Custom Order Work - Is it for you?
“I love your work, but can you do it half the size with twice the detail in another color with a different material…..oh, and I need it by tomorrow!” Maybe your conversations with your custom order customers don’t go exactly like this one, but sometimes it can feel just as overwhelming when working with special orders! While they can be overwhelming, special order work can also be a wonderful new market to tap into…so, are you ready? Before you dive into custom order work there are a few things that you really should consider. By doing your research and planning properly you can make your new customers happy without driving yourself over the edge.
First item to consider is if you are even willing to do custom work and in order to do this you have to be honest with yourself. Are you the type of artist that likes to work at your own pace and more free form, without a set plan? If so, be proud of that, but custom work may not be for you. A customer has certain expectations and if deadlines stress you out, you are not going to enjoy the process. Better for you to be honest with yourself and not take on a job that is going to take the joy out of your artistic endeavor. If you are able to work on a timeline and within sometimes tight design constraints then move on to the rest of the requirements.
How are your communication skills? There are many times that a customer has a vision for the piece that they are looking to buy but may not be able to put that vision into words. As an artist myself, I specialize in custom wedding items and there are few customers more demanding than brides (which makes perfect sense since many have been planning their weddings since they were little girls!). They have very specific visions for their big day. Your job, as an artist willing to take on custom clients, is to help your customer put their ideas into a workable plan. You have to be willing to explain what you are hearing in great detail to be sure that the two of you are on the same page. Even when a customer says that they trust your judgment, they still will have certain expectations and it is your job to bring it to life. In order to make this happen you may be required to email multiple times over the course of days or even weeks before you come to an understanding. This time must be factored into your final price, but more on that later.
Now that you have figured out what it is that your customer is looking for you have to set a price. This, in the case of custom work, is so much more involved than your traditional stock pieces. You may have to order special materials that you normally do not carry or put aside other projects. You must also factor in your research time as well as the time spent communicating in the beginning. While you may not charge your traditional hourly rate for this time, you still cannot work for free. Take a realistic look at the time spent from beginning to end as well as any special materials and factor this into your final quote.
Sit down and realistically set down your terms. I’ve often seen artists in various forums complaining that a special order fell through for one reason or another and they have already ordered and used the supplies purchased for that order. This very situation happened to a friend of mine who is now the owner of over 500 pink and blue glass beads that do not fit into her normal work style. My suggestion would be to always get a deposit of at least 50%. This deposit should cover the cost of any materials you must order and use as well as some of your time spent with the customer. At the very least, you should not lose money on your deal. The customer should be very aware that the deposit is nonrefundable should the order fall through. It is best to have this acknowledgment in writing. We all want to believe the best of people, but the reality is that life happens. You must protect yourself in the event that the order is not completed and paid in full.
In addition to a deposit, you may consider a return, or non-return, policy. Much of my wedding work is customized with names and dates. Since this is not an item that I can turn around and sell to another customer I must cover myself. Depending on your medium, if the work can be sold to another, then you may choose to accept returns where if the item cannot be resold, you must make the customer aware that after the process is started returns are not an option for them. Obviously this policy will depend on your business and must be made very clear from the start.
Finally, be honest with your custom and yourself…do not make promises that you cannot keep or everyone will end up frustrated. If you are unsure if you can do the design your customer is looking for, say that! Most customers are willing to be flexible in their design if you show them an alternative but if you make a promise you must deliver. In addition, be honest with yourself. We recently had a request for a custom piece that we were just not comfortable doing. Instead of taking on a project that went against our own beliefs, we happily referred this customer to another chainmailler who would do the work. While we lost a potential sale, another got a sale and in the end the customer was happier.
As well, be honest about the time that you are going to take to finish the project, and factor in an extra bit of time for those unexpected roadblocks that always seem to come up. In my case, I have two children that always seem to have either some event, sport, or will come down sick at the worst possible time. I generally factor in an extra few days for these unexpected items and if I don’t need this extra time, the customer is pleasantly surprised to receive their item early.
Special order work is a different type of business from the traditional “make it and list it” business. While custom work can help your business to grow and tap new markets, it is additional work and sometimes frustrating. Before you dive into this arena, be honest with yourself about your working style and take the time to consider the cost and time involved before accepting a special request order. If you do this, both you and your customers will be happier…and a happy customer is a repeat customer!
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