Providing good customer service is an integral part of any business. This includes small single person art and photography based businesses. If you fit within one of these categories like most of our own customers, then consider taking advantage of ways that can help you improve your relationships with your own art buyers both offline or online.
I have to say that I have run into some artists who seem to have the personality of a block of wood. It may not be in their nature to be extremely outgoing and personable, but at least giving a good attempt can go a long way. In my personal life I like to quote a job I had been fired from. I was right out of college, working as a waiter and after a few months was abruptly fired. The reason being was that I was not “bubbly enough”. Looking back at it I would have fired me as well in an industry where great customer service is a must. It was also obvious in the lower than average tips I received. What is interesting to me about this is that I was oblivious any of this at the time when all I had to do was count the amount of money I collected in tips then put two and two together.
I think in world of art, being unaware as to how the artists and photographers present themselves to the public or online is just as likely as with any other small business person. A few months ago I stumbled on a nice little art show at a local outdoor mall. While most of the artists were very nice, eager to show their work and engage in discussions, I found a few who were just the opposite. I observed one seemed to even roll her eyes when a potential customer was looking at a painting and asking some questions. The customer or potential buyer did not see this but I as another potential customer did. To top it off, by the artists demeanor it appeared she felt it was not even worth her time to answer some of the questions I had asked. Based on that I decided not to even bother to ask any followup questions.
In another case I did not see anyone but some people sitting on some lawn chairs outside the booth drinking adult beverages. It was a Friday night and some bars were in the vicinity. Plus it was a festive atmosphere so I did not give it a second thought. That was until the jewelry put down a beer and came up to introduce herself to me. In the back of my mind I was disappointed considering she had such beautiful work and an extravagant display.
In another case, a couple people, one of whom I assumed was the photographer (I am not sure which) did not even appear to notice me. Neither one bothered to get up out of their chair to introduce themselves or ask me if I had any questions. It was like they expected the work to sell itself. While the photography was awe inspiring I would not be inclined to buy a print simply because they did not appear interested in selling their prints. I fail to see how a photographer like that could make a name for themselves if they seem uninterested in promoting themselves.
If either of those cases had turned out different I would have had a much better impression of that artist and their work. In the first instance, all the artist had to do was not roll her eyes and smile. I would have felt welcome to discuss her work and ask questions. With the second case, I simply did not feel as if I was dealing with a professional small business person. For the third case, I would have been very eager in learning more about the photographer talking about what they go through to capture the imagery and if they used Photoshop for any of their photos.
It’s not just direct interaction but how you respond to your potential customers online. If you are an artist you probably have a website or Facebook account or even both. While I have seen many instances in which older artists have chosen to forgo the Facebook side of things, thinking it either beneath them or too much trouble, both vehicles are excellent means of providing customer service (I will talk more about social media below). In this case customer service means having the ability to respond to requests by potential customers within 24 hours via electronic or remote means. With websites your customer will likely be contacting you by email or phone. If you are not willing to take phone calls, at least set up a number that people can leave a message. If you don’t want people calling your main personal phone number, Google Voice is a great resource and it’s free.
If you have considered getting a toll free number then stop considering and do so now. Through a site RingCentral.com you not only get a toll free number but also a fax line and a bunch of other features oriented toward businesses for about $25 a month. With the toll free number alone it opens the door to more to customer communications from people outside of your immediate area.
Lastly consider a frequently asked questions page on your website or Facebook. While this may seem a little dated for websites, I still think it is a great resource you can provide your customers if you have an online presence. Even if you have not been asked these questions consider questions and answers that you anticipate your customers will have. If you are selling prints of your work you will probably want to focus more on questions that might arise with ordering and shipping. You will also want to post questions and answers about the products themselves whether it be the type of paints you use or the type of paper your prints are produced on.
In short offering easy means to contact you and asks questions and answer questions is important. You don’t have to stand by the phone 24 hours a day or check e-mails non-stop but at least make it a point to respond within 24 hours or make answers readily available.
As mentioned earlier, some artists and photographers may decide to forgo Facebook. Some have told me they think it is a fad that will eventually go away. Some less tech savvy indicated they get lost in the terminology of “Friends” and “Likes”. If that describes you then consider getting a “Facebook for Dummies” or similar book. If you are going to get a book on it, just make sure you get one that was published within the past year or two since Facebook is always evolving (or devolving according to some). If you don’t want to do it yourself, hiring a younger relative to get you into the Facebook/social media world might be a better option. Finally if you run a portrait studio, perhaps hire an intern to help with it. While I can’t speak for how long Facebook will stay in the top tier of social media, I won’t be surprised if eventually something will take it’s place like Facebook did to MySpace. Just be prepared to adopt anything new since your customers will be doing so.
So what about dealing with those customers that are just plain difficult. You will have those. For instance, a fellow (I will simply call him Pete) that runs a small online but well trafficked online prints store, had an instance in which he was out of inventory on some prints and told the customer that he would have to have more prints made up. The customer I guess had a very tight deadline so out of anger began to lambaste this poor guy with all kinds of profanity both personally and toward his business simply because not all the prints were immediately available. Pete called us obviously under pressure by this customer’s lucrative deal to have the order immediately fulfilled. He said while he wanted to tell this customer to jump in a lake (he used a less kind metaphor) he bit his tongue, and responded with assurances that he was going to give his customer top priority. If you are an artist you may not experience these type of customers all too often but I know a lot of photographers who have. Sometimes these customers are just angry people in general and like to take it out on whoever they can. The important thing is not to respond in a negative way and hold your temper. I know it can be easier said than done but unless you are in a position to cherry pick your customers, try to redirect their anger with compliments and assurances. In our own case, we too have customers like this on occasion. Usually it has nothing to do with us but they just like to take out whatever personal problems they have with life in general on our service reps. As an example we send our customers evaluation requests after we have answered their email questions. The vast majority of customers rate their customer satisfaction experience as good to excellent with less than 1 a week rating their experience as bad. And when they do rate it bad and include comments, most of the time it is a result of us not answering a question they did not even ask or not providing a type of service they were looking for. And when we do notice a bad rating, if it is something we made a mistake with or feel we did not help them like we should, we try to followup with them to correct this issue. Overall providing this type of customer service has gone a long way to helping our business. Going that extra mile to deal with the difficult customer or correcting your own mistakes can help your business as well.
I could write a book about our own experiences when it comes to dealing with customers taking out their personal problems and projecting them in their communications with us but here are a few of the most common scenarios you should at least be prepared for:
1. Customer does not fully read e-mail response you sent and write’s back that you did not answer their question.
2. E-mail responses get lost in their spam so they think you are not responsive.
3.Customers not feeling like you are providing them exclusive customer service or willing to make reasonable exceptions.
4. Customers blame you because something happened to their order that was out of your control.
You will find there is no escaping these and other customer service problems no matter how you try to put things in place to prevent them. But do your best to alleviate them as much as possible. Put your pride aside and be willing to take the blame even if it is not your fault. Be gentle and prudent if you choose to correct a misconception and try not to use phrases like “you did” or “you didn’t” which reflects the blame directly on the customer. As an example, if a customer complains that you did not respond to their e-mail question fully, even when you did, start your response by saying something like “I apologize, I should have been more clearer in my answer” rather than “I am sorry but I don’t think you read the full e-mail”.
As your business grows your customer service capabilities may need to as well. Usually this evolves into having to spend more time answering e-mails. Hopefully it will get to a point where you have to find a better way to keep track of all the communications because you are getting overwhelmed. Using our own operations as an example, we used to have one e-mail box that our all the people involved in customer service people would access. As FinerWorks became more popular in the fine art and photo printing community it became more difficult to manage these communications. With tons of back and forth e-mails answering questions on everything from “can you print this” to “how much does it cost” it became very difficult to manage these conversations through a simple e-mail interface. Follow up questions would be missed and there was no effective means to pass on to each other any issues that might be ongoing such as a special requests. To top it off we have some customers that like to use both email and phone calls for a single topic of conversation. Our own customer service began to suffer because so much was getting lost in the shuffle of e-mails and phone calls. A customer would call and talk to someone and then later e-mail follow up information with the assumption that it was the same person they talked to on the phone. It became frustrating for everyone. Our solution was eventually to adopt an internal support ticket system which while on the customer’s side of things appeared as regular communication, it has allowed our own regular and after hours customer service reps to carry on dozens of ongoing conversations each day. While we don’t have a huge customer service team, it was necessary. In addition, other reps can step in and further the conversation if the initial rep is off or on vacation.
The bottom line is communication with your customers is key. Whether it be in person or online, being there to answer your customers immediately or in a timely fashion while expressing interest in helping them, will go a long way. My advice to any artist or photographer with a budding business is to look at what you are not doing that would otherwise improve your ability to provide great customer service. Then look at what you are doing, whether it is how you word things or when you answer communications and try to improve from there.