How to Value Yourself and Your Artwork. . . As Well as Your Customers

By Karen Middleton in Art Business Advice > General Art Advice

The customer is always right. . . or are they?

Usually that phrase is taken to mean that whatever the customer says, we have to comply with, or conform to it. That’s how many businesses operate.

But as artists and freelancers, we can’t always afford to give our art away for less than its real value. And unfortunately, that’s what many customers want.

So let’s flip that phrase around a little and say. . .”the customer should always be right for me.”

In other words, let’s make sure that we are choosing customers who are right for us by saying “no” to customers who want to take advantage.

In order to do this, try some of these thought processes and approaches for the following types of customers:

1. Customers who ask for extra

If someone wants a large piece of art for the same price as a smaller piece, you may be tempted to accept. . . It’s a commission after all and if you say no, they may decide to just walk away.

But if you bend to the customer in this, where do you draw the line? What if they ask for something else that’s outside your key services when they return? (And be sure that they will.)

Or, what if this customer tells their friend that they got a large painting for the price of a small one. Then you’re obliged to do the same for their friend. Before long you’ll be known for being so flexible that you’ll fall over.

If people are serious and really do want your work, they’ll pay the correct price. Always think of the bigger picture and what the wider consequences of bending to the customer would be.

2. Customers offering “future work” for a discount now

Would you go into a department store and ask for a discount, simply because you’ve promised to return to the store in the future? Of course not! So why should your customers ask you for that?

If a customer asks for something they wouldn’t ask other professionals, tell them “no.” You deserve to be alongside those other professionals, and so does anything you spend your time creating.

3. Customers who offer royalties for use of your art

Once I was offered a 2% royalty for the use of one of my images on product which was sold purely for the image (as opposed to something like a book which would have been partly sold on the content). Sales were therefore heavily reliant on my work.

Allowing for the exchange rate (not in my favour) and subtracting the fee for internet payment, it turned out that I would receive nearer to 1% royalty. I didn’t agree with that, since it was the art that mostly sold the product.

In every case, weigh up the pros and cons. It may be that in your situation the royalties would be in your favour. Perhaps you can increase sales by using a large quantity of images, or there won’t be the currency rate issues.

Perhaps you have other income, and you can look on these sales as a bonus.

But if you’re just trading a small amount of potential income for dilution of your work, it might be better for you in the long run to simply walk away.

4. Customers who offer consistent, but low pay

It’s always good to be paid hourly for ongoing work—except when it’s at a very low rate. I tried this for a while, but as the weeks went by the amount of work I was asked to do for each illustration gradually increased to such an extent that I was working for about $20 a day.

A few line drawings became full size, full colour illustrations, with numerous amendments, with various reasons for maintaining the same fee.

I’m not exactly assertive, and I was glad of the work because it was regular income. But when I was asked to do illustrations that would have taken 2 weeks, working full time, with no samples, contract or rights on the work, for less than $75 I had to draw the line. (Actually, I didn’t draw the line. . . at that point I put down my tools and pencils).

I lost some income because I had no other work lined up, but in time I found it had freed me up to seek out better-paying alternate work—thus proving a better use of my time.

Again, think of the wider consequences and do what is right for you.

5. Customers with budgets below your price

Remember your own budget and think about whether you can afford to take on the work. Write out a list of everything you pay for every month, from every sheet of paper, canvas, or pencil you need, through to regular living expenses, such as food and bills.

The grand total may frighten you, but it will keep you mindful of what YOUR budget is and places you on the same level as the customer.

Sometimes it may be that they just don’t realise the cost of art materials. If that’s the case, offer a small, medium and large price range, and work out what you can offer within these frameworks—or offer the same size of work but on different types of paper (offer basic supplies versus luxury).

Creating several options will help you stick to your set prices, and gives no excuse for customers to ask around them. You’re catering for all budgets and offering the customer a range of options.

6. Customers who need it quickly

Rush jobs usually require working through the night/weekend or at short notice. You may want to have a set fee for rush work, or, if it’s not possible to negotiate anything more, simply decide whether or not to accept the job.

After all, if it’s needed quickly, it’s quick cash and a quick turnaround. You can complete the work then bask in a lie-in the next day, knowing you’ve earned some money you might not have got otherwise.

Sometimes, of course, we can and want to offer more to our customers – the ones who make it a pleasure to work for.

Offer to gift-wrap a print for example, create a small doodle, or throw in a sketch or two for free. It’s always worth making your customers feel they’re incredibly special – they are, after all. Just not the ones who expect or ask too much, or take advantage of your talent or lack of confidence.

Go the extra mile as often as you can, and on your own terms.

It will increase your own sense of pride in your work, while generating a sense of added value for your customers as well. These are the kind of customers who will come back time after time. . . and it will be a pleasure to go the extra mile for.

These are the customers you know are right for you.


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