Despite my childhood obsession with small businesses, my first real small-business experience happened quite by accident. Graduating college, I was looking for a job to tide me over until I figured out where Jay and I would live after got married (I graduated in June, we married in August). While job-hunting, I walked in one of my favorite places – Kil'n Time Cafe – a paint your own pottery studio. I got to talking to the manager, and she hired me on the spot.

In 2 months, she was leaving and I became manager.
It was that simple.

Kil'n Time sign

The owner owned several locations, but lived hours away, so I not only managed it on a day-to-day business, but I was also faced with making the big decisions (I talked to the owner only once every few months). It taught me so much of what I know about owning a business, but it happened with no training and no safety net.

A super-recent grad with a BA in French…and I was running a profitable retail + experience business with 12 employees, open 7 days a week, 10 hours a day.

At the Kiln Time, I made my first profit and loss statement (hint: it's a list of income vs expenses and will tell you a LOT about the health of your business).
I hired my first person.
I fired my first person (and several more after that).
I made the schedule for my 12 employees.
But more than all that, I had my first taste of marketing.
I had to get people into the store, with no website (it was perennially “under construction”, and this was 2004), no advertising budget, but one great big window and a location next to a popular breakfast place (which would have been great, if our Ideal Customer was couples in their 70s…sadly, it wasn't).

I had to learn that our best marketing, our long-term strategy was word of mouth and repeat customers (we had one of those buy 9 get one free punch cards). So instead of focusing on bringing more people in, I turned my attention to what made our current customers happy.

I tested and tweaked and tested again, the entire spiel. When a customer comes in, we tell them what the place is (lots of people just wandered by and wandered in), but most people are there with a purpose, they know they want to paint. So the pressure wasn't to convert, it was to delight.

I soon recognized that the thing that least delighted the customer was when their expectations didn't match up with their experience.

Usually, this meant that the item they painted did not turn out how they imagined. My staff wanted to chalk this up to the lack of decent painting skills, but I felt we could do more to help. We could explain best painting practices (for example, one coat of a color will look streaky once fired, you need three even coats to get a solid color; or, paint your light areas first and then your dark areas) and that would bring the customer closer to the desired results. We could explain (and show!) the process of how we glazed the pottery and then loaded the kiln, so they understood the risk of drips of glaze or a piece breaking in the kiln. When we discovered what kind of pieces were likely to break, we could warn customers (the warning never deterred anyone, because we also promised to let them repaint anything that broke).

We had to learn to talk to the customer about the experience of painting pottery. We made it clear that what you paid for was the in-studio experience, the joy of painting, the fun of being with your friends (or all alone). The piece you get is secondary, you've already received the main benefit we offered – the act of being creative.

And that, that's the spark of everything I do today – I help creative businesses talk to their people about what the people care about. I teach businesses small and large to connect with their community on the topics that matter to them.

What I learned at the Kil'n Time is true for every business: it is your reponsibility to delight the customer.

You set clear expectations.
You delight them by meeting those expectations.
You explain it so they can understand: the benefits, the process, the entire experience.

If you've had a bout of unhappy (or confused, or disgruntled) customers – can you see where it went wrong? Could you make things easier or clearer for future customers?

What have you learned about delighting your customers?


Learn to systematically delight your people in my new book. Grab it here before May 10th and get pre-order specialness!

  • I love thinking about this big concept through the lens of a paint-it-yourself studio.  You’re right.  It’s so easy to say, ‘I did my best, and this is the product I have to offer’ instead of trying to understand the interaction from your customer’s point of view.  I try and set clear guidelines at the beginning of the painting process so that customers understand when they’ll be solicited for feedback on their painting, and what kinds of changes I can make once the painting is already underway.  This helps them feel more involved, and it helps us to avoid a situation where a customer wants something that I’m unable to provide.  I know I could grow so much more in this area!

  • I love the way you’re thinking this through, Adriana!
    Just as important as the expectations *during *the process is the expectations before they click “buy”. If you can make them feel comfortable + know what they’re getting then, it’ll be easier to work with them later!

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