(Originally published on Fine Art Views. Based on helping a friend enhance their show experience, but much of it applies to our open studio conversations, too!)
This article has tips on how to engage visitors, how NOT to engage visitors, and how to make clear what is and isn’t for sale (and why).
A fellow craftsperson asked for my help awhile back. They’d had a few bad shows back-to-back. Something was lacking, but they didn’t know what.
I asked to see a picture of their space and they sent me some pics. Right away, I saw some things that could be changed that would make their booth more attractive and functional.
We set up part of their booth in my driveway to experiment with layout. We talked about how to greet people when they enter your booth. How to create—and support—an environment that lets people browse and shop comfortably. How to display work so people can immediately see what you do and what you’re selling. How to tell people what they’re looking at. How to streamline and integrate your display so people “get” your message.
My friend is an outgoing person who’s comfortable in their space. They’re savvy about marketing and serious about their business. Even so, there were a few things in their approach that tend to shut down the sales process quickly.
Worse, these are actions most artists think they’re supposed to do.
I have an advantage, in a way. My personality type almost equally balanced between introvert and extrovert. Being too isolated too long drives me bonkers. But being too outgoing too long sometimes drains my battery. I need downtime to recharge. The advantage? I’m very aware when I’m in my please-don’t-bug-me stage, and when I’m in my “you-are-my-new-best-friend!” phase. And I’m also very aware of what bugs me in both of those modes.
As artists in our sales mode, we think we’re supposed to greet everyone immediately and fervently. We think we’ll bond by complimenting a visitor’s clothing or jewelry. We try to connect by commenting on the weather, the show or some other small talk. We want people to know about our product, whether it’s a landscape painting, a turned wood bowl or button earrings. And so we jump right in and tell them all about it.
And then, when they do ask us a question, we make a joke so that we’ll really set them at ease. And often, the joke is at their expense.
All of this sets my teeth on edge. Especially when I’m in my quiet mode.
Remember this: We are not here to make a bunch of new friends.
I don’t mean this to sound clinical or cold. I say it so we understand how we can act in ways that support what we’re really in this event for.
We’re here so people can see, and buy, our artwork.
If they become good friends and passionate collectors in the process, that’s wonderful. But until they decide that’s the relationship they want, all small talk is just that—small talk—that interferes with what they came to the show to do….
The main reason people go to art fairs, craft shows, and open studios, is to shop, in all its phases and levels. They may actively shop. They may say they’re “just looking”—until the find the thing that they just can’t pass by. They want to browse, and look, and admire, or decide they’re not interested, and leave without interference. They may decide they like our work, and us, which is perfect! They will be back, whether they make a purchase or not, today or later.
If they show interest, that’s the start of a connection. Then we’re here to build and strengthen that connection. If we succeed in creating a strong connection—whether it’s through name-branding, quality, value, shared ideals, common purpose, magnetic personality, whatever—then an exchange is made: Their hard-earned money for our well-made artwork.
My point (and I do have one, to quote Ellen) is that you do not want to interrupt their shopping process with meaningless chatter. You do not want to interrupt the shopping process with questions that have nothing to do with their shopping. You do not want to interrupt the shopping process with a question they can answer “no” to. (The biggie? “May I help you?” “No, thanks, just looking.” Bing! You’re nullified.)
Meaningless chatter? Trust me, almost anything you’re going to ask a browser is something they’ve heard in every single booth-or-studio before they got to yours. When I’m shopping, I hate to be interrupted to answer questions like, “So, are you from this area?” Or “Are you looking for anything special?” Or “Did you see these widgets over here? I just started making these last week!” Or “How are you enjoying the show-0r-tour?”
When I’m shopping, I want to focus on looking, not chatting about meaningless stuff.
When the shoe is on the other foot, it’s obvious to me this tactic isn’t productive. When I’m selling at a show or in my studio, I’ve noticed that if I comment on a person’s shirt or purse, the ensuing conversation is all about their shirt. Or their purse. If I ask them how they’re enjoying the show, then we talk about the show. Ditto the weather. Like my friend, you may say things like this in an honest attempt to show people that you are likeable and personable. But it simply comes across as annoying at best, or self-serving, distracting and insincere at worst.
When people enter your booth, give them a moment to settle. I read recently that when we go through an entrance or a door, our brains do a “data dump” of where we’ve come from, to make room for new information in our new location. (Hence, the endless comedy of going to a room to look for something, and forgetting what we’re looking for.)
I think this happens to people coming into your booth space. Something about your work or display pulls people in from the aisle, your image in that catalog drew them in, or they simply stop at every booth or studio to investigate. They need a few seconds to grasp what they’re looking at. Give them a few beat to settle, then greet them.
I do not stand staring at them as they enter. I try to have simple little tasks to work on—making price tags, dusting frames, restocking some items. I look up and smile, and greet them simply. “Hi, I’m Luann, and this is my work (spreading my hand). (One or two sentence summary about your work. More on this later!) If you have any questions, just let me know, I’m just making up some tags.” The pressure is off. You are available, but not hovering over them. They don’t have to answer dumb questions. They don’t have to chit-chat. They don’t have to listen to a full-blown sales pitch.
They can just look. Yay!!
Some people take a quick look, decide my work is not for them, and leave. Others stay. If you let them, they’ll settle in for a good long look.
There’s a point, too, where it feels right to say quietly, “It’s okay to touch.” People are always surprised—and delighted—to hear this. They always say, “Thank you!” and start picking pieces up. *(see below for funny story about touching.)
How do I know when it’s time to start my sales piece?
When they ask me a question.
When they ask me a question, they are giving me permission to talk to them. From there on, I follow their lead. If you relax into yourself, and watch, you can tell who needs a quiet voice and gentle questions. You can tell who’s hungry for more information and camaraderie. You respond with bigger energy to outgoing people, and quiet energy to reserved people.
It’s a delicate dance.
Remember that whenever you talk to someone in your booth, other people are listening. They may even prefer to get your information “second-hand”, without having to actively talk themselves.
The last big no-no: Please do NOT make a joke at your customer’s expense. Yes, you will say that your punch line (“How long does it take me to make that?” “It took me 30 years to make that!”) gets a laugh every time. I’m here to tell you, your visitor is probably laughing out of embarrassment. You’ve made a joke at their expense. If you make a joke about anything that makes the person feel stupid, or defensive, or flat-footed, you have created a disconnect. Even a small disconnect is not good. And it may be very difficult to repair it. If other people in your booth are listening, it’s even worse. Because they won’t want to volunteer to be the butt of your joke, either.
Here’s one example: My friend makes many of her own “cake stands” to display her pieces. But one of them was a gift from her mother, and one of them held her own wedding cake. Sometimes people ask to buy them. Her response? “Sure! This one is $25, this one is $500, and this one is $1,000.” They went on to explain that the second and third one aren’t really for sale.
They’ve created a situation where the customer knows that’s a ridiculous answer—why would a cake stand cost $1,000??–but has no idea what’s going on. They sense they’re being set up, and sure enough, they are. They may laugh with relief, they may laugh because it’s funny. But for a moment, they felt stupid and on the outside.
Why would you want to make your customer feel that way?
I suggested they turn that whole scene around. It’s simple enough: Label the one that’s for sale, and label the two that aren’t as NFS (Not For Sale). If people ask why those two aren’t for sale, tell them the story first: “This one I made, this one is a gift from my mother, etc.” THEN tell them the punch line: “So I like to say, this one is $25, this one is $500….” That way, your customer is in on the joke—not the butt of it. You still get to be funny, but not at their expense.
So is it okay to make small talk?
When it’s not busy in our booth, you’re bored stiff, the person seems open to chatting and apparently—or obviously—is not interested in our work. Even then, it can backfire. I wrote a whole series of articles about how to get some people out of your booth. (It’s a Kindle book, too!) One of them was about the non-purchasing customer who wants to be your new best friend and talk your ear off.
When is it okay to ask them how they’re enjoying the event? As you’re wrapping up their purchase, when you’re getting their contact information, as you process their sale. “Are you from this area?” because if they are, you can ask if you add them to your mailing list (for open studio catalogs), their email address (so you can alert them to future events, sales, classes, etc.) and if they aren’t, they might be interested in making future purchases from your website (email newsletter.)
I leave a sign-up sheet out, with the same info, and with business cards and postcards they can take, too.
When is it okay to ask them how they feel about the weather? I have no idea. Maybe if it’s raining and you are selling umbrellas?
When YOU are visiting a booth or studio, when YOU are browsing or shopping, what are YOUR pet peeves? Maybe we can find ways to turn them around to our advantage when we’re the vendors!
*I used to have a sign that said “Please touch” or “It’s okay to touch”. One visitor was obviously intrigued with my work, but kept their hands behind their back. I said, “It’s okay to pick that item up” and they said, “Oh NO, the sign says ‘Don’t touch’!” Too funny! But that’s when I realized we’re all so used to NOT being allowed to touch, that people glanced at that sign, saw ‘touch’ and assumed it was yet another “hands off” sign. It made me kinda sad. But it also encouraged me to TELL people it was okay. That was even more effective and powerful. Lesson learned!