Monday, December 13, 2010

I'll Be There

I recently devoted half of a Saturday to delivering two paintings to new clients of mine.  I had first met them at a fall weekend art event when they bought a large mixed media work from me, the largest in this year’s inventory. After I sent them a note thanking them for the purchase (using stationery I order with my artwork on it-go to Grandma Was Right for more on this topic) the wife emailed to ask how they could buy smaller works as holiday gifts.  I directed them to my etsy shop, they bought stuff, and so here I was, driving their purchases to their home in a nearby town. 

When they initially bought the two smaller works, I emailed to tell them both were in an exhibition, could I possibly mark them as sold and ship them later?  They agreed, but instead invited me to come to their home, asking if I could bring additional works with a specific theme so they might get more holiday gifts.  I was pleased to avoid the hassle of shipping and handling (artwork getting to a destination all in one piece is always a gamble) and I like as often as possible to have a personal connection with my clients, so we arranged a date for delivery.

From that point forward I got to painting, mostly focusing on their request, but only when inspiration moved me in that direction.  Over half of my inventory had sold this fall and since then I’d been too busy to commit adequate time to art.  For any of you who are selling a product, handcrafted or otherwise, always make sure you have more than a decent selection.  While my etsy shop still had nice items for sale, anyone viewing it would get the first unwanted impression that these items were the scraps, the dregs of my inventory.  I can’t tell you how often I’ve experienced this as a potential customer when touring an art festival or visiting a shop.  One doesn’t get excited if there’s nothing to root through, no treasures to be discovered.  So by the time I went to their home, I had created four new paintings (I’ve done more since), each of them loaded up on etsy as soon as they were dry.

In preparation for the Saturday delivery, I wrapped not only their purchases, but each potential purchase in colorful tissue. Then I placed them in a bright yellow bag.  I use pop colors for all of my packaging, along with a2n2 labels, to further the impact of my Retro Girls brand.  I wanted the clients’ first impression to be that these items were already theirs.  I also rolled up bubble wrap for them since I knew their purchases would be shipped over to relatives in Europe. 

It was all about presentation.  I arrived on time and laid out the artwork on their blessedly long dining room table, first showing them the two paintings they’d already bought then carefully unfurling each potential additional purchase.  I offered to wrap everything for shipping, having brought, in addition to the bubble wrap, tape and scissors.  And I gave them a discount on all purchases for that day.  You might think this was a bit over the top, but they bought three more paintings.  That makes six paintings of mine for one household.

If small businesses have any real hope of competing with the big chain stores and the big websites, and believe me artists-like it or not-you are a small business, you must learn to be reliable, dependable, consistent, and straightforward.  In other words you have to be professional and provide the best customer service possible.  Depending on folks to do the right thing and support local business is not going to make your career happen.  People don’t have the time and patience to do the right thing in this crazy busy world.  They want life’s tasks, including shopping for gifts, to be as simple and quick as possible.

I’ll never forget a neighborhood pet supplies shop from a handful of years ago.  When it first opened we were thrilled to have somewhere local to buy our dog’s food, toys, etc. Unfortunately the place never maintained its posted hours, often being inexplicably closed when it was supposed to be open.  One morning my husband went over to buy dog food so our pet could have a late breakfast.  He told me that he and four other people waited at the front door for 15-30 minutes before each gave up and reluctantly left to take their business elsewhere, including my husband.  That’s five disappointed customers, and God knows how many more until someone arrived to open the store.  Naturally the place went out of business quickly.  A new, far more professionally run, pet supplies shop opened up the street, and a clothing store took over the empty space.  Luckily the owners of this store take managing a business very seriously, and as a result they’ve made quite the name for themselves. 

It’s very simple, folks: Be There.  Think about what this phrase means to your small business.  Be There.  Have an online store?  Have an actual shop?  Keep it stocked and bring fresh inventory in regularly.  Be sure to package purchases in a visually appealing, secure manner that further enhances your brand while keeping the product safe.  Ship things to customers quickly to ensure they receive their order as soon as possible after the purchase date (as I write this, I have been waiting for over two weeks for orders to arrive from a few etsy shops-this is unacceptable).  Update and maintain your online presence and marketing regularly.  Respond as immediately and politely as possible to inquiries and requests.  Keep in contact with your clients. Have all the tools you need to run your business smoothly in advance.  Don’t say you can’t afford to.  You have to invest in your business to make it a business. If you don’t have your own space or an online presence, book yourself regularly in public events, and/or get your products in shops. 

I read an interesting article in this month’s GQ magazine, “The Viral Me” by Bartholomew Cooke (December 2010).  Yes, I have a subscription to a men’s magazine because unlike women’s magazines, which spoon out dribble about shallow women and obscenely overpriced fashion, GQ tells me where to go to get the best cocktail or burger, or burger and a cocktail.  But that’s beside the point.

“The Viral Me” was about the Silicon Valley start-ups that are creating the Facebooks-of-The-Future: the new ways in which everyone will be able to slather yet more of themselves onto the Social Layer.  Brian Pokorny has a theory he calls “Friction”.  This is what Cooke writes when it comes to Friction.

“Friction is what you don’t want. Friction is what keeps people from signing up for your site or downloading your app.  Because it’s too expensive, it’s too embarrassing, because it’s too difficult, because it’s difficult at all.” (page 326, December 2010) 

Now take out the words “site” and “app”, and put in your small business, your product.  Like it or not, in order to compete with the big chains, the big websites, heck, even other small businesses, we have to create for the customer the most Friction-Free experience possible. 

For example, at art events artists should always make sure their visual displays are appealing, eye-catching, but most of all, easy to translate: when the viewer sees something they are interested in they should learn within seconds how much the item costs and what methods of payment are accepted.  Online websites like etsy do the visual organizing for you but you still have to make sure the transaction is as instant and pleasant as possible. And in a world of Walmart and Amazon, it doesn’t hurt to add a personal touch.  It is beyond me when I purchase something from an etsy seller and they don’t bother to at least include a quick handwritten “thank you” on the invoice.  Every customer of mine receives a handwritten note thanking them for their purchase.  Returning customers often receive discounts and gifts. 

Yes, I know we are in the thick of the holiday season and it may feel like it’s too late to change your ways before the shopping frenzy is done, but I hope you can take this information and use it in the future-perhaps developing and enhancing your small business can be your New Year’s resolution. 

My goal is to provide my customers with personal care-something they can’t get from a Walmart or Amazon-through an easy transaction at a reasonable price.  As a result I sell and show my artwork on a continual, ongoing basis.  Isn’t that your goal too?  Want to make it happen for you?  Then, Be There.

Live in the New England area?  Come see me on Wednesday, December 15 @ 6pm at the Portsmouth Museum of Art.  I’ll be part of a panel discussion on how to be a professional artist.  The topic is Art and Commercialism.  Portsmouth Museum of
Art One Harbor Place Portsmouth, New Hampshire 03801 603-436-0332