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Making the Connection: Customer Relationships That Build Your Business

Have you ever wondered why you often find a coupon tucked inside your cereal box, or get invited to a customer preview sale at your favorite department store? Those companies know that their existing customers are the best - and most profitable - customers they'll ever have. So it's not surprising that they'll do whatever they can to keep these customers happy and coming back again and again.

Believe it or not, the same concept holds true for your art career. While you don't want to ignore potential customers, you'll find that when you pay a little more attention to the customers and collectors you already have, it will really pay off - in increased sales and profits for your art business. The following 10 practical strategies will get you started.

1 - Understand how and why your customers buy art

Put yourself in your customers' shoes. What's in it for them when they purchase your art? Maybe they feel great about owning a piece of original artwork. Or they're happy to support an emerging artist. Perhaps they're looking forward to showing their new painting to friends. Start listening to your customers and asking questions, and you'll learn a lot - fast.

Don't underestimate the power of being an art collector yourself. You'll know firsthand how your collectors feel when they purchase your work, and you'll be a great role model for them. Even better, you'll be supporting other artists.

2 - Make the first purchase a fabulous experience

When you sell a piece of artwork, remember that it's also an exciting event for your customers. So let them be excited about their purchase. Accept any compliments graciously. Then share something personal that lets them know that you're excited about the sale, too. Tell them how the sale is meaningful to you: It's your first; your first to someone in New Jersey; your first in this series, or your last one like this. A positive connection now can pay off for years to come.

3 - Be businesslike in everything you do

Treat your art as a business, and treat your customers in a businesslike manner. Be meticulous about meeting deadlines and keeping appointments. Always provide the materials or information you promised - complete, and on time. And remember to thank your collectors personally when they attend one of your shows or support you in any way. A quick note or an e-mail will be appreciated, and remembered.

In addition, be businesslike when you price your artwork. Keep your pricing consistent: from the gallery to your studio, and from city to city. And stick to your prices no matter what; never discount your work.

Naturally, it makes sense to present yourself in a professional manner every time you show someone your work. That said, never try to be someone you're not. Let your personality come through, and you'll be the best businessperson you can be: you.

4 - Make it easy for your customers to purchase more of your work

I was at a friend's house recently and admired a beautiful hand-made journal she'd purchased at a local craft fair. Thinking it would make a perfect gift for another friend, I asked for the artist's name. When she didn't remember, we looked inside the journal and discovered the artist's name and phone number were nowhere to be found. The result? He or she lost a sale.

Put your contact information on everything that leaves your studio: letterhead, invitations, show announcements, note cards, etc. Affix a personalized label on the back of each painting that includes your name, plus your e-mail address or Web site.

And send your new collectors home with an "Artist Pack": a professional-looking folder with your business card, resume, artist statement, bio, articles about you and by you, and so on. You?ll be amazed at how often your customers will share it with their friends and associates.

5 - Ask for another sale

When liquid shampoo first came out, it gave consumers a convenient and easy way to wash their hair. "Lather and rinse," the label said. But shampoo sales really took off when just one word was added. Your shampoo bottle now says, "Lather, rinse, and repeat if desired."

Repeat sales can revolutionize your business, too. So display your work in your home and studio where visitors will see it. And when customers are making a purchase, be bold: Ask them if they'd like to purchase a second (or third) piece. Ask your collectors for referrals to another collector, or to a shop or gallery where they think your work might fit in. Or suggest a commissioned piece you'd like to do for them. The key here is to ask for the sale.

6 - Upgrade your customers

Another way to increase your income is to upgrade your customers to a more profitable product ("deluxe" shampoo for color treated hair, for example). It's really pretty easy, once you get the hang of it. Here are some upgrade ideas that have worked well for my clients:

? Encourage your customers who ordinarily buy giclee reproductions to purchase an original painting.

? Introduce your existing customers to some of your more expensive or larger pieces of art.

? If you have collectors who so far have bought only your sketches or drawings, suggest they purchase one of your paintings next time.

7 - Cross-sell your customers

Cross-selling is simply selling your customers something different from - but related to - what they're already buying. Think back to the shampoo example. Wouldn't it be relatively easy to cross-sell hair conditioner to someone who already uses shampoo?

Now take a look at your own artwork. Cross-selling might mean selling a piece of your pottery to one of your painting customers, selling a painting to one of your sculpture collectors, or suggesting your art note cards as an add-on sale when a customer stops by to pick up his pet portrait. Be imaginative, and you can increase both sales and profits.

8 - Get to know your customers and collectors

Remember that your customers are people first, customers second. Take your relationships beyond "business" and build personal relationships, as well. If appropriate, invite them to social gatherings, send a holiday card or drop them a postcard from your favorite vacation spot.

When you're chatting with your collectors, make it a habit to listen for important dates and occasions. Then remember their very special occasions with an artwork gift. Imagine having a small piece of your artwork forever connected in your collectors' minds with their 50th anniversary, the birth of their first child or grandchild, or their son's graduation from medical school. Sometimes a little goes a very long way.

9 - Let your customers get to know you - and your art

Don't you just love it when you get to watch another artist at work and see for yourself how they do what they do? You're not alone.

Almost all art collectors are curious about how you create. So it makes good business sense to find ways to share your process with them. You might invite them to an informal demo. Show them photographs of the location that inspired you. Or even let them try the process themselves. Take the time to show your customers what makes you and your art unique.

Customers who understand how you apply your paint, why you use those strange-looking long brushes, or how you get so many layers of color onto your canvas are not only educated about what you do - they're interested in what you do. And that will translate into more sales, and more referrals.

10 - Build strong, ongoing relationships with your collectors

Don't be shy about asking your customers for advice and input, whether it's on how you showcase or hang your work, or on new projects or techniques you're trying out. Do it one-on-one, or host a studio open house (notice I did not say "studio sale") to find out what they think.

And when you've just finished a new series or collection, or you're ready to hang a new gallery show, invite your best customers to your studio for a special preview of your new work. They'll love it.

Most importantly, be yourself with your customers and collectors. Yes, you may meet a collector or two who wants to be dazzled by art double-talk and rhetoric. Most collectors, however, will want to get to know the real you. They'll love hearing about your feelings about your artwork, some of your artistic quirks - and even some of the mistake you?ve made.

Once customers and collectors really connect with you and your work, they'll be back for more. And that's good for every artist's business.

Best-selling author Kathy Gulrich helps clients get from idea, to action, to results - more quickly, and more easily - whether they're looking to write a book, develop a new product, or market their product or business. Clients love her direct, no-nonsense approach - and her gentle insistence on great results. Find out for yourself: Check out one of Kathy's teleclasses, or pick up a free worksheet, at http://www.smARTbusinessCoaching.com

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