Dear Design Doctor
I wonder if other makers have a love/hate relationship with commissions? Do they know how to manage craft commissions successfully?
Recently a client simply asked for “one like that but with the wood colours reversed”. It was one of my most expensive pieces so I was thrilled and I thought not much more discussion was needed. I’d made several before. What could possibly go wrong?
However, I soon found myself up against it. Wood is a natural material, no two pieces can ever be the same, and I had to remake some components several times. I had agreed a fixed price with my client, based on ‘happy-path-planning’, but it took much longer, and it quickly became an uneconomic project.
So commissions! I love that the piece is effectively pre-sold, and someone likes my work enough to commit to buying it unseen. But I put a lot of pressure on myself to make sure it’s absolutely perfect and I will sacrifice profit to make sure it’s right. So how can I ensure that future commissions work better for me?
Patricia van den Akker, Director of The Design Trust, answered this question as The Design Doctor in Crafts Magazine November/December 2015 (page 28) where it was titled ‘The Art of Client Communication’:
‘Indeed, I don’t think you are the only maker who gets excited about a commission, and starts without thinking it entirely through …
It looks like you have already learnt a great deal from your ‘mistakes’ (if ‘over-enthusiastic’ ever can be a ‘mistake’?).
Prior to starting any new craft commission you need to ask your potential commissioner some key questions, and explain your creative and production process.
Ask about what they are really looking for, where your work will be placed, if they have commissioned before and if they are a collector. Find out who it is for, if it is for a special occasion, and find out their budget and time frame too. The more you know, the better your commission can become.
Show them examples of your previous work and commissions, and share your creative skills and commissioning expertise. You might find during this (short) conversation that he or she actually wants something (slightly) different then ‘one like that’, which is often the ‘easy’ option (and a clear sign!) if people are unsure or haven’t commissioned before.
This initial conversation can really pay off, not just in terms of price but also how you will work with this client and to tackle potential creative and technical challenges. If you can avoid any issues it’s always worth it, as they cost too much time, energy and money.
Share your creative and project management expertise, so that the client feels they can trust you and knows that they are dealing with an expert. This can dramatically increases the value of what you offer, and therefore your price. Excellent customer care and managing your client and their expectations is a crucial element in successful commissioning, especially if you are trying to sell expensive crafts, and pieces that clients can’t see yet.
Work together with your client towards a design brief, where you agree in writing the design, materials, colours, size and ‘feel’ of your new piece, and the time frame. Share your creative process from initial design and sketches, to creating the piece and delivering or installing it. For some clients you can create 3 different proposals at 3 different price levels, so they can see the scope of your work in terms of scale and price.
Your time and labour contribute to your costs. But,
when it comes to pricing yourself and your work it isn’t about your time and materials.
Clients don’t know how long it takes.
They don’t know what can go wrong.
But YOU do need to know if you want to manage craft commissions professionally! Keep accurate time sheets, and use that knowledge to cost future commissions. Because if you aren’t getting paid enough you will become resentful, and your craft business won’t be sustainable, financially and creatively.
Pricing high-end craft is actually mostly based on value, and HOW and WHERE you position and present yourself in the market.
Commissioned craft pieces are unique, and shouldn’t be undersold. Your wood pieces are future heirlooms.
Most craft commissioners and collectors are passionate too about crafts, your skills, and how much pleasure it gives them to own an amazing piece of craft.
They know the value and what it is worth.
If you are too cheap, commissioners will not purchase more from you, they will think you are inexperienced.
I suggest you identify other wood turners to research what they charge for their commissions. If they can charge a lot more, find out why that is possible, and learn from it. Do they use better materials and have higher skills? Is their profile, branding and presentation better? You quickly will find out what really influences the price of your work.
So, how do you get more of these better craft commissions?
Improve your profile in this field and show your work at the right (international) craft shows, galleries and magazines.
On your website show previous commissions though professional images, educate your readers with detailed showcases, and add testimonials from previous clients.
Stay in touch regularly with previous clients, as they often come back for more (!) and refer their friends and family too.
Getting more regular commissions will make you more confident, and you will spend less time ‘overdoing’ your pieces. They will be ‘just right’.
But most of all, be proud of what you do, communicate your love and deep understanding of wood and traditional craft skills. And step-by-step you will start to attract those clients that happily pay for the fabulous gifts you have got to offer.’