What to Say When the Job's Too Small

For a busy shop, "small" jobs can be an unprofitable, time-wasting distraction. But what's the best way to treat those potential customers? April 20, 2007

I have been in the custom cabinet business three years and have seen steady growth. When I started, I would take every job in order to get the name out and get the customer for repeat work, etc. Now the little jobs are in the way of the breadwinners, and I don't see any way to be profitable and stay on track and keep the small stuff. I want to know how I should say no to the people who want these small jobs done - and not seem offensive. Overprice the job? Say I'm too busy? Ignore the customer? Hire more help and do the job?

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum)
From contributor L:
Long ago and far away I faced this same problem. The solution was to price every job so I made money and to have a schedule that I stuck to. Last job in - last job done. Often people with piddle work were in a big hurry - two weeks sounded like an eternity to them. For a regular good customer, I would make exceptions and work late, but still price to make a buck.

From contributor M:
I will refer them to another shop in town that can handle their needs better (usually a smaller custom shop or a backyard guy that does work on the side). I also use the opportunity to explain what we are good at doing and let them know if they have any future needs to give me call and I will try to help them out.

From contributor R:
I have the same problem. When you’re busy with good money jobs, the little stuff just gums up the works.

I have:

Priced them very high.
Told the customer it would be 8 weeks.
Told them flat out it is too small; I can't do the work, so call a handy man.

It depends where the lead comes from - walking through the yellow pages versus referrals. Like you, after four years, I know what kind of jobs I can make money on. And the little jobs from phone call customers are not it. Find a handy man you can refer them to.

From contributor I:
I tell them that it will probably be more than they are willing to pay. I tell them the shop rate, and that on small jobs like this, I charge T&M. Rarely have I seen someone who doesn't want me to lose money on their job, but often they don't want to pay a lot, either. I try to give them an example, like making a door. I tell them that it will take 45 minutes to set up all the machines to make 1 door. That is $45 before we even start. Then there is time and material. I suggest that they call their insurance company and ask for referrals.

I try to let people know up front that it will be expensive, and I use those words. Very often people want to feel good about throwing you a $5 or $10. For me, that does not even cover the time they spent saying, "I don't know if this is too small for you, but... Does that sound like something you can do?"

I think very often people are trying to find someone who can do it at a price they think it is worth. When they come to you, I think they have in their mind that it will probably cost too much for you to do it, but maybe you can tell them who can do it. It may be that the best way you can help is to point them in the right direction. I have been sending people to Rockler, too.

From contributor S:
Nothing wrong with saying that you can't handle the job at a competitive price or in the time allotted. I found having a reliable place to refer them to will keep them happy, and returning when they have a larger job... or another small job that I might be slow enough to like having in the future. Business is usually feast or famine... don't burn the bridge! Additionally, that small guy you refer customers to may end up with a job that is too big for him and he might just refer the customer to you.

From contributor J:
It's the guy with the "small job" that got me started. If it is not too intrusive to the schedule, I just tell them if they’re not in a hurry, I'll get to it between jobs. I still charge T&M, but I don't watch the clock. You see, I once had an elderly lady bring in a chair and asked me to re-glue it. I did and charged her $25. Two weeks later her lawyer son called and I went out and gave him a price on about 35K worth of refinishing desks, chairs, credenzas, his whole office. I know we’ve got to make a profit, but a little pro-bono work once in a while doesn’t hurt.

From contributor T:
We just work them in with the next job that has the same species wood. Most of the time it is past customers and it may be difficult for someone else to get an exact match to existing cabinetry. We built our business on quality and service - I'm not changing now. I also tell them that full jobs with closing dates have absolute priority and theirs will be worked in. I don't give them an exact date; sometimes it’s 6 months.

From contributor G:
Last week I needed a small job done at a metal shop. They said it would be so much per minute. They did the job, said it took 20 minutes, cost $16.00. I gave them $40.00 - it was worth $100 to me. The point is, try to find out what it is worth to them first.

From contributor V:
My vote is to overprice, unless it is a repeat profitable client. Then the last thing you want is for them to have someone else do it and pick up their other work, too. Realize when you overprice something, you can still get stuck with it.

Example: I don’t like doing any kind of restoration work, especially on antiques. Had a slow time and contractor I knew had a client with a bed that wanted some pieces replaced on the headboard. I did it. Later on, when I was really busy, same guy comes back in and says their client liked my work so much they want the whole headboard fixed and refinished… Oh no, please not this. I figured a reasonable price and then doubled it. The contractor was taken aback by my price and simply said they would talk to their customer. Figured I had heard the end of that. No! Customer said fine, it was worth it. Boy did I figure that wrong. Anyway, there is a lesson to be learned, and that is you may get the work anyway, so be prepared.

From contributor A:
I price them to make money and if the customer says to do it, I do it. I explain I'll work it in as the current work allows. I've found that most of these jobs pay cash. (Yea!) And often they are followed up with a larger job.

If you track these jobs yourself and do them yourself, sometimes after the shop closes and you spend an hour or two once a week, you can pick up some good money over a year. Take all the cash, put it in a jar for a year, and just see how much these little jobs make you. You will be surprised. I never want profitable money to walk out of my shop.

From contributor N:
There is a problem with overpricing a job to chase the little ones away. When they go to a couple other shops to get pricing and they get lower prices, then they think you are the jerk. I think it is better to either tell them you are too busy or that you have become more automated to do bigger jobs. You still need to keep a good name with all clients. We used to do custom only, and have switched to larger production. My past clients still show up and I just tell them we don't do custom work anymore.

From contributor C:

I like those small mill runs, oddball or one piece cabinet/furniture jobs. Breaks up the monotony of doing the same thing day in and day out. Not to mention they pay for my fishing addiction.

From contributor P:
I bid all jobs to make a fair profit. I give the customer a price and a completion date + or - 1 week. That date is determined by our workload at the time their 50% is paid. I leave it up to them if they want to wait.

From contributor K:
After reading some of the posts above, I am really disappointed to see how prevalent greed is. Raising the price or overpricing to hope they go away or to get some extra money…

Just because you are busy and making lots of money now does not mean you should look down on the small jobs. Price them fairly and be honest. If you are booked for the next 4 months, then tell them that or fit them in if you run a similar job. And yes, I am fully aware of supply and demand, but integrity goes a long way and it is earned, not bought. So I would say, be honest and don't bite the hand that has been feeding you. You may need their business someday.

From contributor W:
On small jobs, I price them two ways. One price if we can work in between jobs, say in the next 60 to 90 days. One price if they have a timeline. I tell them the extra cost is for overtime. Sometimes they say work it in whenever you can, sometimes they pay the overtime charge.

From contributor H:
When I was first starting out, I did a job for a guy that runs a very large construction company. He was a Harvard grad and had been in the business for a long time. I asked how busy they were and he said they were turning away work all the time. He told me that he had gotten to the point that the smallest job they would do was about 3 million. The only exception was if they had a job for a customer that had given them a lot of work. Trying to look smart, I said something like, "well, on the other small ones, you can just jack the price up so you don't get the job, but if you do, then great, more money for you." He looked at me and said, "No, we don't do that. We just tell people if they want us to the job, they will have to wait,” or "We would love to your job, but our current workload won't permit us to do the job to our satisfaction." The reason he gave is if you jack your price for small jobs, then people will not let you bid on the big ones and they will tell their friends that you are way too high. In the long run it costs more to jack those jobs up and get them than it does to just tell them that you don't have time to do them.

From contributor A:
After reading the responses I have to ask what you consider a "small" job. I get the feeling a small job for some of you might be a large job for my shop. I consider a small job anything under $1000.00 or that takes less than about 8 hours. A dude comes in and needs some 1x10's run through the planer and jointed, needs entertainment center shelves remade longer for a new TV, someone needs a kitchen door duplicated, a church needs a new sign for a walkway, etc. That is small stuff to me. But to try to schedule stuff and give a customer a delivery date weeks out seems like a large job to me.