. collar too short/narrow for the opening, etc.)

    The point being that samples are typically done by the best stitchers in the plant who have unlimited time compared to the production stitchers. Sample stitcher have the opportunity to compensate for defects. Production is another world, entirely: i.e. lowest common denominator, weakest link, high turnover, etc.

    I’m on the fence re: how soon to walk. A missed deadline here or there – especially under extreme duress – I don’t consider to be a dealbreaker. Some do feel that way; and as long as you’re paying the bill, that’s your call.

    I think it depends on how issues are handled. We all make mistakes and missteps – hopefully there are fewer as we mature. But, if someone refuses to learn from their mistakes or refuses to make good on their commitments/quality/etc., that’s what speaks volumes to me. Those are also the reasons that compel me walk.

    That said, in the case of this article, the issue is obviously much deeper than juggling around receiving the goods. This contractor – at least according to the author – didn’t even open the box her sample supplies are in.

    It did take a while for this Sponsor to feel comfortable asserting herself. But, I think she summed up her decision, perfectly: “I need to be just as important as every other client”. To me, that’s the perfect reason to walk.

  10. alexa says:

    Also, I find that I really need to be on top of the contractors. I call them a lot to double check when the samples will be ready, when the samples will be shipped. Etc. They don’t seem to mind. In fact, they are probably so busy that it’s a nice reminder. But if you feel you can’t work well with this contractor, find a new one. Maybe test a few at once to determine who is best.

  11. Bethany says:

    Guys, this is a business and you have to treat it like one and frankly, your biggest job is not designing, is not sourcing, it isn’t even finding funding- it is managing and then secondly marketing. You have to manage your time, your resources, your money and your people. You have to be proactive and make sure that your workers are hitting deadlines. Personally I think everyone who is having problems with their contractors should go out and buy Managing For Dummies and then The One Minute Manager. These books will teach you how to help your workers create goals for themselves and help empower your employees (including yourself) into making decisions and problems solving. It will also help you understand that you need to supervise your employee’s work. And contractors are basically your employees. They work on incentives- usually to get paid, and when I read about people giving their contractors thousands of dollars before the work is even started, I just shake my head. You know what those contractors think when someone hands them five grand? A sucker newbie they just made 5 grand off of.

    Look, contractors need to be your best friend. You need to develop relationships with them. You should learn if they are married, if they have children, where they live, how they live, what kind of car they drive, what are their hopes and dreams, and them help them achieve those dreams. These could be people you work closely with for years, why wouldn’t you want to develop a relationship?

    You also need to realize that these contractors have a way of doing things and you need to learn what that process is. Kathleen’s book outlines the way things should be done, but each contractor is different. My first contractor was totally cool with me dropping things off in drips and drabs because I was their smallest client and they would get my stuff done in between other customer’s orders. My new contractor works pretty much the opposite way: she wants everything completely in order before she will even touch the work. It was tough learning a new way to schedule to my samples and production, but I am the better person for it because now we are starting to work much more quickly and smoothly.

    So come on people, do your research, read Kathleen’s book, and manage your people wisely. And if you are having problems with a contractor, please, nip it in the bud. TALK to the contractor, find out what the problem is, and then fix it. Set a dead line and if they miss it, find out why. If it seems legit, set a new one and if they miss it again, walk. And please, don’t pay them until you have the garments and you have inspected them. Good luck.

  12. Suzanne says:

    It doesn’t sound like this contractor wants your business very much. There could be many reasons for this. Are you completely professional and have all your ducks in a row and have the book down so you know what you are talking about? Or maybe they are just too busy and don’t want your work. I would walk from a contractor who couldn’t be bothered to get samples done for me. I would rather have them on time in a week and pay for them (and samples do not cost very much) than have them promised for free and not done at all. Find out what the issue is. Find out what they want from you and the DATE they can have x things done. There is no shame in setting dates. It’s the way it’s done.

  13. Ragga Katla says:

    I’m with Mary Beth on this one. I would be skeptical of anyone who offered to do a sample run for free. It would be a huge red flag for me. I also suspect that a lot of contractors make it a policy to never say no to a project, which likely can cause a domino effect of late deliveries. So if I was shopping around for a contractor I would sneak in a question whether they ever turned down projects and base my decision in a large part on the answer. Like so many others here I would also ask for a clear deadline. Don’t be afraid to get tough if someone is way passed their deadline and dont wait too long to inquire on your order. Finally I’m also a huge fan of backup plans, if its possible I would have another contractor lined up if the one you’re using doesn’t work out.

  14. Beverly says:

    I’ve worked in the garment industry now going on 35 years and I can say nothing is for free, even if the contractor says they’ll do it for free. In the various companies I’ve worked for the contract established with the contractor is that the developement samples are done at no charge and if they get the order, the cost to do the development & sewing of the samples is amortized in the FOB price across the full order. So it may add a few cents onto the per piece price of the garment. If the contractor does not get the order, then it is acceptable for the contractor to charge for the work they did.
    You definitely need to set deadlines…. If made locally samples should be completed within 1 – 2 weeks of placing the sample order and if the samples are done overseas then 4 weeks is usually the norm.

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