Hello I have a small business that makes bespoke products for a very niche market. My expertise is broadly in making/coding. I get a lot of inquiries from people who want me to realise a particular idea of theirs. Often it's difficult to quote because it's not an area I'm very familiar with, and I'm going to have to do some research first, so that at least I understand the parameters of what I'm dealing with. This can take me a day or two. When I feel confident I can do the commission then I give a quote. But then the potential client is free to change their mind (they don't want it after all, or they've had another idea) and no business results. Should I just accept that the research time is a cost of doing business, or is there a way of factoring it in so I don't waste money?
This is something that often happens in my business (App development), too. I offer the detail analyse as a service the customer has to pay for. That means I analyze and describe what he really wants. Based on this description I give my offer and he can use the same description to go to somebody else and ask for a quote.
This way has a big advantage for both parts: Both sides know very detailed in advance what they are going to expect from the job. If in the realisation we see something necessary that was not part of the offer the customer has to pay for it (or at least we negociate, depending on the issue). Other companies will have the same problem so it is good to make one precise description.
Usually if somebody is prepared to pay for the evaluation he is interested to work with you, if not he is probably not so much interested.
As a rule of thumb I make everything that takes 1 - 2 hours to make an offer for free, if it is something like a day I quote the day for the analyze. Sometimes I have projects taking two weeks to make a detailed analyze and the customer pays for it. It is still better for him as he knows in advance what is possible and what not and he does not have this capability himself.
I was contacted by several customers after they realized a project with somebody else who did not do this exact description and they were very upset because they had to pay a lot of extras.
Most often, evaluating something for a bid is a loss-leader.
However, you can often quantify things a bit before digging in...
"From what I gather based upon our cursory conversation, projects of that nature range from $xxx to $xxxxx. If that something you are willing to explore I can evaluate the project specifically and determine a quote based upon your needs."
"Here's a similar project that was in the $xxxx range. While that projects will vary from yours, if the general price range is what you would consider acceptable I can evaluate your project specifically and determine a quote based upon your needs."
I find these simple statements tend to deter the "looky-loos" if they aren't willing to spend the money necessary.
And you are always free to add $x to any bid/quote to cover research time. Granted, if you don't get the project you won't get that return, but when you do get project, you recoup some of that.
I always met with a potential client for an hour or two to talk about what they needed done and whether we were the right 'fit' for each other. Then we'd agree that I'd work for Time & Expenses to write a program spec that would become a description of what I was to do and the eventual acceptance criteria. Only then, if the client wanted a fixed-price contract, would I price it and negotiate that price, and it was understood - in writing - that changes and additions to the requirements would require re-negotiating the price.
(In practice, most of my work was in R&D and my clients preferred an hourly contract to allow us to test new ideas or completely change course, without needing to re-negotiate every time.)
When dealing with clients who don't provide detailed specifications, I'd usually only provide a very rough estimate and not do a detailed analysis. Yes, like you I will research but put a limit on how much time I put into that research. Then I make it clear that this is just a rough number subject to change. If they're comfortable with that number and timeline then it makes sense to look deeper. Still, you give them as little of the details as possible before they sign the deal, because they didn't actually pay for that and it's valuable.
It sounds like you're in demand so try raising your prices. This will help pay for the times where you don't win a contract.