There are polite greetings, there are annoying meaningless greetings, and then there’s true engagement. You choose!
Recently my husband and I visited a chic little town north of us. A friend had mentioned some gorgeous galleries that might be a good fit for my work, and both of us wanted a pleasant road trip.
Things started out well, but ended….well, rather badly on several issues.
First, as we crossed a street, I tripped and fell on a complicated section of curb. (Very high and uneven curb, above an equally-uneven sort of culvert-shaped road edge.) I took a serious fall, wrenching my knee, straining my back, and smashing my glasses, which also gave me quite a headache.
We found a delightful hardware store nearby, and the clerk gave me excellent customer service. She walked me over to the glue section and helped me select the right glue to repair my glasses. It didn’t work, but I have no complaints, because she “met me where I was” and did her best to help me move forward.
We continued on to a beautiful gallery. By this time, I was really starting to feel the effects of the fall. I tried to focus on the artwork, but I was suffering. My back was spasming, my shoulder and knees hurt, my head and nose hurt.
The gallery attendant was busy and didn’t look up when we entered. That’s actually a good thing, giving people a minute to “land” once they walk into your booth, studio, or gallery space.
But what happened next was a travesty of good customer service.
They said, “How are you today?”
I was struck speechless. My bad. I wanted to say, “Fine, thank you!” But the reality of that fall was kicking in, and I was momentarily confused. I didn’t want to say, “Not well.” But mostly, I didn’t want to engage in small talk.
So I hesitated. And things went downhill from there.
The person seemed to take offense. They repeated the question again, louder. This was annoying. Because of this, I admit, I was unsure how to respond, and didn’t. (I was thinking, “Really? I have to take care of YOU?!”)
And while I gathered my wits and words to defuse the situation, they grew angrier still.
They threw their hands up in the air dramatically and snapped, “Fine! I get it! You’re on vacation and you don’t want to be bothered!”
Okay, that pissed me off. What an assumption to make on their part! And how not to win over a customer, on their part!
I politely said, “I apologize, I took a terrible fall on the sidewalk a little bit ago, and I’m in a lot of pain. I’m pretty distracted right now.”
Of course, they were embarrassed, and instantly apologized. But the damage was done.
Anyone who gets offended because a visitor doesn’t want to respond to empty greetings and conversation is not going to represent me or my artwork.
Anybody who leaps to conclusions about why someone is quiet, or reluctant to engage (what if I didn’t speak English?? What if I were hard of hearing? What if I had cognitive issues?), and anyone who responds in anger within ten seconds of this interaction, is simply not someone I want to have a conversation with.
And many of us do this all the time. We pressure people to engage in meaningless conversations, thinking we are doing it right.
Consider your visitors’ journey to see you. If you are doing a show, they may have wandered into a dozen or more, maybe even 50 or 100 booths before they get to yours.
And every single booth holder has greeted them with phrases like these:
“How are you today?”
“Nice weather today, isn’t it?”
“Are you enjoying the show?”
Or we jump into asking for too much information right off the bat:
“How many years have you been coming to this show?”
“How did you hear about this event?”
“I work with stoneware fired to cone 10 with copper oxide glaze.” (I have no idea if that even makes sense, which should tell you something. I collect a lot of pottery, and I don’t know, or care, about the conage or the glazage…. I just know if I find it beautiful or not, and if I can afford it.)
By the time our studio/booth visitors get to us, they are tired of talking about the weather, they want to wear a sign that says, “I’m fine, thank you”, and what they really want to hear about your pottery is, is it lead-free, and will it go in the oven.
What’s a better way to engage a visitor?
Don’t pressure them.
After a they take a few seconds to look around, and decide if they want to stay, you do a brief introduction of yourself, the setting, the work, etc. (“Brief” is the operative word here!)
When someone enters my booth or studio, I give them that moment to settle in, a quick hello if anything.
Then when they “collect themselves”, I say, “I’m Luann, and this is all my work, jewelry, wall hangings, sculptures. I make all the artifacts you see here that look like bone or ivory. It’s okay to touch the pieces, it’s okay to pick things up, and if you have any questions, I’m right here.”
Always. They have been acknowledged, they are not being forced into silly non-conversations, they have been given permission to relax and enjoy my space.
And so they dig in, and start looking.
Then I shut up and go back to work.
“Work” being relative term. I work on something simple I can pick up and set down at a second’s notice. I am “engaged”, but also “available”.
This is all I want to share today. There’s a lot more on how to proceed, when to talk, what to talk about, what not to talk about. There’s knowing that when people are ready to talk, they will ask a “stupid question” that may feel annoying to us, but is simply their way of saying, “It’s okay to talk to me now, and I want to know more about what you do!”
For example, if someone says, “How long does it take you to make that?” the worst answer you can give is, “It took me 30 years to make that!” (And saying it works because people laugh when you say it, is not understanding that people laugh when we embarrass them. Because you just made fun of their ignorance, and they KNOW that.)
So for today, think about a softer way to address visitors.
Something that doesn’t force a person in pain to put on a cheerful face. And doesn’t force them to apologize to YOU when you take offense, if they don’t.
Think of a simple greeting that doesn’t put them on the spot. An opening that doesn’t force them to respond, or engage. An introduction that allows them to explore your work, and to approach you confidently when they are ready to talk.
Today’s column at Fine Art Views, with a shout-out to Bruce Baker:
My nephew is getting married today in Chicago. He’s the first grandchild in our family, and the first one to get married, too. I wanted to be there.
(This is a long shaggy dog story about poor customer service, so if you’re not in the mood, just scroll down to the last few paragraphs.)
So I spent hours researching flight schedules and ticket prices. Found a great deal on Spirit, non-stop (bonus!) and acceptable times. (We live two hours from various airports, so 6 a.m. flights are not an option….)
I made my sisters & sisters-in-law (old and new) jewelry two days before. I went over my wardrobe the night before. I packed my bags, got a good night’s sleep, and printed out my boarding pass.
In hindsight, maybe I should have foreseen where this was all heading when I realized I had to pay an extra $70 to carry on ONE bag ($35 each way.) And to ensure an aisle seat (knee surgery last month, remember?), I had to pay an extra $20. So the “bargain fare” was beginning to look less and less like a bargain.
Oh, well. It was worth it, right?
We left for the airport with my husband in good time to catch my flight.
My husband dropped me off at the terminal for Spirit, and that’s where the real fun began.
I had a mental hiccup–do you have to check in if you already have your boarding pass? I asked one of the “line helpers” at a neighboring airline.
“You with United? No? You have to go over there for Spirit.” I told him it was a pretty generic question, but he wouldn’t answer. I wasn’t “his” customer, so he just insisted I go somewhere else. Of course, I realized after one quick look at the ticket kiosk that I was all set. As I walked away, he followed me, saying repeatedly, “Miss! Did you get the answer to your question? Can I help you?” Well, thank you for the help–NOT.
I went through one of the longest security lines I’ve ever seen, with a nervous gentleman behind who kept trying to nudge me forward or snake around me. He finally succeeded in doing so, only to be pulled from the line to be searched. HA!
I found my gate and sat down to wait. And wait. And wait.
Finally, one of the other passengers went up to ask what was going on. Guess what? Our flight was cancelled. When were they going to announce it? In a little while. Why? There was bad weather in Chicago (which I found out later was not so bad and didn’t last long.) Our flight was not delayed, or rescheduled. Just cancelled. There would be no rebookings til the next day, in the afternoon. AFTER the wedding.
A bunch of us tried to find a new flight, but it was difficult. I realized I’d be arriving very late, if at all, and exhausted (still recovering from surgery, not much stamina.) I decided to just get a refund and go home. I’m glad I did, because I saw the other passenger two hours later, still trying to rebook her flight with another airline, with no success.
I called the hotel to cancel my reservation–I only had a couple hours before a penalty fee would kick in. I was put on hold several times. The agent asked for my confirmation code eight times. (No exaggeration.) She kept asking when I would be arriving. I kept reminding her I was cancelling. She kept putting me on hold to “check with a supervisor.” After being kept on hold for 10 minutes, I hung up and used my smartphone to cancel the reservation on their website. It took me one minute.
I decided to have lunch while waiting for Jon to come pick me up. I went to the only restaurant outside the secured area. I asked the man at the cash register if it was self-serve or table service. (It looked like both, and I wanted to be served.) “We have table service,” he said. “Sit anywhere!” I sat down and waited. And waited. And waited. After fifteen minutes, (and after several larger groups were seated after me, and waited on before me), I decided to just get a salad to go and eat it in the hallway. I picked a packaged salad and waited at the cash register. And waited. And waited. Near me were a group of waiters chatting. I waited about five minutes, then turned and walked out. As I walked out, one of them ran after me, saying, “Miss, can I help you? Miss! Did you want something??”
I got a quick sandwich at Dunkin’ Donuts. (I was desperate.) Jon soon arrived, and we started home.
We decided to stop in Jaffrey and eat at a very nice inn. It was lovely. We sat on the screened-in porch and watched the world go by.
After a few minutes, I left to go use the restroom. Jon said it was kind of hidden, and to just ask one of the staff. After wandering through a few rooms, I saw a waiters station with three staff members talking. I waited til I caught the eye of one of the waiters and said, “Can you tell me where the restroom is?”
And he said, “Yes.”
I waited. He waited. I waited. He waited.
I know he thought he was being funny. I know he didn’t know I’d already had a 10 hour day full of waiting, disappointment, rude and pompous air terminal employees, and a long, hot drive still ahead of us. I know it was a joke.
Unfortunately, I was in no mood.
I turned around and walked out.
Of course, he came chasing after me. “It was a joke, I’m so sorry, the restroom is right there!”
We finished our meal, paid and left.
On the way home, I thought about the day’s events.
I wanted to be at that wedding. I tried hard to be at that wedding.
It’s nobody’s fault that I can’t be there, but it’s certainly not mine. All day long, I dealt with people who were paid to serve me, paid to assist me, paid to give me excellent customer service.
Very, very few of them did.
At one of the fanciest restaurants in the region, I was humiliated. I just wanted to know where I could pee. I politely asked a paid employee for assistance. All he had to do was point and say, “Right there” and I would have been content. Instead, at the end of a very long, exhausting day, I was made the butt of his little joke.
In fact, the best customer service I received that day was from the two cheerful, accommodating women at Dunkin’ Donuts. They were making minimum wage, and they barely spoke English. But that didn’t stop them from making sure my coffee was exactly the way I wanted it. (And yes, I gave them a big tip.)
So here’s the customer service point:
Whenever I write or talk about giving great customer service at a show, in your booth, when I write about how to answer customers’ questions about your work or your product, there’s always someone who insists that a funny, snappy answer is a good thing. When you ask, “How long did it take you to make this?” they respond, “It took me 30 years to make that!” I am here to tell you, it’s not funny to the person who asked you a question.
As a person who was exhausted, in need, and paying a lot of money to have a nice dinner, I just did not appreciate the “joke”.
In fact, I contend it’s not “a joke” nor “funny” to the person who’s at your mercy. It’s condescending at best, and passive-aggressive at worst.
Please. Don’t do this to your customers.
The best service I received that day was from a woman at Dunkin’ Donuts who barely spoke English. She simply kept asking if my order was “okay?” until I said yes. She put more cream in my coffee, gave me more napkins for my sandwich, till I was “okay!” Taking care of me wasn’t “beneath her”. She didn’t even need to smile or crack jokes. She simply took her job seriously, and I am grateful.
All the customer service advice in the world comes down to this, and it’s really very simple.
Treat your customers as treasured guests (until they prove beyond a shadow of a doubt they don’t deserve it, and even them, simply move them on.) Okay, maybe they are stupid. But more likely, they are confused, overwhelmed or exhausted.
If you want your customers to become owners, treat them with courtesy. With kindness. With respect.
That shouldn’t be so difficult, should it?
Here’s my latest article at Fine Art Views Newsletter called
QUESTIONS YOU DON’T HAVE TO ANSWER: Do You Have a Website?
When is a stupid question from a customer not a stupid question? You can read my latest column at the Fine Art Views website here.
A great tip on customer care just in time for your summer shows!
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….
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.
A topic came up on a discussion forum recently, about how to handle customer comments when your prices go up.
We’ve all had this experience ourselves. Not just at the gas pumps, but across the board. I went to pick up a print job for my show postcards a few weeks ago, and the cost had nearly doubled. (To be fair, I always thought their prices were unbelievably low to begin with.)
How you handle this can determine whether you keep or lose a customer. Sympathy is good. An action plan is even better!
The last time this happened to me, it was with a big ticket item (a wall hanging.) The customer was disappointed because she had planned to buy one every year for the past three years–but my prices kept going up.
When the customer expressed genuine disappointment, I had an answer ready.
I explained that my work was getting more complex and more labor intensive. I pointed out that the smaller ones sold quickly, leaving me with larger pieces by the time I got to this particular show.
My action plan? I said I would work to get her a wall hanging this year, whether it was a smaller, custom order in her price range or a layaway plan for the one she wanted.
She chose the former. We discussed what it would take to make “the perfect piece” for her, and she left her deposit payment.
It took her almost a year to pay for it, but she was very happy with the arrangement. I remember the day I called her to tell her it was on its way to her. She was so excited! (I still have her thank you letter posted on my bulletin board.)
I think when you offer a solid explanation, genuine sympathy for their expectations being dashed, and a good action plan for getting them on-board, you might still be able to turn that initial disappointment into a sale. I wouldn’t ignore that. I’d acknowledge it and try to work with it.
Times are harder all the way around, but it’s encouraging people when still want your work. It means they’ve formed a meaningful connection for it. That’s what we need to focus on–how to acknowledge and respect that desire and how keep it burning.
Years ago, way before I became an artist myself, I admired an artist’s work at a local show. I loved her work and I loved her enthusiasm and upbeat personality. I planned to save and buy a piece at the next show.
But when I found her the following year, she’d raised her prices a lot. (A lot.)
I expressed disappointment–I really liked her work, but now it seemed beyond reach.
I can still remember her obnoxious, hoity-toity attitude which made me feel like a crumb. (I think maybe she’d been “discovered” in the meantime–this was the ’80’s!) She made it clear she couldn’t be bothered with such a small potato like me anymore, because she was in the big-time.
Even years later when I made more money and could have afforded her work, I didn’t care to.
A reader left a question for me on this series:
“Would you discuss one other group of people that one sometimes needs to get out of the booth — the people with kids who think everything in your booth is something neat to play with?
OR the adults who think your booth is a cool place to let the kids handle everything? Especially with sticky, gooey fingers? I’m a spinner/weaver, and trying to figure out how to say nicely, “Only with clean hands, please…” Dirty sticky yarn doesn’t sell well…”
Actually, you don’t need to boot these people out.
How you deal with kids signals other potential customers how you will deal with them if they do something stupid. (Accidentally, we hope!)
A little patience, and some little tricks along the way, will go a long way to creating a relaxed atmosphere in your booth.
Use these moments to educate the kids about your work. They’ll either be enchanted, and you can work you sales pitch gently into the talk.
OR they’ll get bored, because now it sounds like school, and they’ll lose interest, moving on to the next exciting booth to manhandle.
Remember: Every other customer will be listening intently.
Trust me. One of the most important things I learned from Bruce Baker is that what people overhear you telling another customer is perceived as being the truth. Use this opportunity to tell everyone in your booth about your work. (Er…but not loud enough that people two booths over can hear you….)
I know there are some children who don’t behave well. But I’ve only had a very few incidents where the child was actually destructive or totally disrespectful.
For the sticky fingers, here are some ideas:
Keep a “special skein” available behind the counter for kids to touch, maybe even a few samples of roving–something you won’t care about if it gets messed up. Come on, we ALL have those dud projects hanging around somewhere. Now you can put it to perfect use!
I keep a package of baby wipes handy. When a child starts pick something up, I quickly say, “Here, let me help you.”
I ask in a friendly way, “I have a special yarn for kids to touch. Are your hands clean?” They usually get a little settled here. You’re starting to act like a teacher or a parent. They usually nod solemnly. “I say let me feel your hands.” You can tell instantly if a kid’s hands are clean! If they are, give them the sample skeins. If not, hand them a wipe.
I say, “It’s okay to touch my work, as long as you treat it gently and with respect. I’ve worked really really hard to get it to look just right.”
They usually respond with another solemn nod.
Then, depending on the age of the child, I talk a little bit about the horse. I point out all the tiny layers that make it look like ivory. I point out all the little details that make it special. If they are pre-teens or older, I talk about how four teenage boys discovered the first, and most beautiful Ice Age cave art in the world. They are enchanted that someone their age did something so incredible.
Okay, Alta Mira in Spain was discovered first, but no one knew what it really was until after Lascaux.
As I point out each detail, the parents start looking, too. And so do other customers. Everyone starts to really see the work. Sometimes I even see other customers finally reach out to touch a piece they’ve been looking at.
This permission to handle your work with care and with clean hands and under your supervision helps to create an air of respect for your work. The dynamic changes. Instead of “play time!”, you’ve created a teachable moment.
Use this moment to talk about your work with love and pride, and I think you’ll find that most kids will respond to that. And their parents will be grateful.
Don’t get your hopes up! I’ve found over the years that the parents rarely buy anything. You’ve provided that edutainment (education + entertainment) that Bruce Baker talks about so often.
View this as your contribution to fostering appreciation for the arts and crafts for a future generation.
Actually, sometimes parents do buy your work, if the child gets attached to your product and your work isn’t outrageously expensive. They buy it as a souvenir of the experience you’ve provided, or to foster a budding interest in the child. I have had parents buy $50 and $75 items because their child was so fascinated with it. (And sometimes those are the most difficult kids, because their parents do like to indulge their kids.) Don’t be too hard on them. We all know how tough it is to be a good parent, even the best parents have their bad moments.
You can adapt this script to work with other products as well. I keep a couple artifacts behind the counter, or pick up something sturdy like one of my netsuke animal artifacts. It’s neat to have two, because then the child can choose which one to hold, which adds to the fun (and helps capture their interest.) This also helps if there is more than one child, because then everyone can hold one. Fun for all!
If your work is just too delicate or fragile for such handling, have a sample of the materials you use, or one of your tools, or again, a cast-off piece that you don’t care about. You can actually use this approach for adults, too.
Treating children with respect and genuine warmth pays off in other ways, too. A regular customer brought his son in last year. The boy had visited every booth in the fair, looking for that special something to spend his money on. His father said, “When we finished, he didn’t even want to look again–he came right back here to buy this!”
He pointed to a small wall hanging for $350. That boy had saved a lotta money!
I was honored a child would be so enchanted with my work, he would actually buy such a fabulous piece.
And I was doubly glad that I deal with kids the way I do!
Here’s another reason–a BIG one–why you don’t really want to get these people to leave:
Human beings are born yearning to touch things.
Touch is how we explore our world, and we rejoice in the experience.
“Feel how soft this sweater is!” we exclaim as we shop. “No, not this scarf, it’s too scratchy.” “These pears are too firm, but those pears are just right!”
We constantly talk about how things feel: “Oh, this puppy’s fur is so fluffy!” “I love to walk on the beach and feel the sand between my toes, and feel the wind in my hair, and play tag with the waves.” “I can’t stand wearing that shirt because the tag is scratchy!” “I love it when my kids hug me.”
When we tell children not to touch, we are asking them to go against their very nature. Our very nature. When you see people enter your booth with their hands behind their back, it’s because the temptation to touch is so strong (and they know they “shouldn’t”) they have to physically hold themselves back.
I’m lucky to use a material that’s sturdy and durable. I know not all artists have that luxury. But when I tell people that it’s okay to touch my work, and to feel free to pick up a piece to look more closely, their relief–and joy–are palpable.
It creates an incredible feeling of participation and delight in my booth.
Try to find ways to let people touch something in your booth. Your customers will be happy, your visitors will be charmed, and you will feel better all around.
Some of you are probably getting the hang of this now. “Promise them something later…okay, I get it!”
But aren’t we letting ourselves in for all kinds of time spent doing all kinds of favors for those people? After all, “after the show” comes up…well, right after the show. Just when you want to kick back, take a breather, and then get down to filling those special orders and making those repairs.
Well, this is the best part…
You will never hear from most of those people again.
Here’s a look at the dynamic:
There’s something about being at a show that affects us all.
Customers are excited: They’re shopping! They get to see dozens, maybe hundreds of cool little booth-shops, all lined up in rows. There is wonderful new work to be seen, interesting new jewelry and clothing to try on, fabulous new objects to marvel at. And the artists–such an odd breed! They look different, they sound different, they just do stuff and make stuff and gosh, they just have such interesting lives. As Bruce Baker says so enchantingly, “To ‘normal’ folks, artists are people that ran away to join the circus!”
Those same artists may be exhausted, hot, excited, anxious, cold, flattered, suave, frantic, happy, hungry, shy, nervous, polished, bored, thrilled–sometimes all in the same day.
At a show, the rules are different. It isn’t like shopping at TJ Maxx. But it’s not like being at the museum of art, either.
A show does look a little like a circus. There may be “acts” (demonstrators and workshops), fun food, music. Children laughing (and crying.) Serious collectors and Looky-Lou’s.
It’s also impermanent. A few days ago, this wonderful fair may have been an empty gymnasium, or a parking lit, or an empty field. Now it’s filled with tents and tables, crowds and people and noise, noise, noise.
And in a few days, it will all be gone, like fairy gold. It will magically disappear and the gymnasium, parking lot or field will reappear again.
Is it any wonder that some people are at their worst? Especially those who “issues” to begin with?
Is it any wonder that tempers are frayed, that attention wanders, that our skins are thinner and our patience is shorter? That the comments and actions of annoying people suddenly take on monumental proportions?
And that’s why sometimes all we need is a breather. A few seconds to calm ourselves and get centered again. A deep breath so we can get to our happy place again.
It’s the same for those annoying people. They may annoying, but they are bound to be even more annoying. They are out of their element, their normal routine is disrupted, the normal “stops and guards” on their social shortcomings are not in place.
That’s why distracting people with other choices, other options, is so effective. It gets them out of the particular situation that brings out the worst in them (the show), out of that moment (in your booth)–and on to another place, another time (“after the show”).
That’s why getting people to deal with you after the show is so effective. When everyone is back in normal life and normal time, sometimes the annoying behaviors disappear, too. The urgency they felt to get something from you, the negative energy they carried, simply dissipates.
It tends to dissipate so much, the problem simply goes away. I think that of all the people I ask to contact me after the show, probably less than 10% actually do.
If I’ve asked them to follow up by e-mail (which is the most convenient for me), it may take me only a few minutes to take care of all their requests and answer all their questions.
Use those magical words “after the show” like a giant fairy wand, making everything weird and nasty and annoying just disappear into a puff of smoke.
Best of all–you can wave it more than three times, too!
Eighth in a series about getting difficult out of your booth at an art fair or craft show.
A reader wrote to ask:
“Any plans to do a post about the customer who, once she’s bought from you, now thinks she’s your friend? I had this happen once, at a 5-day show (where she bought on day 2, and returned on 3 and 4 to talk endlessly). I was as polite as I could be when I wasn’t trying to duck so she wouldn’t see me (!). That mixture of being grateful she’d bought a piece and annoyed that she kept showing up was difficult to juggle.”
Michelle, your wish is granted!
Hmmmm, that’s a good one–the customer who feels they’ve bought your friendship….
As annoying as that was, it sounds like you handled it well. You dealt with her as politely as you could, and disappeared as you were able.
Here are some thoughts to help you decide which course of action feels right for you.
Remember, a small part of our biz is going to be a form of social work. Some people are lonely or have very poor social skills, or they’re lonely because they poor social skills. For them, this IS how they make friends and interact in society. They do things that give them an excuse to talk to people. It can be hugely annoying, but a little patience and compassion can go a along way–if you aren’t busy with other customers, and if you have the patience for it.
This sounds like a person who has trouble respecting the boundaries of others. Your booth is like a little store with a new friend in it, and she wants to come and visit every chance she gets. The bad news is, this person may be oblivious–it will take more than a gentle hint or two to move her on. The good news is, she’s probably used to blunt tactics, because she probably does this all the time.
Sometimes the only way to deal with a boundary issue is to name it and say it. “I’m delighted you like my work so much. I’m honored you’ve supported me by buying a piece. But I really have to focus on making the most of this opportunity to sell my work at this show. It’s been lovely talking to you. But I hope you’ll understand that I need to get back to work here.”
If this speech is too hard, start shorter and brisker: “Listen, it’s been great talking to you, but I need to run–thanks for stopping by!”
If she still keeps showing up, repeat. Be consistent. Friendly but firm. It may take a few turns, because people who are oblivious to the fact that they’re being noodges tend to be oblivious to all but the most blatant management.
Of course, this is hard for people like me who have trouble setting boundaries. Just look on it as good practice.
Another tactic: This is another example of a “free milk” person–they want your interest and friendship. The difference is, they feel they have paid for it, though by now you’re feeling they got the better end of the deal.
You could try offering them something more “free”–like offering to put them on your list for open studio events. That could reassure them that you won’t forget them. (As Bruce Baker quips, “How could I ever forget you??!!”)
If there’s no one in your booth and you are dying slowly, you can always try to interest her in another artist at the show. Pass it off as customer service: “You know, as I listen to you, I realize there’s another artist at the show you’d really love. I think her work is perfect for you. It will really resonate with everything you’ve been through. Let me take you over to her booth and introduce you.”
Do it–and RUN. Then she can have TWO new friends!
Finally, there’s the strategy of pushing this to the limit and using this to your advantage.
It’s drastic. But I’ve found that people who are locked in their heads like this usually make it all about ‘them’. Make it about you.
If there’s no one in your booth, I’d use the opportunity to keep selling to her. Keep circling the conversation back to your work. She might be persuaded to buy another piece.
At the very least, as other people enter your booth, they’ll be able to hear you talk without having to deal with you directly. A lot of people who browse will do just that–listen intently to what you say to another customer as they shop uninterrupted. It’s an effective selling technique.
Be sure to stop occasionally as new people come in and acknowledge them by greeting them. Casually say, “If you have any questions, just let me know” or “If you’d like to try something on, the mirror is right here.” That lets other customers know you’re paying attention.
At the slightest hint someone needs your help, smoothly interrupt the talker to say, “Excuse me just a moment.” and move to assist the other person.
If it’s just you and her, and she won’t buy anything else, then….Talk away to your heart’s content. Just make sure it’s all about you. Sometimes the only way to shoo a bore away is to be a bigger bore.
Did I just say that??!!
Seventh in a series of getting difficult people out of your booth at a craft show or art fair.
I can almost guarantee you this “difficult person” will be the hardest one of all to deal with. If this happens to you, my only consolation is, you are not alone.
It will happen after you’ve asked a friend to help you in your booth at a show.
Because there may come a time when you will have to ask that friend to leave your booth.
I have a few friends who not only work with me on my booth at some shows, they volunteer to help, calling me months ahead of time to offer their services.
And they are simply amazing at it. I secretly think they are better at this than I am. They are a miracle made manifest in the world, and I am the luckiest artist alive because of them.
And even if someone isn’t stellar at selling, they are such good company, I’m delighted to have them on board. Their companionship is all that is necessary.
I also had a few friends, perfectly good friends…. Friendships of many years duration that have gone screaming down in flames from working with me in my booth.
A day into the show–sometimes an hour into the show, you realize with a terrible sinking feeling that it’s all gone wrong. They are not doing well in your booth. It is so not working out.
They show up dressed inappropriately–either under-dressed (“I want to be comfy!”) or over-dressed–or barely dressed at all. (“Oh gosh, I can’t get this top to stay up!”)
They’re so busy telling you about their hot date last night, they ignore customers in the booth. Or get mad when you interrupt their hot date story to deal with those customers. Or can’t understand why you don’t even want to hear their story when the customers are just looking, for cryin’ out loud.
They don’t know how to talk with customers, saying, “Can I help you?” even when you’ve told them a dozen times that’s the worst possible thing you can say to a potential buyer.
The friend loves to share funny stories about you with your customers. Stories you kinda wish she would not share.
It can get even worse.
One artist told me her assistant used her high-end booth display to do his ballet warm-up exercises. In front of customers. All. Day. Long.
Another told me her friend came back from lunch–two hours late. She’d decided to go shop around the fair. The artist, having sent her to eat first, was starving.
Another said a friend got plastered at a dinner out with important clients–buyers for a chain of stores–and behaved inappropriately. (Still waiting to here the juicy details on that one.)
Two different artists with compatible work share a booth to save on expenses. Only one is constantly trying to steal the customers of the other.
Whatever the attitude or behavior, it’s detrimental to your business and to your mental health.
And you are going to have to ask them to leave. Either at the end of the show (if it’s just mildly annoying), the end of the day (if it’s hugely annoying) or within the hour (if it’s such a disaster you are going to kill them any minute.)
And before you say, “Oh, Luann, we know what a pistol you are! That would never happen to me!”, let me assure you–it happens a lot. It has happened to people who have been in business for many, many years.
It happens so much, I know people in the biz who now have an iron-clad rule: They never–ever–hire friends to work for them anymore.
How can this happen? Why does a normal person who is nice enough to be your friend suddenly turn into the booth assistant from hell?
STRESS Shows are hard. No. Shows are really, really hard. It’s the work of getting enough product made to stock your booth. The weeks of preparation, making sure all your booth components are in place and in good working order. Making travel arrangements (and maybe family arrangements for your absence), and dealing the expense and stress of packing and loading and simply getting to the show. Set-up (ye gods, we could all write a book about the things that go wrong during set-up) and break-down. The weary drive home, the unpacking and trying to get back into your normal life–so you can do it all again for the next show.
In between is the part that is both wonderful and dismal, fun and agonizing–doing the show. Talking to enthralled customers about your work, and watching people walk by who couldn’t care less about your work. Making big sales and wondering if you are going to make booth expenses. Meeting other cool and interesting artists, and dealing with weird, psychotic fellow artists. It’s all there, it’s all happening at the show.
In short, S*H*O*W*S = S*T*R*E*S*S
And there’s your friend, a show virgin who just doesn’t get it. Who just doesn’t get any of it, at all. She doesn’t understand what you’ve already been through, or how critical the show’s success is to you, or how frantic you are underneath your smiling exterior. It all looks fun and glamorous to to her, and that’s what she’s expecting.
Or she’s under stress, too (see “their stuff” below). Or they worry they’re not going to do things right. Or they worry you’re going to do the crazy artist thing and yell at them.
So maybe you’re both stressed. whoo hoo.
UNCLEAR EXPECTATIONS Some people, despite your telling them the way it works, do not understand that being in a show is WORK. They don’t really understand it is a business situation, and that you have to generate sales to stay in business.
They arrive with a vague idea that it’s going to be a fun-filled day, full of chatter and fun food and wonderful sights to see.
They won’t understand why you interrupted their moving reenactment of the last awful days of their collapsed marriage just because a customer came into the booth.
They won’t understand why it wasn’t okay to just disappear for two hours at lunchtime because they felt like taking a walk.
They won’t understand why it’s really, really important to get ALL the numbers imprinted on a charge slip, including the card’s expiration date and the customer’s telephone number.
And because operating the credit card machine is just “too confusing”, they won’t understand why you can’t just do it, while they schmooze your customers.
And they won’t understand why you will have to tell them to shape up or ship out.
SHADOW ARTISTS We’ve covered this in previous chapters in this series, but it bears repeating. At a show, these SA’s are in your booth–a booth that is actually a tiny monument to your ambition and achievement.
They will be surrounded by your work. They will see and hear your fan base–your customers. They will have to listen to people rave about you with excitement and admiration. They will have to listen to you talk about your work with pride and confidence.
It will be too much for them.
It will simply be too painful, the cognitive dissonance too great, and they will resent it. For some people, seeing your success in pursuing your art, up close and personal, will be the final straw.
EGO Some people cannot handle being in a subordinate position in the friendship, even a temporary one as you booth assistant. They will refuse to follow your suggestions for selling. Or they will continue to push their craft over yours. They may resent having their time managed.
CHANGING ROLES We start a friendship with everyone’s roles firmly in place. And then the roles change.
Many relationships struggle with this transitions, not just friendships. Business partnerships. Mentor and student. Parent and child. Even marriages often topple under the stress of two people growing and changing apart.
Somehow, we don’t ever expect our friendships to fail from our changing roles. But they do.
One explanation: If you scratch the surface of the friendship, my humble experience has been it may have actually been based on one of these prototypes.
And like them, subject to the same sad conclusion when the roles change and the pressure to adapt rises.
THEIR STUFF Other people have their stuff–my catch-all term for emotional baggage, hard times, psychological upheaval, whatever.
They may have recently lost someone they loved, or even someone they hated. (The stress from either is great.) They are in a hard place for reasons that have nothing to do with you.
It’s going to spill over at some point. If you are near them when it happens, you are going to get scalded.
So what are the clues this beautiful friendship-cum-sales team is heading south?
They are resistant to your suggestions and training. I give out Bruce Baker’s sales training CD to new assistants before a show. One person said they were too experienced with sales to listen to it. I believed them. The first hour in the booth, it was painfully obvious their experience was not as good as they thought it was.
They forget who’s boss. They will show resentment when you ask them to do something they see as trivial or mundane or demeaning–running an errand, etc.
They will rearrange your display when you step out of the booth, and their feelings will be hurt if you are not happy with their efforts.
They may even decide not to show up at all, telling you that you don’t really need them–leaving you in the lurch and too late to make arrangements for other assistance.
They forget whose booth it is, and whose work they’re selling. I actually had one friend refuse to wear my jewelry in my booth. She wanted to wear her fashion accessories instead. Not wanting to push it, I let her–until the first customer noticed her work and asked her about it, and she happily started to tell them about her business.
They see the time with you in your booth as a social thing, a chance to catch up on all their life changes. This is so hard. Of course you want to hear all this stuff. But the show has to come first.
At a show you are working. The focus has to be on selling your work. And you can’t afford to deal with downer stuff. You must stay upbeat and positive.
Worse, your efforts to remind them of this will sound heartless and uncaring. It’s an impossible situation.
Now for the sad part.
In all my years of dealing with this, I have never found a good way to “fire” a friend.
I have yet to salvage one friendship from a “firing”.
And I have never felt good about what I had to do.
I’ve tried many different approaches.
I’ve tried heart-to-heart talks over dinner and drinks after the first day.
I’ve tried taking in all the responsibility for the misunderstanding (for which I was accused by the friend as “You’re treating me like a damn teenager!” I had to bite my tongue in order not to respond, “That is exactly how you’ve been acting the last 24 hours!!”)
I’ve tried to fudge it by saying I overestimated my needs, and don’t really need to tie up their time for the entire show, or even the entire day.
I’ve tried to be upfront and honest and calm. “Look, I know your life is your life–it’s not my place to expect you to put my needs above yours. I know if you are sick, you shouldn’t be expected to work. But you offered to help, and I told you my expectations, and you accepted them. And when you wait til five minutes before the show opens to call and say you won’t be coming in, that puts me in difficult position. I simply need more time than that to line up someone else to help.”
Nothing worked. Anger, resentment, recriminations follow, all falling on my head and making me feel even worse. The only thing left to do is say nothing more so as not to make it even worse.
When I asked my fellow artists how they handled it successfully, they confirmed a sad fact. No matter how you couch it, it’s going to suck big-time. And the only friendships that survived were the ones where the friend took it in stride and let it go. The friend has to decide it is not going to ruin the friendship.
One consolation for me was, I felt like I was choosing business over friendship. It is only with time and some emotional distance that I can see the storm clouds were often already on the horizons. The show only acting like a giant magnifying glass, focusing little heat rays on the issue and setting it on fire.
It’s also a part of doing business. Sometimes you have to fire someone, and they just aren’t going to like that or deal with it well. If it happens to be a friend, it’s just more gasoline on the fire. But there’s never a good way to fire someone. And there will never be a good way to fire a friend.
If it were a small show, where I only hoped to gross a few hundred bucks, I might feel that it’s not worth it to risk the friendship. You might choose to simply let it go, get through the day, and do things differently next time.
But at a big retail or wholesale show, where thousands of dollars and your professional reputation are at stake, you may have to act–unless you are independently wealthy, or just don’t need the money.
The only thing I can think of that might be worse is if this happens with a family member. And at least there is huge incentive for a family member to eventually come around. Although, come to think of it, there are a lot of divorced people who used to be in business with their ex-spouse…..
Think long and hard before asking–or allowing–a friend to work with you in your booth. And hope for the best. But be prepared for the worst.
Sixth in a series of people you want to move out of your booth at a craft show or art fair.
There is a reprehensible sport from ancient times known as bear baiting. Bears and other wild animals were teased and provoked into attacking and fighting other animals, for the enjoyment of spectators.
It’s hard to imagine, but we still have a civilized version of this sport today.
There are people among us who thrive on confronting and insulting other people for their own amusement and excitement.
The internet, with its potential for anonymous baiting and the virtue of distance from our targets, can encourage this type of behavior in modern times. On forums, we call it “flaming”.
Very occasionally, you may have the misfortune to find someone like this in your booth.
It may be fellow artist with a bone to pick with you (a real or imagined bone.)
It may be a customer who loves to “tease” you, perceiving you as a captive audience in your booth , making “funny” rude comments about your work
It may be as subtle as someone who, seemingly interested in your work, asks you questions–but then refutes or argues with every answer you give.
Why does this happen at shows? Because we’re seen as a captive audience and an easy target.
We may be perceived as a captive audience because
a) we obviously are “tied down” to our booth space during a show, and
b) we are taught “the customer is always right” even if the customer is being ridiculous.
Sometimes, c) because we are women and socialized to be more conciliatory, we are baited by people who know we won’t fight back (because that would be rude.)
And d), these people also sense we are trying desperately not to make a scene in front of other customers.
Whatever the situation, whatever the rationale in their mind, know that someone who pulls this stunt while you are conducting your business at a show doesn’t deserve an extra minute of your time and energy. Move them on!
A good analogy to keep in mind is treating your booth as your private home. Would you let just anyone into it because they showed up at your door? Would you let someone rude stay just because you were too polite to get them to leave? (And if the answer is “yes”, then sign up for an assertiveness training course immediately!!)
If it’s a fellow artist, you should know that in most shows, even small ones, in your contract there is an unspoken (or even stated) assumption that your booth is your space, for the duration of the show. You paid the booth fee, you’ve set up your display to do business there, and you have control over who is allowed in. Technically, you do not have to even allow other artists into your booths. This is especially true of wholesale shows. Artists who enter your booth without your permission or who refuse to leave when asked can get into a lot of trouble with show management.
If there are artists who stir up such bad vibes in your booth, make a point of cheerfully but pointedly drawing any conversations to an instant close the second a customer enters your booth. “It’s was nice of you to stop by, but I really have some things I need to work on right now.” Make a point of escorting them out to the aisle.
If there are no customers, you can still ask them to leave, or head them off before they even come in. “Hi! I really can’t stop to talk now–maybe later?” (Make sure “later” never comes….)
If they don’t take the hint, be polite but blunt: “I’m so sorry, but I cannot do this right now. It’s time for you to leave.”
If you maintain your composure and stay grounded and calm, even if there are customers in your booth, you will still come off okay.
But what if the baiter is a customer?
You still don’t have to put up with it. But sometimes, putting up with it can win friends and influence people.
The social dynamics of bullying and baiting are beyond me, and I don’t have answers. But I know when someone is being baited, it’s hard to watch. And harder to figure out what to do about it, especially if the person being baited is at least as competent or powerful as you. (And since we are the artist and the rightful “owner” of the booth, we are actually perceived as more powerful and competent than the person baiting us.) You desperately hope they will do something to defend themselves. But you are also hoping they don’t make the situation worse, too.
Your customers are watching and feeling the same way. So dealing with that customer’s behavior diplomatically will set your other customers at ease.
I had one customer bait me with the “asking questions/arguing with the answers” thing. It was hugely annoying. But I didn’t really get that he was doing that. I was just determined to turn him around with my sincerity and my passion for my work.
In my innocence, this turned out to be the perfect ploy. Every time he said something pissy about my motivations, I answered with genuine conviction about what I was doing. I was genuinely puzzled by his behavior, and kept my responses thoughtful and calm.
He just kept it up–til his wife came looking for him.
She instantly recognized what he was doing. (Evidently, this is what he did for fun at craft shows.) She said in an exasperated tone, “Oh for godsake, leave that poor artist alone! Why do you act this way?!”
She glared at him til he sheepishly hulked out of my booth, and then said to me, “I’m so sorry, he does this all the time!” Her voice drifted back to me as they walked down the aisle, “If you don’t quit treating people like that, I’m leaving you home next time!”
I admit I am such a small person, I found this extremely gratifying. But what gratified me even more was what happened next.
A browser nearby came in and said, “Wow! You really held your temper with that old coot! I’m impressed!” And promptly began shopping in my booth.
Then there’s the customer who makes constant sardonic remarks about your work. It’s “supposed” to be entertaining patter, all in fun–but it sure doesn’t feel that way. I’ve heard this referred to as “talking smack”–an exchange of put-downs and insults between friends.
Well, there is a time and a place for such practice–maybe in a bar over a few beers discussing your favorite respective baseball teams. (“How about them Red Sox?!”
But never in your business place. Never where you are trying to earn your living. NEVER in front of your customers.
I had a “friend” visit me at a show and act this way–it was my first real insight that this person was not really my friend. And I called him on his behavior on the spot. I said something like, “You know, I love to goof around and say silly things. But not about my art. And not when I’m at a show. I’m as serious about what I do here as you are about (insert their profession here.) I hope you understand.” (Big smile.)
It worked. He mumbled an apology, he made some effort to look at my work “seriously”, and left soon after.
With a customer I don’t know, I would use the “innocently passionate” ploy I used with the first gentlemen. It seems to work really well! They will be baffled when they just can’t get a rise out of you.
And then there is the scenario that really happened to me this summer at a big show–another artist confronted me in my booth, screaming at me for some perceived insult and behaving in a threatening manner.
I still don’t feel like I handled this perfectly, though in hindsight, I didn’t handle it badly, either. It was fortunate that it was before show hours, so no customers were around. But unfortunately, I was alone in the tent and feared for my safety.
What I did right was I stayed reasonably calm. (In hindsight, I should have stayed even calmer.)
I tried to reason with the person (which does not work with a bully or baiter, so in hindsight, I should not have even engaged him at all.)
I asked him to step back–his face was three inches from mine–and he refused. (In hindsight, I should have stepped away and not stood my ground nor let him get that close to me, even if it meant me having to leave my booth.)
I asked him to leave, and he refused. (I’m wondering if, after he did leave, I should have called the security people.)
I honestly can’t remember how it ended, whether he finally stomped away or whether I finally fled to the fair office.
Although this person was clearly in the wrong and I still feel indignant about it, I should have recalled my Impact/Model Mugging training. I’ve taken workshops from this organization’s Boston chapter and I recommend them highly. What composure I maintained was due to those workshops.
The training teaches you to identify potentially dangerous situations, and helps you respond appropriately. In this case, staying calm and placating the person threatening (“I don’t want any trouble. We can talk about this later, but not now.”) But not actively engaging them or trying to reason with them. Keeping my distance (holding out my hands and saying, “Stay back!” firmly, moving away if he moved closer.) Leaving the scene as soon as I could get away (and reporting the incident to the fair office and security immediately, instead of staying in my booth.)
In this case, I felt conflicted as tent captain, feeling I was called upon to “stand my ground” and “deal with the person.” I was lucky, because I was wrong. And I won’t make that mistake again.
In the case where someone is behaving in a way that is threatening and frightening, your first priority is to protect yourself and get to a place of safety. Don’t try to salvage your dignity, do not respond in kind or in anger, do not turn your back on them.
This is an extreme example, and you may never encounter this. But having a strategy in mind goes a long way to preparing yourself in the event it does happen. And knowing you are prepared goes a long way to helping you stay calm and in the moment.
Why do some people do this?
Again, the question to ask is, what do they get from this? What is their pay-off?
It’s a game to see if they can get you to lose control. Then they can play innocent and leave you looking foolish. (“Hey, I was only joking, geez!”) It makes them feel powerful to be able to manipulate people’s emotions. Playing into their hands only encourages them.
And as artists, with our soul’s work out there for all to see and make fun of, we are vulnerable targets.
Just remember why we are targets.
Because as artists at a show or other public venues, we’re showing we have the guts and the determination to not only make our work, but to get it out there where the world can see it. Maybe for the world to buy it.
We take real risks, we take huge risks by investing in that show, by schlepping our work and our booth across the country, and offering it up for others to look at, to judge, and hopefully, to buy. Maybe some of us only make enough to make a car payment or two, but some of us help support our families with our work, put our kids through college, put a roof over our heads and food on the table.
We truly lay it on the line.
Who’s the brave person in this dynamic? Uh-huh. That’s you, baby.
And who’s the coward in this dynamic? Uh-huh. Not you.
Remember that when someone is trying to get your goat.
And remember this, too. A boss told me years ago, “If someone is out to get your goat, don’t leave your goat out.” It was good advice 30 years ago, and it’s still good advice today.
And if you do find goat-getter is in your booth, get him outta there!
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.
Fourth in a series of how to get certain people out of your booth at a craft show.
I know all my show buddies are going to laugh themselves to death at this one. Could it be because I tend to do this? oooooh nooooo…..
It’s the person who hangs out in your booth–often another artist–who is sad.
Sad ,sad, sad. And they are going to tell you about it. And nothing is going to stop them.
The show isn’t going well. The management is giving them a hard time. They forgot to pack enough light bulbs. They can’t find their favorite sweater. Their feet hurt. Their mother died. Their dog died. You get the idea.
The ones I hate the most have a wistful, sad, breathless little voice to go with the tale of woe.
This is not the person who, in the course of chatting or catching up, simply mentions the ups and downs in their life of the last few months. This is the person who goes on and on and on, without break, without end, without stopping to even inhale, it seems. A never ending tale of woe and grief.
In your booth.
At the show.
Your natural tendency is to try to cheer up this person. Don’t do it! Doesn’t work. Ain’t gonna happen. The person determined to hang out and complain in your booth has had years of practice doing this. It’s how they get what they need from people. You can’t change that in a few minutes.
Look, I whine. You whine. We all do a little whining. Shows are hard. Really, really hard! Set-up is brutal, and sometimes it’s just not a good show.
The thing is, there’s a time and a place for whining. During the show is not the time. And parking yourself in someone else’s booth is not the place. Parking yourself in someone else’s booth while there are customers around is inexcusable.
You, me, our fellow craftspoeple, have paid hundreds–no, thousands–of dollars to be at this show. The last thing I want, after creating an atmosphere of passion and excitement and happiness, is for a Gloomy Gus to take up residence in my booth.
Do you really have time for this? I don’t.
I’ve tried a few different diversions, with some success. If someone tries this during set-up, I let them go on for a few minutes. (Especially if they’re willing to listen to my tale of woe! You know I’m big on reciprocity.)
Then I interrupt with, “I am really sorry you are in such a hard place right now. Unfortunately, I have a small crisis going on here, and I simply have to take care it. Can we meet up later and have a cup of coffee?” (For bigger woes, a bottle of wine.)
This is especially good for someone you’d like to maintain relations with. You acknowledge their pain, but defer it to another time.
A tactic that’s been used effectively on moi goes something like this:
I’m hanging out in a friend’s booth, (never while a customer is there, thank goodness–I have SOME limits!) rambling on about how hard life is for me, when I notice that Bonnie or Mark or Amy is staring at me with huge, round, unblinking eyes and a trembling lower lip. When I wind down, they say in a soothing voice, “There, there, Eeyore!”
I know it’s time to stop. But I think this only works with people you love who are willing to take the hint.
I’m getting better. Sometimes I just catch myself doing it, clap my hands over my mouth, mumble, “I’m sorry! I’m sorry!” and flee. I try to buy them a beer after the show, too. Lots and lots of beer.
There are other people…oh, let’s just call them noodges! I don’t really care if I maintain relations with them. In fact, they probably aren’t your friend. You are simply a captive audience to them. You know who they are! It gets harder to move them on without getting rude. Still, if there are customers in the booth, it’s worth treating them nicely just so customers don’t see your dark side.
Other than shoo this person out of the booth with promises of calling them after the show (did you see that one coming?), I’m still looking for the perfect one-liner. I’m thinking it might run along these lines: “Listen, here’s the number of my therapist–she’s not cheap, but she’s really good! And she says I have to stop trying to help other people myself, or she’ll take me to court for practicing without a license.”
Oh, how about this one? “Hey, the liquor store just called for you; they want their ‘whine’ back!”
Just kidding on that one. Customers may laugh if you get sarcastic, but no one really feels comfortable with it. They fear that, if they slip up, they’ll be the one to feel your tongue-lashing next.
Seriously, get these people out of your booth before they bring you, and your customers, down, down, down. If they need a hug, give it to ’em. But move them on.
And don’t be one, either.
Okay, so what if the sad person is a customer?
That’s a hard one. But here’s an insight: I treat them like the people who want something for free.
Because, in essence, that is what they want–your time, and your sympathy, during what is a work period for you.
Sometimes, like the free milk people, I give them something.
I keep the names of some self-help books I’ve enjoyed, and jot them down on one of my postcards. I refer them to my blog, if their issue is something I’ve dealt with there. I offer to put them in contact with people who have helped me with similar situations.
And often, I talk about how making my art has helped me. And how some people have actually bought my work to help themselves, as talismans to remind themselves how powerful they really are.
I hope I don’t sound like friends and customers can’t come and talk to me about the big stuff in my booth. Gosh, sometimes we bond so much, we all end up crying! That’s what art does sometimes–opens our hearts up and empties our tears, so something healing and restorative can begin.
But the thing is, in almost every case, these sad people are not really customers.
By that I mean, maybe they are at the show, and they are not artists. They look like shoppers.
But they rarely buy anything, they never bring their friends to buy, they never promote your work in any way. It’s always about them. They are simply looking for an ear, and they are very good at finding captive audiences.
Don’t let them trap you in your booth!
Third in series of how to move certain people out of your booth at a craft show.
The next kind of “undesirable person” is actually very a little different. First, because they used to be a highly desirable person–a former customer. Second, because it’s not actually about getting them out of your booth. It’s more about getting them turned around.
It’s the person who bursts into your booth (why is it always when you have a bunch of customers??) carrying a piece of jewelry they bought from you last year, and exclaiming (and why is it always in a very loud voice??), “I bought this necklace from you last year, and it just broke for no reason!!”
This is awful on so many levels. Where do I start?
It’s awful to go through all that time and effort and energy to sell my work, only to find out that person is unhappy with it. It just sucks bigtime.
Then there’s the terrible thought that you’ve made something that didn’t hold up. What does that say about my claims of using high-quality materials, having strong technical skills, and making good work?
Finally, here I am with a booth full of potential new customers, who are watching this little melodrama unfold with ‘bated breath. Here is the artist herself assuring us her work is beautiful, of good quality and will make you happy for years to come. Here is a customer who believed the artist last year, who spent good money on the artist’s work. And now this same customer is decidedly unhappy, waving a broken whatsit around in her hand, claiming it “just fell apart” and confronting the artist. Oh my, this is better than Jerry Springer!
First things first.
Realize the piece has “failed” because they loved it so much, they it wore it a lot.
Realize their consternation is because they are unhappy because they can’t wear it.
Realize the unhappy person may also have marshaled a lot of negative energy because she is unsure of her reception. She doesn’t know how she will be treated.
Most of us have experienced about the runaround we get when we are unhappy with a service or product. We are often met with indifference, or defensiveness, or disbelief about what happened.
She is afraid she will treated the same way.
And, worse, every single person in your booth is now thinking, “That customer could be me next year!!” They are watching and listening to see what you will do.
A lot is riding on what you chose to do next.
Do not–do not–go to the unhappy place. The place where you are embarrassed, defensive, angry, upset. Do. Not. Go. There.
It is so tempting to be defensive or to blame the customer. And I have to say here, in 75%-85% of the pieces I get back that need repair, it is not because of any flaw in my design or work, nor the quality of my components. In fact, the number one cause of damage to my jewelry is from the piece being worn to death. (Several customers have told me they wear my silk cord necklaces everywhere and never take them 0ff–lap swimming, into the shower, into the ocean. Oh dear….)
You must bring all your resources to bear to turn this situation, and this customer, around.
If you can hold those thoughts in your head, if you can see all the threads while you are being flooded with embarrassment and your pride is taking a beating, you will be okay. Not just okay–you can turn this whole scenario into an extremely powerful marketing opportunity.
You can show the world who you are. Or, at least, you can show the world the person you’d like to be.
The first thing out of your mouth absolutely must be the apology.
“I’m so sorry!”
Sincerely, heartfelt, sad. You must acknowledge that your customer is unhappy, distraught, disappointed, with absolutely no judgment or defensiveness. This is the only way to defuse the situation so you can figure out what your next steps will be.
In fact, I can say these words sincerely, because even while I am being flooded with dismay, with defensiveness, with resentment (because I am a small and insecure person at heart, just like anyone else), I can honestly say, “I am so sorry you are coming into my booth and waving that broken necklace around and making me out to be an incompetent, disreputable artist.” “I am so sorry there is a booth full of people watching us right now!” “I am so sorry you found me!!” And if I’m honest, “I’m so sorry I might have screwed up!!”
Nonetheless, an apology is needed, there is no need to say those thoughts out loud, and apologizing will smooth the way for everything to follow. You will feel better you did not bark first, ask questions later. And everyone will start to relax.
The next step is reassurance. You will take care of this. You will fix it. It will be okay. “As I told you when you bought your necklace last year, my work is guaranteed. I use good components and I stand by my work. I’m sure I can fix it.”
Not only that, I often thank the person for bringing the piece back to me. “I am so glad you like my work so much. Thank you for bringing it back so I can make this right!” And I apologize again for the inconvenience to them: “I’m so sorry you had to bring it back. Let’s look at it.”
There! The message is, “Even if something goes wrong, it will still be okay.” Again, everyone in your booth takes a deep breath. No Jerry Springer-style fistfights today!
Since you made the darn thing, you should be able to quickly tell what happened. Did the clasp fail? Was a knot improperly glued? Did the cord break? How will you fix it? Let the person know that you know what you’re doing. “Oh, I see what happened! This is an older clasp–I used to use these when I first started out, but then I switched to a better style. I’ll be happy to replace that for you! Let me take this back to my studio. I can fix it after the show (you knew that was coming, right?) and I will mail it back to you free of charge for your trouble.”
(I don’t advise trying to make even a simple repair at the show, unless you are absolutely sure it will work. First, it ties you up and takes you away from selling. Second, if you can’t make it work, you just come off looking a little worse.)
This inspection also gives you a chance to talk up your work. That older clasp, for example. Did she buy it recently? From you directly, or from a store or gallery? If she bought it from you, you can say, “Wow, that must have been awhile back–when did you get it?” If it’s a long time, you can say, “So you are an early collector of my work! I’m so delighted–thank you! And you been wearing it every day since? WOW!!” and so on.
If she bought it from a nice gallery, you can talk up the gallery: “Oh, yeah, that is a really great gallery! Very prestigious–they carry beautiful work by some of the top artists in the country. I’m honored they carry my work. Hey, you mean you picked my jewelry out of all the gorgeous work in that store?! I’m flattered!”
These things come easily for me because I am honored, and I am flattered, and I am grateful. I’m getting past the defensiveness, and connecting to the good and the positive and the powerful in this whole transaction.
That is what I want everyone in the booth to be aware of. That’s what I want the customer to be aware of.
There! You have shown this customer, and every potential customer in your booth, that you excel at customer service.
But what if it isn’t your fault? What if you can tell the piece has been mishandled, mistreated or misused?
Doesn’t matter. You do not want to assign “blame” just yet. You want to turn this episode into a positive experience. And interrogating the customer about how it broke will out her on the defensive again.
If I’m alone in my booth, I might take on this next step. Otherwise, I wait until after the show, either after I’ve made the repair (so I can call with the good news) or when I’m about to start with the repair, depending on what I suspect is the cause of the damage.
This is when you can begin a gentle, non-threatening chain of questioning to find out what really happened when the jewelry “just broke for no reason.”
First, I tell them the good news–it’s on its way back. I tell them what I did to repair it. (I also include an invoice with the piece, listing the repairs and services, with a cost, even if I end up noting “no charge”. I want people to appreciate the value of what I’ve given them. For example, “Restring and replace missing pearls and crystals, replace broken lobster clasp: Labor 1/2 hour @ $25/hr (no charge); Materials $8 (no charge), return shipping USPS Priority Mail $4.60 (no charge), etc.)
Then I ask them if they can answer a few questions for me. I tell them it’s an opportunity to learn more about what went wrong. Then I can make the appropriate changes in my designs to prevent it from happening again. It’s purely an information-gathering exercise.
By being genuinely curious, non-judgmental and without assessing blame, and because the customer now knows the piece is on its way back to them, they may now be more willing to say what happened.
For example, one woman confessed her dog used to jump up and snag her necklace repeatedly–until it broke. (I asked her if she wanted a stronger cord or a shorter length.)
One woman slept with hers on, every night.
Another woman confessed that when she was nervous, she would “flex the horse pendant” (there is sometimes a bit of “give” in the longer or larger pendants.) During a particularly stressful week, she bent and flexed the horse repeatedly–until it broke in two. (I couldn’t salvage the pendant–I made it into a pin instead, and made her a new one.)
Then there was that line of pearl-and-crystal silk cord necklaces I made that everyone wore so much, the silk cord would literally rot and fall apart. I don’t know how many of those damn things I’ve restrung, usually free of charge or for a nominal fee.
And I have a standard policy of replacing the first lost earring free of charge.
I know some craftspeople think my repair and replacement policy is ridiculous or extravagant. Sometimes, I think so, too. After all, it really isn’t gold or precious stones. It is polymer clay, and delicate silk cord, and antique glass beads. It’s priced accordingly. And all jewelry will tarnish or break or pull apart if it’s dipped repeatedly in a swimming pool or yanked by small children and large dogs.
But I see these incidents as teachable moments. It’s an opportunity to explain that, though my jewelry works hard and is meant last, it really does need a little bit of care and good treatment. That even silver jewelry can get tarnished and corroded, that gold chains can break when grabbed, that glass and pottery sculptures break when dropped. They end up seeing that they have some responsibility, too, to keeping my artwork in good condition, rather than seeing it as somehow flawed or defective if they don’t.
Sometimes, even if it’s a lot of work and not my fault, I still don’t charge for repairs. The woman who “flexed her horse”? She and her husband, an archaeologist who had actually been in the Lascaux cave, bought four necklaces (one for her, three for their daughters and daughter-in-law) and a small wall hanging that year. There was no way I was going to nickel-and-dime her on that repair/replacement.
And when these customers have calmed down, when they realize they are going to have their beloved piece back and they realize they will be able to wear it again, the things they say then make it all worthwhile.
“Oh my God, I’m so relieved!” one woman exclaimed. “It is absolutely my favorite piece of jewelry. I want to wear it every day–I never want to take it off! I was so upset when I broke it, I cried.”
Now isn’t that the best testimonial an artist could ask for? That is what I want everyone else in the booth to hear.
And here’s where this good energy can take you. Last week, when I was having a very bad day about all my injuries and setbacks, feeling very very sorry for myself, I got a packet in the mail. It was from a customer, one I’d done a repair for on one of these afore-mentioned pearl-and-crystal silk cord necklaces.”Damn!” I thought. “It broke again, and she wants me to fix it!” I opened the packet to find…
A copy of her latest music CD.
With a portrait of her on the back, wearing…my necklace.
And a little handwritten note thanking me once more for fixing her necklace, which she love, love, loves.
Isn’t that a lovely reward for good customer service?
P.S. Just to let you know, not all of my customers who need work repaired act this way. Most are genuinely anguished and apologetic when they bring a damaged piece in. This is just how to handle it when you get someone who doesn’t yet know what exquisite care you are going to give them!
Second in a series of people you need to get out of your booth at a craft show–fast!
Oddly, the next group of people I’d like to talk about are the people who wish they were you.
Julia Cameron, author of The Artist’s Way, described a type of person she called the “shadow artist”. A shadow artist is someone who is an artistic, creative person themselves, who chooses instead to stand in the shadow of someone who is perceived to be a “real” artist. The shadow artist may play a supportive or secondary role in the arts, working for groups that promote artists, or even marrying an artist.
Being a shadow artist can be a sad and painful thing. These people may have never been encouraged to explore their artist self. They may have been told they weren’t good enough. Yet something in them hungers for art, and draws them near others who have it.
Many artists are former shadow artists. I was.
Many of your best customers and supporters are shadow artists. They celebrate what you do. They cheer you on. They delight in you doing what they feel they are not capable of doing themselves.
Many shadow artists are still positive, constructive people. They learn to channel all their creative energy into helping others. They do amazing work, supporting artists and the arts with their time, their money, their patronage. Many of our art guilds, organizations and schools would not be nearly as effective without them.
But they may still be unhappy. Deep down, they may feel the loss of not living the life they would like for themselves.
Consequently, some shadow artists are not positive or supportive people. They may be jealous or resentful of the very artists they say they appreciate and support.
They may even be artists at some level already–but jealous of people they perceive to be “more successful” or “more artistic” than themselves. The pain of seeing others live the life they want so badly for themselves spills over onto other people.
Sometimes it spills right over into your booth. Not good.
I know, because as hard as it is to admit it, that was me, too.
So as much as this type of person annoys and irritates me, I have a soft spot in my heart for them. I’ve been there. I know what it looks like. I know what it feels like.
But I still have low tolerance for their behavior, especially in my booth.
How will this person act in your booth?
You may hear someone like this making snide little comments to a friend as they peruse your work. They may hint the quality isn’t what it should be. At a wholesale show, a buyer may be overly fussy and particular about your work, insinuating that most pieces are just not quite good enough for their store, handpicking through your samples. They may make disparaging comments about your color choices, your materials, your design choices.
Retail customers may imply that they could do your work–the “I can make that!” people. Anything that makes them look good and you look not-so-good.
Now, hey, it’s human nature to think this way sometimes, and I groan and roll my eyes at what passes for “art” and “fine craft” all the time.
But not in someone else’s booth. Not where they can see me and hear me. That’s just rude.
I’ve found a few ways to deal with this kind of behavior. Please feel free to add your own tactics in the comment section.
One way to handle it is to ignore it completely, especially if there is no one else in your booth. There’s simply no way to interact that won’t put you on the short end of the stick emotionally. Recognizing this behavior for what it is–passive-aggressive, hard to pin down, hard to argue with–can help you decide to ignore it.
Resist responding in anger. Either the person doesn’t realize they come across that way, in which case your response will seem unjustified, or they do mean it, and they get a rise out of you. Getting angry in your booth is just bad, bad, bad for you, your booth, your business. People will sense it long after the offender is gone. Resist making comments about that person to the next visitor, too. Otherwise, they worry you’ll be talking about them next!
Your best weapons, believe it or not, are your good humor, your patience, your professionalism, sincerity (yes, sincerity) and the fact that it’s Y*O*U who is at the show, not them.
Bruce Baker recently suggested two good responses for the “I can make this!” crowd. Both have to be done with good humor and as much sincerity as you can muster.
When someone starts hinting or making comments that they could do the same work, simply say politely, “Well, these are for the people who aren’t as creative as you!” I’ve used this statement many times, and it works. It leaves them with absolutely nothing to say. It sounds like you are acknowledging their creativity.
The unspoken point is, that if they were as creative as you, they’d be doing the show, too. You win tons of points for subtlety and restraint. If there are other people in your booth who overhear this, they will actually come up and compliment you on your professional restraint. They’ll marvel that you were able to hold your temper and respond so calmly. I know, because people have done just that.
Another BB suggestion is to respond with total good nature and wide-eyed innocence: “Oh, you’re a potter/jeweler/painter/whatever, too? What shows do you do? What galleries do you sell to?” Again–you must be sincere to make this work. You are gently challenging them to prove they really are at your level.
Most people will back down, mumbling something about being “between studios” or “needing to do more marketing research.” Because, of course, they usually aren’t at a point where they are actually making and selling their work. (This also works for the people who claim their daughter makes the same stuff you do.)
If they claim self-righteously that they make their work for love, not money, keep on pressing with something like, “Oh, so then where do you exhibit your work?”
Then there’s my personal favorite: I take a tough love approach.
I will actually give shadow artists a little lecture about the importance of making their own art. I tune in to that “healing” aspect of my work, by sharing how it came to heal me.
Again, it works best if you are grounded and sincere. And when I do this, I am speaking out of sympathy and love. (If I can’t muster it for the annoying person in my booth, then I do it out of forgiveness for my former, miserable self.)
Without coming out and actually naming what they are doing, I tell them my story of how I got started doing this artwork. I tell them how miserable and jealous I was, sitting on the sidelines, being afraid and critical of everyone else’s artistic efforts–until I finally got into the game myself. I quit being a back seat driver, and started driving my own little art/life car.
I tell them I firmly believe that almost everyone is creative in their own unique way. That everyone has something of value to offer the world. That the world would be a better place if more people had the courage to do just that–figure out what they can offer, then just do it.
I tell them the power of being their authentic self. The healing that comes from being the artist they were meant to be. It’s hard work. But it’s worth it.
The story is about me. But it’s still a challenge–and an opportunity, if they see it–for them.
I think when people hear it, they can see themselves, just for a moment. I think, by being honest about the fact that I wasn’t nice person when I was in that horrible little place, it gives them permission to see a new possibility for themselves.
I hope so, anyway.
It usually is enough to at least turn the energy around, to take that negative stuff and turn it into something positive. Most people who can’t deal with it, hunker down and run at this point.
The people who can hear it, are hungry for more. I refer them to my blog, or to Julia Cameron’s books (or other resources), or offer to talk to them more….
(wait for it.)
…after the show. (You knew that was coming, right?)
Shine a gentle yet powerful light on these shadow artists, and watch the scary stuff disappear.
P.S. As for the picky, picky buyer at a wholesale show or a store where you’re presenting your work, I’ve found there isn’t much you can do to turn the attitude around. After all, even if you can turn it around on the spot, you still have to trust them to do the right thing and continue to promote and sell your work long after you’ve sold or consigned the work to them. The most effective ploy takes a lot of courage and conviction and belief in your work.
You can choose to pick up your marbles (er, work) and go home.
Simply say, “I’m sorry, I don’t think my work is right for your store. Thank you for your time.” Pleasantly, professionally.
Surprisingly effective for those buyers hoping to put you on the defensive, because now if they really want your work, they have to cajole you into staying.
We spend so much time and energy trying to get people into our booth at a craft show, it seems totally counter-intuitive to think about how to get someone out.
Sad to say, there are such times–and such people. Sometimes you just have to pull the plug on someone who has overstayed their visit.
The first scenario? “Why pay for the cow when the milk is free?”
There are people who wants your work for free–or worse.
“You’ve got to be kidding!” I can almost hear you exclaim. “Who goes to a craft show and expects you to give them your work?!”
Actually, it happens a lot.
Artists at a craft show are kind of a captive audience to this kind of person–we can’t escape our booth, and they know it.
How about the budding craftsperson who wants to know everything about what you do? Where you get your ideas? Where you get your supplies? Who you sell to? What shows you do? How you learned your techniques?
How about the person who only wants to know how you make your stuff, so they can make it, too? (Yes, I’ve actually had people sat this to me outright.) This can be someone who sees themselves as “crafty” and thinks it’s okay to “borrow” your ideas, your designs, your color schemes, etc. They may excuse themselves for many reasons: They don’t intend to sell it, they just want to make one for themselves. Or they do intend to sell it, but only in Connecticut, because you don’t do shows in Connecticut anyway, right?
As for requests to give away my work, I’ve actually had people hint I should lower my prices or give them a deal, or even give them a piece , because they like my work but they think it’s too expensive, or they simply can’t afford it.
Some people simply see everyone as a benign and generous source of all kinds of free information because of the altruistic nature of their calling–education, for one. I hate to malign an entire profession because of a few lazy apples but you need to know: There are a few teachers are so caught up in the nobleness of their education thing, they think the rest of us are happy to share our trade secrets so they (the teacher) can use your ideas and techniques for a class project. They will spend a huge amount of time talking to you, having you convinced you have a new major collector on your hand, only to say cheerfully at the end, “Well, this will make a great lesson plan! Do you have any brochures I can take with me?”
Before I caught on to this, I had one teacher, when I gave her a brochure (thinking she was a really interested customer), who actually said, “Oh, what you’ve written about the Lascaux cave is perfect. I don’t have to change a thing! I can just use this whole text in my lesson plan!” I asked her if she were going to attribute that content to me. She was totally confused. With a smile, I said, “Well, all this material is my original content, developed from my research and endless hours of writing and editing. And of course, it’s copyrighted material.” She stammered an unconvincing, “Of course….sure…” and exited the booth.
Other artists do this to us, too. I know we are all inspired and energized by the creativity of others. And I know there may be nothing truly new under the sun. But when an artist says to you, “I want to change to something easy and quick to do that I can make a lot of money at, and I think I could do what you’re doing. How do you get the horses to look like this?”, your bullshit detector should be going off like a fire alarm in a gunpowder factory.
And if someone steps into your booth with a camera and starts snapping away at your products, you need to find out immediately if they are simply an enthusiastic yet innocent and clueless admirer, or someone swiping your designs.
Before you say, “Surely you exaggerate…?” let me assure that these are all things that have actually happened to me. All the weird questions and statements are that have actually been said to me. These situations tends to happen more at retail shows. At wholesale shows, the buyers are usually pre-qualified. They are there for a purpose, to find products for their store. But this stuff can happen at wholesale shows, too.
What’s going on?
Some people see shows as entertainment or education. They don’t know, or they forget, or they overlook the fact that you have spent a heckuva lot of time, money and energy to be there. As generous as we’d like to be, we must also sell our work so we can afford to keep doing what we’re doing.
We cannot afford to overlook or ignore paying customers at the expense of someone who has no intention of paying for what we have to offer.
There is no right or wrong to all of this. Some people would not be bothered a jot by any of the situations I’ve described, while others would be even less tolerant than I am. It’s totally up to you how much time you want to give to someone, and what your comfort level is. If a show is slow, it’s certainly nice to at least look like you have customers and buyers in your booth.
But if you’ve hit your comfort level, or there are other people, potential paying customers in your booth you need to get to, then it’s time to move these “non-buying” people on.
Now first, how do we identify who is a potential customer who is simply interested in your work, from someone who is looking for the free milk?
And how to we participate in the simple act of sharing our expertise and experiences freely with others, without feeling taken advantage of by those few people that, well, take advantage?
To answer the first question:
People who are really interested in you and your work (and not just what you can do for them) ask you questions–and listen to the answers.
These people are genuinely interested in you and your work (whether or not they are ready, able or willing to buy it just yet.) They want to know more about you and the work.
People who are interested in only what you can do for them, ask questions–and then interrupt to tell you their answers, and their issues, and their work.
Or they argue with everything you say, but those people fall into the “energy vampire” category which we’ll cover later.
Or their questions have everything to do with the “how”, and very little to do with the “why”.
The answer to the second question is, know that you get to decide what you are going to give “free” to people that ask. You get to choose! You can share your time, your expertise, your advice. But it is up to you how much and how detailed.
And most importantly, when you share that. (Hint: After the show!!) (Yes, you are going to hear that over and over today.)
Some things and thoughts that have worked for me:
First, if there is anyone else in your booth who is acting more like a genuine customer, you on your party manners and excuse yourself: “Well, hey, it’s been really nice talking to you, but I have some things I need to get back to.” Move away, greet your other customers, and do your regular booth schtick–offer to answer questions for your new arrivals, adjust your display, keep busy.
If there are no other customers, you can choose how much–or how little–advice/time/information you give away.
For the customer who claims my work is too expensive, I’ll come right out and ask, “What is your budget?” I show them the less expensive work in that range. If I feel they are quibbling, or are being ridiculous (“Five dollars!”) I simply say, “I’m so glad you like my work, but it’s so labor intensive, I’m afraid I can’t help you.” I sometimes even move them on to another artist’s booth with work in that price range.
If they insist they want expensive work, I tell them about my extremely cool layaway plan. They will either step up to the plate–cool! A new collector! Or they will realize you know the value of your work and that you’ve priced it fairly–and that you’re not going to be guilt-tripped into offering a discount.
BTW, if you are an artist who does offer discounts, and that works for you, be sure to ask them first what they are willing to pay. Otherwise, you get into this weird game of trying to guess the most they are willing to pay–you offer a discount and they get to say it’s still too high, and it goes downhill from there.. Get them to commit to an offer they will definitely accept first, then work up from there. OR offer them another piece in that price range.
I sometimes feel it’s justified to have people do some work if they want to learn everything I know. Consequently, I keep a few resources memorized to meet such requests.
For people who want to know where I get my supplies, I tell them to check out the advertisers in trade magazines like Bead and Button Magazine. Websites like Glass Attic are encyclopedic resources for videos, books and classes on polymer clay. You could have ready similar resources for your medium.
For people who are farther along than that, I keep a few good wholesale sources memorized to pass on to them. I have several with a range of wholesale requirements and corresponding price breaks, and the artist can figure out which ones suit where they are now in their career.
I keep the contact info for local teachers who teach classes in simple jewelry-making or introduction to polymer clay. If you teach yourself, offer your own workshops. After the show, of course. Put their name on a separate mailing list for classes.
For the people who insist I teach a class on how to make something that’s too personal, or one of my core products, I tell them that. Again, nicely. If they have a professional bone in their body, they’ll understand. If they don’t, I simply act like they do. I say something like, “You know how it is with art, some things are just too personal and totemic to share right away…”
I also refer people to my blog for information on how to get more publicity, how to decide whether to do wholesale shows, how to design a better booth, etc. Why should I stand in a booth at a show I’ve paid hundreds, maybe thousands of dollars to be at, and talk at length, when they could simply read my blog?? If they say they don’t have time, well then, I don’t have time, either. If there are blogs out there you find useful, share them with these people.
For artists (especially ones new to wholesale) who want to know where I sell my work, I offer the name of a store or two I think would be a good fit for them. But I might also ask them for the name of a store, museum or other venue they’ve come across in their travels that would be a good fit for me.
If artists want more feedback on a show, say a wholesale show I’ve done, I can often refer them to specific essays I’ve written on my blog. Of course, the best advice I can give is for them to actually visit and walk the show themselves, so they can decide for themselves.
For the teachers looking for lesson plan material, offer to come in and do a project or artist presentation for their class. There is often a little money in the school budget for things like this, or sometimes grants are available from your craft guilds and state arts and crafts organizations. Of course, if you are willing to donate your time, that’s an option, too…after the show.
Last, I tell people I’m happy to talk with them–but not at the show.
I point out that my first goal at the show has to be to earn money so I can continue to make my beautiful work! They can call or e-mail me after the show. I smile, I stay happy, I maintain a positive atmosphere, I am polite–but I am also firm. Sometimes I have to say “after the show” quite a few times… but you’d be surprised how simply pointing this out to people can snap them out of this mindset.
Now, there are many people who do not actually buy my work, and I am happy to spend a lot of time with. But they have “paid” me in other ways–by collecting my work in the past, by introducing my work to others, by providing me with opportunities, speaking engagements, paid teaching gigs, publicity, or just plain ol’ support and encouragement.
There are many times people ask questions about my work, and I am not bothered or annoyed at all.
It’s not the action–it’s the intention. It’s when I feel the expectation that I am to give it away that I feel the burn.
Know when the intention is not serving you. Learn to recognize when the interaction is not balanced. Know that as long as you stay professional and courteous, it’s simply okay to say that enough is enough, and it’s time to move on.
Yes, you read that right. Usually we’re trying to get people into our booth so we can sell them our work. But sometimes it’s just as important to get them out of there, too.
I was inspired by Donald Clark’s new column in The Crafts Report called “Just Ask”. Donald is a co-owner of Ferrin Gallery in Northampton, MA, and an author and artist in his own right. He gave a few suggestions for getting rid of a “talker” in your booth–the person who has no intention of buying anything, but is distracting you from other customers.
The advice was sound, but you could actually write a book about this topic. So I’ll share some suggestions and insights that have worked for me.
This will be in small doses over several days, as my ability to type is compromised. And I would love it if you asked questions or shared your own tips and suggestions along the way!
And okay, I’ll admit it–the title is provocative. You don’t necessarily need to boot every non-customer out of your booth! Not every transaction is about money, not by a long shot.
But no one needs “bad transactions”, either. There are indeed times when someone is being a jerk, a downer, a whiner or simply an energy-vampire. If they aren’t driving other customers out of your booth, they are practically driving you out of your booth.
You must contain and deal with that negative energy. Not only your sales, but your peace of mind may depend on it.
I have a theory about holiday shows. Feel free to chime in below and comment.
Most craft shows are held just before the holidays. The theory is, everyone is out Christmas shopping.
Of course, as a veteran and consummate shopper, I will share something you probably already know:
Many of those gifts I buy are never gonna be given away. They’re for me!
I’ll find something wonderful and affordable and exclaim, “Oh, these would be perfect for Ruth/Sue/Carol/Mom!” Then I buy five. That fifth one is for me, because it’s perfect for me, too.
If it’s not affordable, I might still buy it anyway, under the guise that it’s still a cool gift for that perfect someone.
And sometimes, those gifts are for me, too.
I used to think I was a pretty selfish shopper, secretly buying all those things that never made it to their intended recipient. (They got a gift, don’t get me wrong. Bear with me here.)
Now I know that if I’m rationalizing my purchases this way, millions are doing it. It’s not about being selfish. It’s about how we justify the purchases we make.
So here’s my theory:
If your work is really new to a customer–you’re new to a show, they aren’t familiar with your work….
and it’s really different/unusual/unique–they like it, but they aren’t sure someone else will…
and it’s “strong”–a bold color, has a “heavy” theme, has a powerful message, is something very personal….
and it’s not seen as highly affordable…
Then it’s hard for someone to justify buying it over the holidays as a gift for someone else.
It’s too obvious to the customer that they really want to buy it for themselves. And that can be a high wall for them to climb over during the holiday season, when so much money has to be spent on gifts for others.
Here’s the pattern I’ve noticed at the few retail shows I’ve done:
Mostly, I noticed people bought for themselves. (The show is in August. Some people claim they’re Christmas shopping, but there’s plenty of leeway for simply buying for themselves, too.)
The next year, they often come in and buy a piece “for a very special friend”.
Then they come back and buy more for themselves, and for many friends! (Or they bring their friends, which is even nicer.)
They agonized over their first gifty-buying decision. “I love your work! And I think my friend would, too. But I’m just not sure….”
The next year, they come back exclaiming, “My wife/friend/daughter LOVED it! I’m buying more!”
There are several things you can do to overcome this “powerful gift” obstacle.
- Offer to exchange the piece for another if it does not suit. This only works if you have a catalog, website, or some other way of offering another choice to the end user.
- Be prepared to reassure them why their friend will love your work. And it isn’t because you think it’s fabulous. One strategy is to ask your customer why she thinks it’s fabulous. Then ask, “Is your friend the kind of person who will love those aspects of my work, too?”
- If you’re making that connection with the customer in your booth, but they are worried they won’t be able to make that same connection with their friend, then you need to build that story into your product. Story cards/gift enclosure cards, hang tags, care instruction tags are all vehicles for carrying your story when the actual product cannot.
- I think the key word is “new”. People who love your work may have to get used to seeing it before they feel it would be a great gift for others. I do better at shows where I have tenure, some sort of “repeat presence”.
- But they shouldn’t see it too often, either! When it’s easily available, then people either a) get used to seeing it and figure they’ll pick up a piece some other time. Or b) everyone who wants one, buys one–and then my market is saturated for a year or so. My work does best in an area when it’s only available a few times a year, OR when there’s a high turnover in the customer base–a tourist area, a high-traffic area, etc.
My last suggestion, of course, would be: Don’t do holiday shows!! Try shows when people can more easily justify buying for themselves.