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.

36 comments:

  1. EXCELLENT post!! It rang so true to me I found myself actually "yeah"ing out loud a couple times. :) I'm especially with you in your disappointment with independent sellers who don't acknowledge or thank you for your purchase. I thank every single one of my customers, as soon as I'm aware of their purchase (as well as sending a note with their item). It drives me crazy when I buy something from someone and am answered with ...silence. WTH??
    ~Kim

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  2. I have to agree with you. I have a standard form to acknowledge orders so people know I've received it, but I so rarely get that in return. And no matter how busy I am, I always put in a handwritten note.

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  3. Whitney - you are genius! Common sense is so thin on the ground! When someone speaks the endangered language of common sense, people stop and listen! I would simply add operating from a place of integrity with your work and how you 'work' with the public is a solid policy. I was a bartender for 12 yrs (i have stories) and you learn a lot about dealing with people.

    Integrity + common sense is SUPER genius.

    Great post as usual...

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  4. Great post, again :^)
    What type of thing do you need to educate your buyers about? Is it mainly ones that buy online and so imagine more than the photos display?

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  5. Great post, Whitney! Thanks for all the useful tips...it's nice to know I am not alone in needing remediation services when it comes to customer service!! I love your sense of humor :)

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  6. Hi Anna, that's a great question, and I'm trying to think of some recent examples where I had to "educate".

    For instance, on some of my work where I have contrasting colors between the surface and a perched bird, I've had questions when the division between the two colors is not perfect, and I have to explain that the bird is hand painted and when two different glazes meet they will run together a bit-- though there are times the running is too much.

    Or cake stands with plates that are not perfectly "flat", I explain that the plate needs to have some curve or it will slump on the stand, flatness is almost impossible!

    Or on some of my glazes that seem to have flecks of other colors in it when it's just how the glaze looks, I explain that a lot of my glazes have depth and texture, that's why I work with them!

    When educating a customer, try to approach the issue from the perspective of someone who really knows nothing about how you make stuff. The things you take for granted, the usual "imperfections" that indicate handmade can look "wrong" to someone used to buying mass-produced items. It's important to respect their point of view and not make them feel stupid, the goal is to get them excited that they have something unique and one-of-a-kind.

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  7. Fantastic post! I want to know when you plan to write the book: "Whitney's No-Nonsense Guide to Being a Successful Studio Potter".

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  8. Ha! That's the second time in as many days that someone has referred to me as "no-nonsense". I will have to think about that one Jesse, if you will think about how to market a book like that!

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  9. Great post! I'm a beginner in the handmade world (as a seller), but WILL keep these important points in mind!

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts!


    Vic from TeaButterfly.

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  10. Awesome post! Thanks so much for putting *some* of my thoughts into words. I do believe that all crafts can be like pottery - sometimes my soap doesn't work out like I thought it would. I may on occasion have sent the wrong soap to a customer. On another occasion I had my nephew helping me package parcels when I was overwhelmed and one customer did not get what they expected. I too laid myself before them, apologized profusely and returned their money before they even asked for it. All except 1 used that money to purchase from me again. Customer Service is the way to win in the internet world.

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  11. Yes, I think my points apply across the spectrum to any small business owner. Impeccable customer service when you are dealing on the internet is so essential because you are already dealing with people at a remove, and when you serve them poorly it's so easy for the customer to turn off from you forever!

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  12. One of my popular pottery items contains a part that is small and a little fragile. On 3 occasions customers have brought the fragile part back to me in a broken state. It was always their fault, they had dropped it. But they loved the pot so much that they asked if I could help. All 3 times I handed over a new part saying "on the house." One of them burst into tears. One gave me a big plate of brownies a few days later. The third one returned to my booth an hour later and bought the most expensive piece in my display. It doesn't cost me much to replace these things, and the rewards are pretty big!

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  13. Smart. I have also replaced broken elements for customers, because I know how heart breaking it is and it's easy for me to replace!

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  14. I wish I would have read your post sooner. It is nice to hear that other artists experience similar situations. I am not alone.

    I love the advice about waiting to respond. I feel so much like you were describing yourself in the beginning. I need to practice this more...

    One thing that frustrates me is that my customers don't read my listings, polices, announcements...etc.... Many problems would not occur if they had only read....

    I really learned so much from this post...Thanks!!

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  15. Oh, I was describing myself, I definitely have told a few customers where to put it!

    And customers will usually not read policies, which is why I think it's important to just have basic policies that most people will expect so they are not surprised. I often see policies that don't make sense, like if packages get lost or damaged in the mail, too bad for the customer! I don't think that's reasonable. And I DO read policies and I've not ordered from people who have that kind of policy, I think it shows the seller cares more about their bottom line than the customer.

    And Amy, I just looked at your website and while it says it's very important to read your policies before placing an order, I could not find the link to you policies! That could be the problem.

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  16. Whitney said: "It's important to respect their point of view and not make them feel stupid, the goal is to get them excited that they have something unique and one-of-a-kind."

    Amen. This summarizes the entire post! Respect the customer, listen to them; figure out how to turn any disappointment they feel into excitement instead.

    I loved this Whitney. Thank you.

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  17. great post. I will now rewrite my refund policy... and hope for the best. Thanks {:-Deb

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  18. I am absolutely mesmerized by this post! It has me rethinking some of my past transactions, but I've only had one negative experience. I'm going to keep this handy for future use!

    Erin

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  19. Thank you for this post. There is some great info here. Sedning out thank you e-mails for an order was something I wondered about. I used to do it but I wasn't getting any from the people I ordered from so I stopped. I also didn't want to be cluttering up people's inboxes when they could check their accounts. Now I know they both want and expect them I will start sending them again. I always send a hand written note with orders though. It just adds to the shopping experience. Many thanks.

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  21. I found your post very helpful, but even more than that I was delighted to discover your wonderful shop! I don't think I've ever coveted so many items from one shop before. And not only did I want things for myself, I found several for others. It's a great day when you can say, "I've found the perfect gift." Thanks!

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  22. Thank you for the best advice. I will remember it when I am dealing with a dissatisfied customer and I agree the magic word with everyone no matter how big or small the deed is "thank you".
    Thank you!

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  23. Thank you everybody, I love the feedback.

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  24. Ahhhh...the honesty here is refreshing. You go on with yo' bad self! I was pleased to discover this post as part of the Etsy Holiday Boot-Camp list of must-reads. Excellent tips here, much of what I am doing thus far as a new shop owner. Empowering to know that I am on the right track and am a smart cookie after all. My most favourite part though, about this post is discovering your shop. Holy snap a doodle - BEAUTIFUL WORK. More inspiration. So thanks.

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  26. I am new to the handmade/selling to the customer world. In fact I have never done anything of the customer service sort before, not even in after-school jobs! This is such a helpful post and I hope to be able to practice some of these tips soon!

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  27. Thanks for this great advice!! I had my first unhappy customer last weekend and it really got me down. Then Monday I got a random message from someone raving about the cup cozy they got and how much they love it and people notice it.
    Helped me feel a lot better.
    I refunded the unhappy lady and she even sent it back to me.

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  28. An unhappy customer is a drag and can really make you forget that most of your customers are totally happy. I've learned that you really have to keep it in perspective. Like I said, it's pottery, or a cup cozy! Not anything life or death. People can be really rude sometimes in how they express their dissatisfaction, and it can be hard to remember that it's probably not about you. You have to keep moving right along.

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  29. Great insights & so true. I experienced the last one, responded too soon. ;)
    your pieces are fantastic..so beautiful!!!

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  30. Very positive & useful post!
    I experience the last one & true, you always come up with something better after having given more time to think objectively.
    And also about notifying your customer about their order and or payment. I failed to buy from a seller simply because she never replied to my convos for more than a month. You start wondering will you get your items once you'll have it ordered???

    -Theresa-

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  31. I love this post. I am very particular about customer service and try to put myself in the buyer shoes. With every inquiry/sale, I acknowledge it immediately with thanks for visiting my shop. There a many shops that won't get my repeat business because their customer service was crappy, but had a great product. I remember sitting with some fellow crafters and I mentioned how I included a handwritten note with all my sales and they looked at me like I had a booger hanging out of my nose. Maybe I did. All I know is I strive to provide the best customer service I can.

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  32. This is such wise, wise advice.
    Excellent customer service builds relationships, and relationships are what build up artists businesses.

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  33. They said that customer is king and if you expect good cash flow in your business you must give them good customer service. I believe that to win in any market place you need to love your customers. Anyways, thanks for sharing this post!
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  34. I wanted to cheer when I read your post. It rings so true. Customer service is everything in small business. People want to feel special and appreciated and it is my job to give them that. There are few problems that cannot be resolved with a reasonable conversation.

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  35. I definitely agree with you there, "love your customer, even when you don't" nice topic! Customer service is one of the most important aspects of any business. I believe that without customers to purchase the business's products and services, the company cash flow dries up faster than a rain shower in the desert. So you better treat your customer in a very nice way.

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