Selling Handmade: Custom Orders

Selling Handmade- tips for people who want to sell the stuff they make from someone who sells stuff they make.

Custom orders can be GREAT for business. A lot of the time, people are willing to pay a good price for something that’s created specially for them, whether it’s for themselves or (more often) as the perfect gift for someone they love. I love custom orders, because a lot of the time people will come to me with things that I might not have come up with otherwise, and it’s a great way to test myself and develop myself as an artist.

Always take money for custom orders up front, and don’t start the project until you’ve been paid. Always. Especially from people you actually know. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, “My friend/brother/uncle/BFF’s sister ordered something and it’s been sitting here for weeks and they won’t come get it or pay for it.” If you’re not going to take the full amount, at least charge a non-refundable amount to cover cost of materials.

Be prepared for some sticker shock (I’ll get to actual pricing in another post). Sometimes, someone will contact you with a, “Hey, can you make this for me?” and when you give them a quote for how much it would be, you’ll never hear from them again. This goes back to, wait for money to start the order.

Sometimes you’ll run into someone you’re not going to be able to work with. Only you can decide if you’re not going to be able to work with someone, but some examples might be- requests for something that will be copyright/trademark infringement, someone who tells you that they’re not going to pay the price you quoted them but keeps sending you requests for a lower price, something that’s not really what you do (they want bead-weaving and you’re a wire-wrapper), or time constraints. In that case, the best thing to do is be upfront with them and say something like, “Thank you for contacting me. I don’t think I’ll be able to meet your needs with this project (insert reason here).” Our culture is one where it’s a “bad” thing to say no, but as an artist/craftsperson, you will need to learn how and when to say no (more in a future post).

You will need to have a lot of communication with your potential customer to find out not only what they want, but how they want it. For example, they may want to be kept up-to-date on your progress. They may not want to hear from you until you’re done and ready to ship. They may want something very specific that you’re pretty sure isn’t going to look good when completed. They may want to micromanage to the point that it interferes with your ability to create. There’s no “right” way to handle this. You’ll need to decide what works for you. Keep in mind that customer service will make or break a company, no matter what the quality or demand for the products in question are.

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2 responses to “Selling Handmade: Custom Orders

  1. Some good points here, thanks!
    I have been making books for custom orders, for about 18 months-2 years. Mostly wedding guest books/albums, also some other books – Baptism/Christening, family photo albums, a special sketchbook, a diary-planner-notebook…
    Like you, I have had opportunities to try stuff I wouldn’t have done otherwise. I’ve also had the various scenarios you mentioned – both with money and customer contact.
    So far though, it has always gone very well and the books have been well received. Only one has been returned – this was because the customer ordered a ready-made book, at very short notice, then asked for it to be customised. She persisted, in spite of my warning that it may well not arrive in time… Of course it didn’t – it arrived the day of her wedding, so nobody home. When the postman tried to re-deliver it, her mother turned it away, so they sent it back. Ah, well, win some, lose some… I did not refund the customer until it arrived back, safe and sound, in saleable condition. Luckily the customisation was only a label on the first inside page, so that was easy to resolve. Everyone happy in this instance…

    The only thing I can think of, to add to your very good advice / info, is to not allow a customer to overuse/abuse your time and good nature. Be aware of how much “to-and-fro” time and “planning time” you have included in your price, plus the cost – to you – of materials. If you have a customer who is being picky/fussy/difficult and/or changes their mind, tell them you will charge for the extra time or materials that they require.

    When you quote for a custom order, send them a Detailed Specification, with exactly what you will be doing for them. Include size, shape, colour, number of pages (I make books!)/beads/petals….whatever. Include a good description of the item, in detail. Quote for modifications to any standard design that they may have enquired about first. Make sure they understand you are charging for extra materials AND the additional time it will take.
    This is your contract offer. Make it clear what you are expecting to do – so that once they agree to your specified details & terms and they pay you, it becomes your contract with them. If they begin to cause you problems, by moving the goalposts, you then have that contract to refer to. You have something to quote, if you need to say “Fine, but this will cost more because it is more than we agreed”. They then have the choice of whether to pay for the modification, or run with what they already paid for.
    As I said, so far I’vehad lovely customers and no real problems, but I know people who have needed the contract/ agreement… some have had big problems because they were trusting and a customer was not playing fair. Of course, it also works the other way – the customer has more protection from badly performing sellers/artists/artisans, if they have a contract with them, in writing.
    Most will … a few won’t . You are running a business, so be business-like at the start of a commission; then you have more chance of managing the work for your own benefit, as well as that of the customer!

    Thank you for your great article. I hope you don’t mind me adding my extra bit…

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