Sunday, June 29, 2008

california burning

I thought I would share this apocalyptic and gloomy picture from last week, when the air was so thick with smoke we Northern California citizens were advised to stay inside. No problem. Some gear in my brain finally got some oil and I have been so inspired and fearless with the clay that I really have no interest in doing anything else but being at the studio, getting ready for my big retail show of the year, the Palo Alto Clay and Glass Festival. I am so excited about some new designs and work I've been making, here is a sneak peek, pre-fire:

Saturday, June 28, 2008

an addendum to customer service

I was reminded by my good friend Bronwyn that there are times you have to tell the customer to go fuck themselves, in fact you have no choice but to tell them to go fuck themselves, and I have been known to do just this. There are limits, and no matter how good you are, there are people who are going to step over the line and you can either tell them to piss off, or get trampled on by them.

The story that comes to mind happened when I was still sending orders directly to people's homes with an invoice so they could send me a check after delivery. In this particular instance, I sent a vase, I waited about 10 days, no check. I called the customer's home to give them a "friendly" reminder. The customer called me back and left a breezy message on my voicemail. "Oh," the woman said, "we are going to send it back to you, it's not exactly what we were looking for after all". Mind you, this was a custom-made vase in the $300 range, and I don't make anything for people to test-drive.

Realistically, I would work with someone to resolve this situation, because I don't want to force someone to buy something of mine that they don't like. But this woman's cavalier attitude was so out of line, and during this time I was still struggling to make ends meet, so her failure to pay me for my work was painful. But I could tell from her attitude that I wasn't going to be able to squeeze a dime out of her. I called up her voicemail and left her a long and scathing message, starting with, "I'm sure you buy a ton of stuff you don't care about and return to the store, but I am not POTTERY BARN!" That was a customer I definitely lost, and I was happy to let her go.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

customer service

I've been trying to write a post about customer service for about a week now, and my writing is going all over the place. There is a lot to cover. People who know me well and know my snappy and smart alecky self are probably choking on their coffee as they read that WHITNEY is writing about customer service. She's kidding-- right? I'm a bit battle hardened from years of retail shows, and I love entertaining my friends with stories about the most annoying people on earth who wander into my booth, and the way I keep them in line.

But the truth is, I love my customers, and I love wooing potential customers. My customers are intelligent people with exquisite taste, and they are the ones who assist me in my quest to avoid working for the man. That's not to say they can't be a total pain in my ass sometimes, but I love them even as they cause me pain. I'm all Buddah-nature about it. I really believe in the handmade credo of connecting with the customer; that is what the customer is looking for when they buy something handmade from an artist, and I'm all about giving it to them.

I'm going to try and keep this post in line by simply outlining a few ways that I give excellent customer service, and how any artist can give their customer great service too:
  • Every customer gets a handwritten note from me, thanking them for their purchase. I love getting these notes from other artists, and very disappointed when I don't. If you don't value your customer enough to even thank them, they will never come back.
  • I always tell customers the truth, even when it would be more convenient to lie, and I never make excuses. I'm an adult, and the customer is not my mommy. No matter how I screw things up, I stay honest about it, and I take responsibility, even if it is someone else's fault.
  • I always try to figure out a way to say "yes" to a customer's request, even if I have to re-formulate their outrageous request into something I can actually say "yes" too.
  • A certain amount of loss is a part of doing business. If something is broken during shipping, I replace it immediately. I've also replaced items stolen during shipping, and I don't worry for a second that the customer is trying to rip me off.
  • I always assume that the customer has good intentions and will behave with honor. In my 12 years of business, I've never had a bounced check or a declined credit card not be made good on by a customer. For years, before I did business online, I would send out pieces to customers along with a bill, and they would send me a check. People thought I was crazy, but I always got paid.
  • I'm not a big stickler about policies. I think having a bunch of stubborn policies indicates an adversarial approach to the customer, which in turn attracts those troublesome customers who love to push the limit on policies.
  • I always speak -- or write-- to the customer respectfully, even if they are really pissing me off. No matter how important it seems to answer the customer immediately, if I'm upset, I sleep on it, 'cause I'm kind of a hothead. I can't tell you how many situations I've saved with this tactic.
And that's it!

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

day off

It has been perfect weather here in my little section of California for days on end. I enjoy it for the ten seconds it takes to walk from my front door to my studio. Sara had a day off last week, and then called me from the beach, which made me feel very jealous. When she left the studio yesterday she mentioned she planned on spending another day at the beach, maybe I should join her. All of my usual workaholic excuses bubbled up without me even having to think about it. I'm so addicted to my work, I'm like a junkie when someone tries to take it away from me. After she left, I started thinking about how the only time I go to the beach anymore is when I'm in Santa Monica visiting my sister. And how I pay premium prices to live in one of the nicest areas in the United States and all I do is shut myself up in my studio.

I actually don't work as much as some potters I know-- and you know who you are. I take the weekends off except in crisis crunch times, which are pretty rare. Okay, sometimes I sneak over on the weekends to check on things, and I may end up... making something. But generally, I give myself weekends off to live the rest of my life. But as I was working away yesterday, I was thinking about how the weekends just ain't enough, especially when the air is 79 degrees and there isn't a cloud in the sky. I called up my girl, Christa, recently reinstalled back in the Bay Area after a year teaching at the Kansas City Art Institute. Her bedroom isn't even unpacked yet, but she couldn't resist a day at the beach, especially when I framed it as playing hooky. This is how California potters are supposed to be living!

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

the money juggle

Please congratulate me. I just paid off a loan I took out from the bank a little over a year ago.

While I have your attention, I'm going to tell you that I'm having an "Almost Summer White Sale" at my Etsy site. I have an incredible overabundance of white at my studio, and a lot of seconds too. Since I'm done shipping all of my spring orders-- which is cause for celebration in itself-- all the pots with minor flaws that didn't make the retail cut are going up at discounted prices. So get on over there and support a working girl!

Now I'm going to talk a bit about juggling money with an art-based business. I have always been a responsible individual when it comes to money. I'm a good saver, and I've had a tidy savings account pretty much my whole life. When I was small, I kept all my money in a basket, and I would count it up almost everyday, adding to it whenever possible. My dad thought this behavior was bad tidings for miserly behavior in the future, but I always thought I developed a healthy respect for money early on and avoided many of the problems many young adults have with money, i.e. never having any. While I definitely went through my poverty phase in college, budgeting for me is like a game, and I have fun doing it.

That all changed when I started working full-time for myself. I have not had a real savings account in almost 9 years now, because all my money goes back into my business. As I have developed my business, things have gotten better, but there were times when my bank balance was lower than when I was in college.

A couple of years ago, when I decided to start working with Hector and having my wholesale line made into molds, my expenses shot through the roof. While I love and adore Hector, sometimes I would dread seeing him because he would always hand me these punishing invoices as he delivered my bisqueware. As the invoices exceeded what I had in the bank, I did what any cash-poor business does: I put it on the credit card.

There is the myth, especially in California, of the start-up that grows on a credit card. Let me tell you, this is probably one of the worst ways to grow a business, unless angel investors are on the horizon. For the first time, I was unable to pay of the balance every month. For someone like me, this is very unpleasant. Watching money get burned away on credit card finance rates is like watching, well, like watching money get burned at the stake. Every month I was sending american express all the money I had on hand, and still my balance was about the same every month. That is the bad thing about credit cards: If you have a big balance and are still using them for other expenses, they never go down.

After about a year of this, just over a year ago in fact, I told my husband what my balance was. While I wasn't trying to hide the financial trouble I was in, I also didn't really want to talk about it. He gave a long, low, whistle. One of the great things about my husband is that he doesn't get stressed out about things, especially money. But he was definitely concerned. "You need to get to your bank and get a loan," is what he said, and that's exactly what I did.

What I got from my bank was actually a line of credit, which functions differently from a small business loan in that you don't have to show a lot of financial information about your business, which can be a big mess for artists. You basically have to show you have the ability to make monthly payments. It is better to be paying your bank than the credit card company because their finance rates are lower; mine was 9%. Plus, credit card companies are evil and suck, while banks only suck. I basically paid off my credit cards in one fell swoop and then paid the bank all year, while finally being able to pay off the credit card monthly balance again.

I know you are dying to know how much money I took out. I'm just going to hold up all ten of my fingers, and flash them at you twice. That's how much, and to be out of that debt feels really really great!