Sunday, May 23, 2010

policing your policies

Over the years I’ve been forced to develop policies in my business. If you do not have policies in place, your customers will find that weak spot and exploit it, whether they mean to or not. I used to resist having policies, and frankly, I hate having policies. Like most artists, I like to have an open, fluid approach to issues and not be rigid with a policy or rule. And with everything else I do, I've had to learn the hard way that having policies is just part of having a sane business. For instance, I used to never take deposits on custom orders because I like to work for the money. Also, people can’t rush me when the piece isn’t paid for yet. I had to create a policy around deposits for big orders because of a person who ordered a huge dinnerware set and then never called me again after I sent her the first samples. I had to find out from her decorator that she did not like them and was done with the project. If she had $500 invested into the order she probably would have been more inclined to work with me on the design. That was very disappointing, but I couldn’t get mad at anyone but myself for not taking a deposit in the first place.

I thought I had myself pretty well covered on policies until I realized I didn't.
I had a customer who bought a piece from me at a show last Christmas season, a gift, and this person asked me if he could exchange it if the recipient didn’t like the piece. What kind of fool doesn’t like my pieces in the first place, I don’t know, but apparently the customer was worried that he may know one. I made a mistake right then and there by kind of shrugging and saying, “I don’t really do exchanges, but if you get back to me right away, we can probably work something out.” What I should have said is, “You have x amount of days to make an exchange on anything you're not happy with.” I've been in business for well over 10 years and I so rarely encounter people wanting to exchange pieces that I never made policy around it. And that’s the problem so many artists have, being ambiguous with policies because they hate having to lay down the law.

Months later, I get a message from this customer, though I don't realize at the time that it's this exact customer. He asks me to open my studio on the weekend because he wants to bring his girlfriend over to select something. Since I think I have a sale on the hook, I have no problem opening in the middle of a Sunday afternoon. Turns out he didn't want to buy anything, he wants to exchange one of the pieces he bought at Christmas. It's possible I scared this customer a little bit with the steam that came out of my ears, but I did the exchange because I knew right off this whole thing was my fault for having a vague exchange policy. And now, the law has been laid down, and I have a hard and fast exchange policy.

Bottom line, don't be like me and let your mistakes dictate when you create your policies. Everyone who sells something should have a return and exchange policy that covers everything from breakage to lost shipping, a deposit policy, shipping policies, payment policies. In fact, just taking a look at the policies in etsy shops is a good place to start. Not only for yourself should you have policies in place, it also is assuring to the customer that they know what kind of experience they are going to have with you. It makes you look all professional and stuff.

As a side note, I know it makes some of you squirm when I talk about my annoying customers. Believe me when I say I have the best customers a girl could possibly want, except for about 1%. My most annoying customers usually teach me a lot, so they are not totally useless!

Monday, May 10, 2010

note to self: there are no perfect answers

I had an interesting conversation the other day with my friend and fellow ceramic artist, Laura Zindel. I like talking to Laura because she's ahead of me on the learning curve when it comes to being a full-time, professional artist, and is very grounded about the realities of making a living as a ceramic artist. She's talked me off the ledge a couple of times over the years, and I take what she says to heart because... she knows. With every challenge that comes up in my work, she's already been there, like 10 times.

We were discussing the challenges of dealing with your ceramic work as a "product" versus dealing with it as "art". I think the idea that art can only be made as one, unique item dogs many of us who depend on production in order to make a living. For myself, I divide my work into two categories: the high production stuff that is definitely a "product," and my more one-of-a-kind pieces which I see as my "art". The trap, as I see it, is getting sucked into that deep ravine of demand that comes when you make that great item that everyone wants (ahem, bird cake stands) and forgetting that you are an artist. Strangely, you can even start looking down on your own work, totally forgetting that even your "products" were born from art to begin with.

For some reason the artist Sergei Isupov has been on both of our minds lately. Me, because I wish I could translate my painting and abstract ideas onto clay the way that guy does, and Laura because she thinks even someone as brilliant and genius-like as Sergei is deals with the exact same crap we do when it comes to the challenges of making art in a market where demand is high for his work, even at the fine art end where he is. As we discussed this issue, Laura said that there are no perfect answers to meeting high demand with pottery, not with the product, and not with yourself. I think an artist is always going to have personal issues with creating work in a production setting, because of the loss of the artist's energy through the replication of each piece. But what are the choices when you want to make a living making your stuff? Sergei, at the other end of things, still has to wake up every day and come up with a new idea, and deal with people who want the same thing that has already sold.

What I'm really starting to understand as my career advances, there are no perfect answers to many of the issues I face as an artist. There is only making, or giving up. And everyone, no matter what they do with their life, faces this issue of doing meaningful work in a world that demands major output. So I want to know from you: how do you keep the art in production? How do you find meaning in repetition? Most of all, how do any of us stay sane when we must wrestle with these issues on a daily basis?

In this vein, I highly recommend Kari Radasch's article, "Eyes Wide Open" where she discusses some of these issues.

Monday, May 03, 2010

new routine

After my last post about my struggles to get work done while dealing with constant interruptions, I decided it was time to step back and take a look at what I could do to mitigate some of the problems. That's how I do it: lose mind, then fix problem. It would be nice if I could deal with my problems before I have a meltdown, but I usually don't notice a problem until the red lights are flashing, the alarm bells are going off, and people are running away, screaming and waving their arms. Some call it denial, I call it supreme focus on what's in front of me.

One of the things I had to look at was my routine. I love my little routine. In fact, I'm married to it. One of the reasons why I work for myself is because I like to do what I want to do, when I want to do it. Many years ago I developed a routine of getting my exercise in the morning and then starting work around noon. So civilized. But the problem with walking into the door at noon is that half the day is already gone, and I'm at my very best in the morning. By 2 pm, I feel the clock is really winding down. By 6 pm I really want to be home. So actually, it's ridiculous that I spend my best brain time at the gym. I've done it that way because then I get the exercise thing off my list for the day, and as the day goes on I get lazier and lazier about getting my heart rate up.

But, something had to give, and I decided that I could try to get into the studio first thing in the morning, before anyone else is there, and then go to the gym or yoga class later. So far, the routine is much better for me as far as getting more done with less in the way of interruptions, though I have skipped the gym a couple of times which makes me feel guilty. But, I think I can work with this new routine and perhaps someday, in the near future, be happy enough with it to marry this one, too.

The second thing I had to look at was my own self-indulgence and lack of discipline. Often, when I am working on something, I'll suddenly remember something else that I need to do and I will immediately drop the first thing and move onto the second thing. I can do this all day. I hate how it makes me feel, all scattered and nuts. So in the past couple of weeks when I find myself about to go pour molds when I'm in the middle of loading a kiln, I won't let myself do it. I wait for the logical break in whatever I'm doing, then go and do the other thing that is calling to me from across the studio. On busy days I've started making an hour by hour schedule for what I want to do that day so I'm less likely to start trimming bowls when I'm in the middle of wedging because I suddenly realize the bowls are getting too dry. I think it's called "organizing." I recommend that everyone give it a try!