25 Lessons Learned from Filling 2500+ Custom Orders

Creative Entrepreneurship | 16 comments

25 Lessons Learned from Filling 2500+ Custom Orders | the merriweather council blog

In the past five years I’ve filled thousands (many more than 2,500 but that number worked best for my headline ha) of custom and personalized orders – and I’ve learned a ton! It’s a whole different ballgame to do custom or personalized work than it is to batch produce something and ship it once it’s ordered though, that sort of work has a whole other set of challenges and nuances I am sure. Here are a few lessons I’ve learned from doing primarily custom work for the past five years:

25 lessons learned from filling 2,500+ custom orders in five years. The difference between personalized & custom orders, options are important, and more. | the merriweather council blog

Custom orders for initial necklaces. | the merriweather council blog

1. People like options

The one color you don’t offer is the one they are going to want.

2. But not too many options

So then, you’ll add a few new colors to your rotation (because if you’re going to add one, may as well add three, you know?) and then people will be like “ahh, I can’t decide.”

3. They will likely defer to your opinion

They might ask “what do you think looks best?” and you’ll suggest a few combos or variations, and they will likely pick from those options. It happens 9.9/10 times for me.

4. Or choose a color palette or option you show as a sample

Because really they trust you more than they trust themselves and they can see what their end result will look like at least in this one sense.

5. People will pay extra for custom or personalized

Sometimes they will pay a lot extra. They expect to pay extra and they expect to be taken care of for that extra. So be accommodating. You know how we handmakers are always saying “I’m not Target”? when we can’t do things the way people are used to them being done in the regular retail world? Well, step up your Not Target standard and deliver something exceptional. (Not that I don’t like Target because AMEN, I do.)

6. Personalized is not the same as custom

Personalized means there is a base product and the color, initial, shape or other singular (or multiple) element(s) can be chosen by the customer. Custom is the sort of thing that takes elements you work with and reconfigures them into a new project that you haven’t really done before.

7. Personalized is made to order but made to order can be anything

Obviously if something is personalized, you have to wait for the order to be finalized to know what you are making – they see it, they order it, they tell you how they want it, you make it, you ship it. But, you can have standard made to order items as well. In that case, you have a sample, and people order it with an expected lead time but no customization or change to the product – they see it, they order it, you make it, you ship it.

25 lessons learned from filling 2,500+ custom orders in five years. The difference between personalized & custom orders, options are important, and more. | the merriweather council blog

Initial embroidery custom orders. | the merriweather council blog

8. You’ll be handling a lot of emails

If you are dealing with personalized or custom orders, you’ll likely be communicating with your buyers more often than if they ordered something ready to ship. So be prepared for that extra bit of time. And account for it in your pricing.

9. You need to have strict deadlines (but also some flexibility)

Particularly in the case of Christmas, the period of time between when people start thinking about / shopping for gifts and when they need to be shipped in order to reasonably expect them to arrive on time, is very short. Your lead times need to be definitive but you want to try to stay flexible as well – add more work that you normally would prefer not to – because this is a time when you can make a lot of money if you handle it well.

10. Proofs are essential for custom

If someone wants something totally custom, send them a sketch to make sure you are on the same page. It will save a lot of time and headache down the line in the case that you two are NOT on the same page and don’t know it yet.

11. But not for personalized

No need to send a proof of something personalized. It’s a waste of time. Be sure your item descriptions are clear so people understand what they are buying and be upfront about the options with images. TRUST ME.

12. If people want to work with you, it’s because of your style

Which is awesome! You’ve attracted people with the way you design, work and present your product – and they got a good vibe from your style. They get a sense that you might be the person who can make a specific vision come to life.

13. So don’t ditch your style just because it’s custom

I repeat: do not change your style just because it’s a custom piece. No one will be happy with that.

14. You determine how much personalization is allowed, not them

This is YOUR business. If you don’t do what they are wanting, let them know. And know that it’s okay to stand up for yourself if someone is milking you for all you’re worth.

15. Seriously, you’re the boss

You need to be clear about what you do and how you do it and what it costs. No one is going to advocate for you. You have to be realistic and please please don’t under charge or sell yourself short.

16. You DO know best what will work and what won’t so don’t be shy in letting them know

If someone is asking for something that you can’t do, or don’t think will logistically work – let them know. They will appreciate that. You’re the designer, if they could DIY this (or wanted to) they would. They’ve involved you in this because of your expertise whether you want to believe or recognize that or not (but you should.)

17. You can turn down custom work

It’s okay to say no. Don’t feel bad about it. You can’t do everything and you can’t help everyone. That’s why we have a lot of people in the world who do similar things with different flair.

25 lessons learned from filling 2,500+ custom orders in five years. The difference between personalized & custom orders, options are important, and more. | the merriweather council blog

Custom orders for embroidered decorations. | the merriweather council blog

18. You can refer work to other people

This is a really nice way to build some karma stock and release yourself from work you aren’t interested in. If you know someone else who you think would be a better fit for a proposed project – and you aren’t all that interested in it – by all means, refer + defer.

19. If you’re going to do shows, you need some ON HAND stuff

Custom is wonderful, and it’s really a money maker, but if you want to do shows or fairs, you’ll need to have some things on hand to sell. So leave time in your schedule to make these sorts of products if you’d like to apply or present at shows.

20. But custom projects can generate new ideas

I love custom projects because they always tap into a little part of my creativity that I haven’t tapped before and I get new ideas for other projects. Custom work is great for expanding your horizons and knowing what you’re capable of.

21. So take on a few custom projects you aren’t quite sure about

Be realistic but also be daring.

22. But don’t agree to do things you really have no experience with

Yeah, that’s not a good idea.

23. Weddings are money makers

But they are also a really big deal. You don’t want to be the person provoking the bride two weeks before a wedding so, get a firm outline for your lead time and stick with your policies. Get all the details in writing, up front, as soon as possible. Trust me.

24. And send that thing priority

Nothing worse than waiting on a wedding order to arrive – on either end! Ship it with a little extra time, care and insurance.

25 lessons learned from filling 2,500+ custom orders in five years. The difference between personalized & custom orders, options are important, and more. | the merriweather council blog

Custom orders for initial necklaces. | the merriweather council blog

25. Just know you’re never going to be ahead

Custom work is very rewarding and fun, but you are always behind. There is no getting ahead of it – unless you are a mindreader – you just have to wait for someone to order before you can work on it, so there’s no schedule really. This is good and bad. It’s just something to be aware of.

Do you do custom work? What have you learned?

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Oh, hi! Welcome to The Merriweather Council. I’m Danielle and I am a maker in business and mentor to other makers in business. I teach you how to turn your crafty tendencies into profits!

Oh, I’m also really into crafts, boy bands + iced coffee. Email me anytime to say hello or send cute Backstreet Boy videos or dog pictures .. or whatever! danielle (at) merriweathercouncil.com Thanks for stopping by.

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16 Comments

  1. All good tips!. I think another for me is to ask for the budget range for custom, before you begin ideas. That way I don’t accidentally propose something for $200 when the customer has $100 in mind. People don’t always like to pinpoint a number too early, which is why I ask for a range for an idea at least.

    • that’s a good one too!! I have had a lot of people actually just tell me up front what their budget is or ask “how much more would it be” based on an existing piece, so that made it easy

  2. One that people sometimes learn the hard way: get the money upfront for a custom or at least a down payment. Nothing worse than completing a time consuming order you can’t resell only to find the customer changed their mind or something.

    • That’s an excellent point. To me that seems very mandatory but it’s definitely worth repeating!

  3. This was a fabulous article! Your point about accounting for the extra email time in pricing is a lesson I just learned. Loved the project & the customer was very pleasant, but it just took a LOT of emails to get her to come to a decision.

    • that’s a big one! it can add up so quickly too!

  4. So many great points. I do almost 100% custom work now. I never really thought about it as always being behind. But I think that’s the part that can nag at me. There is such a sense of relief upon the completion of a project. But there are always more behind it! I’m grateful for it. And I enjoy my work….even the sometimes 40+ emails that pass between me and a customer. Many of my newest ideas have been generated by my customers, so I run with those. It’s all very organic I suppose. But I don’t often have free time to simply explore my creative side. I have to try to integrate it into my work.

  5. I used to hand stamp before playing around with embroidery (I’m still playing) and with hand stamping I would offer a few custom pieces. I have to say, expect from the good feeling it gave me to know it would mean a lot to them, I didn’t really enjoy it all that much. I like to be creative, I like to do my ideas, I like not having anyone run my schedule LOL. So far I’m avoiding custom work with my embroidery.

    Janelle

  6. My shop is both all custom and personalized since it’s portraiture in wedding stationery and it’s been a fun ride. Each sale leads to more sales because people like to see multiple examples of your work/consistent style so they know what to expect. The process per customer has been fairly quick; it’s not as big of a back and forth as one might expect when you make it systematic. The key is to have a step-by-step process, and it does get better with each order because in my case, the more practice I get, the more efficient/better I get. On average, I get an order done in 2-4 business days. The best thing about something completely custom is that it forces me to create something I wouldn’t have come up with on my own, and it serves as a template for future sales!

  7. This list was a breathe of fresh air to me, I was feeling very alone in my almost full custom work place. This list made me felt like I was talking to another creative friend about my thoughts on custom work. Thank you x

  8. Perfectly said!! This is so insightful!
    The only thing I might add (or did I miss it?) is to be upfront with your pricing.
    Sometimes customers message you about custom work because they didn’t see anything they liked enough to buy or they liked “this but could you add or change these colors to this and draw a little thing over there…etc” and there is no price for this kind of request in your shop. (Personally, I have stopped taking on custom work because it became exhausting and stressful)
    Back when I took on custom orders, I always gave the price upfront. This is sort of a fight or flight test. Are they seriously going to buy or do they just want to browse and then run when it comes time to pay? It’s not to scare them away, I assure you. But in doing so, it weeds out the casual browsers and the cheapskates. I’ve had a lot of people contact me with all sorts of crazy requests but balked when they found that they couldn’t get this custom artwork for for less than $20. Yeah, that ain’t happening!
    I may go back to adding personalizable items to my shop. I don’t mind taking on those kinds of orders at all! They can usually be done easily ebough and I don’t need to charge a whole lot extra in most cases. But from now on, I will do so with very clear options and guidelines!
    Thanks for this!

  9. Great post Danielle – thanks!

    In response to Deb Turcio: I can see how custom work could get out of hand quickly with all kinds of requests and lack of understanding on the customer’s side as to the value of extra time that goes into these special pieces. A friend of mine who is a handbag designer/owns her own business wisely suggested that rather than do full custom work I might want to try offering some different options, for example type of color, personalization etc. I guess it’s a matter of deciding how much one wants to take on and also being super organized with managing custom orders and keeping a feasible work load.

  10. May I ask why, if they’re your number one personalized product, you won’t be selling your embroidered initial necklaces anymore? Thank you.

    • I actually brought them back into my repertoire but at the time I just was feeling very bored with them :) then i missed them lol

  11. Very helpful tips, Danielle. Thank you! One issue I have is when asked for a custom order, whether from a return or new customer, that is quite different than what I normally do (either in design and/or materials), it can take quite a bit of time to sort things out (rough design and preliminary search for materials), yet with no guarantee of a sale (which I understand, especially as a consumer myself). I know some designers charge for a consult/quote for a project (that goes toward the item if they purchase) but I’m not sure that’s what I want to do (at this time). I’d love to hear your thoughts on this. Thanks so much!

    • I totally get that. I think for me, the best solution has been streamlining the process and making sure I have an order of things I need to know from the customer so I can be more direct and have less back and forth therefore reduce the overall time things take. Another thing would be to limit the extent of customization when possible. Give them specific options for the most part. Such a huge learning curve on this!