It’s a vital aspect of our art biz we often overlook.
(7 minute read)
Thank you with your patience as I continue to process the more than 100 comments I’ve received (on FAV, on my blog, and in private emails) on my column last week, on why millennials don’t buy our art. There were many thoughtful comments, and some very sad ones, and it will take some time to evaluate them, categorize them, and respond with insights and tips.
A few years ago, I teamed with another artisan for a show. One customer, another artist, bought a pricy piece from my cohort. My own jaw dropped at the price, but it was within reason, considering the time and skill it took to produce.
Less than a month later, the customer contacted them to let them know the jewelry piece broke. They arranged to meet and discuss options.
I happened to meet up with that client before the artisan showed up. The client told me they absolutely loved the piece, and they were heartbroken that it broke. They were desperately hoping it could be repaired. (I thought, “For what you paid for it, I certainly hope so, too!”) After waiting for almost an hour, they had to leave but would be back, and I told them I’d let the artisan know.
When the artist finally showed up, they went berserk. They ranted on about how it wasn’t their (the artisan’s) fault, the customer must have dropped it, there was no way it “just broke”. The artisan was angry and frustrated.
I managed to talk them down before the customer came back, but it was difficult. In the end, I reminded them that the customer had paid a lot of money for that piece, and if the issue weren’t resolved, it could be bad. An unhappy customer can do a lot of damage to our reputation, and the only way to manage it is to deal with it in a way that makes both parties happy.
This month, I made two online purchases from vendors, one for display pieces for my jewelry, the other for some very nice gems for same. Both sent me the wrong items. One was a mistake, the other was due to extremely misleading descriptions and images. And when I alerted each vendor to my situation, I had two completely different responses.
The display vendor totally owned making a mistake. Once they realized what the problem was, they sent me replacements. When I offered to return the original items, they said no worries, they were good, just keep it or pass it on.
The second company denied anything was wrong.
I’d included pictures, I included the description, which clearly showed neither matched the actual product. (I resisted telling them I realized after the fact that they’d actually hijacked the image from another site, it was not their own image.) I said I would like to return the item and get my money back.
The company suggested they’d sent me something better, so why was I complaining. (Um, because it wasn’t what I wanted?) They offered me a 50% refund. I said no, please tell me how to return it.
They refused. I reported the matter to Etsy, and I received a full refund.
Guess which vendor I will buy from again? Yeah.
The first vendor? I left them a glowing review on Etsy. First, I ran the review by them in case it landed wrong with them, but they loved it.
I said it was my second order from them, because I loved the product so much. And when I realized there was a discrepancy, the maker immediately set it right. And that I valued that even more than getting it right the first time. Because, moving forward, I know I can trust that person to do the right thing. I was valued as a customer.
The second vendor? I still have the item, but I still can’t use it. But since I didn’t have to send it back, I am eventually going to leave a very mixed review.
Of course, when we’re dealing with bigger, more expensive investments in art and fine craft, it may require more effort to manage an unhappy customer. But the basics are the same.
Here’s how to meet a customer where they are.
First, understand that in most stores today, we can simply return something, no questions asked. Some businesses don’t even require a sales receipt. Some customers expect the same. So make your return policy crystal clear, and for legal reasons, make it very public, so every purchaser sees it. (Mine says I take returns for exchange towards another purchase only, within 10 days of purchase.)
Second, calm down. Get centered. Don’t make assumptions about what went wrong. Assure them you will listen carefully, and make it right to the best of your ability.
Third, embrace the best reason why an unhappy customer is a blessing:
It’s a chance to discover what went wrong, so we can prevent it from happening again.
The first time I had a return, the customer was upset and defensive. I knew we wouldn’t get anywhere if I went on the defensive, too.
I assured them I could fix it or replace it. Once they were reassured, they calmed down tremendously. They explained they absolutely loved the work, they were just anxious it couldn’t be replaced or restored. Again, once I knew what the problem was, I told them I could fix it.
Once they were truly at peace, then I asked what had happened.
They admitted there was a little “flex” in the little horse pendant. When they were anxious, they would bend it back and forth a little.
And eventually, it broke.
I tried not to laugh. I did tell them it didn’t matter, I would still fix it. But even metal will break if bent in such a way repeatedly. And when I sent the repaired horse (made into a pin, so they could still wear it) and the replacement horse (this is when I learned to make them thicker, with no “flex”, I included a letter explaining why I couldn’t make that horse into a necklace again, how I was able to make another horse that look very much like, and to please refrain from bending it, in a light-hearted manner).
My fellow artisan didn’t do as well.
The customer/artist is someone I know, and the next time I saw them, I asked them how it went with the artisan.
They said it was pretty clear the artisan wasn’t happy. It was awkward, and in the end, the customer had to exchange the piece for something else, something they didn’t love nearly as much.
They also said they would never buy anything from them again. They aren’t vindictive, but they also know a lot of people in our community. A lot of people.
Sometimes we have to learn the lesson the hard way.
I learned that most people bought my work because they loved it. When it didn’t work out, there were specific reasons.
When I worked with them on those, we both found a solution that worked for both of us.
In that first customer who broke the horse, they loved the piece with all their heart. They wore it every day. It gave them serenity when they were anxious. What a tribute to my work, is how I chose to view it.
Yes, there are some difficult people out there who will never be happy. Again, I’ve learned to simply get the work back, refund their money (I can choose to do that, though legally I’m covered by my prominently-displayed return policy) and return them to the river to go mess with someone else.
But there are also people who genuinely love and appreciate us for what we do, who invest their own hard-earned money for the work of our heart. We owe it to them to make sure that wonderful exchange stays positive, and compassionate.
Your homework, should you choose to accept it, is to check out some Yelp reviews. Perhaps your favorite restaurant, or your favorite shop, or any biz you know has a good ethic around its products/services and their customers. There will almost always be a snarky comment. See how the business handles it. (These days, some businesses will simply delete the customer’s remark and block them from the site. But it’s better if they address the concern, either by explaining what really happened, or by sharing what they did to settle the issue, though the buyer wasn’t having it.)
And if you have a great return policy, share it! Explain how it’s worked for you (or not) and how you got there.
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