my marketing resolutions for the new year

On December 13th Liz Gumbinner, editor-in-chief of Cool Mom Picks, included my personalized placemats in a Today Show segment featuring last-minute personalized gifts that could still be ordered in time for Christmas. Within 24 hours I received more than 550 orders including more than 900 placemats, which we print and laminate in-house.

My employee, Jen, and I are used to getting about 30-35 orders per day during the holiday season, which keeps us both busy working full-time. Even though I knew the week before that there was a good chance our placemats would be included in the segment, we were completely overwhelmed and unprepared for such a huge number of orders, all of which needed to be shipped within seven days so they’d arrive in time for Christmas.

For the next week we both spent almost all of our waking hours working at a frenzied pace. My husband took two days off of work to help out, and several other friends and family members pitched in as well. Miraculously we had all of the orders shipped within a week. I was thrilled with our accomplishment, but my celebration was short-lived.

I knew that with so many orders and working so late every night there would undoubtedly be some mistakes. I’d planned on handling customer complaints like I always do – cheerfully exceeding customers’ expectations and figuring out ways to make everyone happy.

What took me completely by surprise were the rude, mean, and downright nasty emails that I received from several Today Show customers (mostly due to shipping delays or misunderstandings about which items could be shipped in time for Christmas and which items could no longer be guaranteed to arrive before Christmas). I began to dread opening emails, and I really struggled to maintain a positive attitude in my responses.

Around the same time I began analyzing my 2011 sales, as I do at the end of every year. As I was looking at where my customers came from, I noticed that 37% of orders in 2011 were from repeat customers, 14% had heard about sarah + abraham from a friend, and 18% found me through Etsy. It was an “aha! moment”.

These are my people. These are the customers who understand and appreciate that sarah + abraham is a small operation, and my products are handmade. When my customers email me we speak to each other like you would to a friend. They’re (almost) always kind and respectful and a true pleasure to work with.

The Today Show was a great boost in sales and a valuable learning experience, but during that crazy rush of orders and the messy aftermath I really missed my usual customers. The experience helped me to clarify that in 2012 I want to focus even more on providing personal attention and outstanding customer service as I cultivate relationships with loyal repeat customers. I plan to be extremely picky about where I advertise and what promotions I offer (if any).

Of course I won’t turn down any great press opportunities that happen to come my way (and I’ll be much better prepared the next time if they do), but I won’t spend my time or energy actively seeking them out.

Has anyone else had a similar experience? If so, I’d love to hear about it!

27 comments

  1. Fantastic post – although my situation was a bit different to yours, I can very much relate! My business was going from strength to strength and right from the start I had dreamed of one day opening a boutique and expending from just accessories, to bridal dresses as well. One day that dream became a reality and I opened up a shop with 2 other women. However, instead of becoming a dream come true, for me it ended up a bit of a nightmare.

    I found that whereas on my own, I could easily and happily take responsibility for my own mistakes, it was galling to have to take responsibility for the mistakes of manufacturers and couriers. And whereas on my own I would rectify mistakes immediately, working through the night if I had to, when it was someone elses mistake, they were rarely so keep to sort it. I lost so many nights sleep, worrying about brides dresses, and how on earth I was going to cajole the manufacturer into sorting their errors, whilst trying to placate the bride (and often her mum, bridesmaids and husband-to-be!).

    After 2 years I realised that I was far happier when I was a smaller business, making my own pieces, and answering to myself only. I’ve now sold my shares back to the other 2 girls and have gone back to my roots. I’ll never be a millionaire, but I am SO much happier designing and creating my tiaras, and knowing that I can sleep each night!

  2. salinda says:

    Sara! Thank you for sharing because this is exactly what I have to keep reminding myself. I had an offer recently that was flattering, but it would have made me miserable. I don’t want to lose that one-on-one relationship I’ve built with my customers. I love my personalized, custom business and really, I don’t have any desire to mass produce products.

  3. Great article! We have never experienced this in any way, but I work with a business coach and she always talks about “your tribe” and finding your type of people. We find this ever so true being a natural, organic baby store. You have to know where and who to focus your energies on. I have worked with other businesses coaches who did not quite understand the idea of tribes and people and they couldn’t understand certain aspects of my business.
    Stick with your people and you and they will always be happy 🙂

  4. Isa says:

    Wow what an experience! I hope that some of the Today Show customers go on to refer you or become repeat customers because you really have great products. It would be interesting to hear if any come back. It’s great you have realised who you want to concentrate on and think we could all learn from that!

  5. tracey says:

    Sara-

    I loved reading about your experience. I can’t imagine the frenzy you were in after receiving such great press.

    I think if you continue to track your sales you’ll notice the bulk will always come from your “true” customer base-that being the community you cultivate by staying true to your brand.

    I do wonder though how many new customers will become part of your loyal base as a result of the great press you received…I’m willing to bet more than a few.

    As you set your sites on 2012 don’t allow those miserable complainers to dictate how much or how little you need to do to grow your business.

    While it’s always a solid plan to provide personal attention and outstanding customer service you also need to actively continue to grow your base by expanding your audience, especially because it’s so highly targeted.

    I’m not sure if you offer your products to a wholesale market, but if you picked up just one or two wholesale accounts and started knocking their socks off then you’d have the start of a loyal base that won’t outgrow your awesome products.

    Good luck in 2012!

  6. becky says:

    Sara, I think people forget that there are small home based businesses that offer a unique personal shopping experience to their customers. Everyone is so caught up on the usual mass produced items that they don’t expect to get a quality hand made one, each produced one at a time. A product which is crafted by a person who cares for each item like it were one of their own babies.
    I also, try to cater to customers who appreciate your time, talent, and effort to produce a quality product. Yes, the discount stores may offer something cheaper, but what are you getting for you money?
    I have problems when customers expect things yesterday and seem to forget that we don’t employ hundreds of people and produce things by the thousands each day.
    Congratulations on your success!
    Becky
    Granny B’s Clothesline

  7. ericka says:

    “Sara, I think people forget that there are small home based businesses that offer a unique personal shopping experience to their customers. Everyone is so caught up on the usual mass produced items that they don’t expect to get a quality hand made one, each produced one at a time. A product which is crafted by a person who cares for each item like it were one of their own babies.”

    I totally agree with what Becky said. I had far more business this holiday season (my 2nd year in business) and I think that many customers, especially during the holiday rush, have little time/ability to appreciate what goes into the handmade process.

    I too have received some pretty harsh, completely uncalled-for emails and I’ve never understood that approach. I can understand being disappointed, but lashing out at someone? how on earth does that help anyone?

    Congrats on the Today Show feature and happy new year 🙂

  8. Julie says:

    Sara – great post, and exactly what I’m aiming to do in 2012. I’m leaving my distributor and selling on my own through my own reps this year. I too hope to cultivate better one-on-one relationships with individual shops and reps. Here’s to a fantastic 2012! Cheers!
    Julie

  9. Jahje says:

    Thank you so much for sharing this Sara. As the owner of small home based business I have been thinking about the struggle between growing too fast to meet the needs of an opportunity and at a pace you are comfortable with. I recently had a handful of big retailers contact me about my products and it really made me evaluate whether I wanted to try and produce for their needs. I ultimately realized that scaling up fast isn’t right for me at this point. I also really love the one on one interactions with my customers and to hear your story about why those are the sales you’ll be pursuing most is inspiring. Thank you!

  10. Congrats on the feature Sara! This post was great! There are so many times, that I have been down on myself for never getting big features but then it’s a reality check to read other’s experiences and wonder if I could really handle the demands and the repercussions of having a feature. That said, I would probably never turn one down but it’s definitely scary. Thanks for sharing your insight!

  11. Mayi Carles says:

    Ohhh nooo! I’m so sorry to hear this happened to you. Sometimes we tend to idealize those scenarios like appearing on the Today Show or getting a feature in Real Simple, but we often overlook the implications, specially as small business owners. We really don’t have the (wo)men power to make thing in the speed of light + since our businesses are like our babies it’s hard not to take things personal.

    Thanks for sharing your story with us. I am sending only happy vibes your way so you forget all about those haters!!!

  12. I totally had this exact experience! I was “lucky” enough to have one of my tops on the Today Show about 5 years ago, but because it was a garment and fitting can be tricky on the internet, I had a pretty liberal return policy.

    But what the customers didn’t realize is that I literally made each top to order. It’s not like I had a stash of them to send out when the orders came in. And when nearly half of them took advantage of my return policy like I’m the Gap or something, I too learned that this level of “help” from mainstream media was no help at all!

    Thanks for sharing your experience and here’s for customers appreciating us for what we really are: small handcrafted businesses!

  13. Gina says:

    That was some experience for you Sara! Lessons learned but you did it, you got through it. Pat yourself on the back, I know that wasn’t an easy feat I’m sure!

    I had a similar experience several years ago when I was first on Ebay and had won their Best in Stores contest. That landed me on Ebay’s front page for X amount of time. Well we were in the process of moving and in an apt waiting for our house to be done. (w/3 little ones no less). I was thankful for getting a ton of orders but people couldn’t understand why I had to shut my store down for awhile (to not accept new orders). I’m sure I turned away a lot of $$ but my business reputation and integrity is what I wanted to keep in tact. Especially someplace where feedback was paramount.

    It was a great lesson for me back then & prepared me to say no when I needed to going forward. I’ll never regret the experience but it was a great lesson for me to truly learn what was important and what was not. You’ve learned that too which is great & I’m sure you’ve earned many more customers who will ‘appreciate’ your work (those being the ones that didn’t write nasty emails 🙂

    Happy 2012!

  14. Stacey says:

    I so appreciate your comment. I had a similar issue last year during a crazy Valentine’s Day rush. About 2.5 weeks before VDay I received a huge spike in orders due to a promotion. As luck would have it, my site also experienced technical problems so at times I did not even know that some orders were coming in.

    I was amazed, shocked and saddened by the rude and downright nasty emails I received from some customers. I was doing the best I could to try to deal with customer service inquiries and at the same time get orders out the door.

    To this day I still get a little sad when I think about the experience. However, I must say that there are customers whose orders I was not able to send out on time last year who have been extremely kind and understanding and have already placed VDay orders this year.

    And of course my regular customers are still wonderful.

  15. Karen says:

    I loved this post because it speaks directly to one of the biggest challenges small businesses face. Your comment about not wanting to open your emails made me cringe – that must have been awful. From a business perspective, I think this experience says a lot about you, your business, and your future. You have all of the elements in place for success. You have demand for your product. You have the intense desire to offer excellent customer service. You are moving forward with purpose, creating the ideal environment for you and your business instead of blindly saying yes to any opportunity that comes your way.

    Another blogger recently said the following, and her comment continues to resonate for me. ‘Maybe it’s ok to accept that small is the new big’. Her point? Grow at the pace that you, your family and your business can handle.

    On a separate note, I have to say that I love that I am not the only person who pulls in as many people as possible to help me handle the holiday rush! It’s completely endearing to me that your husband was able and willing to take time off to help you handle the onslaught of orders. I’m a pastry chef, and every time a friend casually offers to come in and help me during my busy season, I have to caution them that not only will I take them up on their offer, but will lock the doors behind them as soon as they enter my kitchen.

    Best of luck – love your blog and all that you give to us with each post.

  16. i am so glad you shared your experience. I was wondering what it would be like to have your work featured on TV. Every time I see something from etsy featured I get a little excited, but I see that it is no piece of cake. i guess that is the expression “be careful what you wish for”. I still want to experience it myself though.

  17. Vicki says:

    Wow Sara! First Kudos for getting amazing recognition and fulfilling ALL those orders! And I agree, I like and hope to remain a small business. It definitely makes it more personal and fulfilling… for me, I love making my customers feel special and that takes time.

  18. Cindy says:

    Thank you for sharing this post. I found it very thought provoking.
    I run a small business and am the only one doing it all.
    I don’y have the amount of business that you do, but my business has picked up a great deal over the last year.
    I have had similar experiences when using the “team group deals” that are out there. It was nice to see that people were interested in my product. I do wonder if these customers would buy under regular conditions. Do they appreciate and understand what I do? I have been doing some of my business at a dramatically reduced price. My husband worries about not making profit and the business not being viable.
    The flip side is that I love what I do, most of the people are super and kids I get to meet are great!
    It sure can be hard to find the advertising opportunities and to know what moves to make to make your business grow or have it be a side line income!

    Take care!

  19. Tracy says:

    Thank you for sharing!!

    I run a small handmade biz, and had a similar situation last Christmas. My biz wasn’t televised, but I was swamped with orders, in turn = no sleep for days (family & friends involved).

    I learned my lesson & this year, moved my ordering deadline up one week, in case it happened again. Low and behold- even with my deadline posted everywhere in my shop, I still received several “after deadline” orders. “Sigh”.

    “What else do we do?” Try to not take the ugly emails personally. You did all you can do. If only those buyers knew all the time & love that went into they’re precious handmade product, they would not be as ignorant and rude.

    I wish you the best!

  20. Allisa says:

    Wow, what an experience. Thank you so much for sharing. I found it interesting to read this update, since I saw the segment and then immediately looked at the calendar and though oh my goodness, she’s got her work cut out for her!
    Sounds like you handled everything amazingly well. You are so wise to recognize & appreciate your core customers. I think many others will find your story both inspirational & informative.

    Best wishes to you & your lovely shop for 2012!

  21. Gaia says:

    Sara thanks so much for sharing. Congratulations on the Today Show, but even more for filling ALL those orders! Very impressive.
    I’m so sorry about those emails. They are so startling (to say the least,) when you’re used to running a tight ship with happy and appreciative customers.
    To echo some other commenters, I hope some of the Today customers will become regulars. Surely some will “get” what you guys are all about!

  22. Jessica says:

    As soon as I started reading this I knew where it was going. Last Christmas I started a job at a stationary production house in late October. Along with managing all of the shipments part of my job was marketing through the company’s blog.

    When I started (again weeks before Christmas) the owner was getting A LOT of press in every Conde Nast Publication you could think of. While he was thrilled it terrified me. This was because I could see very quickly that they had no systems established for producing – let alone delivering everything for a very picky clientele.

    I won’t tell you how it ended – but it wasn’t pretty. And the week before Christmas I walked off the job with full support from my husband.

    It is great to get Press – I’ve learned quickly to be prepared for that and if it comes – now that I’m the owner of my own company – that its my responsibility to take ownership of delivering, not a new employee’s.

    Kuddos for you for making it happen with a bang, taking ownership of the both the opportunity and the delivery, and learning your lesson in a healthy way!

  23. Diana says:

    I truly feel for what happened to you. I make handmade crocheted/knitted headbands and we had a mini rush at Christmas. I’m the only one who makes them and I felt nervous that I couldn’t get my shipments out. But I put a notice on on Etsy site that orders might not be shipped until 2 weeks after the order received. What’s really sad is that a lot of customers see something a few days before Christmas and they “have” to have it now. They forget about creating the item and the shipping time to get it to them also. I also hope many of the customers from the Today Show return, knowing that you create a wonderful product. Best wishes for 2012!
    Diana

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