Consider the following scenario:

You’re strolling the aisles of a grocery store, looking for an elusive bottle of gluten-free soy sauce when you notice a young employee in a red vest strolling toward you, straightening items on the shelves as he walks. He sees your empty basket and worried expression and asks if he can help you with anything.

“Can I speak to your manager or someone who knows about food?” you ask.

The young employee does a double take and adjusts his vest, an indignant look on his face. “Maybe I could answer your question. What do you need?”

You then doubtfully explain what your looking for — slowly and deliberately since you’re sure he won’t possibly understand — and the now-much-less-friendly grocery clerk responds deftly with the item’s exact location since, SURPRISE!, that’s his job.

The behavior above could be classified as simply rude or self-important, but in another environment it can be interpreted as something infinitely worse: unprofessional.

In my work at an indie art gallery and bookstore, I get this kind of unprofessional behavior all the time. No doubt thinking they come off as “in-the-know” by asking to speak to the gallery owner before even exchanging a hello with me or my coworkers, artists and self-published authors don’t realize that they were already speaking to the ones who could best help them. When approaching a business with your wares, you would do well to keep the following ideas in mind:

  1. It’s like going to the doctor; you don’t have anything we haven’t seen before. Believe it or not, you’re not the first person to approach us because you’re an artist or a writer. Don’t be nervous, but don’t expect us to treat you like a celebrity either.
  2. We’re not fooled. When you come in and ask to speak to the owner, it’s pretty obvious you’re not her best pal coming for a lunch date. You don’t even know her name! In what way is it professional to march into a place of business and ask to see the owner without introducing yourself or stating why you’re there? Of course, we know why you’re here, but the point is you could be an ax murderer. So be polite. Introduce yourself to the people who actually work here, because if by chance you do actually get your wares in here we’re the ones you’re actually going to be working with.
  3. And what makes you think I’m not the owner? I actually had a girl come in one time, march right up to the counter, and ask to talk to “my boss.” I could be the boss for all you know. Treat the person you meet at the counter as though they’re the one you need to talk to. If they aren’t qualified to answer your questions, they’ll direct you to the one you need to talk to.
  4. Put some thought into what you’re going to say. This is a business pitch. Come up with something better than “what does somebody have to do to get their stuff in here?” as though it’ll be some arbitrary challenge like picking the right number out of a hat. Another common one is starting with “I’m an [artist or author]” and then pausing for an uncomfortably long time as though I might break into applause. And for god’s sake don’t start with “boy, I got something to show you you’re gonna like.”
  5. Come in prepared but not demanding. If you’re just stopping in without an appointment, don’t expect the world to come to a halt for you. Ask whether you can leave us with a CD of images of your work or a copy of your book for us to review on our own time, and actually have the CD or book on you so you can actually leave it (common mistake). You don’t need to bother the owner to put it in her hand, it’ll get to her when she’s got the time to look at it.
  6. Be fairly sure it’s a good fit before you start taking up people’s time. Don’t pitch a gallery on your abstract paintings if they only sell western art, and don’t bring your self-published memoir to a bookstore that only sells contemporary fiction. Most galleries and indie bookshops run on a small staff and we can tell if you’ve never set foot in the place before. That’s not necessarily a deal killer, but it’s polite to show some knowledge or at least interest in the business you’re asking to take an interest in you, the business we dedicate our daylight hours to.

The biggest lesson here is that politeness goes a long way. When you assume that the person working the counter is chopped liver and you need to talk to someone more important, the only one you’re hurting is yourself. They are the gatekeeper, the one who actually makes the place run, and the one that you actually are talking to, so make your words count.