Should you Accept Custom Orders?
I receive quite a few questions pertaining to custom orders. What are the pros and cons of deciding to take them? Here is some information that should help.
There are two main types of custom orders – Totally custom and custom variations. Custom variations like simple changes of color can be very easy and quick to do while offering to make entirely new designs from scratch can be much more complex and time consuming.
Aren’t custom orders a lot of trouble? They definitely can be but they can also make you step outside your normal range of thinking which can lead to you using new techniques or introducing new styles.
Custom orders can take a lot of time, can be difficult or stressful to make, or can make you step out of your comfort zone. I would not necessarily say that a custom order is more trouble, because they can be fun, but I will say that they do require more time and effort than regular orders.
It is tough to be efficient – You cannot build custom pieces as efficiently as regular orders since you will be starting from scratch on each one in most cases. Over time you will get set up for making many of your regular handmade items. You will have the dimensions figured out, templates made, or maybe even custom fixtures that will help you build them more quickly. You just cannot do that with custom orders though. You will have to estimate the additional time involved when giving estimates.
They always take more time than you think – Plan on spending a lot more time than you initially estimate. A custom order will just about always take more time than remaking an existing item. Even with practice it is difficult to estimate the time necessary to complete a totally custom project.
This is not only for the item itself, but also for the customer interaction. In many cases there will be a lot of back and forth while figuring out all the details. These emails and conversations take time and should be considered when pricing the custom piece.
You may have to create a prototype just to see if the design can be built. Designs and specifications will need to be approved as well. Keep track of how long you actually spend so you can more accurately estimate custom orders in the future.
Shipping can be a challenge – It can be difficult to give accurate shipping quotes when you do not know the final size and weight of a box. Always get “detailed quotes” when getting estimates online.
Detailed quotes ask for weight, dimensions, and insured value. Use the customer’s Zip code and estimate all the measurements of the box by adding a couple inches to each side of the dimensions of the item you are building. Do this for the top and bottom as well.
Dimensions usually affect the rate more than the weight so be conservative. If you end up using a smaller box just refund some of the shipping cost. Make sure you add a little to the quotes you get online to account for shipping materials and for miscalculations. You can always refund the difference when you ask for the final payment and that is better than having to absorb the cost due to giving too low of an estimate.
Do you take on all custom orders? If you are not comfortable with an idea or request it is best to politely decline. Maybe the budget or time-frame is too tight or maybe you just cannot “get into” the idea. Either way, it is better to turn down the request and avoid the stress or potential issues. Please see: Turning Down Offers for more information.
Do you want to build your customer’s designs? Sometimes a customer will see what you are capable of and will want you to build something that they have designed. Usually they will at least have a sketch concept.
Aside from really having to communicate with the customer to truly understand what they want, you also have to consider if the design itself will work. Sometimes designs only work on paper. You cannot always make a three dimensional version of a sketch and depending on what you make, a prototype may be necessary just to see if the design can be made.
How should you be paid? The key thing to remember is make sure you are paid 100% before shipping out custom pieces. Please see my article on being Paid in Full for more information.
What about returns? In most cases you should not offer returns on custom handmade pieces. The likelihood of being able to sell them to someone else is very low and if you charged more for the custom piece than your usual pieces you will probably not be able to get your money back out of it.
You will want to take all the steps necessary to prevent this from even being an issue. The way to prevent customers from wanting a refund is to first have everything in writing before you begin building, and second is by sending photos to the customer before getting the final payment and shipping their item.
Ideally the customer should have no surprises when they open the box. They knew all the dimensions and specific details before you ever got started building and they saw good photos of the finished piece before you shipped it out. The only concern should really be damage in transit and that can largely be avoided by careful packing.
An added benefit of custom projects – Custom orders can make you deviate from your normal designs and those new ideas can be developed into a new series. One new idea can really spark an entire new line of items that you may not have come up with otherwise. Often times we get into a certain train of thought and that leads to making very similar designs. Sometimes it takes an idea or concept from someone else to get us outside of our normal range of thinking.
You can appeal to more customers – You will appeal to a larger audience if you accept custom orders. Given the option, people do tend to request at least some custom element. By simply mentioning that custom versions of your existing designs can be built you can really increase your number of orders. Just allowing people to pick their own colors can make a big difference and simple changes like that do not usually increase your cost or take more of your time.
What has been your experience with custom orders?