JANUARY 20, 2014 AT 3:06 PM
The Customer is Always Right?
Did you know that Harry Selfridge, the founder of London’s Selfridges store, is credited with championing the use of that well-known adage. Of course he didn’t intend the phrase to be taken literally, but instead it was an attempt to make the customer feel special, by making them feel they were right, even when they weren’t.
Its like any profession really…engineering, interior design, or cake decoration, when you do the same sort of thing day in and day out, you start to get a pretty good idea about what works well and what should make you run, screaming into the hills. Unfortunately, not all our family, friends and customers share this inbuilt skill and will happily sometimes request things that would make a nun swear like a trooper!
I don’t know about you, but one of the things I get asked to do a great deal is to incorporate EVERYTHING onto the top of cake. By ‘everything’ I mean an item from every single hobby and meaningful event in the recipient’s life! And we aren’t talking fruit fly life span here…normally these cakes are for 40ths, 50ths and beyond.
The very first time this happened I was horrified. The customer wanted to include skiing, tennis, women’s corsets, gardening, cycling, scuba diving, motor racing, dogs, cheese rolling…..the list went on. Normally I try to sit and figure out a little tableaux where I can put three or four elements together in some meaningful way which will look really effective and pleasing to the eye; but seriously…. What could I do in this instance? A dog wearing a corset and a scuba mask on skis?
I was tempted to call the customer and say that it just wasn’t possible, as to my eye it wouldn’t look ‘nice’, but instead I just did exactly as she wanted. There was indeed no feasible way to bring all those random entities together, or certainly not within the budget that I had to work with, so I had to take them as what they were and literally make all the separate components, which sat jostling each other on the cake, showcasing a life story…or at least the good bits.
Bearing in mind the frequency that I make these type of cakes for people now, I would have to say the customer was right in this instance.
The customers that probably affect my delicate sensitivities the most are the ones for whom you have spent days designing, and then creating the most beautiful, elegant cake, adorned with delicate flowers, edible pearls and intricate lacework, only for them to want to add a nasty plastic topper or comedy element at the last minute. It makes me want to hang my head down and cry.
Don’t get me wrong, I make plenty of comedy elements for my cakes, such as people, characters and pets (scuba gear optional), and they are brilliant for adding a really personal touch to a cake, but it still has to flow. If your beautiful wedding cake has a full vintage theme with dusky pink blowsy roses and hand piped brush embroidery, the last thing you want to see sitting on the top is a plastic bulldog!
So what can I say? It feels so wrong that it almost hurts, but sadly, unless you are paying for the cake, the customer is still right. It’s their cake and they should have what they want, so you just need to bite the bullet and take your photos before the bulldog climbs on top!
Another ‘favourite’ of mine is that phone call that you get from a customer on Wednesday asking for a replica of St Paul’s Cathedral to be made out of chocolate cake, with a removable roof, and full congregation sitting inside.
“Yep…yep…no problem. What date would you want that for?” I ask as I start flipping through my diary for the following month.
“Um…well, it’s a bit short notice, but I need it for Friday.”
Click. Brrrrrrrrrrrrrrrr. That was me hanging up the phone, in case you didn’t get that.
Actually, I don’t really hang up the phone, although I do sometimes laugh down it now, depending on what they have actually asked for. This is a sad fact of cake decorating life unfortunately. Its so frustrating that Mrs Smith has known its her husband’s 50th birthday on 12th June 2013 for as long as she has known him, but will only decide to get him the cake of his dreams a couple of days beforehand! But what can you do? If you have the time, why not swallow your bubbling frustration and earn a few quid, and if you don’t, then recommend someone else, who will then probably never speak to you again.
Hey ho…obviously the customer is neither right nor wrong in this instance. They may just assume that a) you were sitting around filing your nails just waiting for their call to come through, or b) you have a cupboard full of replica St Paul’s Cathedral cakes already made!
Often I find that people just ring me for advice, which is a strange one. Generally I am in the middle of stacking a wedding cake, and therefore fairly impatient when it happens. But I have learned that when Janet is asking me why her cakes always dip in the middle, it is absolutely the best policy to just be helpful and polite. Even though she is not even a customer and technically just wasting my precious time, people do remember how well you treat them, and may call a second time, hopefully with a cake order instead of a question!
So I’ve saved the best for last obviously, and this next lot are the ones who are definitely not right… The customer that wants an unbelievably big, detailed cake for next to no money. Even then, to be fair to them, we all like a bargain, especially in this double…triple dip recession, and we have to shop sensibly to find the best deal for us. However, if you cant afford a six tiered Choccywoccydoodah cake, don’t come to me and expect me to make a slightly different version for a fraction of the price, as it will still take the same amount of ingredients, skill, time, and energy.
It is our prerogative as skilled cake makers to charge what is fair for our time and creativity, and although I know it ‘doesn’t hurt to ask’, we are not in a Moroccan market place (sadly), where bartering is par rigueur, and sometimes it can be a little offensive. I feel a rant coming on, so maybe I should move on….
Colours. Yes, a much safer area, yet still a major source of contention in cake making. Most of the time with celebration cakes, people are fairly happy to let me decide on what colours will work best for their cakes, which is great in that they are happy to put their trust in their cake maker. Others have put a lot of thought into themes and colours for their event already, which again is wonderful as it saves me an extra job working it out for them.
But then there are people who just don’t have a particularly good sense of what colours will work, and some who are literally just colour blind. I generally try to guide them towards what will look fantastic, but it doesn’t always work unfortunately. Of course, sometimes clashing colours work really, really well on a cake, but generally they are actually quite well thought out as opposed to just spinning that colour wheel and seeing where the arrow ends up.
Then there are the cakes that are just completely inappropriate. I will always remember the bright emerald green funeral cake that I was asked to make, and not forgetting the cakes featuring body parts that are normally well covered up! These are all down to personal and professional choice. The customer isn’t wrong to ask for them, but the ball is then firmly in your court, and you aren’t wrong to say no either if you don’t want to do them.
At the end of the day, some cake designs work and some don’t. If you are happy making cakes as a hobby, then more power to you, and you will be able to really get those creative juices flowing to make some stunning edible art. However if you are making cakes for profit, unless your customer wants to buy what they see…all you have is an empty purse and a shelf full of stock.
So remember, be they right or wrong, we need all our customers, and as long as your customer is happy with what you provide them, then it doesn’t necessarily matter if you like the cake or not. Just don’t put that one in your portfolio!