Recently I had not one but two separate Kleenex conversations with fellow designers. Both were in tears due to nasty falling outs and disputes with customers over the same problems – custom projects that had gone wrong. In both cases all the nastiness could have been avoided, that was the part that had me wringing my hands.
Custom work can be an easy and lucrative source of income for any maker. It’s especially nice because unlike making work for shows it doesn’t require any outlay of money on your part up front. You have a guaranteed sale. Where it can go wrong is when the expectations between the parties haven’t been clearly stated and WRITTEN DOWN.
If you are going to take on a custom project it is absolutely necessary to spell out the process to the customer, keep very detailed notes and communicate clearly to the customer.
In the first of my conversations my colleague agreed to make a necklace for her customer that involved making all the components, then assembling the necklace. It was very detailed and very expensive. The customer bargained the maker down on price. The maker made the large focal bead and the customer decided she didn’t like it. The maker remade it. Again. And again. And again. 4 times before the customer was happy. Then the customer decided that the design wasn’t what she wanted and demanded some changes. This went on several times. By the time the necklace was finally done the customer was unhappy with how long this had taken and wanted a discount.
In my second conversation, a pair of earrings was agreed upon and paid for. When the customer opened the package she hated them insisting that they were nothing like what they were supposed to be and demanded her money back.
Both of these situations could have been avoided by having written agreements signed by both parties. While I think that both of these customers were in the wrong it is the fault of the maker for not clearly stating what they have agreed to and getting the customer to sign off on anything. In the second situation the maker thought, “well, it’s just a pair of earrings, why would I get anything signed for something so small?” No matter how big or small a job, you must always treat yourself as a business and be professional.
Let’s walk through an ideal custom job. The process is the same if you are having an addition build on your house, a couch designed or a pair of earrings. You decide on a maker. Together you discuss the project, the materials that will be used and your requirements. You agree upon a price and the timeframe. The maker gives you a contract and you sign it. Now you know what to expect. Next the maker shows you a choice of designs. If you don’t like any of them usually there will be 2 or 3 rounds of changes, the number of times you can change the design was stated in your contract. If you want more changes the maker charges you for their time. When you’re happy you sign off on the design. The maker completes the project within the timeframe. If you aren’t happy then together you discuss the problems. If the problems are due to a change in the agreed upon design, or the materials, or the quality of the workmanship then the onus is upon the maker to fix them. If the piece is as agreed upon, and you have changed your mind, then the maker has the right to charge for any changes that you want.
So how do you do this? Well, write out all the things that you agree to do.
- Write down how many times you are willing to change the design for free.
- Write down how much you will charge for design changes if the customer insists on reworking the project over and over.
- write down if this extra charge is by the design or by the hour
- write down the dates for each stage of the process. These are both the dates that you promise to deliver and the dates that the customer must get back to you with approvals.
- write down the final delivery date.
- Write down how much of a deposit you require you if they must pay up front. Mark down when they do pay, mark down when you send your designs for approval and when they sign off on them.
- Keep a paper trail on every single detail no matter how small.
Once you have all this down create your own special order form with this information on it. No need to be overly wordy, clear and concise is good. I recommend getting your order forms printed at an office supply store that prints 2 part carbonless forms (NCR forms, you can get them at most copy centres for 50c each).
Even if the job is a single pair of earrings treat it as a large and important project. Treat your customer with respect and be professional. If you don’t act as a professional, why would the customer treat you as one?