THE STUPID QUESTION

Bruce Baker has made it smart to be nice.

What do I mean by that?

Well, if you’ve ever hung out with a group of craftspeople who do shows, or participated in an on-line forum discussion about shows, you’ll recognize an all-to-common topic:

The stupid things our customers say.

It’s always a hot topic, and the posts will often outnumber any other thread in the forum. Except, of course, the one on the difference between art and craft. (A word to the wise: Don’t go there!)

It’s true, of course–people will say the oddest things in your booth, ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous. They may say baffling comments, stometimes verging on the insulting.

I always held back from sharing. Because I have a guilty secret.

First, because people rarely said things I thought were stupid or insulting–just lucky, I guess. Or maybe I it was the quality of shows I was doing. Remember, I quit doing those small retail shows early on.

Second, I myself was fairly new to the craft world. I didn’t know any professional craftspeople when I started out, nor any artists. I figured people weren’t saying anything out of the ordinary, or anything I wouldn’t say under the same circumstances.

In fact, that’s my third point.

I’m one of those stupid customers.

There have been times when I’ve been in an artist’s booth and asked that same “stupid question”–only I knew I didn’t mean it to be stupid, or offensive. I knew I liked the work and honestly wanted to know more about it, or the artist.

I can tell I’ve asked “the stupid question” because I get the heaved sigh, the eyes rolling heavenward, the smart ass retort that makes me feel like an idiot.

My most embarrassing memory is standing awestruck in an artist’s booth at a fancy high-end retail show, just blown away by this guy’s work. I couldn’t tell what it was made of. I didn’t want to touch it–it looked special–and there wasn’t a single sign or card in the entire booth explaining his process or technique. (I guess the art was doing that “speak for itself” thing….)

The artist was standing with his arms folded glaring at us. I said, “These are beautiful! Are they painted tin or wood?”

He glared at me in silence, and then HE TURNED HIS BACK ON ME!

I couldn’t believe it. I also couldn’t figure out what the heck I’d said that had made him so angry. Embarrassed and indignant, I left the booth.

So when those long lists of “stupid comments” come up, I keep quiet. Because obviously, I was one of those “stupid people” they were all making fun of. And I didn’t like it, because something didn’t feel right.

Bruce Baker, bless his heart, has vindicated me.

It’s either on his CD on sales and selling, or I heard it in his last seminar. He explains that whole dynamic of “letting people land” in your booth–they come in, take a look around, and settle in to shop. You give them a minute to catch their breath, greet them quickly, let them know you are available if they need you–and then back off.

You leave them alone. They shop. You remain available but busy, not hovering, not following. Just….available.

Then comes that magic moment when they decide it’s okay for you to talk to them. They will give you a signal. That’s your cue to start talking about the work.

Unfortunately, many, many craftspeople blow this opportunity wide open. They will take this cue and misinterpret it. They will respond with sarcasm, or anger, or indignation.

Because that cue is often “the stupid question.”

Did you see it in my own example? I liked the work enough to stay in the guy’s booth. I looked at everything in there. I finally made up my mind to engage the artist.

I asked him a question. I wanted to meet him, to talk to him. I hoped he’d share some insights about his work with me. Maybe he’d even convince me I had to have one! Maybe there was a really cool one at just the right price that could go home with me….

Instead, he let me know he didn’t even want to look at me anymore, let alone talk to me.

Now maybe he’d heard that same question a thousand times already. Maybe he paints on some rare rain forest wood and was insulted I thought it was cheap tin. Maybe he paints on recycled tin roofs from his boyhood farm and was insulted I thought it was cheap wood. Maybe it was some intricate intaglio process and he was insulted I thought it was paint.

I dunno. But now I’ll never know. And I don’t really care.

Because he missed his opportunity to answer my question (or NOT answer my question, as the case may be) in a way that would have started the sales process.

He could have have sent me off with a painted sculpture, a new balance on my Visa card, and added a new collector to his mailing list. Instead, he left me in a puddle of anger and embarrassment. And I’ve never felt the slightest interest in his work since.

For all I know, I have been the subject of his own “stupid customer” stories.

But I have my revenge. I get to make fun of him today. Here.

So the next time that topic comes up, think twice before getting caught up in that “stupid customer” thing. It doesn’t serve you, and it doesn’t serve your art.

Think hard before asking for a “snappy comeback” for those “stupid questions.” You’re going to feel good for awhile. But your bank account is going to feel lighter.

Me? I have permission from Bruce to be nice.

And I’m gonna use it to the hilt!