Tuesday, February 5, 2008

The Dark Side of a Sole-Proprietorship

It was an interesting year, 2007. No doubt you all have your own highlights .. events or even small incidences that come to mind immediately for the joy or pain or surprise and delight they caused. While I had many positive memories in 2007, one thing that I and many of my artisan friends recognized was an overall slow down during the year .. smaller crowds at shows, more frugal buying habits .. things that alert us, without a doubt, to an economic downturn.

Perhaps it was because of this economic decline that I had a couple of unique experiences that highlight 2007 for me with a big red flag. I had my first ever theft at a show. It just boggled my mind at the time .. it still does. I saw the movement of the hand into a shopping bag. Due to things immediately preceding this action, I knew without a doubt what had just happened; but I didn't actually see the earrings plucked from the rack and popped into the bag - I only saw the tail end of the movement. It was only after the customer (and I use the term loosely) left my booth that I was able to confirm my suspicion. The earrings were gone. I was absolutely certain that this person had snagged them, but much like with the O.J. jury, there was reasonable doubt. I couldn't approach her for fear of embarrassing us both. And I had never encountered such a thing before, so I was frozen with indecision. I was a mess for the rest of the show, fearful that another similar incident might occur at any moment. This feeling was worse than the actual loss of a trifle.

Another relatively unpleasant situation involved having to become "collector" for monies owed. Again, a brand spankin' new ordeal for me. Anyone who has ever been owed money knows how uncomfortable it is to have to request payment for some object, service rendered, loan or whatever .. one would hope that a sense of obligation to pay would be enough. But when it isn't, what do you do??? Well, the "big league" sends out Over Due notices once, twice, maybe a final third time ... and with continued lack of response, it gets turned over to a credit agency, and they get to do the dirty work. Not being anywhere near the big league, my first choice was to print out the original invoices and include a little printed note at the bottom: "Did you forget ..... to remember?", along with a friendly little piece of clip art. I'm not into high pressure. Besides, people forget. I forget. Been there, done that. I didn't want to be nasty, I just wanted to be paid.

When that didn't elicit a response from either of the two parties to whom these reminders went, my second choice was a phone call. One of the two reminders went to one of my larger wholesale customers for a good chunk of jewelry they purchased in early December for the holiday season. It took two phone calls and a couple of days to elicit payment. This was the big one .. this was the check I needed to be able to order supplies not only for three pearl knotting classes I'm teaching this year but also for supplies necessary to re-create some popular designs that several other of my wholesale accounts have been requesting. It was an incredible relief when the check arrived. I fear many of these folks fail to understand that THIS is what I do .. if I'm not selling jewelry, I don't make money. I don't have a full time job on the side. There is no paycheck waiting for me at the end of the week. That invoice IS my paycheck. This is my job ... sell, sell, sell. That's the only way my business account goes from red to black.

And this brings me to defaulter number two - no less distressing for being a vastly smaller amount. A customer (again used loosely) by virtue of owning a bracelet of mine given to her as a gift. As it happens, the bracelet was purchased from one of my other wholesale customers in Clayton, NY. I can't remember how she got my business number, but she called and related a tale of woe - the bracelet had sentimental value as it was given to her by her sister. Plus, she just loved the bracelet. I don't normally do repairs, but I'll always take in one of my own .. and I have done restringing contract work for local jewelry stores. She said she wasn't sure if there were missing pieces, but when she described the bracelet, I knew exactly which it was (a special edition bracelet called "1000 Islands Sunset" made exclusively for this wholesale customer), and was certain I could replace anything that was missing .. so I told her to send it me. She even relayed this piece of information to me via email, which strengthens the sentimental value of her sister having seen the name of the piece and buying it for her:

"Thanks for all the info. My older sister .... came across the bracelet. My grandparents have had a cottage ... on Wellesley Island since the 1950's. The story goes you can spend all weekend in the islands but there are no sunsets until Sunday when the majority of people go home for the work week. So after a few years my family decided to make our plans to stay over for Monday morning so we can watch the sunsets. ... I really do appreciate getting it done so fast. Thank you. I have passed on your website to a few .. here ... and will definitely keep you in mind. Have a Wonderful Holiday! Thanks again, [customer]"

And I DID turn it around fast. In the midst of holiday craziness, both with my business and at the museum with my husband, I set out in order and cleaned every single piece of glass, crystal and sterling silver on the piece, restrung it, and sent it back within a day or two. I replaced a headpin (as well as a couple pieces I neglected to add on the invoice) .. and, my bad, I added one of my "the wild inside" jewelry tags at no charge, but neglected to put it on a separate line with n/c .. so perhaps that annoyed her, I don't know. But I did call her with the intention of finding out if there was something about the returned bracelet or my invoice that displeased her (the total invoice was for less than $20 .. I even charged her my wholesale price for restringing the bracelet!). That was my feeling .. I must have done something wrong, else, why would she withhold payment .. especially after I alerted her the day I sent it out and got this reply:

"Thanks so much for getting the bracelet completed so quickly. I will put a check in the mail for you today. I love the bracelet. It is a sentimental gift from my sister. I used to wear it everyday but I think now I will wear it to work. Any suggestions for cleaning it without harming the wire? Thanks again, [customer]"

But the fourth nasty truth hit me right smack in the ears when I called her .. she said she'd mailed the check two days ago. Yep, the check was in the mail, folks. Despite what turned out to be an ... untruth .. I still wasn't prepared to believe it and waited a couple more days before reality finally struck, thinking that perhaps she'd quickly mail a check out the day I called. Nada, zip, nyet. I would have been fine with a complaint about the misunderstanding regarding the addition of the jewelry tag, perhaps the newly strung piece was now a bit too tight ... whatever. Tell me the truth, and I'll fix the problem. Bruce Baker, a hero to those of us who need a little help out there in craft show land, tells us to trust our customers ... he assures us that to do little things like sending out their purchase before it's been paid for creates trust in you, sends a little arrow of warmth to the customer that strengthens the relationship. I guess I need to drop a note to Bruce and ask, "OK, what now???"

So, dear readers .. I am more disappointed than you can imagine. I thought of calling her again this weekend; but that would have been an uncomfortable confrontation for us both. But, of course, I will be forever hesitant to trust an unfamiliar customer again because of this. As a small, sole-proprietor type business, I'm angry, hurt, amazed and resigned all at once. I know I should just shrug it off, but "anxiety R us" .. I just can't help letting it hang there.

Even after all this, a little spot in the back of my brain still insists it's an oversight .. that this woman's life is so jam packed there's just no time for the task of writing a check, addressing an envelope, putting a stamp on it and dropping it in a mailbox.

If any one has any ideas or suggestions, for this or future similar situations, I'm all ears.


Anonymous said...

you should request a set fee up front, included with the broken piece, maybe $25.00, then work backward to factor in costs of mail, replacement parts, labor, being careful not to go over. You sound too much like one of the gems you work with to close your heart's door. There are good people out here! I think too many people just want something for nothing, not intending to cause harm and not realizing how much harm occurs anyway from their neglect. Maybe at some level they blame the artist for a broken cord, never themselves, and feel deserving of a quick fix for free. I think too the big box return/exchange policies have created monsters of consumers. Don't like it? Return it. Breaks? Replace it. Loved your website and viewing your work: Beautiful! Now get back to the beads!

CreekHiker said...

I stopped doing work without being paid... even wholesale. I ship, I get paid, PERIOD. I learned early on in my stamp business that I cannot trust anyone.

For jewelry, I ask for a deposit check and mail them a refund. When I was clearing up some old accounts, I simply refused to ship until all debts were paid. In the end, it lost me one customer... but she was my biggest headache.

Yvette said...

I have just taken on the task of restringin a number of necklaces and bracelets for a small business. I want to write a contract so that I am doing this in the most professional way possible. Does anyone have a sample contract that they have done and would not mind sharing it with me?


The Wild Inside said...

Yvette, there is a wonderful book called "Your Crafts Business: A Legal Guide" that contains just about every legal contract and form you could possibly need. I purchased it for consignment contracts about three or four years ago, but have used it for several other things since. It comes with a CD containing all the forms (which also allows you to edit them), and I'd be happy to email you what you need if you'd email me so I know how to contact you.

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