Friday, November 20, 2009

the cost

I have been following the saga fellow ceramic artist Heather Knight has been enduring with a nightmare customer. Nightmare customers usually do us the favor of throwing out red flags that they are a total pain in the ass, but they often come bearing lots of money too, so we ignore the red flags. Reading her latest post, it made me think about how we, as artists working to fill orders for customers, are affected by money, and how it influences our decision making process.

I have already been contemplating this question. Right now, I have an international customer who received a cake stand from me that they are not 100% happy with. Normally, it would not be a big deal to make a new one to replace it, but the international shipping cost on this baby is almost a 1/3 of the value, which changes up the dynamic a bit. But should it? Fortunately, my customer is not being a nightmare, and is open to my suggestions on how they may learn to appreciate the quirks of this particular cake stand. I thought the cake stand was perfect, and it's hard for me to imagine a harder critic than my own self, but I guess that is another issue. I've been thinking about this problem, and wondering what is the right thing to do here. How much money should I be willing to lose to make a customer happy? Should the specific amount make a difference? Should my international customers get screwed because I don't want to spend another $40 from my own pocket shipping out to them?

Within this last year, I made the decision for myself that I was no longer going to allow myself to get stressed out by orders. (Yes, I fail at this all the time, but I keep practicing.) Whatever amount of money I was getting for an order was not worth my body getting stressed out and the negative affects it leaves behind. I gave myself permission to simply return the money to any customer when an order wasn't working out, and not feel bad or even more stressed out if I chose to do so. Knowing that I can and I will do this really helps me deal with problem orders and the stress they bring. Also, to run a successful business, I believe that you have to lose money sometimes. One cannot get maximum return in everything one does, that is not realistic. Attempting to stay in the positive column all the time is simply going to lead to more stress. Losing money sometimes is actually just spending money, and we all know you have to spend money to keep a business running.

Breaking it down like this really helps me in making the right decisions: for myself, for my business, and for my customers. And now that I've reiterated my beliefs & practices about money and dealing with orders & customers to myself, it is clear to me that I know what I need to do with my international customer, if they decide they cannot fall in love with my perhaps slightly imperfect cake stand.


  1. Today is officially customer service hell day at Element, as I received an email form a customer declaring that not all of their tiles measured exactly the same and they couldn't deal with it.
    I have a no returns or exchanges policy in place unless the piece is damaged. At least on my Etsy page, when a description reads " approximate" and "hand made," I feel like they just need to get over it.
    I think gently suggesting that the human hand is involved should suffice, and if not, they can pay to ship it back to you and you can refund the purchase price.... sounds awesome to me!
    I have also checked my email 5000 times today waiting to see if the nightmare has replied!

  2. I can't imagine what could possibly have been wrong with your piece! I know you demand a very high standard from yourself.

    Of course, being hand made means that each piece will look slightly different - though not faulty. People just don't understand the materials that ceramic artists work with.

    I made two tiles recently, I cut them exactly the same size, and yet before they even went in the kiln one had shrunk more than the other. I'm still learning, but I guess there are some things about clay that you just can't change, no matter how much experience you have.

  3. i have to break it to an international customer that what they shipped to italy (notorious for missing packages) can not get refunded because her shipping insurance expired. Ordered in May, and she JUST returned me the forms I gave her in July to sign... this is gonna be a fun one. The order was huge also and she wants everything replaced. FUN.

  4. I have to say that after reading "Eat, Pray, Love" I would never ship anything to Italy. The writer tried to ship books to herself from the US and her friends in Italy thought it was hilarious that she thought she'd ever get her books.

    That sucks crankbunny, I think I would pretend like I never got that customer's emails EVER again.

  5. Ying & Yang of the business of Art.
    I think what's frustrating when it's really a case of "buyers remorse" or the customer has spent beyond their budget and THEN wants to return something but blame the artist for a defect. In Heather's case of the tiles, I was wondering if the customer is dropping them into a tiled wall piece and they HAVE to be the same size...? Otherwise that should be no big deal -they are hand made for goodness sake. As for your international customer Whitney, I'd offer the customer a full refund when they return the piece to you on their dime. Hang on everyone 'Tis The Season and things will only get weirder the closer December 25th draws nearer!!

  6. *Yin & Yang. Geeze. (maybe I was thinking wacky customers are ying-yang in the head!)

  7. oh yeah, refunding the money is the clear answer, and I have no problem with that. But I want my customers to be totally stoked, in possession of a piece of pottery made by me. And, um, hopefully buyig from me in the future. So the question is-- how do I get another cake stand to the customer that they totally love without losing my shirt on shipping costs? I basically have to lose all the profit on the cake stand to make that happen. And as long as the customer doesn't turn into a nightmare, I'll probably do just that.

  8. Absolutely bend over backwards if the overseas client is being sweet to you.
    The client that doesn't like the imperfect measurements of my tiles accompanied their observation with 2 very long irate emails. I offered them a refund!

  9. What percentage of your customers do you end up having problems with? Are most customers fine and everything is straightforward, or do most customers make some kind of difficulty? This question goes for Heather at Elemental too if you check back in.

  10. I would say that less than 1% of my customers are a problem-- I can seriously count on maybe two hands the people who have made my life difficult in the past 10 years. i consider myself lucky, and that's why I always say my customers are remarkable people with fantastic taste.

  11. I agree with "bend over backwards" and try to do that with the more frustrating customers, also. I did sales (beside my accounting work) for 9 years and sometimes the high-maintenance ones end up being your mortgage money. In fact, I bought a house from those ladies. They expect a lot but they are loyal. I think it is important to have a good attitude about them and love them for who they are. I hate to see the bad mouthing and I wonder if they read the hateful comments.

    I like my customers (all of them) to be 100% happy. I will exchange, refund, or remake to get the job done. I never decide that they should be happy with the order. And I don't hate them for not being happy. What if it were me? I'd want me to be super happy. Losing money on some jobs is just one of the costs of being in biz for yourself. Accountants call that a write-off, and they do make a difference on your tax return.

    When you are pulling your hair out just remember that the karma boomerrang DOES come 'round, for the good seller and the PITA customer.

    Oh yes!

  12. Donna, I agree that all customers need to be treated with respect and empathy, even difficult ones. I want everyone to love my work who buys it, and I don't want someone to hold back on feedback because they are too scared of my reaction.

    I don't think expressing annoyance and consternation over really difficult people is hateful or bad mouthing. It's a real response to the situation. This blog is called "This Artist's Life" which means it's about the real challenges of what I and other artists deal with, including difficult situations with customers. I would never use this blog to express hate towards my them, or let other people do that either.

  13. My HUGE apologies Whitney! I re-read my post and it does look like I mean YOU. DANG! OOOOPS! I also read some other posts on another blog entirely that were complaining, bad mouthy, and even some minor name calling. So PLEASE let me re-word that sentence to:

    I hate to see the bad mouthing that I have seen on OTHER BLOGS and I wonder if they (the customers) read the hateful comments.


    (going to find a rock to crawl under ;)

    I am so, so sorry!

  14. No worries Donna!
    I'm glad you weren't talking about me. I don't sugarcoat stuff, but I think being mean is inexcusable.

  15. I know much of what we do is about sales and making a living. But if someone is a total a-hole... I don't want them to own a piece of my pottery. I'd tell them to send it back to me at my expense and I'll give them their crappy money back. But.. that's me.

  16. Can you offer to split the cost of the shipping with the customer? Unless you intentionally sent them a second, they should be understanding about the shipping costs and changing their minds. One would think, anyway.