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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26 Comments

  1. When the potential buyer is someone local who I know, I offer to let them take the painting home to try it out in the place they have in mind. This has worked for me a couple of times. I have chased away buyers though by saying that I might have something later that will suit them better. Sometimes I know they’re not going to buy anything and just want to make it less awkward!

  2. What I run into at shows are people who use the age-old excuse that they love the work, but that their “walls are full.” I have never known how to overcome this objection, except to suggest a rotating gallery in their home, which just gets a laugh as they walk away.

  3. Recently we had a show and two different people had come in looking at work. One was a couple and the other by them self. The couple had been in a year before and I recognized them. They said they had moved recently and bought a new house and were considering some artwork for it.
    The solo collector said she was looking for a piece also.
    I talked to both groups about the work but kept it to a minimum. Both expressed enthusiasm about the work both verbally and non-verbally. They both asked about pricing and size of the pieces. I asked about a space they are considering for it and if they lived in the area. I offered to let them view the work in their house first. All was discussed. Both groups ultimately said thank you and I let them know I would be in the studio the following saturday. They asked what time and I noticed they both took business cards. So far I have not heard from them. Since the couple had returned after a year I was Sure that we would have been agreeing on price etc. It didn’t get that far and I did not hear back from the other collector either. Maybe price? Maybe something else? I often am not confused if a sale doesn’t happen but these left me wondering. I should have requested e mail addresses as a way to follow up but didn’t think about it at that moment. A sale seemed like it could have happened but didn’t.

    1. Bryan, That has happened to me on a smaller scale. I have heard from quite a few previous clients saying, “—- saw our painting on the wall and we wanted to know if it’s okay if we give them your number. They want one of your pieces!!!” Of course I say yes. They do, and out of the 7 or 8 times I have heard that, I have only actually heard from one reference and done work for them. I forget sometimes how busy life gets and also how unexpected things come up, altering my (good intention) plans, until it happens to me. The couple in which you speak probably just got caught up in the stresses of life. They’ll come around.

    2. I am guilty of letting people go while I engage another potential buyer instead of following through. I’ve learned not to get distracted in serving the next one when I haven’t finished with the first. It is difficult to handle a show alone and is better if you have your spouse or someone with one clear assignment – at minimum, get contact information. You have to ask for it and record it … they won’t volunteer it.
      The oldest sales tool on the books is to give an interested buyer only two choices, A or B … there is no third. A is, go for a commitment as if the sale is mutually understood and already decided. “I’m so pleased you chose this one. Let’s write this up right now. Your credit card, please? (hold your hand out) Are you taking the piece with you now or would you rather I ship it to you?” Don’t slow down. You’re not pushing, you’re completing a sale … vast difference. Remember, they WANT your work! Congratulate them as if they’ve made a grand investment and are taking home pure gold; your art. 🙂
      The first scenario is ideal. Option B is only terms. “Let’s set up an appointment next week so I can bring the piece to you. Let’s go over those approval terms again. I need your credit card, and remember I won’t charge it unless you decide you want it. What day works better for you? Your address?” Complete the approval agreement you brought, press for an appointment, get the address, email, phone number and confirm a time and date.
      I bring blank consignment and approval agreements with me to every show ready to complete. A buyer is assured when you are professional and prepared. Don’t be vague and avoid a second engagement if you can complete the transaction then and there. Compare this buying experience to other retail; auto, real estate, jewelry, whatever. Art isn’t all that different than other industries.

      1. Jackie,

        Using an approval is a brilliant idea because it puts the art in potential buyer’s hands and in their home, and it has a high “convenience quotient.” My experience tells me that once it’s there, they will probably keep it. They liked it enough to take it home in the first place, and they likely won’t want to go to all the “trouble” of repacking it and bringing (or shipping) it back to me or the gallery. At the end of the approval period – bingo! – the sale is completed automatically with no further action on their part (the convenience factor).

  4. I usually open a conversation with a welcome to the Gallery and ‘have you been here before’ and I also ask if they are local or from outside the area. This sometimes gives a clue as to their buying level – outsiders normal buy small locals may just be looking and often buy larger. If they are regulars they’ll say so I let them do the rounds but tell them who is on display this month – as we have monthly change overs of our member’s work. After a greeting (and research discussion) I wait and just stroll around waiting, waiting for a moment to talk again. When they pause in front of a painting for more than a few seconds or maybe discuss it with another person visiting with them, I’ll step in and say ‘do you like that one particularly?’ or ‘is there something special you like?’ Then we can talk further. If they say ‘I’d love to buy it’s to expensive for me’, pointing them to another similar work may solve that problem or suggest we do have a layby system in place for a max of three months. I may ask about their color scheme, or ‘is it for a present’. We are happy for them to photograph (using a phone only) the work as reproduction is difficult from phone images. I tend to talk about the work and don’t use the sale dampeners you mention. Yes it is a hard time to sell here in Australia (all over the country I hear) but at our gallery we do sell some works each month and now leading up to Christmas everyone is thinking presents, so we have produced cheaper merchandising – tshirts, cards, mugs, small reproductions of works and smaller cheaper artworks. This is starting to work too.

  5. We are fickle creatures, and I think Jason is right. You have to close the sale while the collector is hot. Otherwise, they leave, their mind wanders onto other things, and they realize that they can live without the piece. I do this when I shop. I see something that I’m considering buying and leave it sit, then I walk around the store more. 10 minutes later, I ask myself if I’m still interested enough to buy it, and sure enough, most of the time I tell myself that I can pass on it. My desire level/compulsivity went from a 7 or an 8 to a 3 or a 4 in 10 minutes of looking at other stuff. “Fine art…fine art…get it while it’s hot!”

    The interesting part is that silent moment of tension when the collector is waffling over purchasing. I think what Jason says is, “Can I ring that up for you?” or “Can I wrap that up for you?” That’s the best response.

    I think I’m getting this better with repetition.

  6. I know my fear of rejection is a bog reason I don’t sell. I don’t feel my work is good enough and I’m afraid to show it because of that. I have had some sales though, and they always bolster my ego and remind me that I am good and that my work is worth having. I tend to sit back and avoid talking to the people who stop at my booth at a show. It isn’t that I’m not interested in them, or that I don’t want to sell my art, but I can’t think of anything to say. I’ve tried talking to them about where they are from and all, but then I can never get them around to talking about my art. They just walk away. I think I need a sales person to take over selling my sculptures.
    I did have one person very interested in one piece until he asked if it would hold wine bottles and I had to tell him no. His wife told him it is art. Deflating is the word for that experience.

  7. Beth Marcus

    I was getting ready for a new ArtFair I had entered this past summer . I received a email from a collector saying she was very interested in purchasing a Bear I had done for her new baby’s room. We had a couple of email exchanges telling me how much she & her husband loved my work. So I was feeling excited thinking I had a least one sale . It was a one day AF it rained of & on all day . She didn’t show ( I kept looking for pregnant women) .
    So my assumption was she had visited my booth & decided that she didn’t want it . I was really bugged about this & a friend suggested I send a friendly email to her . And then I thought WWJD ( what would Jason do) . So I sent a friendly note saying I hope I hadn’t missed them when I was on a break . Of wich I take as few as possible & as fast as possible. She replied – they decided price of the piece was too much for the kids room & the weather kept them away.

    My take away – I was proud of myself for contacting them & getting a answer. On the plus side I sold the Bear at the next show & the collectors that bought the Bear also just purchased a piece from from the current show I’m in & have a hold on the piece I’m working on ! So I guess it has all worked out for the better (-;

  8. Thank you for the connection into artists selling at shows. I have sent it on to 120 artists from my last year show. We are always looking for ways to help artists sell their art.

    1. Wow Jason! You always hit the right note at the right time. This is exactly the information, guidance, and push that I need. I’m looking forward to the rest of the advice regarding “selling our art”. Thanks so much!

  9. Thanks, Jason! It’s great to see the list of phrases that will kill a sale. I’m sure I’ve been guilty of saying most of them. This truly helps!!! I recently did a juried art festival in Chicago and one man was very interested in having me paint a commission for him. He did not object to the price I quoted him and asked if I usually got a % down. I said that I usually took 50% down and to make sure I had his email so we could discuss the project further…BIG MISTAKE! I should have asked for the money and had a consignment agreement for him to fill out on the spot. I’ve emailed him about 6 times with no response, but will keep trying until I get a definite “no”.

  10. Last year was my first time to actually get to interact with potential clients instead of having a gallery do the work. I quickly learned that Jason is 100% correct about the importance of asking for the sale. instead of telling the hesitant buyer they could take the piece home and then decide, I said “Since this piece speaks to you, and I do not do giclee prints, why not buy it now, while it is still available … live with it awhile. It is important to me that you absolutely love any artwork you purchase of mine. If you find it doesn’t suit you, you may return it within a two week period at no charge. ”

    This was easier to do, because I truly do not want anyone to regret a purchase of my art.

  11. The first two paintings from my new series hung on the walls on opening night. They had sold before I arrived that night, about five minutes late. A rather tall gentleman whom had been invited by another artist in the group show kept coming back to take a look. He wandered a little further away and turned around when he caught sight of the painting from a distance. He let out an audible gasp and came over to share his decision to buy. My reaction was relief that it had already sold and I did not have to ask for a sale… I did not even get his contact information for later shows. Live and learn I suppose. I really wonder if can learn this skill. The lessons are many and the results are few…

  12. Lots of good bits of advice in this article. I am definitely much better at creating my art than selling my art. That’s why I let galleries do the work for me! I often hear people say that their walls are full. I too have no way to answer this. Thanks Jason for sharing your tips with all of us.

  13. What about commission works? How do you get them on board? there’s a woman who sees my work regularly, loves it, and has a bare spot on her walls. Alas, it’s bigger than what I usually paint I’d love to paint big, but I don’t have the cash or space to go bigger than 16×20″ “on spec”), and when I drop hints that I’m available and willing to paint to (more or less) order, she always backs away with “I don’t know what I want.” I just can’t seem to get her to consider more seriously. Any ideas?

    And while we’re on the subject of commissions, what’s a gallery’s perspective on being a facilitator for commission work? I recall, I believe it was Fredrick Church, who would have shows of essentially studies, and then people would order larger, studio works based on them.It’d be a dream arrangement to find a studio amicable to such a marketing platform.

    1. I see two options:

      1.Paint that large piece for yourself, something you would be happy hanging in your house in a large spot and offer it to her, but take it yourself if she doesn’t want it.

      2. She is just a wishy washy person who will never commit but likes the attention she gets from you by continually being indecisive. Read between the lines, she will never buy a piece from you.

  14. I lost a sale because I told a woman what I saw in my abstract piece (she did ask) and it was not what she felt when she saw it. I saw her joy deflate and her attitude change to say she would have her husband look at it. I knew better, but let my mouth run rather than listening!

  15. I always have lots of people come into my booth and spend a lot of time in there looking at my needle felting, asking questions, saying how they have never seen something like that and they LOVE IT and wouldn’t so and so love it too, and how nice the quality is etc. But a lot of them end up leaving my booth not even buying some little ornament. After reading this article I will stop putting out business cards now at shows because I think it may stifle some possible sales when they can take a card with a nice picture of my work on it and be satisfied instead of purchasing the work (In the same way Jason talks about not giving out a brochure). I will still put business cards with each order and give them out if asked for them, just not in a stack where the person can take one without even having an interaction with me to get it.

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