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:
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.
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.
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. 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?