Sunday, July 19, 2009

what to do when an order goes off the rails

I've been plagued by difficult orders lately. I think there are always annoying little things happening at a pottery studio at any given time-- glazes bubbling, plates warping, lids sticking, all for no discernible reason-- and for me it's been one thing after another with different orders since the start of this year.

Usually when I get a special order, I like to make two of whatever it is, so I have a back-up and there are not undue delays on getting the order out of the studio. Sometimes, both the original and the back-up will fail, in which case I go for round three, which will usually take care of the problem. In fact, I strongly believe in the power of three, and my ability to pull off an order in three rounds or less. But my ability to do this has been mightily challenged in these past months. Right now, I have four orders I can't seem to get out the door. I've failed after three rounds on all of these orders.

It's so frustrating, and kind of depressing too. I hate to see my hard work collect in the shard pile. But here are a few coping tips I've developed over the years and keep me from losing too much sleep when orders are going off the rails:
  • I communicate with the customer right away when there is going to be a delay. Nothing is more annoying for a customer than having to check in because their order isn't shipping, and then discovering from the artist there is a problem.  I do this to give myself a bit of breathing space and move up the ship date.
  • I'm always completely honest with the customer about what's happening. I explain clearly what is going on without being too wordy, I don't make excuses, and I apologize for the inconvenience. This goes a long way to soothe any impatient customers.
  • I don't worry that the customer is going to be mad at me. If they are mad that they can't get their pottery when they want it, that's a personal problem. They are my client, not my mommy or daddy. In other words, I keep it professional.
  • Failed pieces are part of being a potter. They just are. You, me, and everyone else out there crazy enough to make pottery are always going to have failures. I do my best to accept it and move on. Sometimes I have to throw a little tantrum first, and that's okay too.
I think the hardest thing is when a client comes across as unsympathetic to the problem, or seems to think you are not even working on their order, OR implies their order is the only thing you should be working on. Many people are completely ignorant about how a pottery studio is run, the workflow of making, bisquing, glazing, firing again, and the many challenges at every stage of the process. I try to educate people without getting defensive, and when I do start getting hyped up or extra stressed, my go-to mantra is, "It's just pottery". Because really, that's all it is, and if a client is going to give me a hard time about an order, they are crazy. And if I'm going to give myself a hard time, I've lost perspective. And when I need perspective, I pretend like I'm a friend of mine, and what my reaction would be to watch this friend beat themselves up over a failed piece of pottery. Would I get in there and say, "Yeah, you really fucked that one up. Why don't you work harder?" No, I would not. I would say to my friend, "You are amazing, and you will do beter next time." And that's what I say to myself, too. Okay, I'm lying, I don't. But I try!


  1. Great post; I especially like the part about customer communication. I delay telling clients about studio mishaps because I am generally overly optimistic about how soon I can come up with a replacement. I should fess-up right away and buy some time, like you said.

  2. Fun post. I really like the part about talking to yourself as if you were talking with a good friend. It doesn't do any good to trash ourselves. As for impatient or hard to please customers. I turn into the Pottery Nazi... "NO POTTERY FOR YOU!!" LOL.. But that's just me :)
    - Cindy

  3. seriously. if they saw what actually went into making a piece of pottery step by step, they would change their tune and pay you 5 times your asking price.

  4. I can learn so much from this post - especially a lesson in perseverance! Thank you for posting it.

  5. well said and good to remember to take it easy on ourselves. my special order nemesis is in the mail today and sadly it was plenty more than 3 rounds. my 2 cents is not to take orders for items that you think you 'should' be able to make..e.g...the 24 inch baptismal font, with carving details.

  6. yes, I wholeheartedly agree with Rae--

  7. I just had to tell a customer that I can't make her the 14" bird cake stand she wants for her daughter-in-law's wedding. I usually won't take orders for anything bigger than 12", having already learned how heard it is to make a cake stand bigger than that. But I took the order and have struggled with it since April. After the last one came out warped as all hell, I decided to give up. I really thought I could get past the issues, but I can't! Not yet anyway.

  8. Hey, Whitney.

    I would guess I placed one of the dreaded four orders. I'm sorry it's plaguing you so. Just remember that you've got nothing but fans in my house. :) I've said it before, but I want to say it again: you take your time. Every customer with a shred of sense knows you're a pro and working your tail off. The good stuff takes time :)


  9. That's a good point of view. I used to help run a big wholesale art show and artists would get extremely emotional at the show. I always kept in mind when someone was angry it normally had nothing to do with me. That helped me stay calm and calm them down in return.
    I wish you luck in getting your orders complete.

  10. Thanks for making it real for those of us struggling out here with the same types of problems.

  11. Great post. I am not a potter but I make other things and I am always worried about things going wrong. I must stop! Things do go wrong but it is good to remember that mostly they go right. Still wondering if you might forward that letter you wrote to the person copying you. I could use it to help figure out how to deal with my "copycat". Thanks for the good writing about the creative life.

  12. Good on you. Hang in there- it tends to go in cycles and will come good soon. I've just been trying a new clay and wanted to use it for an exhibition but the glazes I tried didn't work and I've run out of time to do more testing so have gone back to the tried and true clay and it is all coming to gether at last. Well, I still have my fingers crossed the pieces will go well in the final firing!

  13. ah, yes.... you are so good at putting all of these "potter's realities" into words!
    I always look forward to reading your blog, and smiling and laughing as I relate to the craziness that we live daily!

  14. Good advice and your pottery is inspirational. Hope I can conquer it as well as you someday.