"Originally published in Ceramics Monthly (http://www.ceramicsmonthly.org),
FEBRUARY, 1995, PAGE 96. Reproduced with permission. Copyright, the Ceramic
Several years ago, at a car dealership service shop, I met a man with one of the worst jobs I could ever envision myself holding. It didn’t involve heavy lifting, hot tar or the chronic stench of fast-food grease. In fact, it probably wasn’t physically unpleasant at all, except for the necktie. He answered telephones, scheduled appointments and apologized. Mostly, he apologized.
Sadly, he seemed to have a lot to apologize for. While I waited (on several occasions) for a competent and timely repair of my car’s malfunction, he said he was sorry to dozens of people for scores of problems, very few of them his responsibility. He never lost his temper. He always seemed sincere. Yet his efforts didn’t make anyone happier.
When I think of service, of doing my job well, to the complete satisfaction of my customers, I think of the apologizer and the apologies I am sometimes required to make. None of us can control every variable in our schedules and in our work. The more challenges we accept, the more likely it is that we will come up short, or late, every now and then. Apologies will be necessary. When in business as an artist, a policy of “never apologize, never explain” will not do.
Struggling to overcome difficulties is part of the classic heroic mission of the artist, and you should never deny your patrons good stories. But you must also find solutions and put an end to all of your least dignified mistakes. For instance, when I started selling at art fairs, I would wrap my pots in newspaper and send them off in old grocery bags. By reusing resources, I was being environmentally conscious (and frugal). But the ink from the newspapers got all over my hands and pots, and I hated making my customers walk around with some grocery chain logo blaring out from their arms—particularly at historical theme fairs.
So my wife bought a bale of new, unmarked paper bags from a manufacturer (less than $30), and I started buying end rolls of clean newsprint from our local paper (2 bucks apiece). I went from frequent apologies about smudges on pots to a positive pride in crisp, clean wrapping and a tastefully anonymous brown paper sack. I am giving better service, and though each customer has only a slightly better experience because of it, my own experience, my certainty that I have nothing to apologize for, nothing to regret, is priceless. That feeling is part of why many of us choose to be self-employed in an uncertain world.
These days I use my apologies as a sort of Geiger counter of my own performance. Once in while is normal, human and unavoidable in the context of clay and people. But when the same apologies recur, or the total number increases, changes must be made. Great service, the kind that requires few—if any—apologies, is not just good for your customers and for your business, it’s good for you.
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