I’ve been doing custom work pretty much since the beginning of selling my clothing online, and I’ve learned a lot over that time. Mostly I’ve learned The Hard Way.
Accumulated through years of mistakes and missteps, here are a handful of rules to live by if you offer custom work:
1. Always require payment up front
This is one of those things that newbies are always scared to do, and yet you learn very quickly that you will get burned if you don’t. Go ahead and ignore me. YOU WILL GET THERE.
I get at least one custom order request a day, some days more like 10. If I was making all those orders and waiting around for payment, I would’ve been out of business 5 years ago. At least half of the requests I get never amount to an order. Lots of people like to window shop. Not so many actually have the money to put it where their mouth is.
At the very least, if you’re super nervous that people will be hesitant to pay in full up front, require them to pay half up front. That way, if they magically disappear once the order is completed (and some of them will), at least you were compensated for materials and maybe some time.
Then you’ll start requiring full payment up front, right? Right.
I’ve never had anyone refuse to buy a custom item from me because I required payment up front, and really- why should they refuse? When I bought custom sized windows for my house, I paid up front and got the windows 6 weeks later. That’s just how customs work.
2. Don’t take on orders that are out of your comfort zone
A lot of us crafty people get strange requests. People assume that since I make clothes, I can make anything. And given enough time, maybe I could. But if I’ve never made a men’s tailored jacket (and I haven’t), then it’s not really a smart project for me to do as a custom order. And yet somehow, I often find myself pulling my hair out working on a custom order I was dubious about in the first place.
For me, I think I had to come to terms with the fact that I don’t need to prove anything. I specialize in knitwear, but a lot of times people want woven fabric for a variety of reasons. And I used to think, “Well, why not? I can work with woven fabrics.” CAN is not the same as SHOULD.
All of my patterns are intended for knitwear, so for a custom order involving woven fabric, I have to draft an entirely new pattern. I have to figure out where I’m going to put all of the fastening devices that woven garments require: zippers, buttons, hooks and eyes. I have to fuss with darts and extra seams to get a good fit.
For a variety of reasons, custom orders just aren’t the right time to be experimenting. If I take the time I need to get a quality result, it takes me a LONG TIME. If I rush, the quality will be subpar. The result is that every time I’ve ever undertaken a custom order like that, it took me twice as long, and yet I charged the same price as if I’d done it in a knit fabric.
Sometimes it’s not even a matter of foreign materials and concepts. Sometimes there’s a custom order that I’m just not feeling. The result is the same. My lack of interest becomes a burden. I work slowly and find myself frustrated.
Being a small business person makes it difficult to tell a customer “no.” The customer is always right, they say. But sometimes it’s okay to say, “I just can’t do that.” Do it for your sanity’s sake.
Something that’s made it easier for me is to have a great network of fantastic seamstresses that I can recommend when something isn’t my particular expertise or cup of tea. Instead of “no”, I can say, “I don’t think I’m the person for this project, but my awesomely talented friend ____ might be able to help you out.”
3. Don’t do custom work for friends and family for free
I’m not talking about gifts either. If you’ve got a friend that’s been hankering over your stuff for months and their birthday is coming up, by all means, gift them one of your awesome crafts.
But the problem with doing work for anyone for free is two-fold.
The first reason is similar to #2 on my list. How miserable are you going to be when you’re six hours into a custom piece with no end in sight, and you’re not even getting paid?
For your own sanity: don’t do it!
And for the quality of your work, which will suffer: don’t do it!
The second reason is that if you don’t value your own time, other people will follow suit.
It’s not true for everyone, but a lot of people will just come to expect what they’ve been given in the past. If you do work for free, don’t be surprised to hear, “But last time…” when you come around to asking for payment this time.
When you do work for free, people will think, “Well, it must not be a big deal.”
Or “It’s probably pretty easy.”
Or “I’m sure she can do it really quickly.”
None of which are probably true when it comes to custom work.
If you feel squinky about asking friends or family to pay, work out a trade instead. Is your friend a fabulous painter? Exchange a custom garment for a custom painting. Or does your neighbor have a vegetable garden that makes you green (PUN!) with envy? Trade a handmade quilt for a summer’s worth of fruits and veggies. If they’ve got nothing to trade, request payment in the form of a gift certificate to your favorite craft supply store.
4. Give your customer a timeline for you and them
It’s probably a no-brainer for most sellers to give their customer a time frame for expecting the order to be finished. Some might give a hard date – Your item will be shipped by July 15th. Others, like myself, might give a more general time frame – Custom orders take 3-4 weeks to complete. You’ll figure out what works for you.
However, I’ve noticed that a lot of sellers neglect to give their customers a deadline, which isn’t fair to you as the maker. After all, with custom work, the customer has some responsibilities of their own.
So the first rule is: always ask if a custom order is needed by a specific date.
For me, if it fits into my current custom order time frame, we proceed business as usual, though I always make sure to explain that my custom order time frame begins from the time I receive all of the necessary materials, which includes their payment in full, their size, and any necessary materials. You can’t order a dress June 1st, wait until June 29th to give me your measurements, and expect to still receive your dress by July 4th.
The second rule is: don’t forget to account for shipping times, especially with international orders, if you’ve got a deadline.
Materials, too. If you’re special ordering materials, you’ll need to account for the time it will take for them to arrive. I generally add an additional week and a half to my timeline if I have to special order materials.
The third rule is: if you’ve got a custom order with a tight schedule, give the customer their own deadline.
When I get a custom order like that, I explain exactly what I need from my customer and when I need it. Give them a hard date.
“I must have your payment, measurements, and fabric choice by June 15th.”
Make sure to explain the consequences of not sticking to the deadline.
“If I don’t receive it by then, I can’t guarantee your order will arrive in time, unless you upgrade to a rush order.”
If you offer rush service and it comes down to that, again- give hard dates.
“If I receive what I need by X date, the rush order fee is $25. The closer we get to the deadline, the more the rush fee increases. If I don’t have what I need by Y date, I won’t be able to complete the order in time, even as a rush order.”
The fourth rule is: if you’ve got what would normally be a rush order, but you’re not particularly busy and decide to waive the fee, EXPLAIN THAT TO THE CUSTOMER.
I went through this once, and only once. I had a lull in the middle of summer and had a girl needing an order in 2 weeks. I said sure and did the order. The next time she came back and wanted two custom items in 10 days, and I had to explain, “Hey, I can do it this time, but my normal turn around time is 3-4 weeks. So next time, there will be a rush order fee if you need it so quickly.”
It wasn’t really her fault to expect that kind of turn around time when I’d just handed it out so freely before, with no explanation that this was unorthodox for my normal custom order process.
5. When you give a customer a price quote, leave room for “estimates”
Using myself as an example again- I do a lot of custom orders where customers send me a t-shirt and have me turn it into something else. Sometimes they don’t have the shirt yet, and I’m happy to order one for them as part of the custom order process. I never give a hard price until I know what materials they want and search for the best price. Some t-shirts cost $10 and others cost $35. So when I write up an initial price quote, I include the shirt cost with the words (estimated price) next to it.
If you do custom work in which the customer gets to choose the fabric, it’s the perfect place to indicate that the cost of fabric is ESTIMATED, and that certain materials or customizations may change the price.