The ultimate in customer care creates powerful connection—and a great reputation!
(7 minute read)
When we left NH going-on-six-years-ago, I also left behind one of the biggest sources of my art biz income: The League of New Hampshire Craftsmen’s Annual Craftsmen’s Fair.
It’s a highly-respected show, lasting 9 days in early August. I loved it and dreaded it. Love: Great attendance, returning collectors, meeting up with friends near and far, and solid sales. Dread: It took me three entire days to set up my booth, it could get super hot (yes, it gets hot and HUMID in New England!), and nine days is a looooong fair. Also, storms and high winds can trample attendance. (One tiny gift of the shut-down is that this Fair will be a virtual event this year, and I can participate again. I’m ‘tenured’!)
And the first day usually brought a small wave of items brought to me by collectors, to be repaired.
That can feel daunting!
Over the years, I’ve had to repair a small wall hanging (minor), replace a broken sculpture (major!), and restring/repair/replace broken/damaged/lost jewelry. (Painters are lucky! Do paintings routinely get damaged, and repaired??)
In addition to my embarrassment of having a piece of jewelry breaking in use, some customers (not all!) take on (from experience!) a build-up of indignation. “It just broke!” some would exclaim, even though we all know things don’t just sit there and break.
It’s instinctive to react with indignation. We know we put a lot of work into our…er, work… But let’s not make the situation worse.
Instead, consider WHY they are coming on strong. (This insight was transformative for me!)
It’s because they are afraid you will either a) blame them; b) denigrate them for the damage; c) charge them for repairs; or even d) refuse to deal with them, and tell them to buy another one. (I’ve heard stories of some artists doing all combos of these reactions. I’ve experienced some of this myself, as a collector/buyer. It’s pretty awful.)
So they will build up a head of steam to get through the anticipated push-back.
What does this have to do with marketing our art?
How we handle this will affect our reputation, and possibly our sales, in many ways.
First, if we sell online, there are almost always opportunities to leave reviews on our purchases. An unhappy customer will probably not leave a stellar review. Of course, not all bad reviews are justified, but setting that aside for now as a subject for another day….
Even more importantly, we hope a happy collector will spread the word about our work. But an unhappy customer will definitely spread the word even further. Not just online, but in person, to their friends, family, acquaintances, co-workers, and anyone else who will listen, for years to come. Especially if we react badly right off the bat.
Last, when this happens on opening day at the Fair (or any event), usually a lot of other people are listening. How you handle this speaks volumes to them, literally and figuratively.
Here’s how I got to my happy place with all these encounters:
I realized the main problem with my jewelry (which is what most of these situations involve) happened because people loved my work so much, they never took it off.
Some people wore them in hot tubs, where the chemicals involved actually eat the plastic that polymer clay is made of.
Some people wore them in the shower, which is not good for leather cord.
Some people wore them to bed, where the risk of tangling and ‘catching’ on something could break a chain.
Some people soothed themselves with the artifact pendants—holding, bending, (there’s a bit of flex in thin polymer pieces) until it broke.
Sometimes people’s dogs snagged a chain, or (even as I speak today) new puppy chewed on an artifact.
Sometimes a partner buys a gift that lands wrong for the recipient.
Sometimes a cat knocks over a sculpture that shatters.
But in every case—in every single case—these people loved and cherished these items. And they were, at heart, afraid they would never get them back.
Once I recognized their pain and uncertainty, once I learned to see the anxiety behind their initial presentation, I could call on sympathy, on patience, even on pride that my work was so valued.
Here’s how I manage these incidents:
First, reassuring collectors that you care, can work small miracles right at the start. So I always meet these set-backs with kindness and sympathy. “I’m so sorry! I will fix this for you.”
It takes repeating and staying calm and grounded. But eventually, even the angriest (most defensive, usually) customer will hear me, and relax.
I explain what I may have to do: Repair the item, or replace it, and still find a way to return the original to them, if possible/
Once they realize they were being met with consideration and empathy, even the most assertive collector will relax. They know I will take care of them.
Only when we get here, to this place of safety for them, do I gently question what happened. I frame it as gathering information for me, helping me make my work better.
Then I listen, without judgment, and they open up. (That’s how I learned about the flexing, the hot tub, the broken chain, etc.)
In the case of a thin horse artifact caressed to the breaking point, I realized I had to make my animal artifacts thicker and sturdier. So I thanked the collector for sharing what happened, and for giving me this new insight. (I repaired and remade the “thin” horse into a pin, and made a thicker but almost-identical new horse for their necklace.)
For doggie uh-ohs, I’ll ask if they need a sturdier chain, or a leather cord instead. For the broken sculpture (one of my earliest) pushed over by a cat (DARN YOU, KITTY), I realized I’d used a shorter firing time, which made it more brittle—good information to have! (I told them how to repair it, AND sent a replacement.) Boy, I was grateful to learn that lesson, before I made more!
For a lost earring, I usually replace it at no cost the first time. The second time with the same set, I charge half the original price. (Yup, I had a customer who lost an earring three times! Because…she loved them, and wore them every day.) I also sometimes offer to change out the ear wires for lever backs, which are more secure.
See the gift here?
By reframing their experience, their loss, their (unintentional) damaging habits, their fear of being ‘blamed’, their fear of not having something they love, by seeing it as just this—their dismay at the loss of my work, which they love—I’ve not only kept a loyal collector….
I’ve improved my work.
And I’ve strengthened my reputation as a maker who stands behind my work.
I demonstrate my integrity, not just in the face of the best circumstances, but in the worst—when it really counts.
In this world of multi-billionaires, of the growing class of 1%-ers, of incredibly wealthy companies and people who will do anything to stay wealthy and take care of their own, at the expense of everyone else, integrity can be a rare commodity.
And once lost, it can be really hard to get back.
We can learn to see. To see our collectors as people who have put their faith in our art, who treasure it, who love it, and hate to lose it, even to their own accidental actions.
And we can help them see us as artists whose value and character don’t stop at the purchasing point. They can see us as people whose work is not just ‘worth buying’, but ‘worth having’ in their lives, for as long as possible.
Next week, we’ll talk about return policies, and how they can protect us from those (hopefully very few!) customers who abuse that privilege, in a way that benefits both us and our customer. But for now, if you have a story about how you transformed a difficult customer service issue into a positive (and powerful) one, share in the comments. It helps to know we are not alone when this happens. And it helps to see the long-term benefits of honoring those who collect—and support—the work of our hearts.
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