“What do you do?” you’ve been asked many times.
“I am an artist” is most likely the response that instantly comes to your lips. You have probably been giving this answer from a very early age. No matter what else you’ve done in your life, being an artist is the core of your identity.
For a few minutes today, I want to encourage you to make a silent addition to your response. You will still answer “I am an artist,” but in your mind you will add “and, I am a salesperson.”
I know the suggestion might be slightly unpleasant. Many artists (maybe you?) feel that artistic integrity and salesmanship are incompatible. I have found, however, that the most successful artists are those who have developed strong sales skills.
Whether you are trying to sell directly, at an art festival or open studio tour, or indirectly by approaching a gallery with your work, sales skills are going to help you reach your goal. That goal is to help people who love your art buy it.
When I first started selling art almost 20 years ago, I had very little idea of what it took to sell. I think my general attitude was, “the art will sell itself.” In the years since I have learned that the art will generate interest, but it is much more likely to sell if I do and say the right things.
While there are many elements to a successful sale, the process itself is simple once you understand your role. Today I would like to discuss just a few key steps that will help you better sell your art. These are guidelines I have developed, and continue to develop, through many years of selling art.
Build Strong Relationships
Look at each viewer of your work as a person. Your potential buyers have needs, passions, strengths and weaknesses. Your #1 goal is to build a long term relationship. Salesmanship is not about using tricks to fool the buyer into pulling out a credit card. You should instead be working to get to know the buyer and understand his/her desires, interests and needs.
You can get the relationship off on the right foot by doing several simple things. First, be bold when you introduce yourself. Extend your hand and say “good afternoon, I am Bill Smith, this is my art.”
Second, ask potential buyers for their names then learn those names! This is not the time for you to say “but I am terrible with names.” Learning names is a skill, and it is a skill you must work to develop if you want to build strong relationships.
As soon as I hear names I try to repeat them back to the customers, “nice to meet you Jim and Nancy,” and I then repeat the names over and over in my mind to cement them in my short term memory. I also write the names down as soon as I can.
Third, ask a lot of questions. The best way to get to know someone is to get them talking about themselves. When you are interacting with buyers, your goal should be to have them talking about 75-80% of the time. I find many artists and even gallery staff who think they should be doing most of the talking when they are trying to sell, when actually the opposite is true.
Tell a Story
While a great piece of art will attract a buyer, a great story will sell it. I meet many artists who feel they should let the art speak for itself. This ignores an important human interest in narrative. While each buyer is going to bring their own interpretation to a work of art, they are also interested in your inspiration. They want to understand the process for creating the art. What you tell them about the piece will become a part of the narrative they share with friends, family and business associates who see the art in their home or office.
Give your Potential Buyers Space
While it is important to engage potential buyers and tell them a story about the art, it is also critical to give them some space. I find selling art to be a little dance. I will introduce myself and start to get to know the potential buyers, and then I will step back to let them look at the art. When they pause in front of a piece, I come back in to tell them about the work and the artist, before stepping back again to let them discuss the art.
This is especially important when working with a couple. You want to allow them to discuss the art without feeling like you are hovering over them.
Giving customers space is easy in a gallery setting, but even in a small booth at a weekend art show, or in your studio, find a way to back off enough to give clients some privacy. You might have to step several feet out of the booth, or go to another room of your studio.
Before making a purchase, buyers want to discuss the decission. They want to know for sure that spouses or partners feel the same about the art that they do. Far better for you to give them some space than to have them wait until they leave to have a frank discussion.
Ask for the Close
Too many sales are lost simply because the artist or gallery salesperson didn’t come right out and ask for the sale. Asking buyers to commit can seem a little scary at first. You might feel like you are taking a risk by asking. What if they don’t really like the art? What if they say “no”?
You face a far greater risk if you don’t try to close the sale: someone who loves a piece might not end up buying simply because they weren’t given the opportunity.
Even when a client says “no,” you are in a better position than you would have been had you not asked – now you can find out why they don’t want to buy and help them overcome any obstacles that might be in the way.
The next time you have someone interested in a piece, try asking “Can I wrap that up for you?” or “Would you like to put that on a credit card?” You might be surprised when the customer simply says “yes!”
Obviously these are only a few of the steps involved in making a sale, and I have only briefly touched on them. My goal here is not to give you a comprehensive guide; rather I want you to begin actively thinking about salesmanship. Salesmanship is a process, and salesmanship skills can be learned and developed. In the coming weeks and months I look forward to sharing more of what I have learned over the years about the fine art of selling fine art, so check back often for additional articles on the mechanics of making sales.
I want to hear about your sales experiences. What do you find most challenging about selling? What mistakes have you made in the past when trying to sell your art? What tips can you share that have helped you makes sales in the past?
Share your thoughts below in the comments. Please note that these comments are moderated (to keep out spam) so it may take a day or two for your comments to appear. I look forward to the discussion!
In his Amazon.com best-selling book, Xanadu Gallery owner Jason Horejs shares insights gained over a life-time in the art business.