Friday, October 22, 2010

why hate monday?

I started hating Mondays around the time I was 5 and my rotten parents forced me into kindergarten. I didn't understand why my days suddenly went from doing pretty much what I liked-- hanging with my mom, catching lady bugs, making mud pies with my little sister, wandering around the fields that surrounded our house-- to being locked up in a room with 20 other noisy children, who I had no desire to socialize with but I had to, if I was going to survive. I was one of those children who sobbed inconsolably and refused to let go of my mother in front of the door the first day of kindergarten, and I think I may have done that in first grade too. I remember seeing other children march proudly into the class with no tears at all, and I knew I looked like a baby, and I didn't care one bit. This sucked and I wasn't going to pretend that it didn't.

School was always a trial for me, starting with that first day of kindergarten. And the reason why I didn't like school was pretty simple: I like doing my own thing, all the time. In public school you are only allowed to do your own thing in very brief, scheduled periods of time. And as soon as you are really into whatever you are doing, it's time to put it away and resume group lessons in Idaho history or what x equals when y=6. What I most liked to do while in school was read books, and I perfected the art of jamming an open book between my knees and the bottom of my desk, then putting my head in my hands while supposedly looking down at the open textbook on top of my desk, and using my long hair as cover for my eyes, which were not on my desk, but on the open book in my lap. Most of my teachers just thought my biggest problem was not paying attention, while my fourth grade teacher told my mother I "read too much."

So, Mondays had a taint for me my entire childhood, since Monday always represented getting back to the forced march of Learning, and hanging around a bunch of people I'd rather not spend any time with, often including my teachers. I think a lot of adults hate Mondays because it represents getting back to a job they don't like. But, I like my job, and I still hate Mondays. I've never questioned my right to hate Mondays until recently, when I started thinking about how Mondays represent about 14% of my life. And it seems like a waste to hate so much of life. So, I started breaking down what it is specifically that I hate about Mondays, and I realized it's just getting back into the swing of things after a nice, two day break.

One of the things I learned about the Netherlands while I was there is that Mondays are kind of like Sundays. Stores open later, like noon-ish, and life is slow in general. Here in the States, we are way too industrious and hard-working to take it easy on a Monday. In fact, we are obligated to work harder to make up for the fact that we just took two days off. I usually roll into a Monday with a big list of stuff that needs to get done in one hand and a can of kick-ass in the other. And, I must say, I usually don't get that much done, because I'm not really in the mood after two days of relaxation. And because I'm American, I get mad at myself for slacking, when really, I need to be more Dutch and not bother myself with hating Monday, but instead sleep in, wander into the studio at noon, and work on stuff at a slower pace. I'm trying out this new method today.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

love your customer, even when you don't

I worked a few jobs in high school that required constant interaction with the public, and I learned-- as did my supervisors-- that customer service was not my forte. People would get on my nerves with their foolish expectation that I should serve them quickly and politely. I would shake with indignation if a customer gave me attitude. Of course I was young and untrained, and I had little idea what the word "customer service" meant, only that it sounded like somebody else's job.

I thought being an artist and escaping into my studio every day was a great way to avoid having too many encounters with the general public. I have learned over the past 14 years that the best way to guarantee that you will be interacting with the public all the time is to be an artist who actually sells their work directly to people who want it.

The great thing about being totally wrong is that I've been given the opportunity to learn to be a person who can gracefully manage all kinds of encounters with clients and give great customer service. It's been a long learning curve, because inside I still have a piece of that teenager that gets very upset when people complain, or want something from me that I'm not prepared to give. I've alienated customers with snappy responses, defensiveness, and irritable behavior. I've learned that just makes me feel just as bad as the customer does, while not solving the problem I've been presented with.

If someone like me-- impatient, snappy, sarcastic, and easily irritated-- can learn how to give great customer service, well, anyone can. Here are some of my personal tips that may help you out:
  • People are going to ask you for unreasonable things: Discounts, supersized, faster turnaround, insane glaze colors put together on one piece, ridiculous ideas for pieces that I have no desire to make. Don't waste your time getting irritated with people when they ask you for something you usually don't deliver. The customer probably doesn't understand your business, don't expect them to. I approach "unreasonable" requests with a mind set that while I may not be able to give the customer exactly what they are asking for, I'm going to give them something, a counteroffer, if you will. And I always frame it in the most positive way possible-- I never use words like "can't", "never", "won't", "no", or "are you crazy, Do I look like a freakin' machine?!"
  • Don't take dissatisfied customers personally: No matter how good you are at what you do, some people are not going to be happy with what they receive from you. When I get customer complaints, I never get into a debate about how they feel or if they are right or wrong. I just apologize, replace the item if I can or refund their money, no questions asked. I don't get huffy about it, in fact I am relentlessly cheerful because I realize that most people do not want to complain, they are just so unhappy with my work that they have to. They already feel lousy. I don't need to feel lousy too, I need to make them feel better about buying from me.
  • Don't be afraid to educate: In the same vein, there are times when a customer is complaining because their expectations exceed what I can actually deliver. A lot of my customers are first-time handmade ceramic buyers, and are used to the "perfection" of factory-made items. If I think a customer is lacking important information about why their piece looks the way it does, I cheerfully and without judgment take the time to educate them about my process. 99% of the time the customer walks away happy, a tad smarter, and with a new appreciation for the "flaws" their piece has.
  • Never make excuses: There is nothing more boring than listening to people's excuses, especially when the listener is already annoyed with your fuck-up. Excuses are a roundabout way of asking for forgiveness and understanding, but get in the way of accomplishing the actual business at hand. Take responsibility for your lapse with an apology, and if necessary, a brief outline on the way you will avoid mistakes in the future. That's the way to earn forgiveness and respect from your clients.
  • Lying is childish, don't ever make stuff up so your customer won't be mad at you: In the pottery biz, there are a thousand things that can go wrong, some of it out of your control: kilns misfire, glazes turn crazy colors, stuff cracks. I also make mistakes: I make things the wrong color or size, I forget orders, I drop things, sometimes pieces just look like crap. It's my policy to always tell customers the truth about anything that is going on with their order, I never try to shift blame by lying about the cause. Infusing any relationship with dishonesty is a way of trying to escape responsibility, and it always bites you eventually. It's pottery, not a heart transplant. It's not worth my own integrity to lie about it.
  • Lack of gratitude ruins relationships: Always show gratitude to your customer by acknowledging their business and saying "thank you." Think that's obvious? It's not. Frankly, I'm disappointed by many independent sellers who don't take the time to acknowledge my order or thank me for my business. I never order from them again because it seems obvious to me that they don't really need my money. Every customer is precious, they are part of the framework that enables you to do what you want while many in the world do what they have to.
  • Final tip- if a customer is being difficult, never answer them until you've given yourself time to think: Even when you think you have a handle on how to deal with a pain-in-the-ass customer, a period of consideration on how to respond never hurts. I had a difficult customer last week who I responded to immediately. A few hours later I thought of a better way I could have handled her, but since I broke my own rule about not responding immediately, it was too late to go back.
Giving great customer service is not just about serving your client, it's about spreading the love, making people happy, making their lives better and easier so your life can be better and easier. Do you have any advice, questions, or problems around customer service? Post about it right here.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

easier than running a pottery studio

My mother likes to send me emails reminding me that it's time for me to post when I've been slacking with my blog. I know I have been increasingly irregular with my posts, and it is not due to waning interest or a lack of commitment, so for those of you who like to read what I write: don't worry, I'm not thinking about giving it up. The irregularity is due to my own internal roadblocks. Lately I feel like unless the topic is GREAT and INSPIRING while also HILARIOUS it's not worth bothering with. It's the perfectionist's curse, and believe me, there is nothing more boring or more tiring than trying to be perfect, especially since some believe I'm already perfect.

I've still been getting back into the swing of things since returning from my trip to Belgium and the Netherlands. We also squeezed Italy in there, which was a mistake, but you never know that going to Italy is a mistake until you are already there. More on that some other time. Everyone says to me, "Oh my god, you must have so much work to catch up on!" Not really, actually. I had Ruth handling the studio and Lana handling the customer service, they both did their jobs the way I trained them to, and I came back to exactly no pending disasters. In fact, the worst fuck-up that came to light while I was away was one of my own doing, which was shipping two orders to the wrong customers, in fact, to each other. I would love to blame that on someone else. If anything, I've been wandering listlessly around the studio, looking for stuff to do.

While I was away, I was mostly able to let go of thoughts and worries about what was going on back at the studio. Every once in a while a thought would jab me and I'd break out into a sweat and start shaking, but as it turns out, that worry was for nothing. It's amazing how a bit of worry can keep you from enjoying the moment, like the moment of seeing a real Dutch windmill for the first time or drinking the best beer you've ever had for 2 stinkin' euro. But I'm not paying attention to that, I'm thinking about the one overseas order that came in right before I left and did Ruth remember to double-box it?

Which brings me to this conclusion: there is a big difference between "vacationing" and "traveling." I've been on vacation before, and when I do, I totally forget what I do for a living, what little issues have been biting me on the ass lately, and all the work-related tasks I assign myself while on vacation (yes, I do that, I don't know why.) Riding your bike around Belgium and the Netherlands, while highly enjoyable, is not a vacation. It's travel. Here is a checklist of items that will tell you when you are traveling as opposed to vacationing:

  • You ride your bicycle from a major international airport in a foreign country after a 15 hour plane ride. With no map.
  • You must consult with a country-wide map several times a day to know where you are (bought while realizing you have no idea where you are).
  • You have don't know what to expect from the waitstaff when you walk into the restaurant, or how to order food.
  • You don't have hotel reservations anywhere.
  • You find yourself in a shouting match with an Italian train conductor over the fact that you have hidden two bicycles in the bathroom.
  • An Italian train conductor calls the cops on you.
  • You are happy it's just sprinkling as opposed to downpouring on your 3o km ride through some woods.
  • The high point of your day is a meat and cheese sandwich in the midst of a cow and corn field.

Lest you think I'm whining, let me assure you that part of the reason my husband married me is because I don't whine, or complain, or grouse, when faced with the above situations. I'm totally game for all of it. Because no matter what, when you come right down to it, traveling is so much easier than running a pottery studio.