Fifth in a series about how to get certain people out of your booth at art and craft shows.
This one is going to be odd, but if you’ve been in business long enough, you’ll be nodding your head. (Or holding it in your hands or tearing your hair out.)
It’s a special type of customer. The picky, picky customer. The contessa of custom work.
The Design Diva.
It’s the person who love, love, loves your work, and wants to own a piece. But nothing you have on hand really suits. It has to be a special piece. It has to be custom. It has to be….
Micromanaged to within an inch of its life.
If you aren’t careful, this faux customer will take up tons of your time and energy, designing that special piece–yet you will never close the sale.
Some custom work and special orders are easy. The customer wants this necklace, but in a longer length. Or this wall hanging, but a bit bigger to fit a special niche. Orders like these don’t require a lot of fussing.
Some custom orders are necessarily more involved. You’re going to be making something you’ve never done before–a brand new animal totem, or a piece larger than you ever attempted before. Some customers have never placed a custom order before, or they may not be familiar with you. Or it’s a lot more money than they are used to spending. More attention and hand-holding is necessary.
But there are some custom orders that are almost doomed to fail before they even start. It’s not you. It’s not the project.
It’s the Design Diva.
I’m talking about the faux customer who has you absolutely convinced that you have been commissioned to make a fabulous piece of art for them–who then drives you crazy with all the details they want to be in control of. The process drags on for months, long past the point where you can ever hope to profit from it.
Or they drop off the face of the earth after they leave your booth.
Or they cancel the order when you make your first follow-up call.
This customer actually envisions herself as the creative genius behind the work. She knows exactly how it will look, down to the precise size and shape and color.
You, with your technical skill and tools and materials, are simply the working stiff that will bring this imagined piece into the world.
IF the Design Diva actually ends up buying the work, it would be some solace. But sadly, most of these over-managed orders end up going nowhere.
The worst thing about these people is, they get your engine going about the big sale you are going to make. They can also suck up huge amounts of your time and your energy. You may not be able to take care of other would-be customers in your booth, trying to close this “big sale”.
We all go out window shopping, and it’s fine for customers to window shop in our booths. But this goes way, way beyond that.
Why would someone do this to an unsuspecting artist?
The question to ask is, what’s in it for them?
They get to play art patron. They get to be “Lady Bountiful” for a day. They get to have the undivided attention of a talented artist (you), eating out of their hand and hanging on every word about their artistic sensitivities, their lovely collection, their beautiful home.
It’s an exquisitely powerful position for someone to hold. And I suspect that some of these people are shadow artists, themselves.
Here are a few sad stories about Design Divas.
One customer approached me at a show for a three-piece wall hanging project. We worked out the idea. We talked for a long, long, time. I did not collect a deposit. She was so nice! I was thrilled to have such a big order to work on.
After the show, I sent her a design, fabric swatches and a proposal. When I didn’t hear from her, I called. That’s when I found out she’d found another option for that wall space from an artist in the next tent at the show. Thirty feet from my booth, she found a cheaper solution to her decorating dilemma.
She could have doubled back and tell me she’d changed her mind. She could have called. But she didn’t–because she had nothing invested in the process and nothing to lose. If I’d had a deposit, she would at least have called to make sure I didn’t cash the check.
Another buyer at a wholesale show came back to my booth three times to admire my work. He was a very pleasant gentleman, and eager to tell me about his fabulous multi-niched business. He placed a huge order for wall hangings, and wanted to buy a ton of jewelry, too.
But oddly, he could never find his wife to complete the order. After the show, when I called to confirm a ship date, I was told that though he was part-owner of the store, he was not the buyer. It sort of sounded like he did this a lot, too. Apparently, he enjoyed pretending he was. (At least he hadn’t ordered custom work.)
It’s actually a good strategy to get people talking about your work in their home or store. The thing is, at some point, they have to commit to actually buying your work for it to actually be in their home or store. Design Divas stretch out the talking, and never really get around to the buying.
Some hints that you are dealing with a design diva.
It’s not really about your art. It’s about their home. You hear more about the room it’s going into than anything else.
It’s not really about your work. It’s about the other stuff they have. You hear more about the other fabulous objets d’art the collector has already acquired than about yours.
It’s not really about you, the artist. It’s about them, the art patron. You hear more about the collector herself than you the artist. And why are they spending so much time talking about themselves, trying to impress you? Real collectors gather as much information about you, the artist, as they can. Because the stories about you are the ones they’re going to be sharing with their friends and guests when they come see your lovely work in the collector’s home.
Your artistic vision isn’t quite…quite. The way you do it isn’t quite good enough. There will be many, many changes and alterations along the way. The shade of rust you pick is a little off. It needs to be a wee bit bigger. Oh, and can you add some stuff over here?
It’s not really up to them. There is a mysterious husband who has to be consulted before anything is final, and he’ll probably say yes, but he never appears or can be contacted at the show. (Trust me, when he is finally found, the answer is always “no”…)
It just takes too long. Long after the order is recorded, the terms are discussed and it’s time for this customer to move on, they’re staying on way too long. It’s hard to explain, but it’s like they know they’ve got a big one on the line–you! And they’re having too much fun to let you go.
How can you protect yourself against these folks? It’s really hard, because they look so much like real customers. But here are some strategies:
Maintain control. For example, if you start to feel like you are simply a seamstress-for-hire instead of an artist, you can refuse to play the game. Put on your artist hat, and have confidence in your skills. “This sounds more like ‘work-for-hire’. Maybe you would be happier with a seamstress who can follow your exact specifications instead. Here’s the name of a good one near you.”
Get the OK from everyone involved. If they start deferring their final purchasing to some other person, stand down. You are either not dealing with the actual decision-maker, or the customer is starting to realize that significant “other” is probably going to say “no”–and that’s going to be embarrassing for everyone concerned. In fact, it’s so embarrassing, they won’t tell you that to your face. They’ll wait til you call for the next payment and tell you it’s all off. Get firm. Don’t go any further until you have the decision-maker in on the buy, too.
Put all your terms for custom/special orders in writing! Have your terms for custom work ready. And if you are not familiar with the customer,or you start getting those odd vibes, stick to your terms like glue. You can always relax your terms as you get buyer compliance.
Make it clear you charge a non-refundable design fee. Some people make it a percentage of the total order amount, others make it a flat fee–$50, $100, depending on how much work you anticipate putting into it.
Decide how many times you are willing to tweak the design to satisfy the customer. (Portrait painters have a hard time with this, especially when they are just starting out and their reputations aren’t “big enough” to command respect.) One or two tweaks should be all that is needed. More than that, accept the fact you will never come up with a design the customer will be happy with. You may want to charge for extra re-designs (beyond one or two) to discourage this.
Decide how much money you need as a deposit. 50% down, 50% at time of completion is an option.
At wholesale shows, many craftspeople simply refuse to take custom orders on new accounts. Changing a bead color here or there is one thing. Creating a whole new design you might not be able to sell anywhere else if the order falls through is another.
And remember…it’s okay to qualify your buyers–even retail buyers! Get references. Ask if they’ve commissioned work from artists before, and check them out. I did this at a new show for a custom order I took from a very nice couple. They actually offered the other artist’s name as a reference, and the artist gave them a rave review. (See how the buyers were trying to reassure me?) Everything went beautifully.Make them step up to the plate. If you feel like everything is sliding away, our first reaction is usually to work frantically harder to close the sale. But I’m learning to step back and think, “I think I need to see a commitment from you. Prove to me how badly you want my work!” Don’t draw up sketches or send swatches until you have money in hand.
Defer the big decision til after the show. This one is tricky, especially if you’re doing a show far from home. But if you’re getting that bad feeling about the whole transaction, and it’s a biggie, better to have it come apart later than to waste another precious minute of booth time. Arrange for the prospective customer to come for a studio visit. Or arrange for you about the project to consult in their home (paid, of course.)
Know when to fold. If you suspect you have a customer who will never be pleased, throw in the towel. Return as much of the deposit/payments as you can (keeping all the work you’ve already produced for them, of course) and refer them to someone else. (Preferably another artist you don’t like.)
Even with all these protections in place, however, all the person has to say is “My husband is a lawyer” (like one customer did) and you know this is a battle you are going to lose. Even if you are right, do you really have the time, the energy, the resources and the money to pursue this?
Truth be told, I still get tripped up by people like this. It’s impossible to close all the loopholes.
But f I can save you from one Design Diva, this column will not have been in vain.
Remember, your audience LOVES your work. They WANT to have it. They would not dream of jerking you around just to make themselves feel more important–because then you would never sell to them again.