Sunday, July 19, 2009

what to do when an order goes off the rails

I've been plagued by difficult orders lately. I think there are always annoying little things happening at a pottery studio at any given time-- glazes bubbling, plates warping, lids sticking, all for no discernible reason-- and for me it's been one thing after another with different orders since the start of this year.

Usually when I get a special order, I like to make two of whatever it is, so I have a back-up and there are not undue delays on getting the order out of the studio. Sometimes, both the original and the back-up will fail, in which case I go for round three, which will usually take care of the problem. In fact, I strongly believe in the power of three, and my ability to pull off an order in three rounds or less. But my ability to do this has been mightily challenged in these past months. Right now, I have four orders I can't seem to get out the door. I've failed after three rounds on all of these orders.

It's so frustrating, and kind of depressing too. I hate to see my hard work collect in the shard pile. But here are a few coping tips I've developed over the years and keep me from losing too much sleep when orders are going off the rails:
  • I communicate with the customer right away when there is going to be a delay. Nothing is more annoying for a customer than having to check in because their order isn't shipping, and then discovering from the artist there is a problem.  I do this to give myself a bit of breathing space and move up the ship date.
  • I'm always completely honest with the customer about what's happening. I explain clearly what is going on without being too wordy, I don't make excuses, and I apologize for the inconvenience. This goes a long way to soothe any impatient customers.
  • I don't worry that the customer is going to be mad at me. If they are mad that they can't get their pottery when they want it, that's a personal problem. They are my client, not my mommy or daddy. In other words, I keep it professional.
  • Failed pieces are part of being a potter. They just are. You, me, and everyone else out there crazy enough to make pottery are always going to have failures. I do my best to accept it and move on. Sometimes I have to throw a little tantrum first, and that's okay too.
I think the hardest thing is when a client comes across as unsympathetic to the problem, or seems to think you are not even working on their order, OR implies their order is the only thing you should be working on. Many people are completely ignorant about how a pottery studio is run, the workflow of making, bisquing, glazing, firing again, and the many challenges at every stage of the process. I try to educate people without getting defensive, and when I do start getting hyped up or extra stressed, my go-to mantra is, "It's just pottery". Because really, that's all it is, and if a client is going to give me a hard time about an order, they are crazy. And if I'm going to give myself a hard time, I've lost perspective. And when I need perspective, I pretend like I'm a friend of mine, and what my reaction would be to watch this friend beat themselves up over a failed piece of pottery. Would I get in there and say, "Yeah, you really fucked that one up. Why don't you work harder?" No, I would not. I would say to my friend, "You are amazing, and you will do beter next time." And that's what I say to myself, too. Okay, I'm lying, I don't. But I try!