Wednesday, September 03, 2008

challenges on the customer service front

Remember how I wrote a post not too long ago saying how much I love my customers? Then I gave the caveat that sometimes you really have to tell a customer to fuck off when they are being a total pain. It's a fine line. This is an email I received from a customer recently. The person ordered a replacement plate after breaking one out a set of three. It took me a while to make it because it's a discontinued design, but I finally shipped it:

Hi Whitney, I received the new plate today and I do appreciate you going to the trouble to replicate the plate that I broke. However, the new plate doesn't really match it's partners. Not only is the deeper color wrong, which I know you did me warn me about, but the veining detail on the edges is so light that it is obscured by the glaze which appears much heavier and glossier than the original. The wonderful delicacy of the original set was one of it's most admirable qualities. I do wish I had known that you couldn't reproduce that look because if I had, I wouldn't have pressed you for a replacement. I know you tried and I do thank you for your effort.

When I read this at my vacation office in Tahoe I was instantly inflamed. My face turned red, my heart started pounding, and I immediately typed a curt return message : Send back the plate. I hit the "send" button despite years of my husband trying to train me to not respond to emails when I'm angry. He's always telling me to give myself time to manage the situation, not just react. Strangely enough, my email was not connecting and the message wouldn't send. I whacked the send button a few more times before I realized I was totally in reaction mode and I would be lot better off just deleting this email. Which I did.

I had to think about this message for a few days. The email seemed totally passive-aggressive to me. I had warned the customer that the glaze would be totally different, and now it seemed that's exactly what he was complaining about. Doesn't he realize I'm and ARTIST, not a ROBOT? It's not my job to replicate things, I whined to myself. Everyone should just shop at POTTERY BARN, I railed at my friends, people think you can just order up an exact copy and they can't deal if everything is not all matchy-match. In the end, I decided this customer needed to be sent to re-education camp along with fellow offenders. Doesn't this ASSHOLE understand that my work is unique and that's what makes it precious and valuable?

I finally composed, in my head, the perfect response. I pulled his message out if the trash and read it again, and suddenly realized it wasn't that bad. Annoying, yes. But worthy of my reaction, no. I had to laugh at myself. I can be completely nuts when I feel like my work isn't appreciated, and so defensive. I am so glad I didn't send that email, and I had a second chance to respond. This is what I wrote in return:

I can understand that you are disappointed, and I'm sorry if you thought I could reproduce something exactly. I thought you understood the new plate would look different from its partners. As you know, the plates were discontinued and I haven't made them in several years, and the glaze is the same formulation but something has changed to make it fire out differently. I can't reproduce my handmade things exactly, especially part of a set that was made together and then fired together a while ago. I hope that you can just enjoy it for what it is, and now you also have a great story to go with it. If not, you can send it back to me because I want people to love my work and be happy with it.

And of course the customer wrote back and said, no no no, they love it and want to keep it. Figures!


  1. Looks like the wonky internet connection was looking out for you on that one. That was a great response that you ended up sending, and I am glad that the customer responded kindly.

    I do wonder though, what the intent of the original e-mail was. If they loved it and wanted to keep it, _and_ they had been warned (and were thus aware) of the fact that the replacement most likely would not exactly match the remaining set...why send an email pointing out that this was in fact the result?

  2. Been there. Know that customer. Glad it worked out in the end.

  3. We've all been there. You ended up handling it beautifully... unless he reads the blog... But seriously... The collective"They" don't really get it... My beautifull Whitney Smith Vases are looking fabulous in my Dining Room... really...

  4. i'm with jerry here...why write to you and complain about something they were warned about. i would have been irritated too. you ended up handling it in professional manner which ultimately leaves you with the feeling that you did the right thing even if the customer is being a pain.

  5. Anonymous4:06 AM

    How bout:
    The fact that your work cannot be replaced (immediately Upon anybody's request) Is what makes it collectible/valuable Dumb-Ass!

  6. Took my a while to find my temper button off switch. I've hit too many walls with my reactions in the past. Getting it out of my system: good. Taking it out on others: bad. Writing the "dummy letter" is my best therapy. I never send them.

  7. I read your client's email twice and was actually more angry the second time!
    This subject is really my favorite part of your blog; I love to hear how you approach these problems.
    Nice save on your part.

  8. Wow, a failed Internet connection saves the day! This post was a great lesson for all of us in taking a minute before reacting. Thanks for sharing it!

  9. Tag you're it... so sorry!

  10. My reaction to such e-mails is much the same. I get upset and vent to my husband and get personally offended. I wonder why does the customer feel it is ok to write such e-mails? (agreeing with some of the other comments) Don’t they wonder about how it would make you feel? What do they hope to accomplish exactly? Will it make the plate a different color? Can’t they keep their comments to themselves? Perhaps they think its ok because they “know” the artist on a personal level? Either way, I am glad you wrote what you wrote and had a moment to cool off. It’s great to have you back :)

  11. Anonymous3:17 AM

    I'm also wondering what the POINT of the customer's email was - he/she didn't say what they wanted you to do about it (make another, reduce the price, give them their money back - none of which was actually the case in the end)! Seems like they were just venting their frustration, too - and it's just a shame that THEIR Internet connection actually worked! ;-) It's a truly beautiful plate, by the way!


  12. i love the amount of bitching you do openly about this aspect of the business. i have the same issues with some customers and follow the same practices (never answer an email angry, etc)... but damn sometimes its a true fuckin challenge.