Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Customer Service

Customer service should be the easiest thing in the world; this is a group of people that want to give me money for a service which I provide. Their money allows me to continue providing the service and, as a by-product, allows me to purchase much needed food from time to time. I also find that the better my products become, the more customer revenue is generated and this is why I strongly believe in the notion of meritocracy and, to a lesser extent, the capitalist model itself.

I find the process whereby people give me money to be, frankly, beautiful.

However, this seamless revenue cycle wasn’t always so smooth. Back in December 2010 (BarSoap’s debut) both Kate and I were particularly green as salesmen; we knew wanted money, but how to get it? I can very simply outline our problem with this flowchart.

Desire for Revenue   >   Create Saleable product   >   ???   >   Revenue

Basically, we lacked one vital element.

Although we sold a respectable 41 bars that day I felt our customer interaction could use some work. We were friendly and enthusiastic but, if you’re asking people to pay £3.50 for a bar of soap, you need to lucidly explain why this is twice as expensive as supermarket brands. Initially we tried to encourage discussion with the informal query “This is all hand-made, so if you have any questions…” Unsurprisingly, no-one had any questions about hand-made bars of soap – I’m a Soapmaker and I’d struggle to come up with a suitable question about soap if someone put me on the spot like that, I’d just stand there gawping like a dunce.

Me, selling a moisturising Goats Milk and Honey Bar

Our shortcomings were pointed out to us at the next fair by a stall owner who sold bits of newspaper fashioned in the shape of animals (quite a market for them apparently) and bless her tiny newspaper animals, she was right. Kate decided a better line of questioning would be “Have you tried handmade soap before?” which invites a response of at least “Yes.” or in other cases “No.” thus allowing us to explain the benefits to people who haven’t previously used handmade soap.

Now, I have noticed that other stall holders don’t actively engage customers as much as we do; I can understand that if someone had made a knitted jumper or fashioned a bracelet encrusted with diamonds and other shiny things then they’ll pretty much sell themselves. However, whilst I don’t like to think of us as pushy, this is a heathen age of shower gel, alcohol wipes and misleading beauty products, the humble soapmaker has to scream, shout and fight to survive. That’s right... fight to survive.

We at BarSoap do try to engage our customers and be friendly *and* informative though, at present, we don’t subscribe to the “Customer is always right” maxim. For example, the three customer who smelt each bar several times (and spent over 15 minutes at our stall) constantly intoning “But I don’t use soap” in an ever increasing vocal pitch… they were wrong (though did buy something to which I thank them) The customer who started using our soaps as lego blocks whilst making strange tutting sounds and asking Kate if soap would make his girlfriend love him, he was wrong (soap alone isn’t going to make anyone love him, I fear) and the customer who very vocally wanted a 50% discount on one bar of soap… he was wrong too. That said, customer service, for better or worse, does expose one to the gamut of human personality traits and I eagerly await out next stall – be it profitable or anecdotal.

A virtual hug to the person who posts their most disagreeable customer…


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    And this is an awesome post, so true, too. I wonder what a good "question" would be for me, selling beaded jewelry (that no, does not sell itself)?

  2. Apologies Megan, being 100% male I can't help sell beaded jewelry - I have literally no idea about what women want... perhaps a disparaging remark about their appearance that can only be remedied by them wearing jewels?

    Thanks for reading though.

  3. very funny post!!! Everyone who ever tried to sell anythikng handmade can relate to that! ;-)

  4. I think one of the most "disagreeable" types of customers are those who cannot make up their minds - as if buying a meager $20 pair of earrings is going to brake the bank or cause their divorce, and they have to determine whether Jenn's Zen (my business) is going to participate in that. So they stand there examining two different pieces for 30 minutes or longer - sometimes leaving then coming back, then leaving again - only to come back to do the same routine all over again. It gets exhausting trying to counsel them through the process, "Just go with your gut!" or "Buy the one that makes you feel joyful!" or "Get the other pair as a gift for your mother!" The last option usually gets me a dirty look. I'm always half tempted to GIVE the earrings away at this point. Nevertheless, I am grateful for the sale. And I am grateful that I have some psychology background - though I'm positive it's more for my sanity than for my customer's. Thanks, by the way, for a great blog!

  5. I love it! I am a huge fan of handmade bar soap (gels? augh!), and I too would have a hard time coming up with an intelligent question about soap.

    I've been selling my quirky jewelry with my sister for about 5 years now, and definitely think that selling handmade is as much about the product (which has to be fabulous as a given), as it is about the seller. Being engaging, open, and not all about the sale is totally key. In person, if you're at a market, that means developing conversations with people who might come back and buy a month later. Online, that's using social media to truly have chats with those interested in your work.

    Those who buy and appreciate handmade want a handmade buying experience, not the usual "give me your credit card and I'll throw this in a plastic bag, next!" experience of traditional retail.

    I really want to see the little newspaper animals. :)

  6. Great post -- yes, there are some strange shoppers out there! I love the ones who spend 15 minutes in your stall, ask a million questions, block other shoppers out and then leave without buying. They are my favorites.....

  7. I spent 15 yrs in customer service...oh boy .... written so well... I love reading what you have to say ...

  8. I once had a craft show "neighbor" from hell who would try to lure my customers away by answering their questions, totally talking right over me. She even had the nerve to bring one of her bracelets over while a customer was trying on one of mine! Customers..I love them all. Craft show neighbors from hell..not anymore!
    Love your blog...

  9. Love your blog. Though now I feel the need to figure out a question about handmade greeting cards..hmm.

  10. My favorite is the person who asks you to "hold" a pile of items...they will be right back, need to get their wallet, have to go to the bathroom, need to feed their children...alas, they do not return and you spent half your day making sure "their" purchase stays intact and in sellable condition.

  11. @ Halfmoonroad - I have to say, the other stall holder probably shouldn't have done that but I do have to admire the sheer gall of it.

    @Caroline - I have to agree, I don't see why people give heartfelt guarantees of their future purchases that will never happen; there's no gun to their head and I don't abhor merely browsing.

    @BPR designs, once an fair organiser spent 20 minutes in front of our stall talking to friends partially obstructing it, I was about to tell them to beat it, but Kate stopped me.

  12. Haha! What a hilarious reality! I, as a humble smelly-good natural fun dough maker, also have to fight to survive. However, I encourage my customers to use my products as lego blocks... or snowballs... or pancakes... and make strange sounds while stacking them.

  13. "I can understand that if someone had made a knitted jumper or fashioned a bracelet encrusted with diamonds and other shiny things then they’ll pretty much sell themselves" made me laugh out loud, as a knitter. The one fair I did turned out not at all well for me, while I watched a soap booth near me do booming business; I thought soap sold ITself!

    I don't have my own customer horror story for you, but I will relate the story of a friend who worked telephone customer service... she had someone call up screaming at her, and the customer ended the call by snarling, "YOU have a cavalier and devil-may-care attitude!"

    My friend didn't know what to make of that. (We still don't, really.)

  14. Just started following your blog, very funny and a refreshing view on the handmade world :)
    I was very green when I started out... it took me some months to realise 'hello' wasn't the best way to approach customers but hey, I was raised to be polite ;)

  15. My "favourite" customers...
    "I've just knitted one of those"
    me: "Really? That's interesting, because I don't sell my pattern."

    and another one, to her child "You can't have any of those, we've got them all at home" - obviously I rushed after her thanking her for having bought my entire inventory :-)

  16. @ niftyknits, it's frustrating isn't it. I was walking past Victoria train station in Manchester once and a woman gestured at the guitar case I was holding and screetched "I play one of those!" As if she owned a hand crafted Taiwanese steel resonator guitar with a 300 piece abalone inlay.

    @Stockannette, it's true... we soapmakers are the dark horses of the craft fair world - we too have a cavalier attitude.

  17. Love your blog post and you have the patience of a saint! And BRAVO for being brave enough to speak to potential customers.

    I do not think people realize the effort that goes into making a product, marketing it and that the artist needs to actually make a living while doing it. I no longer do the craft fair circuit and am grateful to have Etsy.

    Good fortune with your soap and are you sure that it won't help someone fall in love? Maybe its the answer for a hygiene deficient person.
    jeanie at Planet Calamari Etsy

  18. @ Jeanie, it might help someone fall in love, just not him.

  19. great writing , anyone who writes as well as this must make good soap.
    P.s my o.h used to work at manchester met. too ,many moons ago

  20. Dan, I personally love handmade soap simply because I find it a personal luxury that I can actually afford after a stressful day.

    But I feel you...customers can go crazy sometimes. The best quote I can remember right now, was from a sweet lady who asked me with exasperation, while looking at a lapis lazuli necklace:"Why did you make that necklace blue?????".

    @Jennifer: I suggest getting the second pair of "cannot decide which one" jewelry for their best friend so they can exchange from time to time. It usually works.

  21. Too Ture and Funny!! I hand people one of my cards and say--do you need a birthday card? Everyboday has a birthday!

  22. Selling face-to-face is always an adventure. . .From the loud obnoxious, people who think you don't have ears and say, "I could make that myself," and then have the gall to ask for a discount, to the people who take out their cell phone camera, snap a picture, and ask, "Where do you get your beads?"

    I only use handmade soap. I hate the harsh chemicals in the store soap and handmade soap lasts so much longer. Tell your customers about that.

  23. wonderful :)

    I loveee reading your blogs because they are so funny but so true!!!

    <3 veronica

  24. I have been lucky to have had only very understanding and pleasant customers so far. But then, all of my business has been either online or with family. Haven't ventured into the craft fair market yet . . . kind of scares me a bit.

  25. @livjewellery, you should give it a try - feedback is important. I was initially concerned that we wouldn't sell anything and it would be a disheartening 5 hours (however, we sold loads) and generally, I find the other craft stall holders to be very friendly, with some good advice (some bad advice too, but they're only human...)

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  27. Great post, Daniel!
    I think your sense of humour has to be your savior when dealing with craft fair customers
    Buying handmade is a lifestyle choice - if you just wanted a bar of soap you would walk into Boots, hand over your money and walk out with a bar of Lifebouy (do they still make that or am I showing my age?)
    Play on the indulgence, treating yourself, buying for someone special etc because people want to be paid attention and spoiled (and lets face it flirted with, but you do have to be a bit careful with that one!)
    On the other hand there are the craft fair customers who will always moan about the price of everthing - makes me wonder why the **** they are there in the first place!