Working Through Difficult Art Sales: The Case of the Hounded Clients

At Xanadu Gallery, we pride ourselves on providing superior customer service to our clients. We work very hard to engage with people who are visiting the gallery, to provide personalized and friendly service, and to go above and beyond in meeting our customers’ needs. This outreach has been, I feel, a critical part of our long-term success, and we get great feedback from our clients. I have buyers tell me that they love our gallery because the art is approachable, and the gallery staff makes them feel welcome and important.

Over the last month, however, we’ve had three incidents where things have gone less smoothly than we would have liked, sometimes disastrously so. We’ve certainly had these kinds of incidents in the past, but very, very rarely, and so it was odd to have three in quick succession. I feel like these incidents have served as reminders of the importance of customer service, but they are also reminders that in spite of every effort on our part to provide a great experience, sometimes things just aren’t going to click. In the coming weeks, I hope to be able to share what we’ve learned from each of these experiences. I’ll begin with what I call “The Case of the Hounded Clients.” (Names have been removed to protect the innocent)

Several weeks ago, I was at work in my office when a member of my staff came in and said that a customer “wished to speak with the person in charge.”

“Why, what’s up?” I asked.

“He’s upset about something,” she replied.

I stepped out of my office with some trepidation. My staff member lead me to the client, a middle-aged gentleman, who immediately began speaking with some tension in his voice.

“My wife and I have been looking around your gallery, and there are some pieces that we are interested in,” he began. “but we won’t buy them from [a certain member of your staff].”

I was caught completely off guard, and couldn’t even begin to think how to respond before he continued.

“[This member of your staff] followed us around the gallery and wouldn’t leave us alone. We’ve never had someone hound us that way.”

Now I was truly flabbergasted.

“I’m sorry you felt that way,” I replied, instinct kicking in. “We strive to provide great customer service to our clients.”

“Well,” he said, cutting me off, “we would like to come back when [the member of your staff] isn’t working to buy some art.”

Unsure of what else to say, I explained our schedule, including times when the staff member in question wouldn’t be working. Even as I was sharing this information, it felt like the wrong way to respond, but I was completely dumbfounded by what the gentleman was saying and couldn’t think of anything other than this lame reply.

The customer replied that the timing might not work for them, and then proceeded to quickly walk out of the gallery, and then up the street with his wife.

The entire exchange couldn’t have taken more than a minute, and I was left standing there scratching my head, feeling a little like I had just been hit by a bus.

The whole situation was very awkward. If you’ve visited our gallery before, you know that it is not large. My entire staff heard the exchange, including the staff member who had worked with the couple. I knew that what had been described to me simply didn’t fit with what I knew of my staff. They are very responsive and conscious of how much interaction to provide clients.

I went to the staff member to get the other side of the story. The gallery consultant described exactly what I would have expected. She greeted the couple as they entered the gallery, and they shared that they had been to the gallery before and were quite interested in one of our artists. The couple was very energetic and enthusiastic as they looked at the artist’s work, and the consultant carried on a dialogue with them about the artist and the pieces that were of interest to them. The couple then started to look through the rest of the gallery. As they stopped to admire work by another artist, the consultant approached them to share some information about the artist and his whimsical series of paintings. At this point, the consultant noticed that the couple wasn’t listening to her as they were having their own discussion, so she gave them space while they continued to look through the gallery.

The couple proceeded towards the front window display and started to chuckle, which cued the consultant that they must have seen another piece on display by the whimsical artist. So she started to approach them to talk about the piece, and it was at this point, that the couple exploded and, in raised voices, accused the consultant of following them around the gallery and talking to them too much. Before the consultant could respond, the couple dramatically stormed out of the gallery while loudly expressing their displeasure. This continued as they stood outside of the gallery (our front door was propped open, making it possible to hear every word).

After a few minutes, the husband returned and demanded to speak to the person in charge. The consultant immediately apologized for any misunderstanding, but the husband ignored her.

After hearing the story, I tried to reassure my staff member that I didn’t see that she had done anything wrong. This was probably unnecessary because it was clear to all of us that the staff member was doing exactly what we always strive to do – namely being welcoming and helpful. I immediately felt that I had failed to defend the consultant the way I should have. I felt I should have stood up to the client by expressing my faith in my staff, a faith which I feel is well-deserved.

I also said that I didn’t want to change anything we are doing because these customers seemed to feel that we were being overly aggressive in our sales efforts. I have frequently heard customers complain that other galleries ignore them or provide a low level of service. I certainly wouldn’t want this experience to cause us to provide poor service to future clients because we are afraid of overdoing it.

As I went back to my office and thought more about the situation, I decided that the clients were highly unlikely to return to buy anything, and were just saying they would so that I would take them seriously. Even if I were to take their claim that they wanted to buy seriously, I wished that had been more forceful in my defense of my staff and our sales efforts. I should have said,

“I stand 100% behind my staff.”

or

“You are being unnecessarily rude.”

or

“Go to hell!”

The fact is, though my clients are important and valuable to me, my staff is even more valuable and important to me. I think of us as family, and I knew I should have stood up more firmly. I don’t believe in the “customer is always right” adage, especially when the client is being unreasonable and rude.

I probably spent more time thinking about the situation than I should have, but I’m sure you’ve been in a scenario where you can’t stop thinking about what you should have said to someone.

I finally came to the conclusion that my lesson was learned and that in the future, if something like this should ever happen again, I would show more spine.

End of story.

Except it’s not. Several days later, the couple returned (on a day when the staff member they had complained about wasn’t working) and proceeded to purchase three significant works of art from us. On this visit they were, according to my staff, pleasant and amenable, though my staff, understandably, gave them wide berth until they requested help.

Now the situation was even more confusing. Had I shown more spine and fought fire with fire, we would have missed out on these sales. As a gallery owner I also have a duty to do right by my artists, and they would certainly appreciate these sales. Was I selling out my staff though?

I’ve been around and around the situation, and I’m not sure I’ve come to any satisfactory conclusion of what I should have done.  Perhaps my conciliatory instinct ended up being the best approach in the end? Maybe the clients were just having a bad day the first time they came in and my staff took the brunt of it.

Because of the way we pool sales for staff sales commissions, the consultant who took the abuse ended up making commission on the sale to these clients. Perhaps that’s the best kind of payback we could hope for in this situation.

How Have you Dealt with Unreasonable Clients and Confrontational Situations?

Have you ever run into a similar situation to the one we faced with our clients? How have you reacted? What would you suggest might have been the right response to the clients? Share your thoughts, experiences and suggestions in the comments below.

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