"Does the customer own the digitized file just because they paid me to have it made?" It's a question decorators ask frequently, but the real meaning behind it is, "I don't want my customer to take this file to my competitor. How can I make them stay with my shop?"
While graphic designer contracts often specify usage, rights, and agreements about future alterations, these concerns are an afterthought for most decorators who digitize files intending to secure the customer. Moreover, customers see embroidery digitizing as a conversion rather than an interpretation of art into a new medium. It's complete with technical and aesthetic decisions requiring a digitizer’s skill and vision. Thus, our conception of the value and originality of a digitized file is at odds with the customer’s understanding.
Opinions vary on ownership and what it means for a customer to pay for digitizing. However, the real answer has more to do with the relationship you build with customers rather than a legalistic interpretation of ownership. By exploring the pros and cons of the ways shops approach digitizing ownership, it'll expose the ramifications each has on customer experience and business success.
Retaining ownership generally revolves around a desire to achieve lock-in. If a customer doesn’t want to pay the next shop for digitizing or prefers the quality of your rendering, retaining files adds a barrier for taking their business elsewhere. More positively, it means your customer knows you have their design and colorways on record. Any order they place with you won’t incur the initial costs of moving to a new shop. Additionally, they will not have to work through the design and approval process again, making it a less complicated experience than ordering from a new vendor.
Some shops choose to release ownership of digitized files to give customers a sense of freedom and to justify the cost of digitizing by charging for the file as a deliverable product. By doing so, they avoid conflict over designs. It helps convince customers reluctant to be locked in that they are free to leave without losing out on anything, should they find the quality of the product or service lacking.
THE PROS OF RELEASING FILES
The upside to releasing your digitized work is primarily in the positive perception of customers. If they feel free to leave, they are less likely to weigh your shop against another at the initial point of purchase. They take comfort that one order doesn’t require a more significant commitment. Moreover, you seem confident in your willingness to stake their future business on the value of your decoration and service alone. Customers who leave in search of a bargain or other convenience are more likely to return should their experience with your competitor compare poorly to yours.
THE PROS OF RETENTION
If a customer wants your design because they're looking to avoid fees levied by another shop or need a fast turnaround, they may be more likely to use your services than switch to your competition. Those skilled with digitizing or who have produced work with a unique style or technique can use file retention to establish themselves as exclusive providers of that style/quality in their area. Through this, digitizers may retain customers if other decorators can’t match what that unique technique provides. This quality/scarcity model may be the most viable method of retaining a customer’s file without complaint. However, it, like all methods, is working toward the primary benefit of retention—keeping the customer locked in for future orders.
THE CONS OF RELEASING FILES
Customers are free to leave. Constant price-shoppers may take your work to the cheapest decorator. Once you give them your digitized file, the customer can only be retained by the value you provide. This means that you must be mindful of what you bring to the table and make sure that your customer understands the unique value you provide. Releasing files can mean extra unpaid work should the customer contact you repeatedly for clarifications or lost files. It can also create hassles when a competitor blames you for complications in future orders.
THE CONS OF RETENTION
Customers may see the preservation of their file as a violation of their rights. Though this isn’t true, the perception that you are holding their work hostage makes for an unhappy customer. Even if customers don’t take this extreme point of view, they may see artificial barriers to leaving as a way of coercion. Thus, they could attach the negative feeling of being controlled to your shop.
Another drawback to the ‘free’ method is that it prescribes spreading the digitizing costs over the initial garments ordered. With this, your customer may unfavorably compare your item price against a rival decorator’s quote, despite their inclusion of a digitizing or setup fee. If you don’t disclose the cost, the customer may see the same decorated garment by your competitor as "cheaper." They'll think your unit price is higher and assume your decoration prices are always less favorable.
CLARITY IS KEY
No matter what side you take in this debate, the most critical element of any remedy to file ownership frustrations is found in establishing clear expectations with the customer. Tempting as it may be, avoid hiding fees and delaying the retention talk. It’s far better to expose your terms and conditions with your customer from the beginning. Nothing creates an unresolvable conflict like a surprise restriction when a customer is already unhappy or tempted enough by the thought of leaving that they are asking for their files.