How to Set Up a Wait List for Your Longarm Business

By Kris Vierra

Gammill Quilt Artist

When you start a longarm business, you dream of all the work that you are going to get, and how many customers you will have waiting for your services.  It is a wonderful dream of churning out quilts left and right without any problems at all.  The reality, however, can be a little different.  I have owned and operated a longarm quilting business for almost eight years.  One of the most challenging parts of the business for me was figuring out how to schedule quilts and maintain an active and manageable wait list.  It is great to have a booming business with a wait list, but it can be extremely stressful if you don’t have a system in place to help manage your incoming, upcoming and outgoing quilts.

There is a fine line between under and over scheduling.  Obviously you want to be busy. If you aren’t quilting you aren’t making any money; however, you don’t want to be working so hard that quilting isn’t enjoyable anymore. Worse yet, you don’t want to have to call a client and tell them their quilt won’t be done when it was promised.

When I first started to get really busy, my husband thought that I should limit the number of quilts I did each month to keep my work load manageable.  Sounds like a reasonable idea, right?  Unfortunately, like most things, this is more complicated than it looks.  Do you limit yourself to four quilts a week, or two, or  ten?  How do you adjust for the time difference between a wall hanging and a California king, an allover design, or show-quality custom?

I am going to give you some tips and ideas on how to develop a system for managing your wait list and keeping your work load at a reasonable level.

First and foremost, you need to know how long it takes you to quilt any particular type of quilt.  Don’t guess on this.  Take some time and actually use a timer to figure out how long each type of quilting takes you.  Over the period of a month or two, track the amount of time you spend on each quilt. Make sure that you mark down the size of each quilt, the type of quilting, and the time involved including loading and unloading.  You can then use this information to determine your average quilting times.  For example, if it takes you eight hours (or 480 minutes) to complete a custom job that is approximately 80X80 (6400 square inches), you need to take the total square inches (6400) divided by the total number of minutes (480), to determine the number of minutes per square inch it takes you to quilt a custom quilt  (length X width/total min=avg quilting time).  In this case, you are averaging approximately 13 minutes per square inch.  You can then use the reverse of this formula (length X width/avg quilting time per min/60=hours of quilting time per quilt) to easily estimate how long each quilt will take.

Don’t forget to figure out average times needed to piece backs, square up quilts, bind, or any other services you offer on a regular basis.  Also, make sure you take into account the extra time difficult or “problem child” quilts take.  You all know the ones I am talking about.  Wavy borders, poor seam construction, and “C” or “D” cup block issues, all take more time, and need to be figured accordingly.

Once you have your quilting times figured out, you need to decide how many hours a week you want to work.  Be realistic with this number.  It is easy to say you are going to work 40-50 hours a week, but make sure that you actually have the time to dedicate to quilting.  Make sure that you allow time for breaks and anything else that you need to do that is not quilting related. After you decide the number of hours you are willing to work on average, you can start setting up your wait list.  I recommend using an actual scheduling program to help you keep track of upcoming quilts.  I personally like Machine Quilters Business Manager as it is specific to quilting, but any Excel type spread sheet can be used.

Set up your program to include the client’s name and contact information, the size of the quilt, and the type of quilting desired.  I also have a space to notate if the quilt is needed by a specific date or if the client is flexible.  After this, I use the above formula (length X width/avg quilting time per min/60) to estimate how long each quilt will take me.  I subtract this number from the number of hours I want to work each week.  When I reach 0, I stop scheduling quilts for that week, and start scheduling for the following weeks.

Like any program, this system is only as good as the data you put into it.  It is really important that you get as accurate information as possible from your clients.  I recommend that for new clients you double the scheduled amount of time per quilt to allow for any “problem child” quilts.  Once you have quilted a couple of quilts for a client you will usually know whose quilts are going to take extra time and whose won’t.  Make sure that you note this on your wait list so that you are keeping accurate track of your allotted time.  You can also deal with this issue by trying to set up an appointment to view the new client’s quilt before committing to a timeline to finish it.

Another issue to consider is the client who is on your schedule for one quilt but shows up with multiple quilts, or the client who is on the list for a lap sized custom but brings what is closer to a queen size.  I try to be as polite as I can with these clients, and to firmly but gently explain that, while I am happy to quilt their tops, the timeline may need to be adjusted.  If you have a plan in place to deal with these situations before they occur, it is much easier to handle the situation when the client is at your house and you are on the spot.  It is OK to say no or to push back their timeline.   This was their failure to plan, not yours.  Don’t let yourself be bullied or talked into a situation that will make your life more stressful and difficult.  That being said, if you feel that you want to handle the extra work or want to accommodate their situation, I encourage you to charge a rush fee.   You don’t want your clients assuming that you will always accommodate them with no inconvenience on their part.   You can always decide to waive that extra fee before quilt pick up, just make sure that they know the fee is being waived as a “one time” consideration.

The last advice I have is to never commit to a quilt when you are not able to immediately enter it into your system.  Clients will approach you at guild, call when you are not at your desk, or even run into you at the store.  Make sure to tell them you are happy to take their contact information and call them with a schedule when you are at your studio, or give them a card and have them call you.  It is too easy to tell someone, “Sure, I can do those for you by the end of next month” and then promptly forget when something else distracts you before you get back to your studio.  All of your careful planning and time spent figuring out quilting statistics is useless if you don’t remember to write all the clients’ quilts down.

Implementing a scheduled wait list is a great technique to effectively manage incoming quilt tops.  By working through these easy steps you will be able to schedule quilts with confidence knowing that you will not be over-booking yourself.   Just remember to occasionally recheck your average quilting times, as the more proficient quilter you become, the faster your times will be, and the more quilts you will be able to finish.