Tag Archives: business

THE VERY BAD SADDLE

I just found out I can republish my own article that I write for Fine Art Views–yay! Here’s today’s article:

The Very Bad Saddle
by Luann Udell on 9/30/2010

This post is by Luann Udell, regular contributing author for FineArtViews. You should submit an article and share your views as a guest author by clicking here.

If your art career is giving you a hard time, maybe it’s trying to tell you something.

My art life and my “normal” life spill over into each other a lot. Things that occur in my “normal life” often provide surprising insights into my artist life. In fact, it happened just this week.

I’ve been taking riding lessons (horse, not motorcycle!) for awhile now, my reward to myself for getting through an excruciating period in my life.

I’m at the point where, like making art, I simply need to do it more in order to get better. So this month I upped my commitment. I’ve been riding more than the standard weekly lesson, sometimes two or three or even four times a week.

But instead of getting easier, things got harder.

I’ve been riding this new horse on the trails. To put it mildly, he didn’t agree with anything I propose during our rides together. He was getting so antsy, willful and unruly, I began to fear for my safety on him.

I complained to my instructor, who finally took him out herself. And she couldn’t find anything wrong with him.

“So,” I asked gingerly, “Does this mean I really suck at riding?”
“No”, she replied. “You have a really crappy saddle.”

I couldn’t believe it. I’d bought the saddle just a few months ago online, under guidance from someone I believed to be an expert on such things. We’d spent a delightful afternoon shopping for saddles on Ebay, drinking wine and talking about the trail rides we’d take. She helped me find a great deal on what she said was a great saddle.

But apparently, it doesn’t fit the horse at all. It was pinching the horse in all the wrong places. He was doing his best to let me know it. But I couldn’t read his message.

My expert friend was mistaken. Or hey, maybe it was the wine. But my saddle is a cheap, poorly designed saddle from a country famous for cheap, poorly designed saddles.

In a way, I was relieved. Better to blame my woes on a bad saddle that didn’t cost me much in the first place. (And at least that might also mean my riding doesn’t totally suck.) But it got me thinking….

What “bad saddle” am I using when it comes to getting my art out into the world?

Right now, we are in a transitional period on how art and fine craft are marketed and sold. The old ways—getting into great galleries, getting juried into great shows, advertising, finding a patron or agent–are not sure-fire strategies for success anymore.

Yet it’s not clear what we should be doing. And when we don’t know what we should do, we often cling to the old ways. At least they’re familiar.

“My friend says I should do this show. It’s the best in the country! It’s expensive, and shows overall aren’t doing well. But maybe this one will work for me!”

“I’m going to keep applying to juried exhibits. I’ve never sold my work from one before. But maybe this time it will be different!”

“I’ve been doing this prestigious show for years. It used to be my best show! But they seem to be letting a lot of people who aren’t up to snuff, and sales are way, way down. But maybe this year will be different…”

“Nothing’s working for me right now. My work must be bad!”

“Nothing’s working for me right now. It couldn’t possibly be my work! It’s always sold well before…”

I knew an artist whose goal was to exhibit in juried gallery shows in every 50 states in the U.S. Now, there are good reasons to do a juried gallery show. But when I asked her why on earth she thought that would be a selling point for her work, she realized it was a goal she’d outgrown.

I know a prestigious fine crafts show that now juries in people whose work is just not up to snuff. Their spaces are filled, but the quality of the show suffers. That’s a professional credential I can do without.

After rescuing my work from three failed galleries in the past few years, I’m not as eager as I used to be to get into that “perfect gallery”.

Sometimes we just have to take a good, hard look, and listen deep to our heart to see what the next step is. And move on from what isn’t working anymore.

Maybe our work needs a fresh eye. Maybe it’s time to give up that prestigious show. Maybe it’s time to explore selling online. Maybe we need to rethink what potential customers really want to know about us and our work (as opposed to what academics and art schools say we should tell them.)

I thought about some of the events and venues I’ve committed to over the next six months. Some will be worthwhile to keep. Others aren’t paying their way, are not furthering my greatest vision for my art, and take up too much time to boot. I want to clear out some clutter in my life, both literal and figurative. I want to look carefully at all the goals I’ve assumed would move me forward, that are actually holding me back.

I can let go of some of these things I used to think would mean I’d “made it”, and articulate ways my art could “work” more powerfully for me. Get rid of the strategies, venues and goals that don’t work for me anymore, and find a better “fit”. Maybe instead of just getting my work into a great gallery, it could actually serve a great cause.

I’ve learned my lesson—don’t let a bad saddle keep you from having a good ride on a great horse.

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IDENTITY AND AUTHENTICITY

What happens when one person’s right to privacy trespasses on another person’s right to their own identity and authenticity?

Today I received one of the most upsetting phone calls of my life.

A local woman, whose husband has been in the news lately, called to tearfully ask me why I would ever write such terrible things about her on a public forum.

I was totally bewildered. I asked for more details and found the disturbing situation:

Someone had posted insulting, derogatory and hurtful personal comments about this woman and her family. Then they’d linked their pseudonym (“sad”) to a blog article I wrote in May 2010.

To the casual observer, it might be construed that I had also written those awful comments.

Let me state here and now:

I did not write the comments written by “sad” on that website. (Actually, searching for those comments was the first time I’ve even visited that site.)

I do not know who did.

I hope to find out someday, and I will do my best to do that.

But….how do I prove I didn’t do such a sleazy thing?

I’m in the process now of talking to my lawyer and our local newspaper. Turns out not much can be done, legally. But there is a story here, maybe several, and I can only hope The Keene Sentinel will take on this complex story of privacy, identity and authenticity.

We worry so much about our privacy in the digital age. We feel strongly that we should be able to be anonymous sometimes–to protect our jobs, perhaps, or to offer an opinion or insight while distancing ourselves from our professional ethics or…whatever. I’m not well-versed on this. There are circumstances that allow anonymity, and often for very good reasons.

But what hits me hard today is, this is actually a matter of identity and authenticity.

The anonymous poster wanted to express his crude opinions in a way to protect his own reputation and profession. But in doing so, he maligned mine.

Anyone who knows my writing (and I’ve been blogging since 2002) knows how I operate. I write with as much truth, honesty and integrity as possible. I would never have written the awful things that “sad” (pun intended) person wrote. I would never have hidden behind a pseudonym. I would never have implied someone else said them.

This person’s “right” (not sure, but they felt they had that right) to be anonymous trespassed on my right to my identity and my authenticity–a reputation I’ve built and maintained all my life.

It’s frightening to think this person could take that away in a few minutes of venomous spurting.

It’s upsetting this woman would (understandably) conclude that I could write such things.

Frankly, it pisses me off I have to spend so much time this morning scrambling to defend my reputation.

And since we’re having dinner tonight with our family lawyer, I anticipate a lively discussion on one person’s right to privacy vs. another person’s right to their personal and professional identity and authenticity.

Stay tuned–“lively” is an understatement!

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Filed under art, business, craft, privacy vs. authenticity and identity

WHAT’S IN A NAME?

Today’s essay is a rewrite of a column I originally wrote for the September 2004 issue of CraftsBusiness magazine. I’m writing an update for my column in The Crafts Report magazine next month, and wanted to provide the back story. Enjoy!

I can still remember the day I came up with my perfect business name. My tiny business was in its infancy, with great dreams of what was to come. A mail order business? Perhaps a small retail craft gallery?

I wanted a catchy little name that could encompass any possibility. We had a little family joke about any extra cash that came our way. Many people might blow it on an expensive dinner out or concert tickets, but I would joke that I put all my extra money into “durable goods”. So when the time came to register my business name with the State of New Hampshire, I was ready to go.

Our state is small enough to make the trip to the appropriate government offices in person. Determined to snag this name before anyone else thought of it, I waited hours in line to file, then waited for a decision.

I was turned down.

I waited more hours for the person who had made that decision to return from lunch, to find out why.

“It’s not very distinctive,” she declared. “‘Durable Goods’….It doesn’t say what you do. Don’t you think you should have something descriptive, like ‘Luann’s Art Studio’, or ‘Luann’s Craft Shop’? How can you be successful with a name that isn’t about what you DO??”

I thought for a moment, looked her straight in the eye and said, “The Gap?”

Needless to say, she reversed her decision. I was soon out the door with my brand new business name.

Time went on. As my work became more art-like, and I felt more like an artist, I wondered if my wonderful business name was still working for me as it should. I asked other artists, craftspeople and craft retailers for their opinion.

It looked like my attempt to look like a “real business” instead of a one person operation was actually working against me. Customers, even wholesale customers, found it hard to connect my business name with ME, Luann Udell. A “studio” name felt more like a big operation to retail customers, rather than a single artist at work.

It was time for a change.

Thinking of all the extra work involved to change my biz name convinced me I did not need to hurry, though. Until I got my wake-up call from the universe.

One morning I found a very odd message on my answering machine. A frantic woman had called, claiming I had run fraudulent charges through my business on her stolen credit card.

I felt my stomach sink to my feet. With shaky hands, I called the number she’d left. I tried to keep my voice steady and pleasant as I asked for her extension.

She took my call and told me her tale of woe.

Her credit card had been stolen, and thousands of dollars’ worth of charges made. She’d spent days with her credit card company trying to sort the mess out. Over and over, she repeated the name “Durable Goods” as the business these charges had been made to.

I was sympathetic but bewildered. It was a slow time of year for me and I hadn’t taken any credit card orders recently. Her name wasn’t on any of my customer lists. I checked and rechecked, assuring her I would do whatever it took to fix this for her. But I simply couldn’t find a single record of any purchase in her name.

I asked her how she knew I had accepted her credit card number. She said she’d talked extensively to her customer service rep, and he’d repeated the name “Durable Goods” several times. On her own, she’d Googled that, found my website, and contacted me.

A glimmer of understanding dawned. I asked her to repeat exactly what the credit card company rep had said to her. “He said, ‘A charge at Brown’s BackCountry Sports, sporting goods. Black’s Apparel, women’s clothing; and Audio Heaven, durable goods'”, she replied.

Aha!

I explained to her that “sporting goods”, “women’s clothing” and “durable goods” were not the NAMES of the businesses, but the DESCRIPTIONS of the businesses. “Durable Goods” was simply the kind of store her card had been used at.

We called and confirmed it with her credit card company rep. She apologized profusely and hung up. I collapsed back into my chair, highly relieved to be cleared of credit card fraud.

But then I thought of the massive number of fraud and identity theft……

I thought of all the frantic and upset victims trying to sort out all the information passed on to them by their respective credit card companies….

I thought about the tens of thousands of stores selling HDTV’s, computers, stereo equipment, washing machines, computers, all excellent targets for hot cards.

I thought about all the stores with the business description “durable goods”….

Damn the torpedoes, full steam ahead! Within two weeks I had renamed my business to…..Luann Udell.

A last incident made me realize I’d made a smart decision. That same day, I received a phone call on my business line. I chirped, “Durable Goods!”

“What?? Gerbil Goods??” a quavering elderly voice stammered.

I laughed and repeated my name. She’d misdialed, so I helped her sort out the right number and sent her on her way.

My father-in-law said I really should have taken that name. He claimed that Gerbil Goods in Keene, New Hampster was just too good to pass up.

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HOW TO TRADE WITH WITH OTHER ARTISTS

One of the nicest perks about being a craftsperson is trading stuff with other artists.

At its best, you get wonderful, beautiful works of art you might never afford on your own. I have some lovely pieces from top-notch artists, items that are totally out of my price range. And my own work now graces the homes of those very same artists.

It’s also a great way to “pay” the people who help me out by working in my booth at shows. Sometimes they fall in love with the work of another craftsman. Trading my work for that often works better for me than paying my assistant outright.

At its worst, however, there is embarrassment, frustration and hurt feelings. What can go wrong? Let me count the ways….

It’s not your style.
Someone asks you if you’d like to trade, you say yes, and then realize their work is not to your taste. You get to their booth and realize there is nothing there you want. (You can get around this by using their stuff as gifts for other people, but it’s just not as much fun as an “emotionally balanced” swap.)

It’s not to your standards. It’s just not as well-made or executed as you thought.

It’s not comparable in price. By that I mean you may not want to trade one of your $600 wall hangings for fifty $10 mugs, no matter how lovely they are. Or vice versa.

It may be unrealistic in price. Or the work might be hugely overpriced, something that sometimes happens with new craftspeople. They see something in the marketplace priced at $1,000 and think, “Oh, I can sell mine for that, too!” Maybe yes. Maybe…not.

Someone very new to the industry once offered their product in trade, naming a price equal to one of my $600 wall hangings. They really wanted a fiber piece, and insisted it was a fair trade.

In a nice way, I demurred but they persisted. They just wouldn’t take no for an answer.

Finally, I said, “Look, your work is nice but I’ve exhibited and sold my work for over a decade. I’ve won awards. I’ve been published. This is the going price for this piece. I know I can sell it for this much money. It’s proven itself in the marketplace.

You’re just starting out, you’ve never exhibited or sold your work, you just made this and put a price on it. It’s not a medium I like or collect. So it may very well be worth that much–but not to me.

Fortunately, he got it, and we’ve stayed friends. Whew!

Bottom line–You just don’t want their stuff.

But even when you DO want their stuff, things can still go terribly wrong. Perhaps because….

The person is whacko. (Sorry, no other way to put it.) One of my most excruciating trades was a woman who approached me at a wholesale show, asking to trade some jewelry for her beautiful fabric purses. I knew her work and loved it. I went to her booth, selected a purse (checking again to make sure that was okay with her) and invited her back to choose her goodies. She chose several pieces and left.

What’s embarrassing about that?, you may well ask. Well, a few hours later, she stomped into my booth with my jewelry and tersely demanded the bags back, saying she’d “changed her mind”. I never found out what that was about, but it felt awful.

Whatever the circumstances, when things are out of balance, it gets difficult. There you are, standing there stammering like an idiot, trying to figure out how to get out of the swap. And everyone feels bad.

Here’s a simply way to set the stage so everyone can feel good about a trade:

Say NO first.

If I am asked to trade, I always start off by thanking the person for wanting to trade, what an honor, etc. Then I say no.

It may look like this:

I’m so honored you want to trade–I’m delighted you like my work! And I really, really wish I could. Unfortunately, I’m extremely strapped for cash this season. So I can’t do any trading at this show. I’m so sorry!

I always offer a discount to fellow exhibitors and show employees, always, so I let them know that, too

Then when I get a chance, I come over to look at their stuff.

If my answer is still “no”–If it’s not my taste, or if I can’t use it for gifts, whatever, I just make cooing noises (“So pretty! Maybe next year….”) and leave.

If it’s something I want I say “yes.” “You know, I really shouldn’t because I’m so broke–but I just LOVE your stuff, so if you still want to trade, I’d be willing to trade with YOU!”

See how much better that sounds?

Saying “NO”, then “YES” works better than saying “YES”, then “NO”.

If I initiate the trade, I don’t ask outright, forcing them to say “yes” or “no” on the spot. I’ll say, “If you’d be interested in trading, let me know.” And then I leave so they don’t have to respond.

In fact, it’s even better if they’re busy with a customer, or not even in their booth. I’ll discreetly leave a business card or postcard at their booth. The card has an image of my work and my booth number, and “Do you trade?” I don’t follow up. If the person wants to trade, they can respond. If not, I’ll never know if it was because they didn’t want to or they didn’t have time, or they couldn’t afford to.

The “left card” approach works for me because it gives the person an idea of what I do. They have time to think about it. And they can come by and browse without pressure.

I like these approaches because….

Nobody’s feelings are hurt if I (or they) don’t want to trade. Everyone involved gets a graceful “out” if they need it.

When I say no and then “change my mind”, it’s an even greater compliment to the person I’m trading with. (“I won’t trade with just anyone, but I’d love to trade with YOU!”)

Even if I don’t want to trade this time, I’ve left the door open for future trades. (Because you never know….!!)

The biggest benefit of all?

It’s true.

I can’t afford to trade with everyone and anyone. I do always need cash.

It’s also easy to modify–I can say, “I can’t afford trade a $600 wall hanging this year, but I could do a trade in the $100 range….” Or do a partial trade, $100-$200 in trade and the balance in cash. Whatever.

And if any trade-willing fellow exhibitors are reading this, OY!!!! My secret is out!!!

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Filed under art, business, craft, craft shows, trading

HOW TO BE MORE PRODUCTIVE Part 2

Part Deux in how to raise the art of procrastination to a fever pitch, my column in yesterday’s Fine Art Views newsletter.

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THE FIFTH STAGE OF COMPETENCE

Are you ready to start all over again?

I’m really hooked on the Four Stages of Competence and I’ve written about them a lot.

Years ago, I received this remarkable little set of learning stages as a handout in a martial arts class:

Stage 1: Unconscious Incompetence

It’s so easy! The joyous stage of the beginner, when you simply jump in and start a new endeavour. You feel full of promise and potential–“Hey! I have a real a knack for this!” You may have some natural talent, or you just may not realize how bad you really are. Beginner’s luck falls into this category, too.

Stage 2: Conscious Incompetence

It gets hard. It begins to dawn on you how hard this stuff really is, and how much there is to learn. You become painfully aware of how inadequate your performance really is. ***Most people quit at this stage of learning. “I can’t do this!” or “I’m no good at this!”***

Stage 3 Conscious Competence

You keep working at it. You have acquired skill, but you have to think about it, and practice it, until you get to that most amazing place…

Stage 4 Unconscious Competence

You master your craft. Your techniques have become automatic. Your body simply knows what to do, and works in sync with your mind to achieve even greater heights. You know now that learning this skill is a life-long pursuit, and your studies have really just begun.

This handout changed my life. I still pursue my art and the martial arts, knowing that only perseverance, practice and passion will get me to that glorious final stage–and beyond.

It was a big “aha!” moment when I learned most people quit at the second stage–me included. Knowing that, I now try to stick with something I really want to learn.

And when we watch someone who’s mastered their craft, we say they “make it look easy”–whether it’s a practiced potter raising the clay; an artist talking passionately about their work; or a black belt throwing a spinning back kick to the head. They make it look effortless.

Because, at that stage of their mastery, it is. They don’t have to think about it–they just do it.

What we don’t see is the 10,000 hours of practice (a theory proposed by psychologist Eric Andersson, who studied “expertise”) and the dedication they gave to perfect that skill.

So where did I come up with the Fifth Stage of Competence?

Recently I’ve had a chance to watch some extremely talented people, people who are experts at what they do, try to learn something new.

They brought skills that would translate well to their new venture: Analytical minds, perseverance, physical skill and fitness. In many ways, they were able to master the new venture more quickly, with less time and effort than it had taken me.

But they still struggled. Because there were still key elements that were foreign to them, things they had to learn simply by putting in the time. Things they had to master by simply doing them, over and over and over again.

What struck me was how quickly they got stuck–and quit.

Now, I know we can’t all spend 10,000 on any old thing that crosses our path.

And I know we have to have some attraction to the thing, something that helps us get through those oh-so-difficult stages of incompetency (especially that nasty second stage.)

Even so, the Fifth Stage is…..

Being able–being willing–to be a beginner again.

Being very good at starting over.

P.S. Now imagine my embarrassment when my daughter tried to teach me swing dancing last month, and two minutes into it I protested, “I’m just no good at this!”

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WE CAN ALWAYS USE ANOTHER HERO

We all need a hero.

And we can all BE a hero.

Although I love that Tina Turner song from the movie Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome, I have to disagree…

We do need another hero. Lots of ‘em.

I’m often asked how I got started making my art, and I’ll share it here.

I was the typical “class artist” throughout grade school, drawing at every opportunity. (Mostly horses, come to think of it.) Then drawing for other kids (“Draw a dog for me!” “Can you draw a mouse?”) Then cartoons for the school newspaper (and writing a funny column, come to think of it).

I couldn’t wait to go to college, so I could learn to be an artist. (Our school’s art programs constantly fell victim to budget cuts, so I had very little access to making “real” art.) That didn’t happen, for a lot of reasons, none of them very good in hindsight.

And so I left my art as a young person. Mostly because I believed so many MYTHS ABOUT ARTISTS.

I backed away from it later because when I stayed home with my children, it was so very very hard to make time for anything beyond trying to be a good wife and a good mother. (Raise your hand if you’ve ever introduced yourself as “(your child’s name here)’s mom”. I still introduce myself to some people as “Doug’s mom” and “Robin’s mom”.)

There was barely time to knit a hat or finish a project before I had to clear the table for lunch, or dinner, let alone take on any serious or involved ventures.

I actually got to the point where I decided to simply focus on good wife/good mom, and wait til there was more time/money/opportunity to do differently.

I thought it was the right thing to do. There was some relief in “letting go” of that dream.

But something in me was sad, too. I pushed it down and tried to forget about it.

Shortly after that, as I watched my darlin’ three-year-old daughter at play, I found myself daydreaming about her…

What would her life be like? It seemed to spread before us like a tiny brook, growing into a mighty river.

What kind of person would she be? I hoped she’d be the same person she was now: Quiet but deep-thinking; shy but fierce in her beliefs; talented in so many ways; loving yet independent; quirky, different, her own person, comfortable in her own skin.

What kind of work would she do? There were so many possibilities.

Who would she love? Would she marry, too? I hoped she’d find someone who would respect her strengths and encourage her dreams. I hoped she’d find a loving partner who would let her shine, who would let her simply be herself.

And then an epiphany whacked me right over the head. Three big questions tumbled into my brain. In big glowing capital letters.

1) Did my mother want that for me when I was young?
(I still don’t know the answer to that one. I was the oldest of seven, there may not have been time to spend daydreaming!)

2) How could I want that for my daughter, and not want that for myself?

3) How will my daughter know what that looks like–to be all she can be–if I didn’t model that for her?

I knew I had to be a hero for my daughter. And for me.

I knew I had to be authentic for my daughter. And for me.

That was the day I knew I had to be an artist. Or die.

That was the day I knew it didn’t even matter if I would be a good artist. I just had to do it.

It’s a perfect inspirational story for parents. These are powerful questions for breaking through the barriers we erect between ourselves and our dreams. It’s amazing to see the look of shocked enlightenment on the face of something who “gets it”:

“What am I teaching my kid??”

Are you actually teaching them to NOT live their dream? (Because you’re not?)

Are you showing them they shouldn’t try if they think they might fail? (Beause you’re afraid to?)

Are you telling them that someone else’s needs always outweigh their own? (Because that’s what you always do?)

Ow. Ow. OW!!

If you don’t have kids of your own, maybe this would be helpful:

“Someone–somewhere–is looking to you to be a hero.”

Maybe someone we care about deeply. Maybe not.

Sometimes it’s easier to be brave for someone else we care about, braver than we would normally choose for ourselves. Hopefully, as we grow older/wiser/more evolved, we choose to follow our power because that’s the right thing to do. (See the Martha Graham quote here.

But til then, altruism can be a force for good that’s also good for us.

Be someone’s hero. Be your own hero.

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WHY YOU SHOULDN’T DITCH YOUR SLOWEST SELLER

How your “slowest” seller could actually be your best marketing.

There are two tenets in business that everyone accepts as true:

1. You should figure out what your most popular product is, and sell the heck out of it.

2. You should figure out what your least popular product is, and get rid of it.

In fact, I read it again just a few minutes ago.

Here’s a little story about why you should reconsider step 2.

I’ve been a long-time CVS fan. While waiting for prescriptions to be filled, I would wander the aisles shopping. (In fact, once our insurance company switched to Medco’s online pharmacy, our “miscellaneous” expenditures dropped enormously.)

CVS is losing me as a customer to Walgreen’s. Why?

They no longer carry three products that I love:

a) They no longer carry Physician’s Formula make-up remover lotion
(I LOVE this stuff because it isn’t runny and doesn’t drip like oil versions);

b) Dr. Scholl’s pedicure file (probably because their store brand is cheaper, though not nearly as good);

c) and they don’t carry dental wax (which I want to use to position jewelry for photography.)

Probably because they were slow sellers. Or they had a store brand they wanted to push. I dunno.

But guess where I’m finding these products now?

Yep. Walgreen’s.

Okay, to be perfectly fair, the makeup remover is getting harder to find anywhere. I suspect the product is going through a makeover.

But my point is, wherever these products are, that’s where I’m going to go to get them.

Our local grocery store does the same thing. It introduces new products which I love, and discontinues them when they aren’t big movers.

Other grocery stores pick them up–and that’s where I go to get them. One carries my all-time favorite fruit-infused vinegars. (People, these are amazing to use in homemade salad dressings.) I go to another for my Ghiradelli hot cocoa.

So every month or so, Hanniford’s does not get my $200-$300 grocery bill.

So sometimes your slowest seller can be a draw to very passionate users/buyers. People who will look elsewhere if you drop it, like my favorite pear infused vinegar.

Sometimes an item sells slow because it’s really expensive, or very unusual. It can still be a huge draw to your other work. And it can make the rest of your work seem more affordable. I don’t sell too many $5,000 wall hangings. But when I do a) it’s the equivalent of selling a hundred $50 items, and b) it does a bang-up job of publicity.

My Big $5,000 Wall Hanging (from Niche Magazine, April 2006)

Sometimes a “slow” product will come back around. I hadn’t sold much fish jewelry in years. Maybe their time was over? When I put my “business hat” on, I considered dropping it. When I put my “artist hat” on, I realized it still had a story to tell. And guess what? I’m now selling more fish.

Fish necklace, back in demand!

Or perhaps it just hasn’t had time to catch on yet. I hardly sold any sculptures when I first started out. Just when I was about to lose hope, sales took off. Plus, turns out they fill a major niche as a gift for guys. I would have lost that marketing opportunity if I’d given up too soon.

Maybe your slow seller is something that sets off the rest of your products. Years ago, a friend had a yarn store. She didn’t carry any yellow yarn, because “it didn’t sell.” I showed her an article by a color designer for a local yarn mill. The designer said every line should have a yellow “because it fills out the color wheel, and makes other colors sing.” The store owner added yellow, and her sales rose.

Maybe your slowest seller is a dog* because of very good reasons. It’s out of fashion, you make a better one now, or you can’t even get the supplies to make it anymore.

But unless you’re sure it no longer serves any purpose, consider it a small price to pay for a few very special, very passionate customers.

Because any customer who is passionate about your art is sharing that passion with a lot of other people.

And that’s a good thing.

P.S. I apologize for calling any part of my/your art “a dog”. Just trying to give some good business advice here, as well as good artistic advice.

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Filed under art, body of work, business, craft, marketing, selling

NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTIONS

Used to be, when the new year rolled around, you’d find all kinds of articles in the news about resolutions.

Nowadays, it seems like you see just as many about why we never keep those resolutions.

I started to set my own “usuals” this week: Be more productive with my artwork, get organized, exercise more, eat less.

Then I read those darn downer articles, and wonder why I bother?

The answer came to me last night.

Yes, it’s hard to maintain those good intentions.

But I love the place of hope they come from.

This year I’m going to enthusiastically make those same ol’ resolutions, with some new additions.

I’m considering the lessons of my hospice training, and thinking about the difference between “curing” and “healing”. Between “fixing” and “truly listening.”

I’m going to take my passions–riding, martial arts, tai chi and yoga–and dig in a little deeper. I may restart a little chubbier than usual, but I know I’ll feel better for simply showing up and trying.

I’m positioning my artwork right where it belongs–as something I do for myself, and then share with the world. With no regrets and no measuring. It will go where it will, perhaps only a small pebble in a very big ocean. But even a small pebble makes ripples. I may not be able to see where they go, but I know they are there.

I intend to write something every day. Not all of it will be earth-shattering or special. But I want to make writing as daily a habit as…..cream in my coffee.

I will NOT give up cream in my coffee. Maybe in 2011…..?

Oh, and to remember to be grateful for what I have and for all the people in my life. All of ‘em, even the highly annoying ones, bless ‘em. I have something to learn from them all. And…grateful to just be here.

Some of these intentions will stick. Most probably won’t. I get that.

But I won’t give up on myself.

I kinda like the fact that I still believe I could be a better artist, a more successful biz owner, a kinder, healthier person, a better friend, if I try.

What do YOU resolve in 2010?

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Filed under action steps, art, choices, craft, gratitude, inspiration, life, living with intention, mental attitude, perseverence

TEN MYTHS ABOUT ARTISTS #13: One Big Break is All You Need

Myth: If only I could get into X Gallery/get Famous Person Y to see my work/get a website, I would be successful!

Reality: No one person, event or venue will make or break your vision.

When I first started showing and selling my art, I read these very wise words somewhere:

Every day you will find an opportunity to move your art/biz forward. Every day you will overlook an opportunity to move your art/biz forward.

I quote them now because a reader posted this comment on my blog recently, and with her permission, I reprint it here:

Hello, again! I get what you’re saying, Luann, I really do. But right now I’m really in a down space.

Filled with excitement, I opened up a space in Etsy back in September thinking that *there* I would find people who would see value in handspun hand-dyed yarn. They do, apparently–there are lots of other spinners on Etsy–but evidently they don’t see any value in mine.

Lots of looks, a few hearts, no sales.

One part of me is bugging me to get busy and make more yarn, but the other part of me is saying, “Why make MORE beautiful yarn that no one will want to buy? What’s the point of doing that, when no one wants what I’ve already made?”

I’m sorry for dumping on you my own pity-party, but I need someone who is an artist and “gets it” to vent to. ..

Maybe the Lord is trying to tell me to give up and become a boring housewife who grades papers and washes dishes and remembers when she used to make beautiful stuff. I don’t know.

Dear Reader, I give you permission to wallow for awhile. Things do get hard, and we all get discouraged. (See Myth #14 about this.) (Not yet, I haven’t written it yet!!)

But I can assure you wholeheartedly that the Lord is not telling you to stay small and regret your lost dreams. :-)

Sometimes we take that leap and many things fall into place. Sometimes we take that leap–and things stay hard.

In fact, that is the major purpose of my blog: To chronicle my journey pursuing my art, with honestly and self-examination. And hopefully, a huge helping of inspiration.

Because, as my husband pointed out to me a short while ago, we always hear about the instant overnight successes. (What I call the Cinderella stories.) And we also hear about the not-so-overnight success stories, where the hero struggles and perseveres, and finally gets a lucky break.

The point is, we already know how those stories end. We know the goal was achieved, because the tales are always told afterwards–not while the ball is actually in play.

My blog is all about the ball being in play. And sharing that process with you.

So here are some possible scenarios regarding this handspun yarn biz, but don’t take the “you” thing personally. These are just some things to think about:

1. When we stand at the beginning of our stories, we cannot see the end.

Sometimes, we can’t even see what our ultimate goal will be. Longtime readers may remember my sad little story about wishing my handknit toy sheep idea taking off.

And when they finally did, how I discovered how much I hated knitting toy sheep.

If your handspun biz where to be an instant hit, you could be locked into a business that takes too much time away from your other pursuits right now. Or you might find spinning is fun for a few hours a day, but not so much fun doing it all day. Maybe you’ll realize you like writing about the process, or teaching the process, more than making yarn to sell. (Although that piece of it will give you the insights you need to do the other stuff–writing, teaching, demonstrating, etc.) Maybe you’ll end up developing a therapy program with your skills. Who knows what the possibilities are?

So maybe right now you think your dream is to sell handspun yarn. But maybe even bigger things are in store for you.

2. We cannot tell what strategy will work, and which ones will peter out.

Etsy looks like a “sure thing” from the outside, but having an Etsy shop does not guarantee success.

We dream of getting into “that great gallery”, sure we will be successful if they would only represent our work. We dream of finding “the perfect show” where we will find all the buying customers we need. We know if only we had a great website, we would be flooded with orders.

In reality, there is no “perfect venue” or “perfect strategy”. There is simply another opportunity to try.

Maybe e-commerce will work for you. Or maybe your yarns would sell better “in person”–at small local shows, or certain events. (We have a big “Wool Tour” here in New Hampshire on Columbus Day weekend. People come from hundreds of miles to tour small farms, see llamas and sheep and angora goats and bunnies, and buy fleece, roving and finished yarns.) Maybe people need to touch your yarn to fully appreciate it first, and then you turn those customers into online customers with reorders.

Maybe a “new product release” about your yarns to a knitting or spinning magazine would bring interested buyers to your Etsy store.

3. We may be trying to sell to the wrong people.

Etsy is the biggest and best-known venue for handcraft. But it’s also a huge venue for vintage goods and craft supplies. And it’s a big shopping venue for other artists. So you may be inadvertently trying to sell to people who can make it themselves.

At a friend’s suggestion, I used Etsy as a way to sell to my current customers. I didn’t actually think I could join an already established, close-knit online community (no pun intended) and create a strong presence there.

Even so, I didn’t have a single sale on Etsy. I’m exploring other ways to sell online, and will use Etsy to offload my old supplies.

4. It just may take more time than you think.

Another reader posted a reply to the original comment, and it’s a good one. (In fact, I just realized I’ve repeated a lot of what Kerin said!! oops…)

And see item #1 above, where things taking time can be a good thing.

5. And sometimes it’s just hard.

It’s true–it’s just hard sometimes. There are days when we just feel like the universe is saying “no”.

But what does your heart say?

Because if you give up, there is only one thing that can happen: Nothing!

If you persevere, anything can happen. Including failure, but failure is not necessarily a bad thing. (Go back to the knitted sheep thing.)

#5: What is “success”, anyway? What does it mean to Y*O*U?

Right now you haven’t had any sales. Is that your only measure of success?

Have you learned how to spin and dye beautiful yarn? You’ve successfully developed a product.

Have you learned how to photograph it? Have you successfully uploaded images to a website? You’ve successfully done something millions of people have no idea how to do. (Since I lost my photographer, I’ve had to work on developing a whole nother skill set, and that learning curve is steep!)

Have you learned how to talk about it, write about it? You’ve learned how to pitch your product.

And have you learned how to create a unique product? Which leads us to….

#6. Are you telling your real story?

Sometimes, especially when we first start out making stuff and getting it out into the world, we focus on the surface of the process. When you hear artists say, “I just love color!” or “I just love knitting!”, we are listening to someone who has either a) not bothered to dig deeper; b) doesn’t know how to dig deeper; or c) or is afraid to dig deeper.

What is it about hand-spinning and dyeing that excites you? What does it mean to you? Don’t say, “Oh, it’s fun” or “Oh, it’s relaxing.”

Tell us why.

Here’s a perfect little example that Bruce Baker tells in his seminars.

A potter makes tiny little pots with lids, very charming. But so what?

She explains that her life is so hectic, so harried, that when she takes time to make these tiny wonders, she envisions she is creating a little moment of serenity, of quiet. “And then she draws up the tops, and makes a little lid, and there is a little moment of time preserved….”

Doesn’t that make you want to own one of her little pots? And when you are harried and frazzled, you can lift the tiny lid….and there is your own little moment of quiet and peace.

She told us the “why”. And when you purchase her product, you can have a little of the “why”, too.

7. If it brings you joy, you should not–cannot–stop doing it.

It’s hard when it feels like the world does not want our beautiful work. But remember when I said, “I have to do it anyway, or I’ll die?” That’s what got me through.

Yeah, I know I wouldn’t drop dead if I never made another little horse. But I know something inside me would wither away. And the world, whether it knew about the loss or not, would simply be a sadder place for it.

I want to believe in my heart that somehow, in ways I may not see or could even possibly imagine, that the world is a better place for me making my work. For me being in the world. I have to believe that. Because to believe otherwise is to give in to self-doubt, and eventually, despair.

And whatever we believe in, whatever our religion or creed or ethics, if we are creative people, then we have to believe that creativity makes the world a better place. That anything we make–a lovely skein of yarn, a useful pot, an inspiration movie, a beautiful song, a warm and loving home for those we care about–the world is a better place for that.

Or what are we here for?

So keep making your yarn, because it makes you happy. Don’t give up, but be open to where it leads you (because it may not take you where you think you’re going!) Take the opportunities you find. Let go of the ones you miss, and move on. Think about the deep “why?”, and don’t be afraid to share it.

And know that whatever happens, it’s all good.

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Filed under art, business, choices, craft, creativity, depression, inspiration, life, living with intention, mental attitude, myths about artists, selling, selling online, telling your story, world peace

TEN MYTHS ABOUT ARTISTS #12: The Muse Never Falters

MYTH: Creativity never sleeps. If you hit a wall, then you aren’t a real artist.

Truth: The Muse will come and go, but give her half a chance and she will always return.

Today’s myth was inspired by a blog post from Danielle LaPorte, whose website White Hot Truth…because self realization rocks is becoming one of my favorite reads.

“Life balance” is an insidious myth. Picasso, Oprah, Steve Jobs, Einstein, Maria Callas – they weren’t aiming for balance, they were aiming to rock their genius, and they’ve all had periods of burn out.

This was a little spooky. Okay, a LOT spooky. Because I got the old synchronicity thing going again.

Because a few days ago, for the first time in like two years (or more???), I sat down and began working on a new series of fiber work.

Danielle’s post today was actually the third or fourth synchronistic thingie. The second was her post from a few days ago, about kissing up to your muse.

I woke up in the middle of the night a few days ago with a great idea for next month’s column for The Crafts Report. At first I rolled over to go back to sleep. I’d just sent in my column and had a few weeks before the next one was do. I was sure I’d remember the great idea.

But something in me said, “No. Get up NOW. Just go write it.”

I went with it. And wrote almost the entire article in one sitting.

The spooky thing about that? It was the night before her post on don’t-dis-the-Muse. (Cue Twilight Zone music…)

The synchronicity thingie piece before that happened at dinner out with friends last week. Turned out one of our dinner companions is the daughter of another good friend who’s a painter. Her dad has a new series of artwork on exhibit, after a hiatus of many years from painting.

I mentioned I’d tried to buy one of his paintings a few years ago and he wouldn’t sell me one. She said yeah, he had a “thing” about not selling any until he had a body of work produced, even though he hadn’t even started his new phase when I’d tried to buy one. “He’s funny that way,” she mused. (Pun intended.)

Funny? Hmmm….. He wouldn’t sell his old paintings…. He’d stopped painting…. Now he had a new body of work.

It hit me like a ton of bricks.

I hadn’t made any new fiber work because it had stopped selling a few years ago. I don’t care what the newspapers say, artists and craftspeople know the recession started a lot further back than last year. Oh, I sold a few, but it was tortuous.

When people stopped buying, it wasn’t exciting to make more. And as they sold (slowly), I unconsciously held on to the ones I had left.

So that, if the muse never came back, I’d have something on hand to prove I really had been an artist.

I know it’s it’s desirable to grow and change as an artist. But change for change’s sake was not desirable (for me.) I was stuck.

Awhile ago, I realized that even if my fiber work remained what it was, and I never had a new idea, well, having that one really great theme in my life would be “good enough”. That cracked the door open again.

The remark that made me realize I was hoarding my old work opened that door a little wider.

Getting up in the middle of the night to write blew it open. Danielle’s post was like putting a door stop in it, to keep it open.

And then I sat down at my sewing machine and thought, “What if I just do some simple little pieces….? Just for me.”

Her post today was the final nail in the coffin. Er, door. Should doors be nailed open?? Okay, forget that metaphor, it stinks.

So being willing to be a “not very good artist” again (making the same old work) and realizing what I was holding on to (“I was once a pretty good artist!”) was enough to get me in front of my sewing machine once again. (Which is when I also sewed through my finger, but I’m not going to let that stop me, either, though I worry that my machine has now tasted blood.)

Danielle’s observation–that the muse may come and go, but if we care enough, we will just hang in there–was powerful. Letting go when the inspiration wanes, knowing we will come back, somehow, some way, even though we have no idea what that will look like, that feels like jumping off the edge of the world.

But now I know, as long as I persevere, it will indeed come back.

Because it has to. Or I’ll die.

It may be the same stuff. If so, then I will keep making it. I will rejoice and be grateful I had at least one really good thing to offer the world.

It may start the same and change. That’s okay, too. It will be what it will be.

What’s important is–it’s back.

I don’t care what it looks like anymore. I don’t care what other people think about it anymore.

I just have to do it.

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Filed under action steps, art, body of work, cancer, choices, craft, creativity, fear of failing, gratitude, inspiration, life, mental attitude, myths about artists, writing

TEN MYTHS ABOUT ARTISTS: A Segue

oooh, I’ve always wanted to use the word “segue” in an essay!

In my last “Myths About Artists” post, a reader said there are some people who , feeling entitled, simply want to simply “be” an artist, with all the fame and glory and controversy they think automatically comes with it.

Several themes came to me after reading his thoughtful comments.

First, as a parent, a former teacher, and even a former child (yes, and please, no comments about not having enough fingers, toes or other digits to compute how many years ago that would be), this sounded very familiar.

We all have a desire for our work to gain some attention and respect in the world. And if you’re like me, you probably wish we didn’t have to constantly work so darn hard to get there.

This is a very human trait, after all. Yes, some people work very hard at becoming excellent at their craft, whatever it is. But many of us start out dreaming of an effortless success.

When I dreamed of horses, and of riding horses, I pictured myself riding fearlessly a beautiful horse, galloping wildly across a boundless plain under an open sky.

I did NOT dream of the long and often painful process of learning how to acquire my “seat”–how to sit comfortably for hours on a horse, how to balance instead of bounce (ow, ow, ow), how to control a horse (because atop a wildly running horse can actually be a frightening place to be.)

I did NOT envision the hours of hard work involved in caring for a horse, including grooming, mucking stalls and tacking up. And of course, boarding fees, vet bills and farrier costs never entered my pleasant daydreams, either.

No, it’s all too human to see the glory, not the grit, in our dreams.

But the person who believes they deserve an easy success? This is not the person I have in mind when I write these essays.

In my mind’s eye, I always speak to the person I used to be–the person who never believed that dreams can come true.

I was lost because I was too afraid to pursue my passion, and suffering because of it. I made the lives of my loved ones miserable, because I could be difficult to be with. (Er…still am, actually.)

In the words of my favorite bumper sticker, “Those who abandon their dreams, will discourage yours.”

Eventually, the pain of NOT being an artist surpassed the fear of failure. And that’s when I took my first steps to becoming not just an artist in name only–but an artist with gumption.

When I had the courage to take those first few tentative steps–and to keep on taking them–then I was truly on the path to becoming a more whole person.

That’s what it felt like, anyway. As my pursuit of art became more habit than daydream, my ability to love more freely, to judge less harshly, to be more fearless, to be more thankful, also grew.

Am I perfect? Heck no. I am still racked often–even daily!–by self-doubt, envy, fear, jealousy and sour grapes.

But I just keep on plugging away. Because I believe trying–making a true effort to attain our goals and dreams–matters.

A good friend sometimes says I make too much of this “thing about the horses”. She makes the case that if my current art changed, if I took up another art form, even if my ability to make any art were to disappear, I would still be me. I am not my art.

I get that, I do. But I am still pathetically grateful I had the chance to make this work, and took it, even so.

And every word I write is with this intention–to encourage even just one more person on this planet to do the same.

I encourage you to take the same journey, in your very own individual, inimitable way (of course!)

To paraphrase another friend’s words, I truly believe our acts of creation, by putting positive energy out there, by becoming a more whole human being….

By believing we can all achieve something good by making something that is useful, or beautiful, or both…

…is ultimately an act of peace, and makes the world a slightly better place for all.

Okay, I know I just quoted a hobbit here, but that’s what I believe.

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Filed under action steps, art, artist statement, body of work, business, craft, creativity, fear of failing, gratitude, horses, inspiration, living with intention, mental attitude, myths about artists, perseverence

TEN MYTHS ABOUT ARTISTS#10: You Have to Go to Art School to Be a Real Artist

MYTH: You need an MFA to be a real artist!
REALITY: The real proof is in the work.

I couldn’t get into the art school at the university of my choice (The University of Michigan.) So maybe my attitude about art school is pure sour grapes.

On the other hand, the reasons I chose U of M seem pretty silly in 40 years in hindsight. My best friend, my first boy friend and my first crush all went there, and they said it was the best school in the world.

So I wanted to go there, too. I gave up going to other schools with art programs that had accepted me, just to be with the boy who dumped me four months later.

I hope I’m a little more sophisticated about my choices now. (But I’m probably not.)

I’ve come to believe it’s a good thing I didn’t go to art school there (or anywhere.) I may have been an artist sooner.

But I would not be the artist I am today.

Getting a degree from an art school has its advantages.

Credentials, for one. A degree says you completed a course of study. It says somebody deemed you good enough to complete it successfully.

Art school gives you other precious gifts: Time, tools and resources to actually make art. You have many opportunities to experiment with different media and different techniques. Many students develop important relationships with teachers who become mentors, and with other talented students.

Art school also allows you to immerse yourself in a community that supports art. If you come from a family or environment that’s baffled (or even threatened) by your artistic attempts, this immersion can be powerful stuff. You may feel like you’ve finally found “your people”.

And of course, there is the confidence and validation you gain from holding a degree that proclaims you an artist.

But there is a downside to art school.

You spend a huge amount of time making work that fits someone else’s agenda and criteria, not your own.

You may find it hard to develop your own style. You are surrounded by the vision of other teachers and other students, and it can be hard to figure out what your particular vision is.

Or conversely, it’s all too easy to be influenced by the vision of others.

Or your vision doesn’t get the “strokes” from the group you desire, so you unconsciously begin to modify it so it does.

Or you don’t modify your style, and suffer the consequences We’ve all heard the appalling stories of vicious group “critiques” and the lasting emotional damage they can cause. We’ve all heard of the nasty teacher who never missed an opportunity to denigrate someone’s work.

You may fall for the tendency to make high-falutin’, theoretical, worldly/academic “statements” with your art. Read almost any art statement, preferably one you barely understand, and you’ll know what I mean. The actual approach to your art may be taught as a purely intellectual or academic exercise. There is value to understanding and practicing art this way, of course. But I personally feel something is lost when art is made only to provoke, or satirize, or insult, with no real emotional connection, personal experience, or “heart” in the effort. IMHO, of course.

And the biggest drawback–you may not ever actually encounter any working artists.

I once spent a day giving five high-school art classes a presentation of the business of art. I opened the first class with this question: “How many of you believe it is impossible to make a living by selling your art?”

The teacher raised her hand.

Some people who teach art do so because they don’t believe they can be successful selling it. (Though many teach so they can have the freedom to create the art they want, without worrying about having selling it.)

You can often tell which teachers are working artists and which ones aren’t. The working ones are making their art, at some level–entering exhibitions with new work, selling, taking commissions, whatever. The ones who gave up are telling you why it’s impossible to sell your work. These are the ones who make terrible role models.

Almost as bad are the teachers who convince their students that the art world is out there just waiting for them to graduate. Instant success is within their grasp. Famous galleries in New York City are eager for their work, and the party starts as soon as you walk out the door. Then, when it doesn’t happen in six months, or a year, or three, the new grad begins to think she doesn’t have what it takes–and gives up.

Some art schools now incorporate business skills for artists in their curriculum. Yay!

Either way, the art school experience can make the issue black-and-white. There are “artists” and there are “non-artists”. There are “rich/famous/successful” artists, and there are “failed artists”. No gray. No spectrum. No range.

Know that there are many “levels” of keeping art in our lives.

There are as many ways of making that work as there are artists.

Some will make good money with their pursuits. Others will cobble together different ventures and venues that makes them happy. Some will go into fine art. Some will go into design, or graphic arts. Some may teach. Some may do the show circuit. Some may find gallery representation. Others may find ways of using the internet to market directly to customers.

Some may find other work that is rewarding and makes them happy, and keep their art practice solely for their own enjoyment. And some will run up against life’s hard walls all too soon, and have to carve out tiny chunks of time to keep their vision alive.

Maybe we can’t all be rich and famous. But there are many ways to create a life that includes art as a daily practice. And there many ways of sharing our vision with others.

So go to art school, if that is your dream. Squeeze every drop of experience and knowledge you can from it. Revel in your freedom to immerse yourself in an art community. Learn to protect yourself against the nay-sayers.

But if you didn’t go to art school, know that you simply found your life’s work by another path. It may have wound around in the woods for awhile, it may have taken you longer to get here….

But you simply had a different experience. That’s all.

And those unique experiences are what made you the artist you are today.

UPDATE: See what Canadian painter Robert Genn says about artist credentials in his well-known Painters Keys newsletter.

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Filed under art, business, career, choices, craft, life, myths about artists, networking, selling, shadow artist

BANNER BUY

I subscribe to a newsletter from Rena Klingenberg called Home Jewelry Business Success Tips. I always learn something new.

Last week, I read this article on web banners.

I’d been struggling with making my own banner. I love the one my beloved friend and photographer Jeff Baird had made for me. Unfortunately, I was having trouble formatting it to different applications, and there was no text in it. I always had to add that, sometimes with lamentable results.

I thought I’d play around making my own, but the learning curve was too steep. I just didn’t want to spend the next three weeks on this when I have so many other, more pressing things to take care of.

So I bought a banner from this guy for $30. I’ve never bought graphic services online before and I was a little nervous.

Even though I ordered the banner at the height of Labor Day weekend, Neil got back to me within a day or two. He sent a little survey, so he could get what colors I like, my style, what applications I needed it for, etc.

I’m pleased with the results. (You can see the new banner above.)

I’m pleased that Neil asked detailed questions about how I saw my art, my business, my brand. The results look similar to what I had, just a little fresher. I like that my signature is in there.

Most of all, I like that Neil picked up on something I hadn’t even articulated to him–that I lean towards a “museum-like” aesthetic in my work, in my display, and in my presentation. He liked the gray background Jeff had used in most of my images, and incorporated that into the banner as well.

Neil also featured the horse images prominently. Yes, I do other animals, even non-figural artifacts, and I’m feeling the urge to create some people artifacts now, too. But even when people fall in love with my bears, my otters, my birds, my pods and stones and shells, they still refer to me as “that woman who does the horses.” For better or worse, my horse has become my brand. And I’m secretly glad, because they are the heart stone, the first source, where all my work comes from.

My old banner will be at my website for a short while, if you’d like to compare the two.

And as always, lemme know what you think, okay?

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Filed under art, banner, business, craft, marketing, resources, selling, selling online, style, time management

TEN MYTHS ABOUT ARTISTS #5: My Art Speaks for Itself

Myth: My art speaks for itself. I don’t have to explain anything!”
Reality: Your art will sell better if you can tell your story, create an emotional connection with your audience, and inspire a desire for your work.

We all know the scene:

Artist’s work on display, artist standing off to the side, aloof and austere, sniffing at any plebeian who dares ask a stupid question like “What is your work about?” or “So why do you like to paint green people so much?”

If we can’t tell what the work is about, it’s clear we shouldn’t expose our ignorance by asking.

Here’s my own personal observation:

Artists who won’t talk about their art, often can’t talk about their art. That is, they don’t know how.

Knowing how to talk about your work will also help you write a stronger artist statement. A strong artist statement is important because it is often the first way many people will “hear” you tell your story about your art.

There are as many ways to approach making art as there are artists, and as many reasons to buy art as there are customers.

Here are some ways not to talk about your art:

PROCESS If we talk about our work at all, we often fall into the easy trap of talking about process.

Process is important, to a degree, but there’s gotta be more. I’m not going to pay you by the hour to mow my lawn with a pair of manicure scissors unless you have a really compelling reason.

Yes, some people want to know how we make our stuff, where we learned our craft, where we get our materials. But in my humble experience, many people who care only about my process, want to make something like my work, not buy it.

Here’s a good example. For years, if the first question people would ask me was, “What are these artifacts made of?”, I’d answer, “Polymer clay”.

And once I said that, rarely did the person actually buy something. Often, their first reaction was to actually put down the object they were holding.

Even talking to them at this point, telling them why, had little effect. The spell was broken, and their interest was lost.

I finally wised up. Now I say, “I use polymer clay, and if you look over here, there is a wonderful little piece I wrote on why I chose to use it as my medium.”

Now people are engaged again, reading a short but powerful sign with beautiful examples of all the artifacts I make. And this has ended in more sales. (Hint: The key to why this works is in this paragraph…)

ACADEMIC when I read an artist statement filled with academese or art speak, I sense someone who is afraid to get up close and personal about their work. That, or my eyes roll up into my head, my toes curl and I fall over from total boredom. But then, maybe that’s just me.

RESUME At most shows, when you read the accompanying artist statements, artists carefully list their education, the classes of other, more famous artists they’ve studied under, and the awards they’ve won. Most sound like they were written to impress other artists, perhaps a worthy goal, but I’m guessing most of us would rather impress our customers. They may not realize their statements sound like every other artist in the show. Or they think that’s the way it “should be done.” At the very least, they sure don’t know how to make theirs stand out.

FUN Frankly, I don’t care when an artist tells me they had “such fun” making their latest design. Because why should I care if they’re having fun?? I want to know why I should be compelled to part with my hard-earned money, and make space in my already-crowded home for something new. I can tell you it won’t be because the artist giggles while she works.

I’ve taught many artists about how to write a compelling artist statements, how to write a strong press releases, how to give a powerful interview for the media. It’s very simple, really.

All we really have to do is think about a little three-letter word….

Why?

I tell them why….this cave. Why…this point in my life. Why…I use polymer clay. Why…I use these fabrics, those markings, this presentation. I even have a story about the beaver-chewed sticks, and how they contribute to the story.

So why do you do what you do? Why do you choose to do it this way, with these materials?

Most importantly… Why should your audience care??

I believe the work I make sells to people who a) are blown away by the work itself, and b) feel a powerful connection to the stories I tell about the work.

When we talk in a deeply meaningful way about what our work means to us, other people listen. They will feel the truth of what you say. Remember all the times my customers say, “When you said that, a shiver went down my spine”…? Or, “Look, my hair is standing up!” (Yes, these are actual customer quotes.)

They are hearing the power of what my work means to me, and they are responding to it with something going on in their own lives.

That is connection. Human to human connection. Empathy, resonance, heart to heart. Inspiration. The recognition that we as human beings have these things in common: A need to love, and be loved. A desire to belong, and be an individual. A need to protect, and be protected. A desire to remember, and be remembered.

Don’t be ashamed or self-conscious about admitting your humanity. It is to be embraced and celebrated. Hey, we’re all in this together, and nobody gets out alive.

And when you do that, with honesty and integrity, you will find other people will respond.

How do you know if you’ve done a great job either talking or writing about your art? Basket artist Joanne Russo passed on a terrific tip she heard: An artist statement should make you want to go back and look at the work again.

If you still don’t know what to say about your work, then invest in Bruce Baker’s CD on “Dynamic Sales and Customer Service Techniques”. It will be the best $20 investment you ever make in your art biz.

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Filed under art, artist statement, booth behavior, craft, customer care, marketing, mental attitude, myths about artists, press release, self promotion, selling, telling your story

TEN MYTHS ABOUT ARTISTS #4: Artists Are Not Business People

Myth: Artists are not business people.
Reality: Successful artists have good business skills, or they marry*/partner with/hire people who do.

(This marriage tip courtesy of Wendy Rosen of The Rosen Group in Baltimore MD.)

A common myth about artists is that they are not good at the business end of making and selling art. The reality is, the better you are at the business skills necessary to promote and market your art, the better chance you have at being a successful artist.

I have a theory about artists and their lack of business skills. I think we tend to not like skills like math (balancing checkbooks, statistics, recording expenses). When it came to math, I liked story problems–if Bill and Jane decide to buy a house, and their options for borrowing money are a loan with an interest rate of 9.8% and no points, or a loan with an interest rate of 7.2% and 3 points, which is better? Because I liked to think, “Well, how much money does Bill make, and what if Jane has gone back to school to get a teaching certificate? And what if Bill gets a better job offer–is there a chance they might have to move in two years, and sell their house in a buyer’s market? Do they also like expensive cars, or do they shop at Salvation Army? Do they fight about how much to tip the waitress at a posh restaurant? Are these two even compatible enough to make a marriage work??” (You see the story potential here?)

Artists think they won’t need to take typing classes because they’re not going to be a secretary when they grow up. (We could not foresee the Internet and the importance of keyboard skills in 1968.) Talking about net profit and gross profit seemed, well, gross.

So we decided we would be artists. Famous artists. Successful artists! So successful that galleries would take care of all that bookkeeping stuff and marketing stuff for us. We would simply show up at the opening receptions in our cool black clothing, sip white wine and schmooze with our collectors.

That worked well enough for a fortunate few, for a few good decades. And then times changed. We grew up and realized we needed to pay mortgages, have health insurance, put kids through college. The artists who stuck it out had to learn how to sell, how to market, how to maintain positive cash flow.

And many of us found that these weren’t such awful skills to learn, and acquire, after all.

The same way artists are made, not born, business skills can be LEARNED and the incentive is huge. The more you understand the consequences of your business decisions, the better your decisions get.

Days of galleries “handling” all your business matters are gone, and as the Bernie Madoffs of the world should have taught us, good riddance. We’ve learned the hard way that galleries can go out of business (taking your art with them). We’ve learned that locking totally into wholesale strategies can also lock down your artistic aspirations, when galleries only want the work that sells. Even if we did embrace the business side of our art, strategies that worked beautifully in the 80’s and 90’s don’t work so well in the post 9/11 economy.

It’s always good to to know your bottom line. We need to know how to sell work, if only to understand why people buy it in the first place, and what they need to know in order to buy it. (More about that in Myth #5)

Marketing, promotion, sales, research and product development, teaching, writing–these are all business of art/craft skills that are good tools for a successful artist to keep in her toolbox.

Why was Picasso famous? Most people assume it’s because he was such a great artist. Well, yes, he was. But there were other artists of his time who were better at drawing. Other artists who were more skilled with color. Other artists who were better at all kinds of artistic things.

But Picasso was a master business person. Because he was a master at self-promotion and publicity, he was able to translate his name into the name everyone comes up with when asked to name an artist.

I read a story years ago about Picasso owing his tailor a large sum of money. He wrote the man a check. Then suggested the tailor not cash it because someday his (Picasso’s) signature would be worth more than the check was written for.

Not all of us will end up that famous (or with that much chutzpah. But learning appropriate business skills to get your art out into the world goes a long way to ensuring your efforts will come to fruition.

In fact, I’ve found I enjoy many of the business aspects of my art biz more than I thought. Because they are a labor of love. I choose, knowing the consequences, good and bad, of each informed decision. Gambling on formerly “sure thing” avenues is no longer part of my marketing strategy. I constantly forced to think hard about who my target audience is, and why they buy my art.

And I think I’m a better artist for it.

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Filed under art, business, career, choices, craft, marketing, mental attitude, myths about artists, self promotion, selling

TEN MYTHS ABOUT ARTISTS #3: Artists Starve in Garrets

MYTH: “There’s no money in art, you’ll starve!”
Fact: There are ways to supplement your income or even support a family making art.

Here’s the third myth from my series called, “TEN MYTHS ABOUT ARTISTS (That Will Keep You From Being A SUCCESSFUL Artist”. “Artists Starve in Garrets.” (What IS a garret??) Corollary: “Real artists don’t care about money” and “You have to sell out in order to sell your art”.

Yes, real artists DO care about money. They have to eat and pay taxes and live somewhere just like us. They may even want to eat out or see a movie from time to time, or go on a vacation. Or have nice clothes. They may even (horrors!) want to send their kids to college, or go to France. And see the works of artists there who may or may not have starved in garrets.

There is nothing wrong with wanting compensation for your skill and hard work, whether your work is laying bricks, raising potatoes, putting together a corporate merger, or creating a beautiful pot or painting. We do many things out of love and skill, but we don’t tell our dentist, “I know how much you love your work, so you don’t expect to be PAID for removing that impacted molar, do you?”

There’s also nothing wrong with people wanting to pay you for your art. Just as we long to have a nice lawn, pretty flowers in our garden, matching towels in our bathrooms and a really really big flat screen TV, many of us long to have attractive and/or meaningful things in our homes.

Hence, many people who cannot make the art you make, will want to pay you so they can own some of yours.

It’s a thrill when someone else loves your work so much, they are willing to part with their own hard-earned money for it. It is the ultimate compliment. Don’t let anyone tell you different.

You can make a living with art. You can make a living selling the art you want to make—IF you take the time to find your audience. It helps to recognize that the business of art is just that–a business. You are creating a product just as if you were in the business of writing a white paper for a venture capital company, or raising corn, or making and selling food at a restaurant. We’ll look again at ways to look at art-making as a business, but for now, try to lose the idea that making art to sell is somehow WRONG.

And re: “selling out”…making modifications (temporary or otherwise) in order to make your art more marketable is good business sense. NOT selling out.

There is no right or wrong way to approach the business of selling your art. There are CONSEQUENCES that result from your choices, however. Be aware and prepared for those consequences.

For example, some people want to make something that sells easily and quickly. They study the market to see what’s hot or trendy and what’s selling. That gives them a good shot to get their business up and running fast.

There are consequences for choosing this business model. First, fads come and go seemingly overnight. They are bell-curved in nature—a very few people buy the idea at first, followed by a small but growing swell of followers. Then the boom hits and EVERYBODY wants one. Soon, though, the boom ebbs, and you are left with stock that’s out of date. By the time you get through a season, it’s time to completely redesign your work.

Also, do you think you’re the only person who noticed what was selling? Your competition is right at your heels, sometimes in the booth next to you. It’s hard to create a look that’s significantly different from hundreds of other artists working in the same fad.

Plus you are not really creating something that comes from your heart, from where YOU stand in the world. You are constantly looking out into the world and following someone else’s lead.

On the other hand, some people are determined to only create work that totally pleases them. They are the people who are determined to crochet granny square vests in neon acrylic yarn. Since this look is actually coming back, I’ll just go on to say this proves my next point: You CAN sell crocheted vests made of granny squares in synthetic neon-colored yarn if you can wait long enough to grow an audience for it.

The advantage is you will be working very close to your “greatest vision” for your art. It will be highly individual in nature and a unique expression of your vision. It will be difficult for anyone else to copy or follow in your footsteps.

The consequence here is it can take time, a long, long time, to develop a following for something. If you don’t care about getting cash flow going, or are extremely patient and unconcerned with the opinion of others, then you can afford to work this way.

But as in real life, you don’t have just two choices. Just like most decisions in life, you can construct something that lies somewhere in the middle.

Somewhere in the middle could look like this: You spend the time developing a highly personal body of work, work that has your distinctive and individual mark in it.

You invest the necessary time developing that style. At the same time, you find ways to connect it to a larger audience than your current audience of one (you.) You either offer less-involved versions that appeal to more people. Or you find ways to tweak it in small ways that don’t dilute the artwork’s vision itself, that makes it more marketable.

You still have the strength and power of a unique body of work, sacrificing more time and effort to develop your ultimate audience. But you also have something that’s somewhat marketable in the meantime, and bringing in cash flow so you can continue to grow.

Another approach could be to start smaller. You make something that IS trendy, or simple, or just fun to make. It’s not super-special, you just like doing it.

You sell some here, you sell some there, and over time, your audience grows. The fad goes away, but your work has evolved past that. As you go, you constantly tweak it here and there, adding touches that are unique to YOU.

Your interest pulls you to explore farther and farther. Your work becomes even more an extension of you. Your audience comes along gradually, growing larger and more appreciative.

One day, you realize your work has slowly evolved into something that is still recognizable but so distinctively YOU that anyone could look at it and say, “That’s a Joanna Smith!” On your journey, along the way, you made a million little choices by following your heart, resulting in a body of work only YOU could have made.

The point is you don’t have to choose between selling out and not selling at all. Life is rarely about black-and-white choices. It’s about finding the way BETWEEN you can live with. Sometimes through compromise and negotiation. Sometimes through small, unconscious changes. But always in balance.

P.S. A garret comes from an old French word, refers to the space inside/under the roof a building, and is simply a very classy way of saying “attic”….

Caveat: A friend who’s a lot of research about “successful” artists found that many don’t really make a living from their work. Some of the names would surprise you. Some are supported by spouses or trust funds. Some rely on academic careers for their bread-and-butter. On the other hand, I DO know people who support families while making work they love. Yet some people wouldn’t call them “artists”.

The moral of the story here: Don’t let anyone else define “success” for you! It will be different for each of us. And there is room in the world for all of our versions.

For a pithier (and funnier) version of this philosophy, see this post at the IttyBiz blog.

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Filed under art, body of work, business, choices, craft, myths about artists, selling

CUSTOMER CARE: Feel the Love

Never forget the love you have for what you do. Remember the blessing of being able to make what you make.

Here’s something to consider the next time you feel a sharp retort rising to your lips when someone in your booth asks a “stupid question”. (Which, in case you don’t already know, isn’t so stupid after all.

The times I find it hardest to deal with problem customers, is when I am not in a good space myself.

There will be times in your life when things get hard. When nothing seems to go right. When you body simply can’t do what you ask of it, not the simplest task. When worries about money seem to overwhelm everything else. When your spirit is exhausted.

There will be people in your life who make things difficult. People who are impossible to please. People who are threatened by what you do. People who are envious of what you have.

There will be stages in your life when you question everything about your work. Is it good enough? Is it still my best work? Does the world even want it? Do I still believe in it?

And just like the times when a difficult child needs your love all the more, this is the time to remember the love you have for your art.

Here’s how that happens for me:

I’ve been head-high in frenzied preparations for my upcoming League of New Hampshire Craftsmen’s Annual Fair. On one hand, it’s my tenth year at the Fair, and I pretty much know what to do. On the other hand, every year there’s something major I forget/mess up/leave to the last minute. Every year there’s a big scramble to deal with it, with frantic phone calls, late nights and the inevitable last-minute make-do. (Which almost always seems to work out better than my original intention.)

This year is no exception. But I have some secret weapons.

The first is modern medicine. After waiting years for the brain buzz of menopause to wear off, I realized it wasn’t going away and it wasn’t even getting better. I realized I’ve always had it–it was just getting worse with age. I sought professional help. I’m now seeing an excellent therapist who specializes in working with creative people. And I’m on a very low dosage of anti-anxiety medication. (Don’t worry, not the addictive stuff!)

For the first time in years, I am sometimes sleeping through the night. I don’t wake up in a panic with my heart racing. Get this–my blood pressure (which used to be low normal but has inched upwards for five years) dropped almost 25 points–in a month! My doc isn’t sure why, but she says we’ll take it. (She thinks it may be the relief from constant worrying.)

I feel more at peace with myself. All the issues I knew intellectually how to manage, but couldn’t emotionally let go of, are softening. I know enlightenment can’t be found in a pill bottle, but it sure makes it easier to actually listen to my heart.

The second secret weapon is my work. The Fair is a concrete “deadline” which helps generate creative energy. Simply immersing myself in making new artifacts always centers me. Okay, partly I bury myself in making bears and otters and horses because it’s much more fun than figuring out how to make new covers for my jewelry case pedestals. Procrastination is a powerful tool in my life for getting something else done.

The third secret weapon is the Fair itself. Despite all the hard work getting ready for, and just being at the Fair (3 days of set-up, 9 days of show), there is a lot of good energy at the Fair.

My daughter, to date, has always found time to come and work with me again, even if only for that first, very busy opening weekend. She’s worked in my booth at both retail and wholesale shows for over eight years now. She’s not only very good at it, she’s simply a joy to be with.

There are old friends to catch up with, new exhibitors to meet, wonderful work to see (and buy!), music, wine and the incredible beauty of Mount Sunapee itself.

And my customers are a big secret weapon, too.

Opening day at the Fair is tough. It takes me awhile to get my “sea legs”. (Would that be “Fair legs”??) To get into the rhythm of being “on stage” instead of “in my studio”.

But when I catch the rhythm, I can dance all day. All week!

People who have bought from me for years, come to see what’s new. People who bought something for the first time last year, come back to tell me how much they love it. People bring their friends to introduce them the artist. (Moi. Maybe in my normal hours I look like a dumpy middle-aged woman, but at a show I am an artiste.) People who lost an earring or broke a necklace rush in to see if I can make their favorite piece wonderful and wearable again. People who I encouraged to pursue their own creative destiny stop by to share their own lovely work.

Even years when the Fair is slow, the energy from seeing my old collectors and meeting new ones, is a spiritual high.

In the midst of all this wonderful, powerful energy, I would be a small person to let an off comment or odd interaction here and there, to bring me down.

But I would be human, too. Because that’s what we do–we hang on to the one hurtful comment or ignorant act.

Remember–as artists, we can choose:

We can wallow in indignation and anger.

Or we can remember that the work we do is blessed work. Not only for us, but for the world.

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Filed under art, business, craft, craft shows, customer care, mental attitude, selling

CUSTOMER CARE: Repair the Goods, Repair the Relationship

What you do for customer care AFTER the sale is important, too!

A question came up in an online forum the other day. People shared their business policy for repairs.

Nobody likes to hear their work didn’t hold up. My heart always sinks when I get a request from a store or customer to repair a piece. I feel slightly guilty. I take pride in my work and always stress the fact that my work is well-made. In fact, my original studio name was Durable Goods. A broken piece feels like I’ve misled the customer.

It doesn’t help that sometimes the customer is already upset and defensive. “It just broke!” is what I usually hear. Who wants to hear that about our product?? Not me.

It helps to take a deep breath and listen with your heart.

I’ve come to realize a few things about the repair process. First, even expensive, commercially-made jewelry isn’t necessarily impervious to harm. A fine gold chain breaks when a jumping dog snags it, diamonds fall out of their settings and rings drop down the garbage disposal. My jewelry is as well-made as I can make it, but things do wear out, get lost, break down. I don’t need to get defensive if one of my pieces gets broken.

I’ve also come to realize that customers often start out on the offensive because they expect to be given a hard time.

Isn’t that awful?? They love my work, they paid their hard-earned money for it, they wore it every day, it broke, they want to get it fixed so they can wear it some more.

And they think I’m going to be snotty about it. Because that’s what they’ve come to expect from other small businesses and vendors when they have issues with a purchase.

The solution is to immediately reassure them that they will be taken care of. And to offer exquisite customer care.

My first response is, “I’m so sorry that happened! Tell me what’s wrong. Let me make it right for you so you can wear it again.”

As soon as they realize I will listen, and sympathize, and then resolve the issue, they calm down. They are relieved and grateful they will be taken care of.

As they describe or show the damage (depending on whether they’ve called or come to my booth at a show), I assess what has to be done. I offer options–repair, replace, restring, etc.

After I’ve assured them the piece can be repaired, then it’s time to gently find out how the damage occurred.

This will give valuable information about whether the damage is their “fault” or mine. This is not to assess blame. It’s to determine whether I need to make changes in my process, or if this is a “teachable moment” for the customer.

Here’s how I think about it:

If I had TONS of repairs, then it might be MY problem.

A lot of repairs indicates I have to review my product and perhaps make adjustments. Maybe I need to look at my construction techniques and ask myself why I was getting so many returns. Is the stringing material durable enough? Was the glue old? (Even epoxies have a shelf life.) When I was just starting out selling jewelry, I thought I could save money by using cheap spring clasps for my necklaces. The clasps didn’t hold up. That, unfortunately, resulted in a lot of returns for repairs. That was a valuable lesson. I now only work with high-quality components.

If I DON’T have a lot of repairs, then providing free (or at least cheerful) repairs is the best customer service I can give.

Either the customer loved the item enough to wear it often and is disappointed she can’t anymore or she paid a lot for item and didn’t get the usage out of it she expected.

Either way, she has paid me a very high compliment–loving my work, and investing in my work.

Either way, a repair will make her very, very happy, and willing to buy from me again.

A refusal will upset her and you can bet she will let everybody know about it.

So what do I mean by a “teachable moment”?

If I’ve put the customer at ease by reassuring her I will take care of her, and it turns out the damage is not my fault, then there’s an opportunity to educate, to make sure it doesn’t happen again.

A customer indignantly said the artifact on her necklace “just broke.” I immediately told her I was sorry. I asked her to send it to me immediately, and I would either repair or replace it. I apologized for the inconvenience, and she grew calmer. We talked more. She told me she desperately hoped I could fix it, because she loved the artifact (a horse.) Under gentle questioning, she admitted that when she was nervous, she liked to “flex” a flat artifact pendant I’d made. That “flexing” eventually caused the artifact to break.

Her initial defensive attitude was because she thought I would not help her if she admitted she’d broken it, and she was distraught because she loved it so much.

I made her a new, thicker pendant, jokingly telling her “no more flexing!” Because she loved the original artifact so much, I glued it back together, put a backing layer of polymer on it to strengthen it, and made it into a pin.

When I’m feeling defensive, this is important to keep in mind: An item that breaks with overuse means the item was being worn, and worn a lot. One woman told me she never took off the silk cord necklace she’d bought from me. She even wore it swimming, and showered in it.

It took some doing to convince her that silk cord won’t hold up under that kind of usage. But that was just proof of how much she loved it. And I still restrung her necklace. Free.

Last, when you have wholesale customers and get a customer repair request, remember you are actually dealing with two customers–their customer, and the store owner/buyer/manager. When you show your willingness to stand behind your work, you make it easier for the store to do their work–selling your stuff.

Just my humble opinion, and experience. And of course, there are exceptions.

We’ve all had the occasional customer who simply can’t be satisfied. It happens rarely in face-to-face encounters. It’s more common with online sales if you don’t already have a relationship with the customer. When you feel you’ve gone above and beyond, and the customer is still not happy, it may be worth your while to simply take the item back and refund their money.

And if your materials are very expensive, then of course you may have to charge a reasonable fee for repairs regardless of why they are needed.

But even if you must charge for repairs, these are still ways you can make your customer feel treasured. Listening and taking care of your customers after the sale–offering support and non-judgmental service–is excellent customer service indeed.

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Filed under art, business, craft, customer care, jewelry, listening, mental attitude, selling

CUSTOMER CARE: It’s Not Just WHAT You Do, It’s HOW.

Expecting customers to already know how to do business with you, is not good customer care.

I had an interesting–no, make that incredibly frustrating–exchange with the post office awhile ago. It got me thinking about customer care.

We may have different ideas of what giving good customer care is, but we all recognize when we’re not getting it.

If you want to read the conversation, I put it at the end of the article. If you’re in a hurry, here’s my point:

Nobody knows your business like you do. Nobody knows better than you how you prefer people to order, pay or ask for more information. Nobody knows better than you what your return policy is.

Yep, nobody knows better than you–not even your customers.

Nor should you expect them to.

Expecting people to know the ins, outs and idiosyncracies of your biz, and treating them like they’re stupid when they don’t, is not good customer care.

We all have unique ways of running our business. We have our policies and procedures for handling orders, mistakes, returns, questions and repairs. We know our hours of operation, our location, our inventory. After all, we deal with our business every day.

But our customers don’t.

We should keep in mind that our customers deal with many, many other businesses, every day–not just ours.

They deal with schools, banks, insurance companies, hospitals, shoe stores, hair salons, pharmacies, baby sitters, auto dealers, telephone companies, banks and post offices. They order online from Amazon, Blockbuster, Borders, eBay and Medco.

Each of these businesses does things a little bit differently. Each asks its customers to interact with them slightly differently. Each one has their own hours of operation, procedures, policies, forms, payment methods.

As wonderful and distinctive as I’d like to think my biz is, to my customers–even my loyal, loving, regular customers–it’s just one more operation with its own hours, procedures, policies, etc., etc.

Very few people want to expend a lot of brain cells memorizing all the nuances of each business, especially if their interaction is infrequent. After all, how many insurance claims have you filed in your life? Should you be expected to know the name of the form, the supporting documents you need, and the deadline for filing it? Especially if the procedure was updated since you filed your last claim eight years ago?

Even “standard procedures”–say, writing a check for cash at the bank–is tricky if we only do it once every few years. Do you make it out to yourself, or to the bank or for “cash”? Which method do you have to endorse? Which method does the bank prefer??

If we work at a bank, it’s obvious. However, if we rarely even visit the inside of a bank anymore, it’s not so obvious.

Remember–We are just one more business our customers deal with. There’s nothing “more special” about us that would lead us to expect they should memorize how we want things done.

We may think our website is easy to navigate. We may think our return policy is hard to miss. We may think it’s obvious how to use our product. But maybe it’s not. Or maybe it just gets lost in the shuffle.

It’s even worse when policies are non-standard or downright odd. I bet we all know businesses that are closed Sundays and Mondays. Or Mondays and Tuesdays. Some are only open 4-7 on Tuesday, 12-3 on Mondays and Wednesdays, closed Thursdays, and open Friday 10-3. Saturdays and Sundays by appointment only (but no phone number is given and they never answer the store phone.)

Am I really expected to remember that? Maybe for one biz. But for two? Six? Twenty???

Even something as supposedly stable as location can get dicey. Some businesses around here have moved three, four, even five times in the 20 years we’ve been here. Once I sent my husband on an errand I usually take care of. He called me fifteen minutes later–no store. Where the heck were they?, he wanted to know. He’d gone to their address from five years ago. It was already two addresses old.

It’s bad enough to assume people will remember all our quirky hours, or that we tend to move every three years. It’s bad enough to assume they know all the proper terminology, or are familiar with all the forms they need to do business with us

But it’s even worse to treat your customers like they’re stupid when they don’t know. (Hence my post office story.)

We can tell them, we can show them. Signage in your booth helps. (“We accept all major credit cards.”) But you’re still going to get asked, “Do you take credit cards?” After the fiftieth time you’re asked that, saying, “Read the sign!” is not good customer care. (Unless, of course, it’s the same customer asking fifty times. If that’s the case, I give you permission to say, “Hey, no, I don’t, but that artist (insert the name of your least favorite artist) over there takes credit cards.”) Saying cheerfully, “Yes, we do!” is smart.

Clear, accessible policies on your website helps. (“Custom orders are not returnable.”) Telling them helps. (“If this doesn’t work out for you, you can return this pin for exchange or credit towards another piece within 10 days.”) Putting it in writing helps. (“Items can be returned for exchange or credit ONLY with 10 days of purchase.” on your invoices.) Usually, terms such as your return policy must be posted visibly in your store/booth or printed on the receipt.

Clarity helps. Ensure your website is ridiculously easy to navigate. Redundancy helps. Make vital information incredibly easy to find, posting it in several places if necessary.

But most people (me included) simply let all your information leak into “overflow parking.” It’s human nature: Too. Much. Information. Making them feel stupid when they realize the bracelet is too hard to put on by themselves will put the kabosh on future sales. Offering them a different clasp when they complain, or offering the option of an exchange, will help.

Patience will go a long way when hiccups occur. Yes, some customers ramble and have to be gently reined in. But good listening skills, asking good questions, and simply being professional, courteous–and kind–will help you target what your customer needs from you.

And your customers will appreciate it.

THE CONVERSATION

In this case, I was out of the country for over a week, and it took me a couple of days to get through my mail. So almost 10 days had gone by before I found the a form notice that my mail carrier had attempted delivery of a registered item that needed my signature. It said the item was being held for me at the post office.

I know that some kinds of mail get returned if not claimed within a certain time, but I wasn’t sure if this would happen with my item.

Form in hand, I called the phone number for the post office on the form and spoke to an employee there.

The ensuing conversation read like Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s on First?” routine.

PO: “Post Office.”

Me: “Hi, I’ve been on vacation for a week, and I got a notice that my carrier had tried to deliver registered package, but no one had been home to sign for it. It’s dated over a week ago, almost 10 days. Is it still at the Post Office, or had it been sent back to the sender?”

PO: “What’s the address?” (Spoiler: She probably should have asked if I had the form.)

I give it to her, she disappears, comes back on line.

PO: “There’s nothing there for that address. What’s your name?”

I tell her my name. (Spoiler: She probably should have said, “What’s the name of the addressee on your form?”) I start to ask if providing a tracking number would help, as there are a couple of numbers on the form, but she puts me on hold again before I can say anything more.

PO: “There’s nothing here under that name.” (silence)

Me: “Oh. Was it sent back already? Is there any way to track it? I have some…” (I was going to say “…numbers on this form” again but she says, “Hang on” and dashes off again.)

PO: “I’ve looked at all the packages and boxes, I looked in x, y, z places and it isn’t here.”

Me: “Oh, sorry, it says here that it’s a ‘large envelope, catalog or…”

PO (very exasperated): “Why didn’t you say so?? Hang on.” (Puts me on hold again, returns.) “Nope, nothing.”

Me: “Is there any way to track it? If I give you the number on the form…”

PO (interrupts): “You have a form?? Why didn’t you tell me that?!”

Me: “Well, I thought I did. Let me read you….”

PO (interrupting again): “Give me the number.”

Me: “Okay, there are several numbers on here, which one…”

PO (interrupting again, speaking louder and faster): “The (indistinct) number.”

Me: “The ‘what’ number?”

PO (angrily): “The (indistinct) number! On the back!”

Me: “Look, I can here you say ‘something number’ but I can’t hear what the ‘something’ is.” (silence)

Me (trying again): “I can’t tell which side of the form is the back or front, there are two numbers, one starts with…”

PO (interrupts again): “The (indistinct) number! On the BACK of the form!”

pause…. (I’m trying to stay patient.)

Me: “I can hear you say it’s a number and that it’s on the back. My confusion is it’s not very clear which is the front and which is the back of the form, and there are several strings of numbers. Is it the number starting with RF…”

PO (interrupts again): “No, no the number on the BACK!”

Me (cautiously): “Is it the bar code number?”

PO: “That’s not it! The BACK of the form!”

My tongue is now bloody from biting it so hard. I read her one of the other numbers, which thankfully is the right one. She puts me on hold again, and comes back.

PO: “Are you by any chance also known as ‘Durable Goods’?”

Me: “Yes, I….”

PO (interrupting): “Why didn’t you say so?? It’s right here. You can pick it up anytime.” (I refrain from telling her I answered every question she asked me, but she hasn’t answered any of mine yet.)

Me: “Well, actually, I’d like to have it….”

PO: “YOU CAN PICK IT UP ANYTIME!”

Me: “I’d rather….”

PO: “What else do you need??”

Me: “I’d like to have it delivered.”

PO: “You have to sign the form to have it delivered.”

Me: “Yes, I understand, I can sign the form, I just didn’t know if it were still at the post office…”

PO (interrupting, angrily): “Yes, I SAID it’s RIGHT HERE, you can pick it up anytime. If you sign it, you won’t get it til Friday.”

Me: “Friday is fine…Look, I…”

PO: “We’re busy, is that all?”

At this point I asked to speak to her supervisor.

PO: “Why? She’s not going to get that package to you any faster.”

Me: “Look, this is getting out of hand, I…” and she puts me on hold again.

Supervisor: “Your package is right here, you can pick it up anytime.”

Me: “I know that, I want to let you know how rude….”

Supervisor: “Hold on, the other phone’s ringing.” (puts me on hold) “Look, we’re pretty busy, you’re package is here and you can pick it up anytime.”

Me: “I know that, I’ve been treated very rudely by your employee. Don’t you care about that?”

Supervisor: “Well, I can’t help you with that. Goodbye.”(hangs up)

Now, I usually don’t engage in Post Office bashing. I think they move an incredible amount of mail at reasonable rates. And usually I am treated with courtesy in my interactions with them. Although I noticed the last time I was there that all the nice people have retired….

But if there were another option for mail service, I would have seriously considered it after this little incident.

All this, just because this person assumed I should know their procedures for registered mail. Which I get about once a year. And let me know how dumb she thought I was because I didn’t know.

If all queries are handled like mine was, I have my suspicions about why they’re so busy.

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