Monday, November 12, 2012

crazy biz and crazier clients! How to cope?

Have I ever mentioned just how difficult the cake decorating industry is? (oh wait only all the time..)   I have friends in every aspect of the food biz, and that runs the range from chefs to bloggers to magazine editors and of them have it rough these days, but as cakers we've got all their troubles plus the additional perks we all know and love so much.  this blog is a short comparison between cake design and the regular restaurant chef's world and then we'll move on  to define the different types of clients we seem to get in our industry.

Restaurants are fickle just as cake is, but with different pitfals.  Many chefs cater and frequently do large banquets that closely mirror our experiences, requiring advanced tastings, meetings with the client and stress about supply and cost versus profit.  There is a big difference between how they sell and how we must sell.  For one, they can give the client the finished product months before the actual event.  This means that the client can try the "Tagliatelle with roasted chicken, tossed in a light olive oil with sun dried tomato, or the   Apricot glazed salmon with saffron baby potatoes with soy, garlic and ginger splash"( yeah I'm hungry too) during the actual sampling.  They can eat at a table decorated just as it will be the night of their event with the same wine, same lighting and same service staff they will expect when their guest arrive!  As long as things go more or less to plan, there is little to worry about in terms of surprises.  If the client orders 150 dinners, the chef will plan for that and the odd occurrence of an unplanned vegan guest showing up unannounced.    The everyday operation is more trying, with an unknown number of guest ordering what they will.  Trying to plan for the ups and downs of that sort of business is very tough, especially as today's economy tends to force more and more people to cut back! 

Our business is similar, but also very different. (if that makes sense?)  Our work is much more abstract.  We can still meet clients and plan many things months in advance, offer several different choices of flavor, style, icings and fillings, and as far as our job goes that's the easy part.  The client may die for your lemon cake with raspberry filling, and you can assure them that when they cut their cake that's what they'll get, but after that they're going almost entirely on your word and reputation, and there is no way they can really understand what it is that you're going to do for them. 

I consider myself to be a "well known cake person" in my area...  However I get calls all the time from people who have never heard of me, or have no clue what it is that I can do.  Even the educated ones ( and by that I mean they've researched my work) can barely grasp what it is that I'm presenting to them in terms of a cake.  I can't show up to the consult with their completed cake, I can't show them the exact size that 350 servings represents, though I do know bakers that stack dummies for clients (great idea!).  I can't expect them to understand the value of my talent, nor the amount of work that goes into my craft.  The time creating, and the hassle of delivering and setting up a cake is also outside their comprehension.  So then how can I really truly convince them that the price is fair and that the cake will be beyond their greatest imagination?  I'm not sure I can, and here in lies the problem for us all.  People seem to more and more often expect more while paying less.  They think that because walmart does a cake that honestly presents well ( and looks like the 100 done before it) on the cheap, that we as custom cake designers have to follow suit.  They think that because so many decorators do and well, it's the way of things these days!    I know a lot of bakers in our area that will work cheaper than walmart thinking that they are "competing" with them.  They price their work so low that really there is no profit.  I've heard so many times from budding businesses that "we're trying to build a clientele so we have to work cheap".  The idea being that because they're cheap they'll get more cakes, thus more repeat customers, thus more and more referrals.  This works but the reputation you've built is " she's really cheap"  I don't know how else to put it other than quality cost!  We all know it and when a client perceives your work as "cheap"  that also means "acceptably worse" but since they're not really paying for quality work, they're OK with it...  If that's the business reputation you're looking for, well, then good job.  I've said it before: " there's always someone willing to do it a little cheaper and a little crappier"  (congrats you're cheaper and crappier than walmart)

I've dealt with so many crazy uninformed client inquiries I've decided to start a glossary and even offer advice on how to deal with them.  Maybe next blog I'll tackle the issue of post-delivery and angry clients!

Clueless dreamer:  This person has no idea who you are, but saw way to much reality CAKE TV!  They call you blindly with no clue what they really want and even less though about it actually costing them.  They want a cake just like they saw on TV but for he and his girlfriend only (2 servings).  They expect that you have that cake just sitting on the rack ready for them without thought of advance ordering.  (I have had these people call looking for anything from a chainsaw to Barbi dolls, and for this afternoon... good thing I stock cakes like that?)
solution:  I've never landed a cake from a client like this.  Usually I end up feeling insulted when I give them some sort of guideline about the price and they say something that matches their mentality... so instead I tell them to go to my website, look me up online and call me back when they have some idea what they want and how much they want to spend.  The less time wasted on them the better. they wont call back. 
Cheapskate:    This client calls or emails and gives very vague info. "Can you do a cake for me in August and how much is that?"  They're bargain basement shopping for the lowest price and haven't realized yet that walmart is their place!   The reason the info they've giving you is so vague is because they don't want to spend the time explaining what they want until they like the price.  They're calling or emailing so many places that to save carpal tunnel or loosing their voice, they cut to the chase. 
solution:  again as little time spent on these people the better.  They're looking for a quick answer anyway so they can call the next bakery in the book.  I tell them my minimum price and explain that most cakes don't fall under that category.  I'm up front and honest so that I'm not trying to figure out what corners to cut later so as to fit their budget.  cutting corners for me just means I do the same amount of work but get paid much less.  These people can be a problem post delivery as I've found they can get "buyers remorse"  and regret spending their hard earned money on a "silly cake"  beware!

Fatal attraction ( big fan):    This may be more for those who've had some TV or press exposure, but people will try it on anyone!   This cake shopper contacts you explaining that they love your work, perhaps they've seen you on TV and undoubtedly their cute lil 6 year old niece loves you dearly and is your biggest fan  and they're quite convinced "you should be on one of 'dem TV shows"!  They will schmooze you and massage your ego until you feel obligated to do the cake for them for next to nothing!  It seems ( for me at least) a little flattery goes a long way!  It's a cunning strategy and sometimes it's even true!
Solution:  This is a toughie as you'll already be in a better more peaceful place.  I try to be fair and charge as I should but honestly they're going to get more out of me than they bargained for!  I'll go out of my way even if I do think they're pulling my leg.   I had one lady totally bullshit me once:  She called with the "I'm your biggest fan and my entire universe of friends and family all love you and we've all dreamt of having one of your "masterpieces" ...  she went on to explain how they follow me and love my "recent" cakes.  I asked "which one"  to which I could hear her clicking away at her computer until she described a cake...  Mike McCarey's cake.  (nice one too BTW!  you da man Mike)  she still got a good deal!

Alexander the great ( I want it all!):    This client suffers from Cake Reality TV Syndrome (from this point on referred to as "CRTS"   They've watched the magic of TV and like a "big fan" they may truly love your work and want a cake from you, or they may have been lulled into the misconception that making cakes is as easy as it seems on TV.  Random bakers get random unknown request for huge mechanized cakes and somehow manage to make 'em in 8 hours.  They have never been presented with the actual reality of the industry and will find it hard to understand why you cant repeat what they saw on TV or the cost involved.  They ask for the world not realizing that everything they add to their cake adds tons of time to our work, and thus, more cost!  Frequently this client will even think it's their "job" to make last minute changes or "twist" to their order all with no regard to the cost difference.
solution:  The usual fix is quoting a price that's actually worthy of the work they want done and explaining why they can't get what they're asking for on a budget.  I had one of these after our Christmas tree show aired on TLC.  The lady called for a cake "just like" what they saw us make in a 5 minute segment of a TV show.  I found out they were on a $100.00 budget.  That amount wouldn't have bought the icing required for the piece!  I try very hard to create something they can afford and be happy with but truth is if they want the world but their budget is Ramen Noodles, there's a conflict brewing!  I've had more clients unreasonably angry after a cake like this scenario because it didn't meet the extremely high demand they imagined.  I've rarely done a cake I wasn't willing to stand behind 100% but when they wanted far more, they can become unhappy pretty easily.  I try not to let my clients settle...  better to move on.

Sir Lancelot:  This client is so well connected that you should feel honored that they took the time and had the good nature enough to think about including you in their kids 2nd birthday!  The amount of business and number of people they will magically transform into mindless followers of your bakery is staggering!  You should literally pay this person for the honor of doing a cake for them, as the rewards for you will be endless.  They can be individuals or huge groups (or in my case pro sporting teams)  Either way this customer believes or wants you to believe that they have the ability to single handedly make your business!  You'll never need to advertise again.
solution:  run away!  or at least don't fall victim to the idea that anyone gets something for nothing!  Just as Lancelot vowed to protect and honor King Arthur, he also caused the fall of his kingdom by banging the crown off of Guinevere!  It's easy especially if you're a small bakery to feel like opportunity is knocking, but as a small bakery you should understand that you can't go giving everyone a cake with the hopes of creating a business or free advertising!  I've done cakes for all sorts of people in the past that I believed would have the ability to increase my business volume, but in truth I can't name more than a few cakes that were booked because of all of them combined!  I even did a free cake for The KC Chiefs ( long story) and I didn't receive a single order in return. If a little exposure is what you're looking for, try the next art faire! ( bring samples)

The Crypt (ic) Keeper:  This client is closely related to the "Clueless dreamer" in that they've got no idea what they want.  They may have all the specifics and be well researched, but as far as knowing what they actually want, they've not a clue...  They may call with random and pointless ideas or thoughts but have no concise plan for what the cake should look like.
solution:  These people aren't so bad as long as they're willing to give you control and won't second guess your decision.  I actually like this guy as normally they are just looking for guidance and as an "expert" ( notice the quotation marks!) in my field I'm happy to point them where I think they should go in terms of design.  It's our job as cake designers to know what looks best in cake and how to do it, it's nice to have a client that doesn't try to take on the designers role!  I've heard this is some decorators least favorite type of client because they feel like they need their direction, but think outside the cake box and you'll see this as a blessing!  They're usually more open to any input you got and some of my favorite cake have been done for them!

Last Minute shopper:  We've all been there...  This person needs a last minute cake for a myriad of possible reasons.  They expect that in no time you can create what ever their little procrastinating heart desires...  They will often appeal to your softer side as a "big fan" will, hoping you'll feel sorry for them and squeeze them in. 
solution:  It's a question of quality versus time.  if I can fit someone in I always will, but they need to understand that they're going to pay more and I've got to do it my way!  As they say a lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on mine.

The baker in the family:    This person is the self proclaimed or "used to be" the  "family cake baker"  and for what ever reason they've decided to go to you instead.  They tend to think they know more than you do, or that they can manipulate you into cutting them a deal because of some sort of inside knowledge they think they have.  " I know how this is done so don't try to pull anything over on me"  or " I worked in a bakery for 20 years" (yeah from 60-80!)  They think you're obliged to owe them because they too did or do cake.  Humm...
solution:  I stay away from these all I can!  I know my product, I'm happy with what I produce, but doing a cake for someone who is letting you know in advance that they'll be critical of your work is a bad idea!  It's no different then taking your car straight from one repair shop down the street to another and letting the guy pick apart the others work.  It's bad practice and damaging for everyone!

I could go on and on with this and I encourage you to add your own in the comments section! 

What ever the perils of this industry be, there are those of us who are looking to understand them, explain them and share with each other our experiences.  We've got an often fun job that can be tricky to make a real living from!  So many of our peers like to post on facebook things like "Oh my how am I to finish all these dozens of cakes...  poor me?"  (earlier blog "fake it til you make it"...  look it up!)   Cake TV , or rather the possibility of being on it in the future is responsible for some of this, as many feel a need to "look" busy as they feel it makes them more appealing to producers.  ( busy apparently equates to great?) It may be true that this week they are that busy, but reality is dealing with our customers, and making a viable business out of cake is tough!  We don't need people to fake it and make the rest of us feel like we're the only ones struggling with it!  We need to unite and figure out a way to make it better for all of us!  THAT'S ALL OF US!!  I've been given a gift and I see it as such.  I have been lucky enough that people tend to look to me for guidance and insight...  Not that I feel like I'm worthy of it, but as it happens I have thought about it a bunch.  I could post pics of every cake I do and brag about being busy ( even though I'm not) I could put on the front that most everyone would believe.  I could swear to be doing more than I could stand and everyone would believe it and my own desires to be respected for being a "success" in this industry would be upheld.  But I choose to support the truth and realize that real understanding of this industry will come when we can all stand up and say, " yeah this is tough...  but working together and sharing the struggle is so much better than hiding from the truth!

There is only ever going to be one of you, and one of me...  the contribution you make to the world is determined by you and by your actions.  We have such a short time to make that impact and the sooner we chose to do something good and stand for something we believe in the better!  Don't waste your time comparing yourself or your work to someone else, be you, do your thing and an impact will have been made as only you could make it.

Peace N Love

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