Are Small Walk-In Customers Worth It?

Should a woodworking shop bother with a half-hour job for a drop-in customer? May 5, 2007

What is your opinion on doing small walk-in jobs? I had a lady bring in some antique moulding that she had purchased at a sale. Said she would like me to make a picture frame out of it. About a 30 minute job.

Do you charge your shop rate? How would you handle this? It could lead to some additional work in the future, or maybe nothing. I ended up doing it for her on my timeline and charged her $20... Took me about 2 months to get to it. I would just like to get some opinions on this situation, as I'm sure we have all experienced it a time or two.

Forum Responses
(Finishing Forum)
From contributor R:
One issue with doing a small job is that it usually hangs around the shop for months until either we get tired of answering the phone calls (is it done yet?), or one of the guys has absolutely nothing to do on a Friday afternoon, so he completes it. Also, we don’t want to seem rude, so we always say yes to these types of jobs. If you decide to do small jobs, you should charge whatever it costs to do the job. An hour is an hour no matter how you look at the clock.

From contributor J:
I hate to tell anyone no, but I've learned to pick and choose the little jobs. That's because many of my “small” jobs end up being big when I get into them. I got a call last week from a lady who had hired some guy to build her cabs prior to Katrina. Apart from the finish, he did a pretty good job on her kitchen but never completed the job. Not a huge issue: several RP drawer fronts, a door or two, and lots of trim. The problem was the finish. It was a weird taupe glaze. He admitted to her he'd never done a glaze finish before and subsequently made a mess of it. Also, this lady seemed like she might be a problem customer. That still, small voice in the back of my head said “migraine waiting to happen.” I politely walked away. Ten years ago I wouldn't have done that, but many hard knocks over the years have taught me better (plus made me bald).

From contributor M:
I think it all depends on your situation. If you’re a larger shop with several employees, you probably don't have the time line to mess with small jobs. If you’re a small shop one man shop like me, than you'll find they are easier to get done. It's easy to get a few frames knocked out while you’re watching glue dry on a big project. As far as price, contributor R is right - an hour is an hour, but there is no harm in sticking to an hour minimum. Every other trade profession does it.

From contributor G:
Isn't “could lead to some additional work in the future” and “took me about 2 months to get to it” a contradiction? I can see the idea of putting small jobs on the shelf until they can be done as fill in work, but doesn't the customer come away from the experience saying, “Boy, he did a good job, but I would never give him a big one because it took him two months just to make a picture frame!”

From the original questioner:
No, I don't totally agree. Looking back now, it probably took me about 4-5 weeks to get to it (which it shouldn't have), but she knew going in that one of the stipulations for taking the job was that it would take some time to get to it. I made that clear at the beginning. It's not like I told her "yeah, we'll get it done for you" and she was anticipating it done much sooner. I do understand your point, but I don't think I left a bad impression here. Things just need to be taken in order and prioritized. This was low on the priority list, and I think that was understood.

From contributor H:
We take all kinds of small things like that. In fact we are kind of known for it around town. But we are also known for getting around to it. I tell the customer, "If you want it done now or even this week, it’s going to be a minimum of ****.” But if they can wait, sometimes two months or more, it’s going to be a lot less. It turns out most wait. On days when things just don't go right, and we all have them, we grab a few of these piddly things and get a change of pace and pocket cash. And some have led to bigger and better jobs . It’s surprising who it is when it happens. The little old lady with the broken chair leg decides she wants a new set of cabinets. Those little things we do are good for several hundred dollars a month.

From contributor P:
I've been taking the small jobs lately. But not $20! Even a little corner shelf is $200 if I have to design it, pick out the wood, finish it, talk to the client, etc. They can and do lead to more work. I have one lady that I've done 8 "small" projects for. The first was to touch up half a dozen kitchen cabinet doors for about $300. The other jobs have ranged from $300 to $3000. Some of them were a pain, but I made some money on all of them. She keeps giving me more work in her really cool house, and I've stretched my abilities doing things I wouldn't normally do.

From the original questioner:
Thanks for the input. It's nice to know that there are still a few of us that will take care of the little things that others won't mess with. I don't see much wrong with charging only $20 for something that took me 20 minutes... four cuts, four biscuits, clamp and done. With my shop rate at $60, I'd say that's about right.

From contributor Z:
As a one man operation I do a lot of small jobs that other shops wouldn't entertain. (Slow learner, I guess.) I would say that in the past, 80% of them I have taken a beating on. They always seem to get more complicated and eat up more hours than I have quoted.

Lately I've tried to get a handle on them, but still struggle. Just the other day I had a guy call me wanting 10 replacement spindles for a staircase. They weren't a complicated spindle, but I figured they would take $3 of oak and most of an hour to turn out by hand. I told him $40 each and that I would try my best to have them for him by the end of the year. His words were, "Yikes, I didn't know it was so involved; I was hoping to have them by Thanksgiving (3 weeks). Do you know someone else that could do them by then?" I assured him that it was going to be hard to find someone willing to put life on hold and rush his small but labor intensive project out the door. (You would think that you would not have to explain such to an officer in a very large company.) He then says that he had a friend, i.e. garage shopper, that was going to do them for him but could not do them by Thanksgiving, so if he had to wait, he'd just let his friend do them. He keeps threatening coming by and picking up the sample spindle he dropped off initially, but never shows up, wasting even more of my time reading and replying to e-mails. So now I've wasted quite a bit of my time in telephone calls, e-mails, and even more time relaying the story here, but at least I got to vent on a forum with members that understand such customer relation pains. I am blessed.

From contributor A:
I'll do almost any job that walks in the door. I price it to make money. I still price it to be fair, but I have to factor staying late or Saturdays or whatever. Some jobs are time and material and some are a set price. I'm upfront with the customer. Like contributor H, I get to it when I can. I can usually work up some of the little jobs in a week or so.

I had a guy call the other day that needed a "little laminate work done." I said sure, come on in. He walked in with plans for 12 round displays, either 8 or 16 inches high. Laminated. Needed in a week. I figured on staying an hour or so late each night, a few hours on Saturday, and I charged him $2500. That was what I figured it was worth and he was willing to pay it to get the displays made.

Do all the little jobs and keep track. At the end of the year, you'll be surprised how much you have made. Enough for a little 3 day cruise for you and the wife? Enough for a jet ski? Maybe a little fishing boat. I'm just not willing to let that kind of cash go. And they are usually cash jobs.

From contributor X:
I look at small shop jobs as word of mouth advertising. As long as they come in, I know my advertising is doing its job. If I don't receive anything, then there's a problem, or so I think. I also post my shop rates, which gives everyone some reality checks.

From contributor I:
You have to be careful about the client, not the job. I have seen many people who come to my shop wanting a small job done that have either an unrealistic price stuck in their head, or an unrealistic timeline. The worst are those who found something on the side of the road, or bought it at a garage sale and think they could get it fixed for a couple of dollars while they wait. So I am more willing to evaluate the customer first, then my schedule second.

My shop rate is $65/hour, or roughly $1 per minute. I have become very aware of how many of these one dollars go floating by as I listen to someone for 15 minutes before I even get an okay. I tell people that there is a $35 minimum, and try to give them an estimate quickly. I really don't care to hear about how their neighbor does woodwork, but...

In short, small projects can be a big money loser. If you make a mistake, the customer is not willing to pay twice as much. You are out material and time. And you create an expectation. This guy will do small jobs for a few dollars. They tell their friends about this, and they bring in more small jobs. Think about where you want to be, and if this fits into your goals. The real question should be, how do you decide what small jobs to take?

From contributor U:

Just a few thoughts... If taking small jobs fits into your goals, then I would take them. My goal is to make more money now and into the future, so anything I take must make at least $150/hr. All time is figured from shop and back to shop or from moment you begin talking to someone. I charge $125 for a service call to look at something, etc. This accomplishes several things - lets customer know I am committed to making money and weeds out the people expecting to get something for next to nothing.

You may ask, do I get any work? Yes, I do, and what work I get I make great money on, but I probably refuse 90% of what people want me to do. It used to be I got 9 out of 10 bids till I realized I was always low bidder! I changed things until I got possibly 1 or 2 out of 10, but made much more money.

Those of you who have hourly rates on the lower side, I think need to rethink your operation. Is it possible in today’s world with fuel costs, etc. to charge such a small rate and really make money? I think not. If you really look closely at all your expenses and factor overhead into things you would probably need to double your hourly to really be making any money if you expect to retire someday with anything to live on. I realize area makes a difference, but still as I observe the cabinetmakers in general, I believe they are selling their time too cheaply.