Many corsetmakers (though certainly not all) accept distance orders. The benefits to this are clear (almost the entire world becomes your potential client-base), whilst the potential pit-falls are also rather obvious (just who are you dealing with?).
Both the positive and negative aspects of long-distance corsetry apply to both makers and clients. If you are planning on working at a distance, these guidelines may prove useful.
Clear communication is everything.
Whether you are more comfortable with email, telephone, or skype, ensure that your communication sets down all the relevant particulars in a concise manner. Try to keep it brief. Large chunks of text do not get read. If you have ever had a website, you will know this to be true by the number of questions you receive that are clearly answered on your site!
To make life easier for yourself, have FAQs, key designs, price lists, etc. ready to hand (and written as shortly and sweetly as possible). You can either link interested parties to these on your website, or copy and paste the relevant sections yourself when replying to emails.
Though you can’t guarantee that clients have read your correspondence thoroughly, do your best to ensure they have. That way you can rest easy that if they do question something later you will have clear evidence of the terms of your arrangement.
This is very much a personal issue, and one that varies culturally too. Some distance clients end all their emails with lavish sums of “kisses”, whilst others remain coolly formal. Some become friends over time, whilst others adhere to a very strict client/maker relationship.
Whatever your level of friendliness, do remember to focus on the work. It can indeed be a merit for your communications to be imbued with your personality, but not if that tips over into sharing inappropriate information or behaving with over-familiarity. And by “inappropriate”, I don’t just mean intimate details of your recent tummy-bug! I would deem anything that is superfluous to the topic at hand and/or likely to cause the client any bother, is inappropriate.
For distance clients, it is certainly recommended to write up a contract detailing the order precisely. This is a sensible move for local clients too. See Cathy Hay’s article Contracts for Corsetmakers for more details.
Ensure the basics are covered (price, payment schedule, each detail of the design, refund policy, shipping details) and that each party has a signed copy for reference.
I put a note in my contracts stating that any amendments to the design will require a new contract which is subject to an amendment fee plus any extra costs incurred by the new design detail.
Distance clients can be more inclined (in my experience) to swap and change details very frequently. Perhaps because all the communication takes place in this “virtual” online space, it is easy to treat the corset as an unreal dream-like thing, constantly shifting and evolving in their mind, rather than a real time-consuming garment that the maker has already started stitching! An amendment fee encourages people to consider their design more carefully and stick to it. And of course, make it clear that the design cannot be amended once the corset has been begun.
You cannot guarantee that any client, let alone a distance client, will be reliable with their payments.
Be aware of the terms and conditions of your chosen payment service (eg: Paypal, Google Checkout) and ensure that the client pays a non-refundable deposit before you begin work.
Likewise, do not ship the finished corset until the balance has cleared into your bank account.
Make the deposit large enough to cover materials and a bit of your time. If you are lining up work far in advance, either take the deposit early or take a smaller “holding fee” to secure that client’s slot in your schedule. Do not schedule the client’s work in until they have paid some sort of deposit, as you run the risk of turning down other clients in the meantime… if they then cancel their order you are left twiddling your thumbs.
There are some obvious clichés for “difficult clients”, but I would say that it really depends upon your definition of “difficult” and what you are prepared to deal with. However you would define your difficult client, being at a distance can both help and hinder you in your dealings with them.
For example, the bridezilla! She is overcome with a sort of fury that non-brides cannot understand, and the overarching potential problem here is that everything must be perfect for that one day. There is so much pressure on it all, however, that perfection is not possible no matter how good your work, and the additional worry of distance or overseas shipping only adds to that pressure. It isn’t her fault that the situation has gotten the better of her, but is the whole experience working for you?
Of course, most clients are fair, reasonable people. Some may push their luck, some may constantly ask for extras, changes, and some may be very particular about each and every detail of their corset (thus cutting off your creative input). There isn’t anything inherently wrong with even the most exacting or demanding of clients! If they want the top edge of their corset 5mm lower (thus involving the complete re-working of 30 flossed motifs and the trimming and re-tipping of 30 spiral steels) and two beads on the left-hand side shifting inwards by 2mm to better match the right, then so be it… but only if you are being fairly compensated for your work and the time involved in that level of precision. If you don’t command a fair fee for such work you will be walked all over.
But really, “difficult” clients aren’t actually the challenge… the challenge is you. You must decide how you will let yourself be treated. You must decide what your time is worth and how hard you wish to work for your money. And you must learn to manage (to a degree) the behaviour of your clients.
Leading By Example
Yes, your job is to make the client’s experience/purchase as smooth as possible. No, your job is not to yield to unreasonable requests.
Quite simply, people will generally treat you the way you allow them to treat you. If you relent to a client’s demands once they will expect you to twice, and beyond. They will then not understand the change of policy or communication. Be clear from the start about what you will and won’t do. If you don’t want to do bridal, don’t accept bridal orders. This is easier said than done, if you’re trying to build a reputation and earn an income. But you’re playing the long game here. Make choices appropriate to where you want your brand to be, not where it currently is.
This is actually one of the merits of distance work. My tendency is to give too much to people. In person, I get shy, nervous, and I enjoy doing what I can to give the client everything they want in the corset! I’m aware that this is partly because I don’t like being the centre-of-attention with strangers and so I direct attention to my work (“look, shiny!”) in order to have something to talk about and hide behind. This sometimes leads to me offering too much for too little, gifting complementary flossing because I’m enthused about the design, or discounting something because I like the person and want them to have one of my corsets. Great for clients, not so great for my business!
Working at a distance allows you the head-space to make informed, calm decisions. Whilst I hope to begin working through the internet a touch less (you just can’t beat in-person fittings), I must certainly say that working online for the first two years of my business (and learning about online interaction within the corsetry communities for two years prior to that) has really helped me practice and explore the customer service skills necessary for this sort of specialist product.
Be simple, be clear. Yes is yes, no is no!
Say a client requests an elaborate satin corset (you hate satin) within a £200 budget, but you are building towards a brand based around your avant-garde work in PVC and latex with an average price point of £2000.
Quick income and potential professional despondency versus long-term reputation and creative happiness... Which do you choose? Which will get you where you need to go?
Because it may be “just this once” or it may well be the beginning of a trend for creatively malnourishing commissions that you take again and again. I’ve turned away work many a time, directing requests for things such as PVC to makers who I know like the material.
Basically, I try to behave the way I hope to be treated in regards to my work. So, for example, it is rare that I will respond to client emails over the weekend or in the evenings. My clients need to understand that I am busy making corsets, reading books, living my life! That I am not glued to my mobile phone answering emails and amending contracts every day. Indeed, having learnt my lessons the hard way I now go so far as to deliberately leave it a day or two before replying to any new enquiries.
My reasoning is as follows:
- The time allows me to research the client’s request or compose a decent reply in my mind (I can’t shoot out emails quickly, I’m very keen to check and double-check all of my professional communications).
- To start our working relationship in such a way that they understand the pace I work at. I am not an especially fast worker, and I want to conduct myself in such a way that clients (new and old) are aware that by working with me they are accepting that there will be waiting involved. Don’t think that this is poor customer service… the clients who appreciate and purchase luxury items the most are those who will enjoy the anticipation involved in acquiring their dreamy corset! Having to wait is part of the fun.
- If the client has gone elsewhere in this time on the basis that I wasn’t prompt enough, then they are probably better working with someone else.
To reiterate, you are leading by example. Your behaviour should be such that it insists upon professional respect from your clients, and cultivates an appreciation for the time involved in bespoke corsetry.
When Problems do Occur
Say you are running behind on your orders and need to inform a client that her deadline has been pushed back… Or the fabric you have always been able to source before is no longer available and she had her heart set on it. How do you break the uncomfortable news?
The three things to remember are this:
1. SOLVE THE PROBLEM: Slow down and give a moment to trying to solve the problem. Distance work generally = numerous emails. Emails and online interaction generally = fast response. Slow down! Your supplier has run out of the “grape purple” satin you needed, your schedule has been destroyed by a family drama… Pause, wait, think. Don’t panic under the weight of “I need to inform my client immediately!” You can afford the time to stop and try to come up with a solution first.
2. INFORM THE CLIENT: If the issue cannot be solved without their involvement, then you must inform your client as soon as possible. But remember that your client does not need to know every single detail of the story. Those details may be perfectly simple and rational, life can get in the way after all, but your role (as the provider of something luxurious, fun, and enjoyable) is not to overwhelm the client. You are there to give them what they want in as relaxed and pleasurable way as possible, with the minimum of fuss. They don’t need to know that your pipes burst, the dog ate their lace, and your car broke down… a simple apology and short explanation will do.
3. MANAGE THE CLIENT: Each client is different and will respond differently. When something is beyond your control the best you can do is to remain polite, apologetic and professional. But do try to manage the client with diplomacy and calm. If necessary you can always utter the magic words “complimentary” and “good will gesture”, gifting your client a voucher, discount, or free shipping to apologise for the problem. This is basic customer service and so you need to use your discretion and judgment about when it is appropriate to make such offers. Some clients, of course, cannot be pleased no matter what you do. If you are unlucky enough to have found one of the very small percentage of these clients, then take it as a learning experience and move on. Don’t blame yourself and don’t get into heated arguments!
The Other Challenges Online
The internet is wonderful. And horrible. Opening up your work to a world of potential clients also opens you up to a world of professional rivals, unfair comparisons, and spurious enquiries.
Here are the few key points that I think you will need when interacting with an online client-base:
- Do not get involved in rivalries or arguments. They are totally fruitless.
- Do not set your prices through reference to other brands/makers, and do not feel the need to give lengthy explanations of your pricing compared to anyone else’s (whether you’re less or more expensive).
- I would advise charging a design fee before doing any sketches for a new client. Too often, makers spend a good couple of hours designing only for the client to disappear. Sometimes the client even takes these sketches to other makers (which there is no effective way to guard against unless you watermark the image, and even then a truly unscrupulous individual can work around it). Charge a design fee to sort “the wheat from the chaff” (ie: the serious enquiries from the time-wasters) and ensure you state in your emails and/or contract that the sketches may not be used by other seamstresses/designers.
Fitting at a Distance
This is a topic worthy of many discussions!
Basically, you have two options when fitting a corset pattern:
- Alter the toile (or make a new one) for each change before proceeding to the next alteration (since each change will have a small knock-on effect on the rest of the corset).
- Visualise the knock-on effect that the changes will have and make your alterations all in one go accordingly.
Now, the problem with option number 1 is that it clearly is not suited to working at a distance (unless your client is happy to wait a very long time for multiple toiles, which perhaps she is).
The problem with option number 2 is that it has the potential to result in fit that isn’t quite as perfect as you or your client would like. It may be prudent to make it clear in your communications/contract that alterations based on the toile will be agreed upon by both corsetmaker and client and that subsequent changes to the finished corset are not covered under the original price.
Ultimately, working at a distance presents more challenges with the fit and that’s all there is to it. It is absolutely possible to achieve stunning fit and shaping with distance clients and as few as one toile. But to pick up on our previous thoughts on “difficult” clients, if your client is exceptionally exacting then distance fittings may not be good enough. This is something worth bearing in mind as you consider embarking on distance work. Remember, where do you ultimately want to be? Are you going to get there following route a, b, or c? Is distance work appropriate to those dreams?
Tips for Sucessful Distance Fittings
With all that in mind, here are a few tips for successful distance fittings.
- Produce your toile using the same strength fabric as the final corset.
- Produce your toile following as similar construction method to the final corset as possible.
- Be aware of proportions/lengths and practice visualisation.
- Get good comprehensive measurements to begin with!
On point number 3, I would like to share the one thing that I realise has helped me most in learning to fit at a distance: life drawing.
Study of human body's proportions by Ingeborg Bernhard
Any of you who have taken life drawing classes will most likely have been shown how to use your pencil and thumb (held at arm’s length) to measure relative distances. You may notice, for example, that the length of a forearm in a certain pose corresponds to the height of the head.
Now, I’m not saying that you should measure alterations in this way, since a flattened photograph does not represent measurements in three-dimensions! What I’m suggesting is that you become comfortable with looking and judging proportion based upon related parts of the corset.
If you know that the waist-to-lower-edge is 6” down the side seam and your client is finding the corset too tight at the half-way mark between them, then you know that the high hip (at 3” down the side seam) needs a touch more room. You don’t need to be there to measure her, you know that 3” down is where the space needs adding.
I know that it can be easy for corsetmakers to become obsessed with precise in-person measurements, but I really see them as just a starting point. Eye-balling proportions is a skill that I feel you should devote a lot of time too, in order to enhance your pattern drafting and fitting skills.
But how do you practice? Well, if you have friends at a distance, great!
If not, just send your local friends off home with a toile and the instructions you would give your client (you will generally want clear photographs of the corset from the front, side-front, side and back, preferably worn with whatever other garments it would be paired with). This also allows you to see if your instructions are clear.
Is your friend confused about how to lace up or what photographs to take? My first instructions sheets were almost 3 pages long! The whole process will be increasingly refined and streamlined as you practice.
Continue in this way until you’re happy with your fitting skills. Then begin taking clients at a distance and see how you get on.
Of course, decent starting measurements are always a help! But even then, I am happier if I can do a toile. The measurements aren’t the full story alone, and the best way to achieve a great fit is, in my opinion, with toiles and ongoing thorough visual assessment of the client’s physique.
Ensure your delivery method is fully insured and as speedy as possible. Delivery to certain countries and at certain weights does get expensive (especially if you’re insuring the garments to their full value, sending multiple pieces, or sending large pieces), so make the client aware of this before she places an order. A rough quote (even an over-estimation) is far better than letting the client believe shipping will be much lower than it turns out to be.
It is also worth setting a delivery day each week and making your clients aware of it. Keeping a decent schedule is, I find, difficult for the creatively minded self-employed! If you know that Wednesday, for example, is post office day then that’s just one less thing weighing on your mind. Of course, this is especially important if you live miles away from a post office!
Distance work can be very fulfilling and an intelligent business choice, allowing you a wider pool of potential clients whilst also allowing those passionate in corsetry a wider choice of makers. Indeed, many corset enthusiasts commission multiple corsetmakers throughout their lifetime, and the internet assists with this.
Distance work can also be very challenging, as it raises additional questions when accepting any new order or communicating with any client. Remember that ultimately, you are simply dealing with a different kind of one-to-one customer service. Your role is to be helpful, polite, hard-working and informative. Take that attitude into your dealings online (as well as with “real life” clients) and you’ll be fine.