Recently, a reader asked, “When I meet someone new and they learn I build custom furniture, it usually takes only a moment before they ask if I can build such and such, and what would it cost? How do you handle this?"
The question relates to one of the basic principals of sales: qualifying the prospective client. Not only do you need to establish the seriousness (or lack thereof) of their intent, you also have to determine if this person is prepared for realistic numbers. Failing to do so can result in your spending a lot of time on a lost cause.
Simply throwing out a ballpark number is a mistake. Even if you say, “That could cost anywhere from a couple hundred to several thousand or more," by some puzzling quirk of human perception, they will remember nothing but the lowest number you mentioned.
One of my favorite ways to answer that question is with a question of my own: "How much are you willing to spend?" If you get an answer to that, you have established both their seriousness and their budget. In a perfect world, this is the best approach because, as we all know, the price range of any given piece of woodwork is totally dependent on so many factors that it is much easier to design to fit a specific price when you know the price up front.
Most people will balk at giving you a number because they will then feel at a disadvantage. The unfortunate truth is that this is an adversarial situation, regardless of your relationship with the potential client. So my next move is to say something like, "There is no way I could give you a realistic number without first working up a design and getting some idea of exactly what you have in mind."
From there, I will invest one hour on my nickel. I will encourage them to prepare for this by gathering some pictures of similar items they like so that I can get a better idea of what they are going to expect and a better idea of what kind of price they are going to be willing to accept. If they show me a bunch of pictures of cheap furniture, I'm going for my jacket as soon as I can respectfully back out. On the other hand, if we are looking at Frank Lloyd Wright furniture, I'm sticking around for a bit.