Becoming a Better Art Salesperson | Are you Chasing Away Your Buyers?

Selling art can be a real challenge, but the moment of the sale is exhilarating. Your artwork has just been, in a way, validated. The purchaser has said to you, “I think your work is good enough that I’m willing to part with my hard-earned money to acquire it.”

For many artists, however, the sales come far too infrequently. While sales are not the only measure of success for an artist, sales not only validate the work, they allow and encourage you to create more. There are many hurdles that get in the way of sales. The poor economy of the last several years has made the art market more competitive and art buyers more cautious. Many artists don’t get enough exposure for their work, and if buyers can’t see your work, they can’t buy it. Many of you have taken your marketing and sales into your own hands – showing your work in art festivals,  participating in open studios, selling online, or in co-op galleries. You are having an opportunity to interact directly with your buyers.

I believe that having direct interaction with potential buyers can be a great experience and can help you better understand the art business and sales process. It also gives you the opportunity to get direct feedback about your work. Sales can be even sweeter when you are making them yourself, and the buyer will often enjoy the opportunity of dealing directly with the artist.

Unfortunately, many artists (perhaps yourself included) are not well prepared to go from creating art to selling it. Selling is a fine art in itself, and requires skill and practice. Some people are born salesmen, but others have to learn the skill. Even natural salespeople can always stand to sharpen their skills. For the next several posts, I would like to concentrate on several key areas of the selling process. I hope that by discussing key issues, I can help you become a better salesperson, and I hope the discussion around these posts will allow you to share what you’ve learned about the sales process or discuss challenges you’ve faced.

Even if you turn over most of the marketing and selling of your work, understanding the sales process will make you a better partner to your galleries or agents.

I want to begin this series by discussing one of the most common mistakes made in the art sales process.

Giving the Buyer an Easy Way Out

Many artists, and even some gallery salespeople, mistakenly think that the art sales process is a mysterious, and perhaps even devious way to trick people into buying something they’re not interested in. If this is your approach to selling, you will have limited success and unsatisfied buyers. I believe our work is much simpler: we are here to help people who feel a real connection to your art make it a part of their lives.

To this end, our job is one of facilitation, not convincing. We want to help buyers overcome any fears or doubts they might have about buying the art that they want.

EasyWayOutMake no mistake, there is fear and doubt for the buyer. As buyers are considering whether or not to buy, they will be concerned about whether or not the art will fit naturally in to their home . They will be afraid that the price is too high, or whether they can afford the art. They will doubt their taste. In short, the buyer will have a fear of commitment.

All of these doubts, and many more, can come to a buyer in the critical moment they are deciding whether or not to make the purchase. In this critical moment, we should be doing everything in our power to reassure buyers  the benefits outweigh the risks, and we should be asking for the sale.

Instead, what I often see  (and I’ve been guilty of it myself many times) is our own fear sabotaging the sale.

As an art sales person or artist, we are afraid of many things ourselves. We are afraid that the potential buyer doesn’t actually like the work and will say “no” if we ask them for the sale. We are afraid that the work isn’t really that good. We are afraid we’ll say the wrong thing. In short, we’re afraid of rejection. Our fear of rejection, combined with our client’s fear of commitment, often leads us to do exactly the wrong thing at the critical moment.

Our fear of rejection, combined with our client’s fear of commitment, often leads us to do exactly the wrong thing at the critical moment.

An example. You have a client in your booth at an art festival. The potential buyer has shown real interest in a particular piece. You’ve shared the story of the creation of the piece. You’ve given them your background. You’ve learned about them. You’ve asked where they would place the art. You’ve done everything right to create the sales atmosphere. There is a heavy pause as you can tell that the client is contemplating the purchase. Your heart starts pounding because you know how close you are to the sale, and you say . . .

“Would you like a brochure of my work?”

The client smiles in relief, says “sure,”  takes the brochure, and walks away, never to be seen again.

At that critical moment when the potential buyer was on the verge of making a commitment, you gave them an easy way out. They were wrestling with their inner voice, trying to convince themselves to take the plunge,  and you offered them a way to procrastinate the commitment. Once the decision has been put off, the likelihood of getting them back to the commitment is almost nonexistent.

Say Any of These Things, and You Are Almost Sure to Kill the Sale

Offering a brochure is one sure way to put a damper on the sale, but there are many others. Any of the following will accomplish the same procrastination.

  • “Would you like a photograph of this piece? I can include the dimensions and price of the artwork.”
  • “Can I email you a photo of the piece?”
  • “Would you like me to bring the artwork out to your home for you to see  how it would look?”
  • “Can I get you any other information about the artwork?”
  • “Would you like a copy of my biography?”
  • “Would you like to see other pieces like this one? Here’s my portfolio”
  • “I have another piece you might like.”
  • “Would you like me to place a hold on the piece while you think about it?”

Let me be clear, none of these phrases are evil in themselves. There are times when they would be exactly the right thing to say. The moment of decision is not one of those times.  These phrases are all attempts to solve problems that the client may or may not have. By preemptively interjecting one of them, we are trying to skip the moment of possible rejection and go straight to a solution. Unfortunately, without asking for the sale first, we’re not solving a problem, we’re creating one.

Ask for the Close, Then Solve Any Problems

Instead of throwing out one of these solutions, it’s critical to ask for the sale and see what happens. Your client may indeed express a doubt about making the purchase, but now we can work on resolving an actual concern instead of guessing what the doubt might be and giving the client a procrastination inducing solution.

I’ve written previously about how to ask for the sale (see this post), but today I simply want to encourage you to focus on avoiding the temptation to give your buyers an easy way out. It would be better not to say anything at all, than to give your buyers a ready excuse not to buy. The next time you are in a sales situation and you feel you are at that critical sales moment, I want you to be aware of your urge to delay the sale and to make a conscious effort to avoid giving in to the temptation. From personal experience, I can promise you that your sales will increase.

Have you Chased Away Art Buyers?

Have you been guilty of chasing away potential art buyers? What has happened when you gave your client an easy way out? Have you overcome the urge to give your clients an easy way out? How did you do it? Please share your experiences, thoughts and wisdom in the comments below.

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About the Author: Jason Horejs

Jason Horejs is the Owner of Xanadu Gallery, author of best selling books "Starving" to Successful & How to Sell Art , publisher of reddotblog.com, and founder of ARTsala. Jason has helped thousands of artists prepare themselves to more effectively market their work, build relationships with galleries and collectors, and turn their artistic passion into a viable business. Connect with Jason on Facebook

28 Comments

  1. I am guilty of this – giving the potential client an “OUT.” This article made me think of when I was a Human Resource Manager and Trainer and how KEY it was to ask job applicants for an EXACT example of something they had done in a service or managerial position then WAIT for hat exact answer. As interviewers we have a tendency to want to fill the “empty air.” As an artist I instantly go to fill the empty air – completely forgetting how important that “empty air” is. And to compound things – I am offering an OUT. Yikes! No More!

    1. Yes, I have the same problem with filling the empty space. Maybe fulling it isn’t so bad if you are filling it with the right words. But what are they?

  2. Wow, Jason! I have done all of these, in one day, I chased away 7 buyers … 7!
    At a show, and when someone was interested in my work, the chairman would come get me, introduce me, and leave me to close the sale. Each time the person walked away, or I did. I did everything you mentioned. At the end of the night, the chairman asked how I managed to not sell this pieces 7 times … all I had to say was cash, check or charge, he had set up the sale.
    We talked for awhile, then he said, That’s too bad you did not sell it, it is a nice painting.
    I replied for cash, check or charge it can be yours right now! I was half kidding. He bought it! (and negotiated himself a discount for the class he taught me). Worth every penny.

  3. So true that most of artists are not natural salespeople. This article is a big help and inspiration about what to avoid in the critical sales moment. I’m determined to follow this sage advice!

  4. In Tom Hopkins book, “The Art of Selling Anything,” he says that that silence that occurs just as the customer is pondering the decision to own what you are selling is a really valuable tool if you learn to use it to your advantage.

    The way it works is that you first ask any question the prospect will have to ask himself after he or she has decided to own your product, a question that does not require any thought, like, for example, “Will this be a credit card or cash purchase?” Then follows this dead silence. The customer knows instinctly that the next syllable she or he utters means he or she is committed to the purchase. The hard part is keeping your mouth shut, stand there smiling, looking at the customer but not saying a word. It’s very hard to stand there without saying anything, but you’re using the uncomfortable silence as leverage for the decision. As the saying goes, “The next person to speak looses” or owns the product. If you speak, to relieve the silence, you lose the sale, and the customer walks away.

    Russ Flint

  5. Hi Jason
    I have in the last year sold my work at an average of £3000 per painting. Privately and in selected exhibitions.
    Next year I have s solo show in a city centre gallery. I was pleased until I went to an opening there last week and found that the most expensive painting was £1700. I’m worried the gallery won’t have clients willing to pay my peices and thst itll be a knock to my (hard won!) Confidence snd sales.

  6. Hardest part for me is many of my clients are friends in a small town, and I do not want to pressure them. I need a way to get over that hurdle. Another answer I got was my husband has to see it and he is out of town. I felt that was an out. I offered to bring it to them, or set an appointment. She said she would get back to me. Did not. So I had another buyer for the same piece, and offered her a last time, she said no. My instinct was she was finding a way not to buy. I go with my gut. I thought of saying, your your own woman, buy it! And we can work around this if he doesn’t like it. Would that be an answer? I have a question? I have the attorney in the office next to me keeps looking like he wants to buy, he asks price, but we never get anywhere, as I don’t want to anger him. How do I close him? My husband said don’t push him, all in due time, but I think I might loose his interest, not sure. thanks,

  7. I have definitely done most of these things. I think I live in fear of pushing a sale and having the buyer regret buying my painting. But I’ve had nothing but positive feedback from previous buyers who really love my work, so I need to stop the negative thoughts!

    1. Exactly Laura – I’ve experienced the same. I’ve had very few clients regret a purchase (I can’t think of any at the moment), but I have had many customers who have regretted not buying a piece that then sold to someone else. It’s a delicate balance, and I agree we don’t want to push – we just want to help.

  8. You have touched a nerve with me. I’m so unsure of myself in this situation, however I have learned an answer when they say “I don’t have an wall space.” I say if you love it, you’ll find a place. That’s as bold as I’ve gotten. I have a studio in a community art gallery so I often have people coming in praising my work but leave without buying. I haven’t mastered the art of the sale and I stay shy about it. More blogs about this please!

  9. I’ve been fortunate to sell a lot of things other than art over time. There are any number of books and free video available to help. If someone is looking at your work they’re interested if not admiring … assume a sale rather than idle curiosity.
    Picking up on buying signals is a science. Sometimes it is very subtle and may be spoken appreciation, a look, hesitation, whispering to their mate, backing up or coming closer to examine.
    I’ve found people are interested in why I chose that scene or figure, where it is, the time, the person, the history – the back story. It adds to the whole and strengthens the piece beyond your expertise. Tell why you wanted to painted it.
    I’ve done better some times than others but when I assume the sale is made the transaction unfolds smoothly. The excuse “I’m not sure it will fit on that wall,” or “I don’t have room for it,” is a spoken “no.” You need to have a counter reply ready because you will hear it often. Decide if you want to enter into a formal sale on approval agreement, complete with a signed contract. I haven’t done one in years although I keep an agreement with me at shows.
    Mindset figures into my success more than anything. I assume they want the painting. I assume the buyer will become a patron. I assume they can afford it or we’ll find a means (time payments) to make it affordable. I invest enough time into our conversation so I can direct them to a decision.

  10. Many artist’s, at least in the underground or outcasts areas I work in, are kinda weird or sometimes just freakish. They are better suited to produce art and if lucky enuf to have gallery rep, to let the gallery do their work.

    For the rest of use, we just do it for love. The art itself is enuf gratification and acknowledgement, although I’m sure we can all use some $.

  11. In these excruciatingly quiet pauses, I have asked the customer “is there anything I can do to help you with your decision? ” . The answer has never been a “no”. Sometimes it’s a price reduction, sometimes it becomes a commission. Most often it becomes a sale.

  12. A seasoned artist set up next to me when I was just starting out at art/craft fairs and I have always taken her advice to heart. She offered it because I was doing all the wrong things, and she simply couldn’t ignore my ignorance….thank goodness! Basically the advice was to let the potential buyer be alone with their thoughts for a certain length of time….what seems right….body language will tell you when to invade their space. Then speak about the things you love about the pieces they are interested in….from your heart. This is your art, work, life we’re talking about here. If it isn’t easy for you to love it….how can you expect anyone else to? Never whine or complain about your circumstances….better to say nothing than moan….and don’t be fawning nor fatuous….just be confident about your art and its worth. One more tip that has been helpful….never say thank you before a sale is finalized. When a potential buyer compliments you, simply remark that they have good taste!

  13. Wow, great article Jason. I have definitely lost sales by being too afraid to ask for payment. The last show I was at I sold a large painting because I remembered a phrase from someone else. The magic words were “What can I do to help you take this painting home with you today?” So much like what Nina said, I think the word help was certainly the right choice. I also agree with Jackie K
    about sharing the paintings story, and they all have a story. I think I have accidentally sold paintings this way!

  14. I wonder if other artists have observed something I’ve seen other artists do when potential buyers complement their work. I’ve listened to many artists respond to complements by arguing with the potential buyers about the quality of their own works. When I ask them why they did this, this general reply is that they are being self deprecatory and humble.These days, if I see this, I tell them to accept the complements.

  15. Van Gogh didn’t sell his art-maybe one painting. Yet he is considered to be one of the greatest artists of all time. Selling art does not validate an artist. Creating art day after days does.. For the few of us who cherish our art. But do not strive to sell it, there is the internet where we can show our art so that others can enjoy it. Yes I have sold some art , but that did not validate me as an artist. I was born with creative talent & still make art in my twilight years. Basically selling art has more to do with marketing than with the creative talent of any artist. I know that most of you will disagree with me, but so what?

    1. Jean, I agree. However, you are one of the fortunate few that you don’t have to rely on selling your art for income. Many artists do. Success of an artist is as varied as the different types of artists out there, For some, success is selling their art, being well known, or creating every day, and everything in between. I do agree that marketing is a huge part of selling art, and not necessarily due to talent. But then again talent is in the eye of the beholder. A case in point would be the movie ” Exit through the Gift Shop.” This is a documentary about Bansky, but the film maker decides to make art and successfully sells his art through extensive marketing, having never exhibited before. Marketing is an aspect of being an artist that is difficult for me. I would be more than happy to just create art. I am grateful for forums such as this to help us .

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