There are times when sales come easily. The stars align and you have the right piece for the right person at the right time and everything clicks together. You and the client may hit it off and establish a great long-term relationship.
At other times, you have to work a little harder to make things come together – perhaps searching your inventory, or even creating a new piece for the buyer. If the customer is excited about the process and you can provide great service, the client will look at you as someone who has gone above and beyond to help them meet their needs.
Then there are those times when everything seems to go wrong despite your best efforts. This may happen even when you have done everything in your power to make your customer happy. Let’s face it, some customers are harder to please than others.
How I Deal with “Difficult Customers”
One particular experience sticks with me. On a Saturday afternoon, a couple came into the gallery and fell in love with the work of one of our artists. Ted and Beth (names changed to protect the innocent) both liked the artist’s work and, while working with one of my staff, indicated they would like to see a couple of pieces in their North Scottsdale home. There was only one problem: this home was a second home for them, their primary residence is in the mid-west, and they would be leaving Monday morning. They wondered if there would be any possibility of having us take the artwork out to their home Saturday evening or sometime Sunday.
My staff member came to my office and explained the situation. I came out to meet the clients and let them know I would be happy to make arrangements to show the pieces in their home that evening. I called my wife, Carrie, and told her we would need to modify our evening plans to accommodate the delivery, and she agreed to drive out with me to the client’s home.
When we arrived, Ted and Beth showed us in and indicated two spaces they were considering for the art. Their home was beautiful and the art was going to fit beautifully. One of the spaces was already occupied by a large painting in a heavy frame. I offered to move the piece to a new spot so that we could hang the new painting. Typically moving a piece of art is no big deal for me. After all we do it all the time in the gallery, but this piece was behind glass, heavy, and had mirror hooks instead of a wire, so it required a lot of measuring and grunting to get it hung in its new space. We then proceeded to place the two pieces we had brought.
Let me pause the narration to say that right away we could see that Ted was high-strung, impatient, and more than just a little grumpy. He was polite enough to Carrie and me, but he was clearly impatient with Beth, who immediately proved to be indecisive. The first, smaller piece was immediately a good fit and seemed a sure thing. The second, however, she wasn’t so sure about. First she worried about placement, then she worried about colors in the rug in front of the art, the size of the art, whether Ted really liked the piece, and so on. This was enough to make me a little nervous about our prospects for closing the deal. It doesn’t take much for someone to talk themselves out of buying, and, in spite of my best efforts to reassure Ted and Beth that the art looked great, it was clear we weren’t going to get an immediate decision.
“I do love them both,” she finally said, “I’m just not totally sure about this one. Can I live with it overnight? I think it’s going to be great, I just want to be sure.”
Carrie and I agreed to let them keep the piece on approval if they would let us know first thing in the morning.
“We haven’t even talked about price yet,” Ted said. “I guess we talk about that in the morning, after we decide if we want to keep both pieces.”
I let them know the retail prices but agreed we could offer a collector’s consideration if they purchased both pieces. Ted thanked us for coming and said he would call first thing in the morning.
Carrie and I discussed the encounter on the drive to dinner and decided there was a little better than even chance they would keep both pieces.
True to his word, Ted called first thing in the morning. “We like both pieces, and if we can come to an agreement on pricing, we’ll take them both. Give me a number.”
“Sure,” I said. At this point I would typically reiterate the retail price, tell the client what the tax would be and then make an offer. Ted cut me of three or four words in.
“Look,” he said, “I’m not an art collector, and I don’t want to do the dance where we go back and forth. You just give me a number and I’ll say yes or no. And don’t even talk about tax.”
I was, perhaps, a little taken aback with the brusque nature of his interruption, but I pride myself on being able to think on my feet, and so I did some quick math and gave him a number.
“That’s not quite what I had in mind,” he replied. He told me he would be willing to buy the pieces at a certain percentage off the retail, and I would cover the tax. I did some quick math and realized the total discount was going to be deeper than I would normally give.
“Let me do some checking and call you right back,” I said.
“That’s fine,” Ted replied. “I’m not going anywhere until 11.”
I hung up and started doing calculations, and weighing the best way to proceed. Several of the factors I contemplated were the amount of time I had been carrying the work in inventory, the likelihood I would be able to sell them to someone else in the near future, and a recent conversation I had with the artist about his desire to boost sales.
Though I called back within a matter of minutes, Ted didn’t pick up and I got his voice mail. I left a message detailing a counter-offer that was very close to his offer and requested he call me back and let me know if we could close the sale.
I didn’t hear back from Ted until Sunday evening.
“Listen,” he said when he returned my call, “I told you I don’t want to go back and forth, and I made you an offer. If you can meet the offer we’ll take the two pieces. If not, that’s fine, we’ll pass on the pieces.”
If you have ever been in a similar situation, you know that a thousand thoughts and emotions cross through your mind. The first is a raw irritation that the guy is being abrasive about the process. I love negotiating, and my goal is always to have everyone come out a winner, but it’s hard not to get caught up in the emotion of a moment like this one. Let’s face it, the emotional reaction would be to tell the guy to take a leap; it would be more than just a little satisfying to do so. And it would accomplish . . . nothing.
I knew it would be better for me, and for the artist, to concede that last few hundred dollars and make the sale happen. “Ted, it would be my pleasure to accept your offer,” I said “I can make it work.”
“Great,” Ted replied. “Let me give the phone to Beth and we can arrange getting a check to you.”
“Thank you,” I said, “it’s a pleasure doing business with you, and I know you are going to enjoy the art for many years to come.”
Ted handed the phone over to his wife and I got her email address to give her instructions for mailing the check.
After hanging up, I told Carrie we had done the deal and we celebrated. Even after the discount, this was a significant transaction.
Monday morning I get a voicemail from Beth:
“Hi Jason, this is Beth, you brought the art out to our house Saturday evening. Anyway, I woke up this morning and was looking at the bigger piece and decided that I’m just not as sure about it as I would like to be. I just don’t think it actually is quite as right for the space as I hoped. I am afraid I am going to have to ask you to come and pick it up. I’m so sorry. I am leaving for the airport at 11:15, so I wondered if there’s any way you could pick it up this morning? Please call me back.”
Unbelievable! Again, my raw response was outrage. I had bent over backward to accommodate their needs, and now they were backing out of our deal! I was seething and picked up the phone to start to dial. Halfway through the number I paused, took a breath and hung up. Years of working with customers has taught me to never react to my emotions, and if ever there was a case for waiting ten minutes to cool down, this was it. I ran through the different approaches I might take in returning the call and immediately eliminated the ones that involved any form of irritation, outrage or emotion. There was still a second piece of art in play and the possibility of a future sale for the space we were losing. My cooler head prevailed, and when I finally called back I was in a much clearer frame of mind.
“Hi Beth,” I said, when she answered, “I received your message. I am so disappointed you don’t think the piece works. It looks so great in the space. Obviously our goal is that you be 100% happy, but are you sure you want to give up this piece?”
“Thank you Jason,” she replied. “I am so sorry, but as I got up this morning and saw it in a different light I just realized it wasn’t the perfect piece. I want to keep the other, but I want to wait to find just the right piece for this space.”
We spoke for several more minutes and made arrangements to have the first piece picked up and to get payment for the second piece (of course the previous day’s negotiated price was out the window).
Even after our conversation I sat thinking of different directions I might have taken in responding, but I’m convinced I took the right one. Yelling at the customer and displaying my outrage would have been extremely satisfying, perhaps even cathartic, but not particularly productive. I would not only have lost the sale of the one piece, but the second as well, not to mention any future sales.
When dealing with difficult situations, I have developed and try to stick to several principles. I’m not perfect, and not every outcome is positive, but I can say that I have had many difficult situations turn into sales and have had some of the customers involved in those sales turn into repeat customers.
1. There are no difficult customers, just difficult situations (and yes, I know the title of this post ignores this rule, but I had to get your attention somehow). The moment you start thinking of the customer as “difficult,” you are going to tend to escalate the situation. As you think of them this way, everything they do tends to reinforce the perception. You are also going to tend to react emotionally to what your client says or does. Maintaining your professional demeanor is critical if you have any hope of turning the situation positive.
2. Don’t take it personally. “Sticks and stones,” the old adage begins, and remember that the only way something your client says can bother you is if you allow it to. It can also help to remember that I am surely not the only one who has had this kind of encounter with this particular customer. For whatever reason, their nature is to approach this kind of situation with a grouchy, antagonistic, caustic, or rude (or perhaps, all of the above) attitude.
3. Take time to cool off. Our gut reaction – the emotion that boils immediately to the surface – is often not the best reaction. The heat of the moment can lead you to say things you may later regret. If a conversation or situation starts heating up, tell your client you need a moment to consider what they are asking. Step away if the encounter is live or offer to call them back if you are conversing via telephone. During the break, consciously examine your emotions. Ask yourself why you are feeling stressed. Analyze what the customer has said. Even if the client has said something ridiculous or made an unreasonable demand, pausing to reflect on the best response is always a good idea.
4. Be courteous. Using civil words like “please,” “thank you,” and “it would be my pleasure” can help to calm any tension.
5. Keep your eyes on the prize. Remember, the goal is to close the sale, or, at least, keep the door open for future sales. As you keep this forefront in your mind you will be able to work to find solutions to the challenges instead of adding fuel to the fire. When formulating responses ask yourself, “How can I say this in a way that will move me toward the sale?” Some salespeople or artists will argue that it’s better to simply refuse to work with difficult customers because you can always sell the art to someone else. I disagree. I have missed an opportunity to sell only to have the piece of artwork remain in inventory for months before finally having to be sent back to the artist. One bird in hand really is better than one in the bush. Unless you are extremely low on inventory, selling a work of art to a difficult customer won’t necessarily prevent you from selling to a future customer. No matter how you cut it, it’s better to make every sale you possibly can.
6. Know your limits. While I am an advocate of negotiating to close sales, and of accommodating a customer’s needs in any way I reasonably can in an effort to be of service, I also understand there have to be limits. I obviously can’t give art away for free, and I can’t provide service that will prevent me from taking care of other clients. If a client makes demands that go beyond those limits, remain courteous and calm, but let them know that you aren’t able to honor their request. Phrase your refusal in a professional and polite way, but be firm. If the client has asked you to discount beyond a point where you are comfortable, say, “Thank you for your offer, and I have worked very hard to accommodate your request. It would be my pleasure to offer the piece to you at $ ________. This is a great value for this piece.” If the client declines, thank them for the opportunity to work with them, and let them know if anything changes and they are able to meet your last offer, you would be happy to be of service. (Of course, there is a lot more to the negotiation process, and it’s not my intention to go into negotiation here, but when negotiations become combative or come to a stalemate, you want to exit with grace). Notice that I am not offering any apologies, excuses, or arguments as I decline an offer. I have found argument and excuses never get you anywhere, and apologies imply that your last offer was deficient in some way. When you reach your limits, draw a line in the sand and let your customer make the decision whether or not to meet you.
Of course, every situation is different, and working with difficult situations often requires thinking on your feet and adapting to the specifics of the encounter. If you follow these principles, I can promise you better outcomes when you encounter difficult sales scenarios.
I can’t say I always enjoy difficult situations when I am in the midst of one, but there is a tremendous feeling of satisfaction when you resolve a difficult situation successfully.
How Do You Deal with Difficult Sales Situations?
What has been your most difficult sales experience? How did you resolve it (if you did), or what do you wish you would have done differently? What is your philosophy when dealing with difficult sales situations? Please leave your comments below.
I’m probably twice your age, and I wish I had your skill and experience. What a wonderful example of “holding your tongue.” I’d have had to rely on the Lord, if I;d even thought to include Him, for help in that situation. Good for you!
Thanks for the tips!
Perhaps you can help me resolve this … a friend wants to buy a triptych, so I let her bring the paintings to her home to make sure they work in the space she has in mind. Next time I see the paintings, one is damaged–it has obviously been dropped on its corner–but she and her husband are still undecided about a purchase. What to do?
The damage is probably covered by their homeowners insurance policy. Or your own business insurance coverage. Before you proceed, talk to your insurance agent. If they buy, it’s moot. But if they don’t, tell then you will be filing a claim when you pick up the artwork.
Thank you for share your valuable experience with rude clients!
I have to learn from you!!!!!!!
You are twice….no three times the man I am.
A couple times I have delivered my own work to a client to find them hedging on the agreed to price. One guy took cash out of his pocket and said, ” I’ll just pay you in cash then we won’t need to deal with taxes and you can knock off a little too”. I patiently explained my situation of earning so little, reminded him that his shoes and suit was probably more expensive than my sculpture and then picked up the piece and headed for the door. He relented. I left feeling cheap and used even though I sold the piece for full price.
Another time I installed a piece according to the owners wishes even though I had suggested it may not look it’s best that way. The owner refused to pay full price because it didn’t look right. I reminded them this was my fear and said I would re-install my recommended way at no additional charge. The customer refused. I said, “OK, I’ll just come and remove it”. I got paid, in installments, but never the full price. I finally just quit sending a monthly invoice for the balance. News about this got around and the client had a difficult time finding people to work on their multi million dollar lake home. I still feel like a looser on that one.
The story I’ve made up about these things is, some people care more about chasing a deal or holding power over us poor artists in some way. Fortunately, these happened long ago. They were great lessons and now if I get a funny feeling about a client I trust my gut and proceed with caution.
I’m convinced the most important principle is to never take things personally. Developing a thick skin can help with any client. I need only remind myself that they like my work, or we wouldn’t be having price negotiations in the first place. I enjoy negotiating with collectors, and it can be quite a rush going back and forth, and finally reaching agreement. Every client has a slightly different style. A lot of what comes from “difficult” clients is nothing more than their attempt to get a lower price. It’s just so important to have fun with it, and to enjoy the sales process. You need to know the dollar amount below which you refuse to go, then get in there and make a sale happen. I’m never afraid to walk away from a sale, but I try hard to never let that happen.
Sometimes your most difficult and whiny customer turns out to be your best fan and referral base. They might be a huge center of influence that is better to have them utter compliments than tell everyone how unhappy they were with you (which they will do at the drop of a hat). Best to try to please them if any way possible in the long run. I have worked for myself for 31 years and most of my customers become my friends and associates down the road. I don’t mean losing money to them…just working the deal so they seem happy about it and you still can make a living.
I’m a mural painter so my situation is a little different as my work is not done before the client buys it. I always guarantee my work (and always give them more than they bargained for) and this has served me well for decades. The only time I’ve had a problem was when I was first starting out, in the “starving” stage of my career. A man with an antique store comissioned me to paint a mural on his delivery truck of antique furniture in an arrangement. We came up with a very nice design and I got to work and finished the first side. It was beautiful if I may say!
But then his WIFE got into the mix and decided she didnt like the antique pieces I painted, not the quality of the painting, but the pieces themselves and wanted me to change it. I’d worked my buns off on that mural with my client watching it’s progression and it was beautiful. My client was mortified but had to do what his wife wanted (yikes). I told my client I would do the other side to his wifes’ liking but would not change the agreed upon first side. His wife would have nothing of this. She wanted me to change it. I told the client no. He was pretty embarrased. He paid me for the work I’d done, plus as I call it, a “nusiance fee” and he left. The half finished van cruised around town for years with my half finished mural on it.
And speaking of that nusiance fee, if my client is a jerk, which has thankfully only rarely happens, I charge double. Once, the client was a jerk not to me but to his female employees. Very frat boy disrespectful. I charged double, then took his employees out for a REALLY nice lunch, told them it was on their boss and told them why. It made their day!
I’m with you-make it work if you can. But, this type of client can be bad for business. The discounts given to them are outrageous, never mind the negotiations on sales tax. You never mentioned the amount of the sale, and that definitely enters in. Also, this type of person will typically have friends that are of the same ilke. Good for you that you made it work, I was reminded of some experiences I’ve had that were very similar. Haven’t dealt with this in a long time-am petrified to encounter this ever again…
Your story reminds me of my days in clothing sales with “picky” people. Although, I couldn’t negotiate on price back then, I can now, and I am learning a lot through your example. Thanks for sharing. Also, you never know why some people are rude or annoying. Maybe they just want to see how far they can push you or want the last word. Whatever it is, staying neutral and deciding just how far in advance you are willing to bend backwards is clearly working for you.
Your story reminds me of an incident that occurred last summer at an outdoor art festival. A man and his wife and adult daughter came into my booth and picked out three miniature pieces – each between 5×7 and 8×10.
The man pulled out a roll of hundred dollar bills and wanted to negotiate. These small paintings were only $150 to $175 each and he wanted to buy two, get one free. He apparently thought a cash deal would make me cave in to his 33% off request.
I politely told him that the best I could do would be a 10% discount. I even told him that my already low prices did not afford much wiggle room on such small artwork.
He kept trying to get me to throw one in for free – still flashing the roll of $100s.
Finally, I got angry and said, You’re asking me to devalue my work. I work hard to produce it and I’m sorry we can’t come to an agreement.
At this point the daughter, who wanted the pieces in the first place, piped up and said, OK, we’ll take all three (at 10% off). The whole transaction left a bad taste in my mouth, even though I made the sale.
Your restraint and forbearance in that difficult situation t is admirable.
I have lost sales and clients because I have let my emotional reactions be the deciding final factor.
Thank you for passing this along.
I’ve found that people respect personal and professional boundaries.
At my old gallery where I worked, the “big” client who got the deepest discounts, with the most ridiculous deadlines, and took well over 90 days to pay those invoices, also had the rudest attitude, and were most likely to return pieces. We were always losing money on this “big” client, while taking their abuse. The owner should have said to them:
1. that discounts are for clients that pay on time,
2. verbal abuse of my staff will not be permitted by any client and
3. large or custom orders have a minimum lead time to ensure the quality and safe packing of the artworks.
These are reasonable boundaries. If someone won’t work within them, they are not worth cultivating as a relationship…to me anyways.
As an artist, negotiating the sale with difficult clients is not easy, as Jason mentions. Often, the client is not always right, but the client is always the client. Selling our fine art is like selling our homes, the moment the decision is made to put our home on the market for sale, it ceases to become our home and is now a “product”. It is not, perhaps, healthy to always think of our work as “products”, they are certainly not that perhaps in our studios, but the moment a decision is made to work with a gallery, they do become products for sale. Again, the terminology is not something we are comfortable using perhaps, but the designation is no less true.
Here again, consider a gallery. A gallery is, in many respects, a retail store. Suppliers are chosen (that would be us as artists), and products from those suppliers (that would be our artwork), is given to this retail space (the gallery) in order to sell and make both gallery and artist income. This is the cycle that matters most in selling our work.
On top of this, Jason’s Gallery (Xanadu Gallery), or any gallery representing our work, has overhead. Payroll, Taxes, Health Insurance, Marketing, etc. As do we. Coming from a business/retail background, one “metric” we used to value our inventory was Cost of Goods. Although it sounds a bit silly to apply this to works of art, there is something very interesting when we look at this art as a product for sale: the longer it remains unsold, the more expensive the product is becoming; or said another way, the longer a work is held but unsold, profit diminishes. So when a potential client is in fact interested in a painting–especially one that is a bit “past due” , the artist is wise to partner with the gallery owner and make the deal for less than the asking price, sometimes much less. These need not be actual price changes, heavens no, but the savvy artist will take initiative on this because the gallery representative can always say to a potential client, “you know, I think we have something you should see” and direct that client to the art that has more negotiable wiggle-room. As Jason said, “a bird in hand is worth one in the bush”, or as I might say it as an artist, “a painting that sells is worth ten collecting dust in the studio!”
Thanks for your insightful comments. I wish I’d had them available to be the last time I had an uncomfortable negotiation on price. I wound up losing the sale, and that wouldn’t have happened with your astute guidelines. I’ll keep them handy for next time. Happy creating – Linda
Welcome to the real world…nothing is done until the check/cash is in your hand !!
My philosophy is: Do I want to “Show & Sell” or “Show & Keep?” It’s no fun being your own biggest collector.
How about the client that bargains you down for 2 pieces. (one you reduce 15%) The other has a very minor scratch on the plexi and you lower the price 35% for her and also offer her a buffer kit to remove it. A week later the bank informs you a stop payment has been made on the check. The client refuses to let you come by to pick up the piece to try to repair it and then sends you an offer to pay for the piece minus the cost to repair the plexiglas and remount the artwork. She has specified a $ 900 piece of museum quality acrylic (for a piece she paid you $1200 for) to the gallery and she wants to deduct another $1200 from the check she gave you. I do wish I had held on to the art-I feel taken advantage of…….
I have had a similar situation, once a check has been canceled and the person refuses to return the art I
contacted a collection agency , was not long I had my art back with a damaged frame , negotiating for a lower price is one thing , stealing is another.
I loved your “difficult story” Jason, because I have been there. My hunch is that your eloquent telling of it was cathartic and thanks for your wise suggestions. Making space to consider what to do makes more sense than going ballistic – a good reminder for all of us.
Thankfully never had that sort of customer or shall I say character. Hope I never do. So sorry you have had to deal with that but, you’ve given us all valuable advice. Thank you and Merry Christmas and Happy New Year.
Peace and Joy,
Helen Horn Musser
Thank you for your insight. It is very helpful and I appreciate your careful and professional handling of the situation. I will keep this in mind when entering into a future negotiation with a client. I also appreciate the additional feedback comments.
I decided many years ago to hold two lines: I don’t do custom work and I don’t discount my work. These lines have served me very well over the years. I respect all my clients regardless of their spending potential, and they respect me because I will not haggle over price or devalue my work.
Very wise to stick to these, so it makes it very clear to potential clients where you stand with your work. We do not discount our artworks, as if we did, it is disrespectful to all the customers who paid full price. Our gallery sets the prices the artworks at a very fair price – not overpriced. We put it at enough for the artist to be happy, the gallery to cover costs, and the client to not be taken advantage of.
one of the things Nicholas Wilton an abstract artist says to buyers wanting discounts..this is the lowest this price will ever be because I will be raising my prices every 6 months.
Welcome to the real world. You went beyond reasonable.
Been an Artist for a long time, I’m just growing and learning the ways of the art world
I find the comments you all have listed is wonderful news I will grow on
keeping in mind the the “SALE” is more important than the Deal or should I say
the dealings of clients. Thank you all for helping me to understand circumstances
I might encounter. Pricing my works of art is my toughest task.
Jason, Thanks for the good advice! About 25 years ago, at one of my first festival art shows, a man stepped into my booth, turned and immediately offered me only 35% of the retail price for a painting. At first I smiled and laughed, explaining that I didn’t discount my prices like that. He repeated the offer. I simply couldn’t resist those emotions…and said, ” please don’t insult me!”…He left and I learned your principle of not responding with emotion. I wish I had read your advice back then and been strong with a positive more professional way. And, I have never seen him again!
Helen, your reaction seemed pretty understandable to me! I too have reacted with emotion when treated like this, and I do wish I had practiced the restraint that Jason has describes instead. A piece of me is tempted to believe that my self esteem was worth more than a relationship with or even a sale to someone who showed me as an artist such little respect. There’s a fine line there; whether we are being “talked down” or “talked down to”.
I found reading your essay extremely interesting and even comforting Thank you for telling it so clearly and thoroughly. I think this may be also of use to other artists.
I often feel the lessons we learn in these situations are beyond what we see in the moment. In the following story there were a few lessons to learn.
I was having a one person show at a university gallery A person who I knew to be a very wealthy art collector came to the opening at the very last minutes of the event causing both me and the Gallery director to stay quite late while she strolled through the show and ended up admiring a piece that had already been spoken for (red dot visible) . She indicated a second choice, but clearly preferred the first, even going so far as to say “why don’t you sell this one to me and tell the other people it’s taken”
The “other people” were friends, who were being supportive to me and unlikely to buy more art in the future, and she was a collector in whose collection I would be proud to be included, but somehow my more honest instincts allowed me to stay focused on greater values and I told her “no” and put the red dot on her second choice. But that’s not where the difficulty ended.
I was out of the country the week the show came down and received a call from the gallery director telling me that when my friends came to get their art work it wasn’t available because when Ms. Collector had already been there the gallerist had allowed her to take my friend’s painting (her first choice)and leave behind the ‘second choice.” The gallery director, who wanted to stay in the good graces of the “collector,” told me that she wanted ME to call the collector and straighten things out. I was pretty unhappy with all this but I thought about it until my reluctance to confront the gallery director’s preferences and and desire to vent to both of them settled down. I got in touch with my sense of proper roles and behavior and recognized a LARGE issue for me was the frequent experience of being treated rudely or even dishonestly by art world related people (Gallerists and Collectors) who often take advantage of artists who tend to be gentler less aggressive souls. I decided to stand up for myself and not be intimidated.
I resisted the urge to tell them all to go to hell and with clarity and calm and the sense that they could do what they want but this is my stance : I told the Gallery Director that since she collects a commission for sales and since seeing to it that the correct work goes to the correct customer is HER job not mine, that she would have to handle the problem. And further more, that if either sale was lost due to the gallery’s “mistake” that I expected to still be paid. In the future I referred to the incident to both of them as “I am sure it was a mistake” leaving it vague whose mistake and there by saving everyone’s face. I was polite to everyone but firm about what needed to be done.
The gallerist, kept it herself and paid me for the “second” choice, which the collector declined to buy when she had to return the first choice. Both were respectful to me in future dealings and seemed to like and respect me more when I wouldn’t let them bully or intimidate me. The collector, after a few years, came to another exhibit of mine and bought a much larger more expensive piece from me. She has attended lectures of mine and basically become a fan/patron, though I admit, I never forget about what happened and am very aware in all my dealings with her that she has “another side.”
I loved your article and yes, we have been in a similar situation. We had a husband and wife come into our studio. They had purchased a painting in the past and now found a new painting they loved to add to their collection. They asked if they could take it home and decide. They did and loved it, came back and paid us. Great. Then a week later they came back, the wife decided it doesn’t go with her furniture and in our whole gallery she couldn’t find one painting that would work. She was difficult and her husband was embarassed. I don’t like that, that won’t work etc. Bottom line we ended up refunding her money and although we stayed polite and helpful, we justed looked at each other when they left like what was that.
Thanks so very much for this blog on difficult selling to difficult people. Often, the difficult persons ego is filled with baggage and anger from other situations in their life. They tend to see the purchase mode as an opportunity to release this baggage onto others, in order to exert control and power. Their abrasive nature, whether using bullying, ostracizing, or invalidation techniques achieve very little. Recognizing that they are using these techniques to one up you will help you calmly deal with the sale and help any potential problems run smoothly. Remember that the difficulty is them, not you.
Patrick and I were talking about this subject last night and how rudely and cruelly he has been treated by so called clients. We are still living in British Columbia and have found Canadians to be some of the rudest and cheapest people we have ever met and that is saying something as I have lived in six different countries and he in three. I wont put up with nonsense as it is just not worth it and I wont give my work away for deep discounts as the so called clients wouldnt give their work away for next to nothing or half price. I let people know up front what the price is and that is that as if they really want it they can buy it and if not go somewhere else. Never act desperate and remember that you deserve to be paid what you are worth for the hours of training and dedication you have put into your work. Also I have found that clients do not respect you if if they can beat you down and have you dance around like a one trick pony for them. I am in my forties now and have seen it all and I dislike how some people think its okay to treat artists thinking that we are desperate. Do we as artists really want people as clients who treat us like this?
Really? People of British Columbia are the rudest people you have met in the whole world? I’m stunned to hear that. Cheap- I’ll give you that. Canadians don’t believe in conspicuous consumption for sure. Rude? That embarases me.
A long time ago I learned that life is too short to have people like this in my life. Less than 20% of customers are like this. I do not do anything special for this difficult 20%. My special treatment of customer is reserved for the lovely 80 % who are easy to work with and my sales are great and my life so much richer.
Jason, your article is inspiring. I don’t know how we could ever go wrong returning a gracious answer, no matter what. I agree that boundaries are important, and unfortunately we don’t usually know what they are until they’ve been crossed. Thanks to everyone for posting their experiences, I learned a few new boundaries from you. My problem is qualifying a client, knowing if they’re really serious or not. I worked in a gallery many years back, and took a truck, with a shlepper, to show several huge pieces in a home, and they didn’t buy anything.
I have done approximately 500 commissioned works over the past 30+ years. I have learned that it’s best to stick to my price. I made the mistake of making an exception recently, and ended up “firing” the client. She kept saying that she “just wanted something simple” so I named a reduced price. Then, of course, it was: “What would it cost just to add in [such and such]?” It became clear that she was in the habit of getting a “special” price. I got very upset and realized I was being taken advantage of. I calmed down before I called her, and let her know that I had made a mistake by making an exception to my way of working, and that I was not going to be able to execute the piece on this basis. The proof that she was a bad guy was that, rather than be embarrassed that she pushed so hard, and try to work it out with me, she was enraged that I had the “nerve” to cancel the contract. I felt great about the outcome; some people (especially the wealthiest ones) use these negotiations as a way of asserting their power and ego, and it’s definitely soul-sucking and not worth it.
Your message was spot on. Before I began selling my work, whenever I was faced with an irritating situation, I learned not to react immediately but to “cool” off as you mentioned and approach it with a calm “head”, I do try to apply that to difficult clients.
I enjoy interacting with clients and talking about my work, I have seen many artists, however, “get in the way” of their work while talking to clients. In that regard I think you are somewhat modest in the fact that you didn’t mention that your professional behavior is a big factor in earning your commission. After all, a dissatisfied client will always associate the experience not only with the gallery, but also the artist. I have a great respect for the galleries which represent my work and feel that they fully earn the commission. I am also very careful about which galleries represent my work.
I am ever amazed at the quanity and quality of work you perform for the artists you represent. I hope they truly realize how lucky they are. You work as hard to sell thier work as they do creating it. I could only wish for a gallery owner to work as hard for me, here in the East. I haven’t found one yet. Most of them will take your 40-50 % but will only hang your work and hope for someone to walk in. They tend to be offended when you ask, “What will you do to promote my work and get you that 50% commission?” Sad. Your advice is always the first I turn to and for the most part, the last word. For one so young you have an old soul. Thanks.
One more question, regarding customers who return a piece, after they’ve paid for it. Shouldn’t there be a non-refundable amount to cover your service?
Love your books, and suggest everyone who sells paintings reads them. I haven’t tried the white kid gloves yet ( I rent a cowshed for selling), but I may try it soon. At least it will keep my hands warm. Thanks for sharing
Well said Jason, and a very good reason for having a gallery handle the marketing.
It is, of course, that much more personal when you are the artist selling your own work.
Sales is a talent all it’s own.
What a story from Judith Margolis! That one takes the cake.
I find it helps beyond measure to understand for yourself where you will draw that line in the sand. A lot can then be said when done so with a smile.
Thank you for this wonderful insight into being fair and insightful. You have given some great ideas for creating a professional guideline for handling a stressful situation. Taking time to breathe and prepare a script is something I often forget to do. Reacting emotionally isn’t a plan for success. I hope this couple can reflect on the fact you were so respectful to them they’ll recommend your gallery to others.
I appreciate your emails with advice to artists. Many of us are painters or sculptors, but not comfortable with marketing and you generously share your experience in that field that is important to us.
I find this attitude common when selling to a customer in North Scottsdale or other high income areas. Often they are rude and pushy because they have more money than you. I have had one great experience with a client in a North Scottsdale home, he was very polite and he even showed me his art collection of Picasso’s and Miro’s. Which are some of my favorite artists. Unfortunately the rude heavily outweighs the polite. From life experiences I have learned to ignore their attitudes and not let it bother me. I love to paint and can’t afford to continue to paint unless I sell my work, so this helps me looks past a clients attitude.
Well, this was a very entertaining read. Thank you for baring your guts, Jason, in living color! And thank you all who added your enriching experiences.
Regarding Jim London’s experience above, with the big deal over the scratch in the plexiglass, wouldn’t an artist/gallery want to be quite clear on which part of the price applies to the frame and which to the artwork? One of my galleries had two columns on its price list: the framed and unframed price. Jim’s experience makes me think I will be more clear in the future that what I am selling is the artwork, and by the way I am including the frame if you wish. That way the liability for the frame doesn’t spill over into my painting earnings.
Joan you are right on, what great negotiation tactics to follow! Sometime as artist we get to emotional and feels get into the Sale!
Commissions are the worst to deal with, so I try only to work through a gallery for that. In one experience I remember, working directly with the customer, I was adjusting the patina on a bronze. He was very worried, and wanted me to send the work back to the foundry. I had to say, “Look, this is my job, and I am the one to decide how to finish it. You just go to the movies and take your mind off it. It is my problem, and I am trained to deal with it. He loved it when I was finished. I had undercharged him in the first place and really could not afford to have it all drag on. This is the most irritating aspect, the buyer’s wish to have a lot of input and control the process. I was very polite. I love all your suggestions.
For me, if someone is that difficult, I just pass. Though this applies to all parts of life, I haven’t yet met any of these ‘more trouble than they’re worth’ ART customers yet.
Thanks for sharing this story. You are very wise in dealing with your clients I am sure. The galleries that sell my art usually give 10-20% as a rule so I take this into consideration when I price my work. I also give the galleries wiggle room but I ask them to consult with me first. On the other hand when I sell my art myself I have to suffer with a lot of customers who want “a deal”. Sometimes it is very discouraging….they want me to cut my prices but then turn around and spend a fortune on framing!!! Most often, more than they paid for the artwork. They never would dream of asking the framer to give them a huge discount! Go figure. But then again, I smile and thank the buyer profusely and hope that he/she will become a repeat customer.
I had a similar experience at an annual plein air event sponsored by a non profit in partnership with my watercolor club and the close National Park. The head of the non profit does a bang up job of organization, fetes for the artists (dinners, gifts etc.) . We have 5 days of painting and an auction which the organizer does a great job getting locals there and out of towners from Salt lake City (lots of collectors). I had done 3 pieces to be hung at the auction. It is a silent auction. The guests can seek out the artists and talk about the paintings. 3 minutes before closing a woman (local) came to me and asked if I would lower my minimum price considerably. Let me give a bit of background. For the previous years and that year I traveled with a friend and her philosophy was to price low and get rid of the work so it didn’t clutter up her house. She insisted my prices were too high. Some years I sold at the auction and some not. My minimum were actually quite low and on point with the 28 other artists. 5 days of paying for rooms, gas, food and since it was watercolors, mats and frames. Not to mention biting gnats and heat or rain, there was no real profit going on here.
My painting in question had won a prize. Being hounded by this friend’s “advice” against my better judgement. I lowered the price and then found out this person had bought 6 other paintings keeping up with the bids, and she advised another local to hit me up for the deep discount, which I honored.
I have never forgotten how angry I felt afterwards. Not only did I feel disrespected ( my problem) but they also undercut the non profit who got 50% of the sales. That non profit was very active in their community and helped many people in that small town.
Needless to say the friend thought I had done the right thing. I to this day feel like I was runover.
I am not a good negotiator. I now stick to my guns. My prices will probably never get lower but might go higher!
Once, when I had a one person art show at a local hospital, a doctor called up and asked how much the painting would cost out of the frame. I told him he was buying the painting, I threw in the frame for free. It would actually cost more, since I would have to drive the hour to pick it up, hour home to take it out of the frame, hour to return it. I also said, “Tell you what- I ‘m coming into the hospital for some surgery. How about if I bring my sleeping bag and pillow and sleep on the floor in the hall, and you don’t charge me for the room?” He hung up on me. It was worth it!
Over the years I have encountered all types of clients; fortunately not too many really difficult ones. I used to take portrait commissions, some with very well off clients. I was commissioned a couple of years ago to paint a couple who seemed very excited about this and we made a date for me to come over to discuss details, take photos, etc., etc. When I arrived with all my gear the man met me at the front door, looked like he was surprised I was there and said, “Oh, we’ve decided to get whole house air conditioning instead.” I had traveled some distance, and they did have my phone number, but hadn’t thought to call me to cancel the commission. I was furious but held my tongue and said that perhaps we could reconsider a future time for the commission. Never heard from them again. When I was a commercial illustrator the hardest clients to get paid by were the big companies.
Wow, I needed to see this last week. A customer just turned me on to you.
I replied to an e-mail with my most difficult customer, but it was after a month of going back and forth. Me giving price breaks to the bone. I didn’t swear, but I did call it as I saw it. And it was honest but rough. I wished I had thought (felt) more mellow. But I sat on it for two days and just seethed. Every time I thought of handling this in a calm manner I knew I was only fooling myself. But after many years of selling my work to the public, he was the first customer I refused to sell to. It has eaten at me to have handled it so stupidly. But I was passed clever and just wanted him to go away.
Usually deep breathing works for me, but I have upped my exercise routine to an hour a day to take care of the stress so far this year. And Jason, your advice to remain apolitical, blind to dress, class, etc., has become invaluable.
This is my first year of seriously working for sales. Many years ago I sold a painting to a friend’s mother that I didn’t really even want to sell. I regretted it for years, and eventually my friend worked out a deal between myself and her mother to replace the painting with another. I learned my lesson from this, and when I started pricing my work, I asked myself how much I could sell it for and still feel good about the sale. After I decide how much I need to feel good, or at least ok, without any regrets, then I add a comfortable extra cushion to that price. I give a “discount”, or “negotiate” with almost everyone who buys and original, but because I price with a cushion, both myself and the client can feel like we got a great deal. If you just assume that everyone will want a deal or a discount, you can save yourself the trouble of feeling upset about it.
Wow, what an article, and so many insightful comments.
Tom Christiansen – I like the fact you compared your work to the suit…. it touches item that we should all remember when selling unique artwork.
1. If they were buying a Ferrari, would they expect to get it under the table tax free for flashing cash?
2. It’s unique artwork. Where else on this planet are they going to get it???
I also think that it’s not good to sell to someone who you end up having ‘rough edges’ with. I would not like a client to be an unhappy client, and remember the battle to get my painting every time they look at it, or worse still, tell others that I was a walkover for a deal or a total b**** for holding out. That level is the difference between ‘there’s no such thing as bad publicity’ and there being a potential referral that gets ruined.
Your story and all those that followed are teaching moments, for sure! Thank you all
for sharing!! Once the art is out there “as a product”……it becomes a game. I find
that people who do have the money, love to “win!” The process can be humbling and humiliating.
My story with selling is I offer to have them take it to their home for about the 1/3 of the worth of the painting and people will not even do that. I have done this for outdoor shows. I have tried to come down on price and the sells that are with good friends I usually give a discount because a follow artist did this for me and felt honor that he would considering lowing his price. Most people probably don’t think the way I do but I feel it is in my best interest and for future sells.
But I have always kept my cool even with the most difficult person but that does not mean I am not upset inside and do get my feelings hurt. Sometimes I come down with price and I still can’t get them to take the product. But I have returned customers with the peopls who do buy. That is my experiences.
Thank you for initiating this blog!! And thanks to all that wrote in! Wonderful to hear we are not alone. I am beginning to really appreciate galleries, particularly as I reflect on the cruel, power-tripping bullies I have encountered. For years I focused on pet portraiture as the clients were more often than not kinder, grateful and the sort of folks you want to be associated with. When I started giving 35% to animal welfare I gained clients that would never go anywhere else.
Regarding other types of artwork, well, my head reels. At my last open studio a “dear friend” noticed a medium sized painting’s (normally $600) label was $240.
She exclaimed loudly to the effect, ‘Great price; I’ll take that one at that price.’ I replied it was mislabeled, I’d come down a little, but it was great at it’s correct price. She went on about misrepresentation; a passer-by told me to agree with the client. I stood my ground as she announced her standard phrase, “I’m done.” (So is any “friendship”) I was greatly saddened and felt slimed from someone that I thought respected my work and actually cared about me. This was actually much worse than the doctor 29 years ago
that got a gigantic discount when he visited my hovel of a studio or the surgeons wife who canceled her bathroom’s mural for wooden shelving to keep a cute carpenter around!@#$% ….it was a big bathroom….
Boundaries are certainly important. I have about five clients I would like to clone. For the rest I should be represented by a gallery and am now (finally!) going in that direction. Thanks for this fabulous forum and a chance to vent!!! I hope 2012 is full of great art sales for all of us and the general public learns en masse that ‘naked wall syndrome’ is a very bad thing and nobody has to live like that! Emily Eve Weinstein
I am a jeweler and do alot of outdoor shows as well as owning a gallery. I often find people asking to get a better price if they buy 2 things..ie. earrings to match a brooch. It honestly upsets me but I just smile and say calmly that my goal is to start at a very fair pricing to begin with…and then go on to say something positive about the pieces. So, there is no movement. I feel that negotiating prices at a show or gallery often “cheapens” the work…and I find it offensive. These are handmade pieces..not manufactured..our pricing process is a little different than a mass manufactured item.
generally people are very pleasant but there are the customers who like to feel they have gotten there way…Ifind the best way for me to deal with it is to maintain a calm attitude and try to tell myself that if they buy it great and if not that is fine too!
Somewhere I read that art isn’t really art until someone buys it. Until then all it is is a storage problem. The fact that someone wants to buy one of my pieces is a small form of payment in itself. I try not to make this to apparent to the client ahead of the sale. I have on occasions, where price was the stumbeling point, offered that the client give me either one half or one third down with the remainder due in 60 days. I wouldn’t recomend this in every case but I haven’t lost yet…fingers crossed! As stated above, creative thinking on your feet can put your art in people’s homes.
Thank you for sharing your experience and meathod. I shall remember this good lesson.
This is so helpful. Thank you for writing it and congratulations to you re your understanding of behavior! Ruth
Somehow it has become OK to ask for a different (lower)price when buying paintings and other wall art. I make baskets and have never had a customer ask for a lower price. Maybe because they are not priced as high as a large painting, but even large baskets are sold for the price marked.
It sounds like you were able to get a non-discounted price for the one piece that they bought, how did that go? Or, did he expect a great deal on only the one piece?
I,ve had experiences similar to yours, but last week’s is a puzzle. A “prospect” saw my work, he didn’t say where and inquired about prices. I responded. He picked one and said he would send me a holding deposit of $500. He said his law firm where he worked would not be distributing bonuses until sometime in December. He sent the check. We made arrangement with our framer for shipping. Time passed and no word . Last week I emailed him to close the sale . No shipping until I receive the balance. His email back is that he changed his mind. I returned his check. Perhaps it is all very innocent but I think he expected me to ship the painting and I would never see the the balance of $2,400.
I think we all have all been in contact with with a difficult client in the past it is no different in any business except that with art I think the client has a less serious attitude because they feel like they can keep it for a day or two which can be dangerous if it lingers too long.
The best client is the one who is sure of themselves and knows what they want and like!
I have also had difficult customers over the years, but someone taught me to ask
“what price were you thinking?” when they bring up the issue of a discount. I don’t always ask that, but often it is less than what you would have given them. This would have been especially helpful with this difficult man as he said he didn’t want to go back and forth. I also think the price should have been agreed upon before you left his house, saying “I will agree to X price if you buy two, here’s the price for one”.
Negotiating in a home while the work is being viewed is new to me as I am a fine jeweler and the negotiations take place in my shop. Now that I also paint this puts a little different spin on the dealings. I could see situations like yours happening more and more. It’s all very difficult, and of course this is all hindsight.
You were clear that you would only discount if he bought two. What happened with the price of the one painting. Did he pay in full?
Jason, all I can say is I would give a lot to have a gallery affiliation that tried as hard as you did in the “Difficult Situation” scenario. My experience as an oil painter with fine art galleries has run the gamut from the greatest; absolute trust on both sides, to anxiety producing. I still believe securing a gallery to sell my art is the highest level of professional standing I can achieve. At this point I don’t think an artist should be doing outdoor art fairs. Many of my colleagues disagree. An artist shouldn’t be competing with the gallery that is trying to sell her work. Currently my paintings are shown in a local gallery within driving distance. The owner knows I will drive paintings from my studio to the gallery if a customer wishes to see more. I refer clients to that gallery. I know the owner handles many situations similar to the scenario you describe. It is a daily struggle and I sincerely appreciate the effort. Some of us in the art creating world have the most inflated egos about what we do. We forget the creative effort put forth by a good fine art gallery in selling our art work. Personally, once the creative process of completing the art work is done, my drive and focus is to assist the gallery in selling the piece. I believe you are right. There are no difficult customers only difficult situations to challenge us. I have been in situations as an artist where I have seen red with an emotional response. Nothing good ever came out of an emotional decision. Your six points are really “Rules for the Road” in our business.
Hi Jason ,
Should we need to study consumer behavior and demographic & psycho- graphic aspects of the clients before we go for the selling of our product (here, it’s an art) ?
A good artist does not mean a good sales man or marketing head always and to overcome this problem, should the artist need to recruit an MBA ? Well, otherwise, the gallery owner or the auctioneer should take the responsibility for the sell, and is not a burden for the artist. The artist’s responsibility is the quality of the product (here, the creativity, the subject and and execution of work) and nothing more. Leonardo Da Vinci was not a good sales-man but, a good creative thinker and painter too.
What’s your opinion on my context, please reply me.
My last sale was difficult for two reasons. One it was to my brother-in-law. While I was pleased he like one of my pieces, the one he chose was not my sister’s choice. It’s a dynamic I decided not to interfere with.
The other reason was that he did not want to pay tax. I hadn’t been refused by anyone before, but I have noticed that people don’t expect it, probably because I don’t have a gallery, or storefront. I paid the tax on the piece I sold my brother-in-law, but I would very much like to avoid this.
Is there a way to present taxes to people?
yes don’t do it say its the government and I’m not playing with them, if I do not charge tax I’m breaking the law not you . I stick to my guns on this one , I have seen a very profitable business shut down and the owner jailed because he allowed people to not pay tax.
I don’t quite understand the tax argument. All you have to do is add the tax into the posted selling price and break it out later when you have to pay the sales tax to your local state comptroller. Simple and easy.
The best way to deal with taxes is to embed them into your prices. Raise the price a little to cover taxes and shipping. I think that separating taxes, fees and shipping may help market things that people shop for on price (for example soup spoons and coat hooks). People shopping for original art are generally looking for something that they really like – in their price range. “Price range” gives you a little more flexibility to create all-inclusive pricing. It also makes it easier for people to shop and to buy your work because they don’t have to worry about the extras putting your piece outside their range.
Hi, Jason, your story shows why all artists need an agent and a gallery to represent them. I’m afraid I’d have blown a gasket and lost everything! Making art is sheer joy – dealing with collectors is not always fun, and I’m glad there are people like you out there to keep our work moving. Good job!
One of my favorite phrases that I use in difficult business situations is “I don’t think we’re going to meet each other’s expectations.” It lets the client know you’re not going to acquiesce to his deficient offer/outrageous demands and that you intend to maintain your standards without offering an apology for doing so.
I have been selling my art for my entire adult life (several million dollars) both retail and through galleries in every conceivable situation. With a hard-driving client paired with a (probably) manipulative partner it is essential to establish both price and conditions of the sale and delivery up front- and in writing. Hard-nosed customers can deal with a firm hand by the seller- they respect this- and indecisive or manipulative customers need to know that once a deal has been struck and money has changed hands they have committed themselves. (And don’t be taken in by this “mismatched” pair who play off of one another.) Of course, courtesy, friendliness, and flexibility are necessary in every selling situation, as in every transaction. But remember, you are selling yourself as much as your art. Personality can make or break a deal, and how you handle a situation will reflect on you and your gallery in the long run. Generally, when I get into the clients’ home, the sale is assured. You can’t win them all, but you can certainly learn from every sales presentation. The lesson in this case? Be prepared, but accept the fact that sometimes you lose. Lick you wounds and move on- older but wiser.
Thank you for your wonderful example of the proper attitude and sharing it with us. I am going to do my best to remember in the heat of a sale your wise words of wisdom. Being an intelligent person who is considerate is always a winning combination even if you don’t get what you want every time!
By the way I put into practice today your seminar teaching on how to present my portfolio to a gallery again. Thank you for taking the time to write and devoting time to seminars. Your message is truly needed by Artists and excellent Galleries. I truly enjoyed my encounter with the gallery owners. You’re teaching made it simple. I just was myself and let the conversation flow from what the gallery owners inquired
i think the problem is difficult to find out the balance sometimes,but i would do what i could do for clients.if i have an owner of gallery just like you,it will be honnor,because i am looking for the gallery and customers for my works.
thanks for sharing the story,wish you all the best in the new year!
Happy New Year!
Jason, very compelling story! Thank you for sharing.
I would like to suggest that artists should go through a business course to succeed on their own. It is not easy to deal with customers and successfully negotiate. I spent most of my life in graphic/Web site business after graduating from an art collage. While it was exciting to me to be a business woman, I said to myself I will only do it while I enjoyed every minute of it, sales including. About 5 years ago, I lost my passion for it and found my calling in painting. Luckily, I have kept my foot in fine art all along. I cannot stress enough how valuable my business experience has been to me.
To keep your cool is so important. Clients don’t care how many hoops you jump through to sell and they should not be concerned about it. As you go to the store and buy something, you know that you can return it if it is not satisfactory. Art is a product to the client. For us artists, it is our soul and heart and we expect the client to look at it the same way. In many instances, luckily, it is appreciated the same way, but often it is not. We, who are selling the painting, should understand that it is not selling this particular painting, it is about marketing ourselves and building a rapport with someone who might buy again and might refer us to people in their sphere of influence. It is about creating warm and fuzzy feeling of satisfaction on client’s side. There should not be disappointment or resentment from the artist or gallery owner if the deal does not go through but an offer of something else to fulfill a satisfaction. If the client proves themselves too difficult, time and time again, then it is wise to cut them loose.
Having a business experience also leads us to ask appropriate questions to get to the bottom of why the client is looking for an art piece and what is it that they are looking for. Sometimes it helps the client to formulate it in their own mind what they like and are looking for.
In my opinion – it is an art to sell.
I am just in the beginning stages of selling paintings, but almost everything Jason wrote rings true in my experience of selling small and medium sized 3 dimensional glass garden art. Only thing slightly different is when you have a “line” (many pieces that are similar in design but in different colors or whatever) you can stand your ground more than if you are selling paintings or things that are more prone to take up valuable retail space and sales are not as predictable. My rule was I never gave discounts unless a customer bought more than one piece, or was already a repeat customer. I had become successful enough to know, and radiate, that if they did not want to pay the price I knew someone else would, usually that same year. Nearly every time I stood my ground they’d come back in and buy it. I even had a visiting friend act as a “dummy customer” once, pretending he was ready to buy. Nothing but a test, to see if the artist believes his art is worth the price tag.
Jason, Thank you for sharing your experience with a customer that might have been a bit difficult. Your right on when you reacted out of your intellect instead of your emotions. Selling is a great skill and something that I’m not good at. That is why I need a gallery to do the selling for me.
What you say rings very true. While I have not had that experience selling art, I have had it as a elementary school teacher. It goes under the category of you never know what the other person is going through. Maybe a loved one is very ill or they have some other huge problem. It could be said that maybe it is not the best time to be making a large purchase but maybe they are trying to distract themselves yet find it hard to make a decision. If you treat them well during this period, they will remember it and be grateful.They might even come back at a later time ,thank you and buy something.
This all came across to me as a waste of your time. There are people who buy art (like those in your story), and then there are those who invest. I see a huge difference in attitudes between the two. Your buyer did say he wasn’t a collector, didn’t he? That would have been my wake up to suggest they go to Walmart or Target. Investors would be much more interested in buying a new rug to go with my work, rather than the other way around. I would expect it. Investors that I work with don’t buy the piece, they buy me and my category. When I first started out – sure, it was by the piece. Now I don’t have time for such foolishness. Here! Take this one, and be grateful!
Just to clarify John – the client did end up buying the sculpture – a $3,000+ purchase, so it’s hard to consider it a total waste of time.
I had my first hard sale last August and it took 6 months to close the deal. I came down 20 % off the price (per your suggestion in your mentorship class) she wanted to give me way less because she was going to give me cash. Even after her numerous hard luck stories in endless emails, I stuck to my guns of only 20% off and eventually she accepted the deal and I personally delivered it to her home about 45 minutes away. I have to say that I definitely took it all personally, so your story has inspired me to separate my feelings way more and be more professional and business minded in the future.
One thing that is worth noting. “Don’t take it personally.” For an artist who loves their work, it is structurally impossible not to take it personally. You got angry in dealing with the customers in the example – and those were not YOUR paintings. Now make it bigger, make it brighter, make it 1,000% stronger and have this be experienced by a person with an artistic temperament … !
I would even go so far as to say that such experiences can cause an artist to stop trying to sell their work altogether.
There is a lot of merit in the system where a sales person is placed between the artist and the potential customer. And although I appreciate that in this day and age, artists are supposed to be excellent bookkeepers, tax experts and sales men and women as well as being artists, don’t beat yourself up if you are an artist and you can’t take it. Just find ways of working around it as best you can and keep on doing your thing. And believe that there are folk out there who will love what you do, and you will find them in due course.
I hope you don’t mind if I am a devil’s advocate here. I have always put myself in the place of the customer. From what I read above, you mentioned before leaving the house on the first visit that a collector’s price would be given if both pieces were purchased. Then when they called the next morning to discuss the price of buying both, the retail price was quoted. If I was the customer, I would immediately question the good will of the seller not to follow through on what they said.
And I really hate negotiating too. To me, negotiating is a big incentive to walk away from making the purchase. But that is how I work with my customers as well. There are defined times I will give discounts and won’t change the rules of when I offer them unless there is a very unusual set of circumstances. It allows me to feel like I am being fair and adds to my confidence level in dealing with customers.
What would have made me feel better as a customer is if before you left the first visit, to know the price of each item if bought separately and if they were bought together with the collector’s discount and have it in writing. I know that as a customer, that would solidify my trust level in the seller. And as a seller, I would feel extra confidence because I know I am covering all the bases and being upfront.
I know art is sold on feeling, but if I am not feeling good about how the seller is dealing with me, it kind of crushes the whole experience for me. But if I feel good about how the seller is conducting business, it validates my purchase by volumes. And I would be most likely telling everyone I know how wonderful the experience was.
Perhaps you should read the article more carefully.
The customers were quoted the retail price in store and tried to negotiate down based on a 2 painting sale.
The customers were then quoted a lower price based on a multi-painting discount.
The gallerist took both paintings to their home to try, uninstalled something big and heavy for free and installed the 2 paintings for the customers (for free! Does IKEA assemnble and place your furniture for free?).
The customers changed their minds about the larger more labor intensive painting
The gallerist had to requote them the one-painting retail price AFTER they ran him around and then changed their minds about the larger piece.
There was nothing to indicate any finagling around prices on the part of the gallerist and I give him kudos for being polite and professional while also treating the art as valuable and for not confusing professional with doormat.
My read on the story in the article is that the customers were trying to gain a bit of psychological leverage by having a large piece installed when they never intended to buy it. The gallerist gets a bit pumped about a good sized sale, even if the margins are tight from the bargaining. They have that lower price quoted on the small piece as part of a 2-painting package. So they hope to wear him down on one or both pieces.
Having standard pricing and discounts for multi item purchases in writing could help deter manipulative customers. However I’ve found that willingness or reluctance to buy original art is as much about the commitment to own something original and make a strong and particular aesthetic and taste statement as it is about the money. Having a price sheet up front can shut down the necessary conversations about what it is they want from the art and might hurt the sale.
Yes, always be polite, and always state your boundaries. What good is it to sell a work when your left with such a bad taste?
Thank you for the great advice, Jason! My first solo show in many years opens tomorrow, and this is something I had not thought enough about! My last two purchasers approached me and didn’t bat an eye at my prices, but I am certain it won’t always be that simple! I need to learn how to keep my pride out of negotiating!
I agree selling is a art, been doing it all my life, but some times you have to draw the line in the sand, had a lady who was a friend come to the studio to negotiate a deal on a painting of a tiger she saw at a show I did, she really tried all the tricks ,oh I don’t have that much , my father is sick and its for him , bla,bla,bla, we could not come to a deal I came down from 500 to 400 as she was a friend, but no deal , she kept insisting 150 I was insulted and refused politely and few weeks later I left for a vacation so was unavailable when I got back , my resort manager where my studio is handed me 150.00 that lady came and picked up the tiger painting , I was very upset to say the least , but did nothing other then tell my manager not to do that again , The so called friend dropped by a show 6 months later and was all friendly and hugs and thank you for the painting my father loved it . Normally I would have let her have it right there, but kept my cool, not wanting to accuse her of thief at the show . She saw a painting she liked and tried to do the same deal . I will come by and negotiate after the show , sorry no don’t do that any more and walked away. one less not so much a friend anymore.
That was theft! I am totally outraged on your behalf.
The only bad sales experience I have had was this. I work in a gallery for regional artists inside a national museum. And a customer was insistent on a museum discount for work in our gallery as she was a member of the museum. We do not offer museum discounts in our gallery. It is a separate but connected entity. She was disgusted that she could not receive her discount as she was “someone”. Other than that, my only problems with sales is that they have been nonexistent lately. The extra bad winter in Ohio didn’t help many of my fellow artists.
Your story about difficult situations – and my own experience with them – is EXACTLY why I want you, or someone else in your position, to handle those situations for me…..
Great story. At first I thought that this was a long post and if I would have time to get through it, but after I started reading it, your entertaining, but straightforward style captured my imagination.
In the end, one could take a viewpoint that the clients weren’t really that difficult. I have a lot of collectors that like to bargain for sport. I don’t understand it, but they love my art, so to each his own. Returning the second piece was inevitable; they just couldn’t live with it. I’ve sold hundreds of paintings online, and I’ve only had four returns. It costs me or my dealer shipping costs when that happens, but it’s worth it for all of the additional sales that a 100% satisfaction guarantee garners. Plus, as an artist, if someone doesn’t absolutely love my painting, I don’t want it hanging in their home. That’s icky.
Anyway, well done all around.
this is exactly why artist need gallery representation to handle this for them
This is an outstanding article. Jason is masterful with tact. On seminar calls he always seems to be thinking of the best way to present questions and information before he speaks. He edits on the fly well. It’s my goal to improve in this area. One of the things that I find works best regarding negotiating price is to let the client know the hidden costs of doing business that they might not be considering. For example, if I need to make an announcement that my prices are going up, I explain that property taxes have increased as well as hay and electric. I don’t get whiny in the announcement; it’s just the cost of doing business and those costs have to be covered. I think people can relate and justify those issues without resentment because they adjust to meet inflation in their own households. I think they loose the pragmatic sense of the cost of items/services because someone “doesn’t want their work devalued”, or they provide “superior service and have gone the extra mile”, or they have “been in their trade for 30+ years”, etc. These reasons, while justified, show an emotional want, not a tangible need. Some people are okay with paying people for their worth, others, not so much. I think you have to be able to “read” the client and the cost of doing business approach covers all types of people.
Where does the artist fit into the deal? Assuming the art was on consignment shouldn’t he or she have been consulted if possible?
Are you splitting the discount or absorbing all yourself?
The artists I represent all agree to share, evenly with me, a discount up to a certain percentage. Anything beyond that percentage I absorb.
Jason, Perfect timing for this post! I have been negotiating with a first time client since late March. Unlike your negotiation on the phone and in person, mine was thankfully done all through email. This gave me time to cool down before sending my response. It also enabled me to look back on our emails over the past 2 months, making sure to catch all the aspects of our negotiation.
I emailed my price for a large commissioned painting and they came back with a 20% lower offer “based on their research”.
What I found very interesting was that they explained they “do not want to negotiate”. I usually find that when people say they are not doing something they usually ARE. Since my prices are the same range no matter where you purchase, it seemed to me they compared my price to that of another artist.
My original price was already at the lower end of my price range for a commission of that size I declined their offer explaining that I needed to respect my collectors and representatives who have already purchased/sold work and my pricing is consistent no matter where you purchase.
They emailed a gallery that represents a similar size piece and decided they really liked the composition of that painting. This was a more complex painting than the one used for the original quote. they offered a price at a 10% discount. I respectfully declined and restated that I must respect my collectors and this new composition was more complex. My email contained a photo of the original composition idea and the new one.
To make a long story short, they signed my contract yesterday! I ended up giving them less than 10 % off my original quote for the more complex painting. I believe that because I took the time to explain my pricing in a calm professional manner they decided to award the commission to me.
I have a 24 hour rule…write the email…sleep on it…reread and make changes if necessary before sending.
Thank you for all your helpful advise!
Jason, this is the best advice I`ve ever seen. It really helps a gal with a bit of an Irish temper! I need to sweep the emotional reaction under the rug temporarily then. Later I will beat a pillow! I`ve only experienced a few difficult transactions in my years but one had me steaming. I had to leave her house and take a drive, then come back and deal more on a reasonable level. I actually had to bring my easel into a client`s livingroom and change the foreground of a large piece so she didn`t see a color that she didn`t like anymore. I loved that color, (red-orange) she didn`t, but she was the one who had to live with it, not me. I wanted to keep the sale, so the artist`s pride has to be quashed once in awhile. I toned down the red-orange with some earthy greens. The red-orange was tile roofs on top of foreground buildings, that is a given aspect of some California homes. She saw it as red, I couldn`t argue with her, her mind was set. When someone`s mind is set and you don`t agree with it, you either huff and puff, walk away or make a compromise. Everyone`s happy now and I was told she felt bad later for insulting my work. No harm caused.
One of my pet peeves – the ‘squeaky wheel gets the grease’ is an old axiom because it is true! If you don’t ask, you cannot get, but there are those who can afford the art less yet value the art/artist and do not ask for a reduction in price. Somehow, it seem horribly unfair to provide benefit to the ones who ‘haggle’ (who usually have money for $5 coffees daily and $50 flip flops in multiples and buy $20 posters to have framed at the local art/craft store for $250) while having the loyal caring clientele bear full price. Unfortunately-because there are some ‘starving artists’ who are always willing to cut a deal, and established artists needing to reduce inventory, and greedy artists who overinflate the original price knowing that they will be donating art and taking reductions-I do not see an alternative that works. How do artists help support themselves and the art community at large in keeping prices fair in a commodity that is based on independent-based value (emotional connection of the purchaser)? Feedback please.
Great story. It is like waiting on tables which I did in college. It teaches you to bite your tongue and keep smiling. The ultimate goal is a happy customer who parts with their money in the end. I found that this type of experience crosses over to art sales too.
I have sold many large paintings, for one of the doctors that I work with. A person was at his home and was impressed with my art and he gave her my contact info. She has written a book and asked me to design the cover for her book and I accepted. We live in different provinces and talked through email. I worked on five pieces specific to her ideas and she loved them all. I had sent her images of the paintings through email. I still have the paintings because she has now decided to shelve the book and work on another one. I have asked her where we were in this and she has not ever answered me back but I am still recieving her blog everyday. I feel like my time was of no importance to her and I feel quite let down that she does not even answer me, especially when I was working on the art, she was always emailing me. We had agreed on a price in the beginning and now the book is shelved and so am I apparantly.
I have completed many commission pieces and have only been let down three times in twenty years. The other two times were clients who paid half of the price and then I was unable to get them to pay the other half. One time many years ago I did a commission piece for someone and after it was complete, she had changed her mind but forgot to tell me. It was a drawing of her dog and I still have it only because I put a lot of time into it and it is my reminder to not let that happen again. Thanks for the insight, it was very helpful.
Super post, Jason. Excellent points and advice (a lot even for everyday relationships!) In the past I’ve had situations where a customer said something or low-balled and I did not attempt to resolve. I had the attitude of “this piece will go to someone else who will really appreciate the piece” and there the piece sits and sits. Right now I’m dealing with a situation that is more of a “sticky” one than a “difficult” one. I have a friend who is a collector that I initially gave pretty severe discounts and now that I’m really trying to get things going (and upon realizing I was already underpricing my work, thus adjusting my prices) it’s been a bit challenging to explain to her why a piece similar to one she already has in her collection is priced higher. It’s tough because she’s easily my number one collector and consistently purchases or commissions a piece every 3-4 months.
I have sold a lot of my paintings but would like to sell more. I think your advice, Jason, is excellent. I’m taking a course called “Self defense for Women” and our teacher told a story of a man very skilled in martial arts who was robbed in a dark parking lot when he had his family with him. While backing them all away from the thief, he negotiated only their safety by giving away their property. At the end, he said, “It was a pleasure doing business with you”. Being polite may have saved them from injury or worse.
Thanks for letting us know this wonderful sales call. This helped me identify that such situation is merely an ‘ Holding your emotions’ approach and not to take it personally. I am glad I read this as I was having a very tough week.
Some great tips for dialogue to use in these difficult situations. I will write some of them down and practise them. I have been in retail for 30 years, and these types of “customers” you can never forget about.
It would be great to get some input in this article from people who do like to get discounts on art, and who won’t purchase unless the artwork gets heavily discounted. Also why they feel that this is their right, or acceptable. I cannot understand their thought processes, but might if it was explained to me.
Jason’s approach, though very commendable, creates problems in that these people will go on and do the same to the next person and so worsen the situation for others ?
Wow! You hit a nerve with a lot of people.
Including me, just a couple of weeks ago at a booth show! Gentleman and his wife came by, saw a painting they really seemed to admire. The next day, they came back. The husband said yes, he loved the piece, and added, “That’s it.” He was holding the piece at the time, and his voice sounded final, accepting. I handed the piece to my helper, and said “wrap it up, please.” He turned to stone, and said “we have other pieces we are looking at.” I replied gently and told him I’d be happy to bring it by their house that evening if they decided on it. He gave me an odd look and walked away. Never came back, and I sold it to someone else. I now recognize that I could have “closed the sale” with a “May we wrap it up for you?” That would have been a defining point in the conversation. Thought about it the whole weekend, felt awful, but it is what it is.
I haven’t had enough experience to encounter a rude person however, because I add an additional 30% to my paintings, I will go down in price as much as 30%. Jason you told us to do that for wiggle room. That way the customer feels like they are getting a deal and everyone is happy. In addition, you handled that situation beautifully! Once the painting is on the customers wall they “have you over a barrel.” What would you do if they didn’t pay you? I would want them to sign an agreement before I would place a painting in their home with a deposit. Am I wrong?
I spent 40 years as a talent agent and negotiating is one of my strong skills. However when it’s a negotiation for one of my pieces, it’s more challenging. I had a woman want to purchase one of my necklaces, it was priced well and she asked if I would take less. I told her I thought it was priced fairly considering the stones and no ( I’m sorry) but I would not take less. The piece looked fabulous on her but she said she wanted to walk the art festival and think about it. About 40 minutes later she was back and said are you sure you won’t take X? I said no, that repeat customers often get a slightly reduced price but if that piece did not sell today, I’d place it in the gallery that carries my pieces. She was not pleased and left with my business card. The following week she calls and describes the necklace asking if I still had it. I had her meet me and she bought the piece. if I’d gotten angry or insulted I’m sure she would not have called. I’m hoping she will become a repeat customer.
Rich people suck.
No – disagree. Most of our clients are great to work with, and I’ve met folks who don’t have financial resources that are just as difficult as these clients.
This article really grabs the attention! I think we’ve all been there. Like so many , I have to continue to practice being gracious, without being obsequious, which is a tendency I have. I tend to be a super agreeable person. But when my dynamite gets lit, watch out–I explode. Your example is very familiar!! I’m still practicing how to deal with indecisive, picky people. Fortunately, ( and I mean this honestly, not sarcastically) my husband is very very particular even I’d say picky. I’ve learned to hunker down and listen to both sides of negotiation process rather than to chime in. If asked, I am decisive. But I wait until asked and my husband has helped me appreciate people with high levels of needs and expectations. It’s been a very good thing ! btw, just for the record, he too has learned there are times to let go of the bone.