GETTING PEOPLE OUT OF YOUR BOOTH #6: Bear Baiters and Goat Getters

Sixth in a series of people you want to move out of your booth at a craft show or art fair.

There is a reprehensible sport from ancient times known as bear baiting. Bears and other wild animals were teased and provoked into attacking and fighting other animals, for the enjoyment of spectators.

It’s hard to imagine, but we still have a civilized version of this sport today.

There are people among us who thrive on confronting and insulting other people for their own amusement and excitement.

The internet, with its potential for anonymous baiting and the virtue of distance from our targets, can encourage this type of behavior in modern times. On forums, we call it “flaming”.

Very occasionally, you may have the misfortune to find someone like this in your booth.

It may be fellow artist with a bone to pick with you (a real or imagined bone.)

It may be a customer who loves to “tease” you, perceiving you as a captive audience in your booth , making “funny” rude comments about your work

It may be as subtle as someone who, seemingly interested in your work, asks you questions–but then refutes or argues with every answer you give.

Why does this happen at shows? Because we’re seen as a captive audience and an easy target.

We may be perceived as a captive audience because

a) we obviously are “tied down” to our booth space during a show, and

b) we are taught “the customer is always right” even if the customer is being ridiculous.

Sometimes, c) because we are women and socialized to be more conciliatory, we are baited by people who know we won’t fight back (because that would be rude.)

And d), these people also sense we are trying desperately not to make a scene in front of other customers.

Whatever the situation, whatever the rationale in their mind, know that someone who pulls this stunt while you are conducting your business at a show doesn’t deserve an extra minute of your time and energy. Move them on!

A good analogy to keep in mind is treating your booth as your private home. Would you let just anyone into it because they showed up at your door? Would you let someone rude stay just because you were too polite to get them to leave? (And if the answer is “yes”, then sign up for an assertiveness training course immediately!!)

If it’s a fellow artist, you should know that in most shows, even small ones, in your contract there is an unspoken (or even stated) assumption that your booth is your space, for the duration of the show. You paid the booth fee, you’ve set up your display to do business there, and you have control over who is allowed in. Technically, you do not have to even allow other artists into your booths. This is especially true of wholesale shows. Artists who enter your booth without your permission or who refuse to leave when asked can get into a lot of trouble with show management.

If there are artists who stir up such bad vibes in your booth, make a point of cheerfully but pointedly drawing any conversations to an instant close the second a customer enters your booth. “It’s was nice of you to stop by, but I really have some things I need to work on right now.” Make a point of escorting them out to the aisle.

If there are no customers, you can still ask them to leave, or head them off before they even come in. “Hi! I really can’t stop to talk now–maybe later?” (Make sure “later” never comes….)

If they don’t take the hint, be polite but blunt: “I’m so sorry, but I cannot do this right now. It’s time for you to leave.”

If you maintain your composure and stay grounded and calm, even if there are customers in your booth, you will still come off okay.

But what if the baiter is a customer?

You still don’t have to put up with it. But sometimes, putting up with it can win friends and influence people.

The social dynamics of bullying and baiting are beyond me, and I don’t have answers. But I know when someone is being baited, it’s hard to watch. And harder to figure out what to do about it, especially if the person being baited is at least as competent or powerful as you. (And since we are the artist and the rightful “owner” of the booth, we are actually perceived as more powerful and competent than the person baiting us.) You desperately hope they will do something to defend themselves. But you are also hoping they don’t make the situation worse, too.

Your customers are watching and feeling the same way. So dealing with that customer’s behavior diplomatically will set your other customers at ease.

I had one customer bait me with the “asking questions/arguing with the answers” thing. It was hugely annoying. But I didn’t really get that he was doing that. I was just determined to turn him around with my sincerity and my passion for my work.

In my innocence, this turned out to be the perfect ploy. Every time he said something pissy about my motivations, I answered with genuine conviction about what I was doing. I was genuinely puzzled by his behavior, and kept my responses thoughtful and calm.

He just kept it up–til his wife came looking for him.

She instantly recognized what he was doing. (Evidently, this is what he did for fun at craft shows.) She said in an exasperated tone, “Oh for godsake, leave that poor artist alone! Why do you act this way?!”

She glared at him til he sheepishly hulked out of my booth, and then said to me, “I’m so sorry, he does this all the time!” Her voice drifted back to me as they walked down the aisle, “If you don’t quit treating people like that, I’m leaving you home next time!”

I admit I am such a small person, I found this extremely gratifying. But what gratified me even more was what happened next.

A browser nearby came in and said, “Wow! You really held your temper with that old coot! I’m impressed!” And promptly began shopping in my booth.

Then there’s the customer who makes constant sardonic remarks about your work. It’s “supposed” to be entertaining patter, all in fun–but it sure doesn’t feel that way. I’ve heard this referred to as “talking smack”–an exchange of put-downs and insults between friends.

Well, there is a time and a place for such practice–maybe in a bar over a few beers discussing your favorite respective baseball teams. (“How about them Red Sox?!”

But never in your business place. Never where you are trying to earn your living. NEVER in front of your customers.

I had a “friend” visit me at a show and act this way–it was my first real insight that this person was not really my friend. And I called him on his behavior on the spot. I said something like, “You know, I love to goof around and say silly things. But not about my art. And not when I’m at a show. I’m as serious about what I do here as you are about (insert their profession here.) I hope you understand.” (Big smile.)

It worked. He mumbled an apology, he made some effort to look at my work “seriously”, and left soon after.

With a customer I don’t know, I would use the “innocently passionate” ploy I used with the first gentlemen. It seems to work really well! They will be baffled when they just can’t get a rise out of you.

And then there is the scenario that really happened to me this summer at a big show–another artist confronted me in my booth, screaming at me for some perceived insult and behaving in a threatening manner.

I still don’t feel like I handled this perfectly, though in hindsight, I didn’t handle it badly, either. It was fortunate that it was before show hours, so no customers were around. But unfortunately, I was alone in the tent and feared for my safety.

What I did right was I stayed reasonably calm. (In hindsight, I should have stayed even calmer.)

I tried to reason with the person (which does not work with a bully or baiter, so in hindsight, I should not have even engaged him at all.)

I asked him to step back–his face was three inches from mine–and he refused. (In hindsight, I should have stepped away and not stood my ground nor let him get that close to me, even if it meant me having to leave my booth.)

I asked him to leave, and he refused. (I’m wondering if, after he did leave, I should have called the security people.)

I honestly can’t remember how it ended, whether he finally stomped away or whether I finally fled to the fair office.

Although this person was clearly in the wrong and I still feel indignant about it, I should have recalled my Impact/Model Mugging training. I’ve taken workshops from this organization’s Boston chapter and I recommend them highly. What composure I maintained was due to those workshops.

The training teaches you to identify potentially dangerous situations, and helps you respond appropriately. In this case, staying calm and placating the person threatening (“I don’t want any trouble. We can talk about this later, but not now.”) But not actively engaging them or trying to reason with them. Keeping my distance (holding out my hands and saying, “Stay back!” firmly, moving away if he moved closer.) Leaving the scene as soon as I could get away (and reporting the incident to the fair office and security immediately, instead of staying in my booth.)

In this case, I felt conflicted as tent captain, feeling I was called upon to “stand my ground” and “deal with the person.” I was lucky, because I was wrong. And I won’t make that mistake again.

In the case where someone is behaving in a way that is threatening and frightening, your first priority is to protect yourself and get to a place of safety. Don’t try to salvage your dignity, do not respond in kind or in anger, do not turn your back on them.

This is an extreme example, and you may never encounter this. But having a strategy in mind goes a long way to preparing yourself in the event it does happen. And knowing you are prepared goes a long way to helping you stay calm and in the moment.

Why do some people do this?

Again, the question to ask is, what do they get from this? What is their pay-off?

It’s a game to see if they can get you to lose control. Then they can play innocent and leave you looking foolish. (“Hey, I was only joking, geez!”) It makes them feel powerful to be able to manipulate people’s emotions. Playing into their hands only encourages them.

And as artists, with our soul’s work out there for all to see and make fun of, we are vulnerable targets.

Just remember why we are targets.

Because as artists at a show or other public venues, we’re showing we have the guts and the determination to not only make our work, but to get it out there where the world can see it. Maybe for the world to buy it.

We take real risks, we take huge risks by investing in that show, by schlepping our work and our booth across the country, and offering it up for others to look at, to judge, and hopefully, to buy. Maybe some of us only make enough to make a car payment or two, but some of us help support our families with our work, put our kids through college, put a roof over our heads and food on the table.

We truly lay it on the line.

Who’s the brave person in this dynamic? Uh-huh. That’s you, baby.

And who’s the coward in this dynamic? Uh-huh. Not you.

Remember that when someone is trying to get your goat.

And remember this, too. A boss told me years ago, “If someone is out to get your goat, don’t leave your goat out.” It was good advice 30 years ago, and it’s still good advice today.

And if you do find goat-getter is in your booth, get him outta there!

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7 Comments

Filed under action steps, art, booth behavior, business, craft, craft shows, customer care, getting people OUT of your booth, mental attitude, selling, shows

7 responses to “GETTING PEOPLE OUT OF YOUR BOOTH #6: Bear Baiters and Goat Getters

  1. Thank-you so much for these blog posts! I find the information fascinating and helpful. I started doing art fairs last summer and I’m still learning how to handle difficult people. I thought the years I worked retail jobs would prepare me for the art fair circuit….not nearly!

    Others groups I’m still learning to handle are drunks (with grabbing hands and unsteady feet), and those impromptu gatherings of people that block the entrance to my booth. Any ideas?
    Have a good weekend :-)

  2. Ok, I know this is nosy but I’m really curious. What did the scary guy think you did to him to react in such a violent way?

  3. Hello Xanthe, I will ask my bartender friends what to do with drunks. I have to say, I haven’t seen any at the shows I do. I will talk about group gatherings soon–thanks for the suggestions!

    Cathy,during set-up, I nicely asked his assistant to move some of their equipment out of my booth space so I could start setting up my walls. He claimed I’d yelled at her and was rude. So…he came over to yell and be rude at me!

    With people like this, it soon becomes obvious it’s not about US, it’s about THEM. They are just looking for an excuse to blow.

  4. Great series, Luann! I do admire your restraint and courage. There’s almost nothing worse at a show than feeling physically vulnerable.

    Any plans to do a post about the customer who, once she’s bought from you, now thinks she’s your friend? I had this happen once, at a 5-day show (where she bought on day 2, and returnd on 3 and 4 to talk endlessly). I was as polite as I could be when I wasn’t trying to duck so she wouldn’t see me (!). That mixture of being grateful she’d bought a piece and annoyed that she kept showing up was difficult to juggle.

  5. Hmmmm, that’s a good one–the customer who feels they’ve bought your friendship….

    As annoying as that was, it sounds like you handled it well. Talked politely as you could, disappeared as you were able.

    Remember, too, that a small part of our biz is going to be social work. Some people have very poor social skills. For them, this IS how they make friends and interact in society. It can be hugely annoying, but a little patience and compassion can go a along way.

    I complain mightily, in private, with friends, and sometimes in this blog. But I would never, ever deliberately say something rude or hurtful to someone else, especially while showing as an artist at a fair or show. It can be hard to be at our best, at a show, for all the reasons I’ve mentioned, but it is worth it in the long run.

    Okay, if there’s no one in your booth, I’d use the opportunity to keep selling. Keep talking about other pieces. She might be persuaded to buy another piece! At the very least, as other people enter your booth, they’ll be able to you talk without having to deal with you directly. (A lot of people who browse will do just that–listen intently as they shop uninterrupted.)

    Be sure to stop occasionally as new people come in and acknowledge them by greeting them. Then casually say, “If you have any questions, just let me know.” Or something like, “If you’d like to try something on, the mirror is right here.” That lets other customers know you’re paying attention. At the slightest hint someone needs your help, smoothly interrupt the talker to say, “Excuse me just a moment.” and move to assist the other person.

    If there’s no one in your booth and you are dying slowly, you can always try to interest them in another artist at the show. Then they can have TWO new friends!

    Once again, I want to be very clear–I love 99.9% of my customers, the people who actually do love my work and support me with either sales, resources, leads and/or encouragement. It’s not just about the people who actually buy (thought that’s a critical part of having an art/craft business!) I value them highly–I could not do what I do without my customers!

    And casual visitors sometimes become customers.

    This series is for dealing with the people who simply bring negative energy and bad juju into our booths.

  6. As a female digital artist, I always get male visitors in my booth who try to “pin me” with rapid fire questions about my technique and my equipment mostly so in turn they can brag about what they do. I agree with what you said, speaking about the sincerity and love of your work often will turn off people trying to engage you into an argument.

    Sometimes I’m so shocked by the things that come out of peoples’ mouths that I don’t even know how to respond, so I just give them a nod and a smile. One customer actually made the remark about my art: “well you certainly don’t need therapy!” I didn’t know if it was a slam or a compliment, so I just chuckled and smiled.

    I’ve found that a lot of the time not responding is the best response!

  7. Giesla, you’ve hit it right on the head. So many times, those bizarre comments just don’t need a response. We can choose to just wait them out.

    Of course, you can still use “after the show” for the insistent types. :^)

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