Making buyers of your giclee prints happy is all about communication. The other day a photographer stopped in to pickup a print. During his visit he mentioned how one of his very demanding clients had been testing his patience. Specifically for the print which he was picking up, it was the third attempt of a 16x20 portrait on canvas. He said first the client had waited forever in making a decision on the photo to be printed. And when it finally was turned into a print she noticed it had an error in the actual image which he had forgotten to remove. After making the correction and reprinting it, the customer decided she wanted a different photo from the photo shoot to be used. Because the new shot she had decided on was a little out of focus he suspected she would not be happy with that one either even after he had warned her of the potential problem. He had spent quite a bit of time correcting it the best he could, submitted it to be printed but as he was on his way to pick it up, she called him and said she was thinking about switching to a different image. His frustration with the client was obvious but fortunately this photographer is really good at putting on a good facade in front of his clients and he bends over backwards to satisfy them with the appearance of both grace and professionalism without a hint of his personal feelings being known. I knew that eventually this client would be a happy client as a result even if in the end the barely broke even as a result of the time and effort he had placed on this particular portrait session.
I bring this up becauase I have seen artists struggle to build momentum with selling their artwork or prints on a regular basis as a result of not treating their buyers with a sense of caring. I have also witnessed businesses practically fail as a result of poor customer relations and the owners not being able to detach themselves from the process personally. One such case is an online invitation printing company. The problem was not with the employees but with the management, or more specifically, the owner. When he started the business the added stress of employees, equipment maintenance, overhead costs was not what it is today, Back then this allowed him to run it relatively stress free, waking up in the morning with enthusiasm ready to jump out of bed to start a new business day. Once his business and responsibilities grew, his customer service level suffered. The stress he now experienced was reflected in the way he treated his customers. His communication was short and came across as if he was being bothered. When he hired more employees, this became the acceptable standard his employees followed. Almost too late, it finally clicked in his mind what was he was doing wrong which led him to turn things around.
I can partially understand this and see similar things happen with our own customers who sell their prints. One of our customers told me she thought this time of year tends to bring out buyers that she considers less sophisticated than what she is otherwise used to. She said that she did not mean these buyers are not good buyers. Instead what she meant to say is it seems that this time of year she gets more buyers that are less sure of what they are ordering and tend to be more challenging to make happy if something goes wrong. My response was it might partially be perceived that way because she is getting more sales. Its also because as you get closer to the Christmas season customers will become more anxious since they are more likely to be dealing with a timeline and have to have what they ordered in their hands no later than a specific date.
I used our own company as an example because many times we experience these same challenges ourselves but at a greater level since we are fulfilling orders for so many artists. I recited to her some statistics which we automatically gather. Anytime a customer or potential customer emails us, it becomes a ticket for our customer support staff to followup on. Once the ticket has been resolved the customer can rate their experience. Even though we deal with a higher rate of customer service emails the satisfaction rate does not decline.
The reason for this is we saw it was necessary to evolve. The "same old method" does not always work as you grow. Be prepared to make changes. Prior to the method we utilize now, we handled customer service issues via regular e-mail like Outlook. It became very disorganized and almost impossible to keep up with the e-mails. Incidents that needed followup could easily be overlooked. It was not always that way but we simply had out grown the standard email method for online customer service. Once we adopted a support ticket system, our customer service level improved dramatically. And where we were weak, we were able to utilize the statistics it provided on customer satisfaction rate to see where we needed to improve. I am proud to say that a year later within our industry if you were to include regular online photo labs in the mix, we had been able to go from below the national average to beating the average in how quickly we answer tickets. Now we respond an average 8.4 hours quicker than 21.0 hours which is the standard. And overall customer satisfaction rate now hovers around a whopping 97.2% versus the industry average of 89.9%. Our good friend, the invitation printer saw what we did but refused to adopt a similar method at first. He thought the cost was too high. This decision not to upgrade his support only caused him to loose potential sales but could easily lead to a complete breakdown in their online (email) customer service when he reached a point similar to what we had. When he did finally adopt this method to better communicate with his customers, not only were his customers less likely to feel they were being lost in the shuffle, but he was also able to see how his customers really felt and where he needed to make improvements. He is now working on trying to get to similar levels we experience.
I told him, these kind of numbers do not happen overnight. It took us time to build this kind of timely response and satisfaction level. But I also told him I had to give credit where credit is due. Our customer service staff is truly top notch. When we screened staff for customer service, we carefully looked at their personability and made it clear that we did not want them to feel they had to work customer service if it was not something they enjoyed. As a result, when something goes wrong, our customer service reps take it personally as if they failed to make it right in the first place. As you can imagine, all kinds of scenarios can popup in which they have to figure out the best customer oriented response they can. I know this because every day I see our team in regular meeting with in the production manager, working on ways to go above and beyond to help customers. This could be rushing out a replacement print lost in the mail or something more serious like a print that was delayed due to a defect discovered at the last moment. I have even witnessed them on more than one occasion getting in their personal vehicle and rushing to a UPS store or post office because the carrier forgot to pickup a package or an order that had to go out on a deadline of which they personally promised to meet.
So where can you start to foster this kind of level of satisfaction with your buyers. It's all about communication. Its important to provide your customers the appropriate information that can be applicable with their orders. One, give them reasonable expectations on what they will receive. Two, tell them when they receive it. Three, provide them clear information on what they can do if they are not happy with an order.
Reasonable expectations is the first point to consider. Another way to look at this is to give a clear an concise description of the print they will be receiving. It is not enough just to show a digital image of the artwork but also just as important to show how the artwork will look. For instance, if you are offering multiple sizes of a print, make sure you make it clear that it could look different in the preview based on the size. If you offer them the choice or ordering a 16x20 but the original image is more square in aspect, then it might be a good idea to show an example of what that will look like. Otherwise, they might wonder why some of it was cropped to accommodate the differing aspect. Another example, if you offer them the option of an image printed on a fine art paper, make sure you indicate if it is a textured or smooth paper. Try to come up with potential areas of misconceptions and then address it before hand. It might be in the product description or even in your FAQs or other documentation that you know customers might frequently read.
When will they get their order. This time of year is when people want things in a hurry. Make it clear to them that their order can take a few days to process and it takes time for the print to arrive. I know of a customer who digitally paints custom pet portraits from people's photos and has us produce and ship the prints for her. On her website and listings she had merely stated that "orders take 3 days". There was more than one occasion she had customers complain they did not receive their print in 3 days like she had written. The problem was her statement left it unclear as to when the order was going to arrive. What she eventually did was change it to say that "Orders take 3 to 4 days to create." and then below that. "Transit times can vary depending on shipping option selected". Once she did that she no longer had angry customers wondering when their pet portrait was going to arrive. Be prepared to deal with customers that are bothered at the time it takes them to receive their order. It does not hurt to let them know somewhere on your website or marketing materials that UPS and the Post Office WILL experience a higher level of shipping delays this time of year as a result of weather. Also, every year it seems they are trying to address the challenges associated with the volume of shipments they handle due to all the online Christmas shoppers now days. And in many cases they seem behind the curve. I am already seeing this with our post office pickup of orders. They usually just send a regular mail carrier to do the pickup but by this time of year they are having to send a truck twice a day because the mail carriers do not have enough space in their trucks for all our shipments as well as the other pickups in the area. This may mean the second truck will won't get here until the end of the day which could potentially set the estimated arrival date of the package back a day. Let your customers know that because of the season, delays in shipping or transit time are more likely to occur and estimated arrival times is just an estimate.
Finally if a customer is not happy with an order, don't try to wiggle out of accepting a return. Find out why so you can elimiate potential fiture returns for the same reason but then accept this its part of any business. While I am not complaining, it is thanks to the big box stores that customers are conditioned to assuming you have a quick and painless return or exchange process. Granted, it is a little more challenging with online sales due to the logistics of it all but if you are not prepared for the occasional return, you may already be regretting it an not know it. One of the points with the online invitation printer that I want to make is his return policy was so stringent that he might as well had a banner across the top of his website that said, "If you don't like it, too bad!". That is NOT the approach you want to take. I know how hard it is, especially for artist that have invested so much personally in accomplishing a sale but it you cannot disengage from that personal connection you might be committing virtual suicide. If you have shopped at Walmart, chances are you have returned something and still shop at Walmart. What if all sales were final. Would you still shop at Walmart? If you are worried returns are too risky for you to afford, factor this into your price point to help offset the cost. Shortly after speaking with the owner about what we did with customer service emails, he adopted a very simple and customer oriented return policy also similar to ours. Not only did customers that had to return items in previous orders continue to come back to him which increased his overall order volume, he also saw an increase in business by "on the fence" or new customers that might not have used him before.
I hope you can see the importance of making every customer a happy customer regardless if the process makes you happy. Just like the photographer who had to wear a smile regardless of his personal angst, you have to do the same. If you cannot, step back and find someone to help you. I know a lot of artists that are incredibly talented but not very people oriented. Of those that are successful, they usually allow a husband, wife, other family member or even agent handle the personal contacts. Just do whatever it takes to make sure your buyers want to come back for more because in the art and photo business, selling yourself is necessary to sell your work.