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YES, IT’S BEEN TOUGH out there in retail land, even the luxury variety. And the past couple of years have felt even more challenging, with mask mandates, vaccine debates, off-the-wall customer complaints, vanishing staff and an overall edginess. Perhaps even a temporary retreat behind Plexiglas barriers.

Sometimes, you just have to know how to read a room.

Eileen Eichhorn of Eichhorn Jewelry in Decatur, IN, tells the story of a customer who threw his watch and hit her in the chest with it because it didn’t run. She could tell it wasn’t the watch that was the real problem, however, so she kept her cool and asked him to sit down and explain. “His wife had left him that morning and took their child out of state,” Eichorn says.

When we asked our Brain Squad to share their most outlandish complaints in recent memory, not everyone felt up to that task. “I can’t answer this because wracking my brain for the worst one will make my PTSD flare up,” says Andrea Riso, Talisman Collection in El Dorado Hills, CA.

Ugliness has risen to the forefront of daily life, says Steven Wardle of Forest Beach Design in Chatham, MA, while the pandemic has made everything more stressful. “We try to be an island of decency and consideration in this abrasive new world,” Wardle says.

For customers not experiencing major life trauma, sometimes just making them laugh in the first five minutes of a conversation can break the ice. Says Denise Oros of Linnea Jewelers, “Use beauty, use humor, but make your customer engage. It puts everyone at ease.”


It’s no wonder, then, that a number of jewelry retailers have decided to adapt by changing their business models to appointment only.

Jewelry Retailers Share Techniques for Handling Common Customer Complaints

David Iler of Alchemy Jewelers in Portland, OR, is one of them. He has required appointments ever since COVID shutdowns of March 2020, and he loves it. “It separates the gawkers from the buyers, so we’re really enjoying that. We get to spend the appropriate amount of time with the buyers.”

Iler and his team also screen customers who have requested an appointment to make sure it won’t be a waste of time for everyone. “We give them a call ahead of time and maybe they just need a referral for a watch repair,” he says.

“We get all kinds of questions, and if they don’t need to come in, we can get them off the schedule.” The customers who are polite and pre-qualified are given the VIP treatment that Iler and his small team are well equipped and
eager to offer.

Despite their best efforts though, sometimes an unreasonable visitor slips through. “We want to make sure we’re truly accommodating, but we’ve had some mean people come through,” he says. “That’s been tough to deal with. There’s a lot of anxiousness in the air.” Some angst has been created by supply chain issues. “People now seem to be accepting that lead times are expanded greatly, and some things just can’t be done these days. We’re trying not to make people wait forever.”

He’s encountered arguments about the need to wear proper masks in his store, for which he has custom designed a highly effective ultraviolet light ventilation system. “My whole thing has been I need to protect myself and my employees,” he says. “I’m very concerned for my customers, but if my employees are not healthy and safe, then nobody is healthy and safe. We’ve been ahead of the state’s rules and regulations as far as being sensitive and protected.”

Price is another complaint Iler faces. “Gold was near $300 an ounce when I started in business and is $1,900-plus today. The only way we’re going to make it through this is to make sure that we’re profitable.”

How to Step Up Your
Customer Service Game

‘For the majority of jewelers who have kept their doors open to whoever comes ambling by, Kate Peterson of Performance Concepts says time-honored customer service protocols are in order. She says people feel entitled to great service because, despite challenges, more and more luxury retailers are providing great service. “If you’re not one of them, you’re going to get more complaints than most,” she says.

Alan Perry of Perry’s Emporium in Wilmington, NC, concurs. “The customer is always right,” he says. “Fix it, make it right, offer to do something to make them happy. We have over 1,000 5-star reviews for our small town. Less than 1 percent of our customers have a complaint. The ones that do are mental cases.”

INSTORE’s Brain Squad reports that one common customer complaint comes from clients who have apparently mangled or mutilated their jewelry, yet blame the jeweler for their mishaps and demand full refunds.

Laura Kitsos of Gem Jewelry Boutique in Oak Park, IL, says many of the stories begin to sound all the same to her. When she hears that kind of complaint, it sounds like, “The ring just jumped out of the box, never worn, and threw itself on the ground, losing the stone and completely mutilating the band. ‘I never wore it,’ customers say. ‘How could this happen?’”

Laura Sipe of JC Sipe in Indianapolis said a client’s wife came in with her 2-month-old platinum and diamond eternity band complaining that one of the diamonds was broken. “The ring was in horrible condition,” Sipe says. “After asking what she was doing with her hands, she reported that she lifted weights in the gym every day while wearing her ring. She complained, ‘You told me I could wear it all the time.’ We refinished the ring and replaced the diamonds, which were chipped. We now tell people that jewelry can be worn all the time except when lifting weights or laying brick patios!”

Peterson says jewelers confronted with damaged jewelry should never ask, “Why does it look like this?”, tempting and logical as the question might seem.

“Think like a customer. If this wasn’t a person standing in front of you with a piece of jewelry in their hand, but it was you with a blown-out tire, what would you be thinking?” Peterson says. “I wouldn’t be thinking I really rammed into that curb really hard.”

“Why is like a poke in the eye,” Peterson says. “That one little word makes people defensive; it feels like you’re questioning their integrity. If you can eliminate that defensive layer, people are much more agreeable. It will take away any need they have to fight. Instead of ‘why,’ say ‘Tell me about your thinking.’”

Jewelry Retailers Share Techniques for Handling Common Customer Complaints

Another potential poke in the eye is the word no.

“Never say no,” Peterson says. “Anything that comes out of your mouth after you say no is irrelevant. Even if you say ‘No, but.’ Always offer options. Say, ‘Let me see what I can do. Let’s see what our options are.’ You’re not backing them into a corner at that point. Never, ever blame policy. Don’t say, ‘Our policy is …’ because everybody thinks they are the exception to the policy. Don’t blame policy, don’t blame your vendor. The customer is doing business with you.

“If a complaining customer has options and is convinced you are looking out for them and taking ownership and not making excuses, the problem gets resolved very quickly and very easily.”

Customers of Hannoush Jewelers in Rutland, VT, often complain about wear and tear damage, says Mary Jo Chanski. “Some seem incredulous when I say, ‘You shouldn’t sleep in your rings, or if you wear something every day for 20 years, you shouldn’t be surprised if you have broken prongs or lost diamonds.’ I’ve started to liken it to tire tread. ‘If you drove your car for 20 years on the same four tires, how would those look?’”

Jeremy Auslander of Roxbury Jewelry in Los Angeles tries to circumvent some of those problems by providing an appraisal with each purchase and emailing customers an application link for Jewel Safety insurance even before they pick up their items. He advises jewelry retailers to value their time and expertise in these situations. “I always try to impress on them that jewelry is delicate, and while strong enough to take some abuse, it’s not made to handle without care. I point out that there is no glue or screws or anything holding the diamonds in place, only small amounts of metal, so if the ring gets hit in a certain way, a diamond can become loose or even fall out. It’s not that the workmanship was poor; it’s that these are delicate and it happens. I tell my customers when they leave my office, I am not responsible for anything that happens to their items and to get insurance!

“One client called me and said two diamonds from her eternity band just came out! She had the ring for about a year. I immediately responded in shock and empathy and said, ‘Ship it back, let me see, of course I will replace the diamonds no charge.’ I receive the ring and it was literally cracked in half! I texted and emailed images of the ring and said I cannot be responsible for this. The ring has been so badly damaged it’s not possible that this happened on its own.”

Although the customer was furious initially, after two weeks she agreed to pay for a new ring to be made. “Be reasonable, use common sense but don’t let your clients walk all over you,” he says. “Value your time and expertise. No one works for free!”


How to Deal
with Returns

Peterson suggests approaching potential returns as an opportunity and not a defeat, or worse yet, a battle.

“When someone comes in carrying a bag,” she says, “and they look like they want to return something, the attitude of everybody changes. What I see most often is people automatically assume the person is going to be difficult and don’t take the time to really listen or figure out what’s going on. They look at it as a challenge before it needs to be. If I say, ‘I want to return this immediately,’ you assume I want my money back, but a good portion of the time, it means I just want something else.”

Mary Jo Chanski of Hannoush Jewelers in Rutland, VT, says her motto in the face of complaints or returns has always been “shut up and listen.” “You’ll discover the best course of action if you just listen to their words,” she says.

Denise Oros suggests keeping your emotions in check and letting the customer express their issues without interrupting while considering options. “Verify facts, repeat main issues so they are being heard. Moving forward, what is the easiest remedy? What is the most difficult? What does the customer suggest or prefer and is that reasonable or unreasonable?”

When a customer insisted that she wanted a refund of her engagement ring purchase three years later because the marriage failed, J. Dennis Petimezas of Watchmakers Diamonds & Jewelry, Johnstown, PA, offered an option for what could have been perceived as an unreasonable request. “We resolved the issue by mounting the diamond into a pendant until it would be traded in on the ‘next’ engagement ring,” he says.

Jewelers who adopt a defensive attitude, rather than simply listening and offering options, are actively practicing “business prevention,” Peterson says.

“The same people who whine and complain about the Internet taking their business are the same ones who have no refund policy,” she says. “We’ve got to be getting our heads into the middle of the 21st century and understanding just because it’s always the way we’ve done it, that isn’t going to work anymore.”

Jewelry Retailers Share Techniques for Handling Common Customer Complaints

As the industry moves more heavily into custom design, it’s important to be smarter about handling custom returns.

“It depends on the process,” Peterson says. “If you are a true custom shop, walking the customer through every step of the way, with resin model, high quality materials, they can see the color of the stone, and they’re a part of all the decision making, then the jeweler does have a leg to stand on. But if it means you choose a different color on CounterSketch, no, I’m sorry, that’s not true custom. Someone on the internet can offer it to me in green, blue, or red and will still take a return.”

Petimezas says people seldom ask about return policies until after the fact, and then try to blame the retailer for not explaining the policy as part of the sales presentation. “So, we routinely explain policy on layaways and cash purchases,” he says. “It saves headaches in the long run.”

Tracy Gibson of Studio D Jewelers in Woodstock, IL, guarantees custom clients they will be happy with the finished product or it will be remade at no charge. They warranty all repair work for a year, too, and offer a generous return policy.

Storytelling helped Eve Alfille of Eve J. Alfille Gallery and Studio in Evanston, IL, satisfy one very picky customer, who kept returning, insisting there was a rough spot somewhere on a pair of simple bezeled stud earrings that had been made for her. “There was absolutely nothing there, trust me! I gave her a loupe, she looked, saw nothing out of perfection, but still insisted,” Alfille recalls. “Finally, I said, ‘You know, these were made by human hands, not a machine. There is beauty in human hands, there is dignity in human labor.’ ‘Oh,’ she said, ‘Now that you tell me it is handmade, I am fine, I will take them!’ A week, and she has not come back. Yet.”

Staff Training Includes
Relationship Building

Jimmy DeGroot of Jewelry Store Training says if you’re hearing a lot of customer complaints in any area, particularly objections indicating a lack of trust (“You switched my diamond!”), consider it a red flag. Ask yourself, “What did I do to cause this, or what didn’t I do to cause this?”

One way to prevent this from happening is to practice relationship selling.

DeGroot says that in a way, COVID shutdowns played on jewelers’ strengths because curbside service and Zoom sales presentations were facilitated by the trust that retailers had established with their clients over years.
On the other hand, business has been so good for so many the past couple of years that retailers have slacked off on training. “Now is the time to begin or reinforce training,” DeGroot says. “Business isn’t going to be as good, and we have to sharpen up.”

To begin building relationships, reinforce clienteling practices by asking everyone on the team to reach out to between five and 10 customers each day. “A lot of people don’t go into a clienteling plan because they have too high of expectations. But can you not find five minutes in your day to reach out to five customers?” says DeGroot. “We’re not sending a group message to 400 customers. We’re talking about reaching out to Tom and saying, ‘Hey Tom, you were in before Christmas and mentioned something about upgrading Chris’ earrings.’ Make it sincere, personal and have a call to action. Celebrate small achievements.”

Jewelry Retailers Share Techniques for Handling Common Customer Complaints

Three employees reaching out to five clients a day adds up to 75 clients over five days. Three responses are possible: 1. Clients may ignore you. 2. They may not be interested, but it could start another conversation. 3. They could come in and buy it. “If it’s either 2 or 3, you win, your time is not wasted,” DeGroot says.

Studio D’s Gibson empowers her staff to resolve customer complaints as best they see fit. They know that management and ownership will back their decision, and if management feels a different solution may have been better, it will provide that as feedback training in private. “They are also welcome to elevate any customer issue directly to the store manager anytime,” she says.

While a good reputation should inspire confidence, even having great reviews can have unintended consequences, says Joy Thollot of Thollot & Co. Jewelers in Colorado. “The more 5-star reviews we get, the higher the expectations of new clients, and it seems that customers are less tolerant of mistakes (even when we are doing all we can to fix them),” she says. “We are discovering this to be a downside of being so highly rated, but we continue to do our best to show our commitment to customer service and know we have to be on our best game at every single moment.”

When it’s Time
to Break Up

If worse comes to worst, it may be time to part ways.

“It’s OK to fire customers, but fire them with dignity,” says DeGroot. “I’ve always done it by saying, ‘It’s clear to me that your expectations aren’t being met. I don’t think we’re the ones to make you happy.’”

Cynthia DePintor, a jeweler at Linnea Jewelers, says an apology goes a long way toward conflict resolution, but if the customer is being unreasonable just to be unreasonable, she’ll say, “We are sorry this happened; it breaks our hearts that we can’t come to a fair resolution. Please know you are more than welcome to take your business elsewhere.”

Jewelry Retailers Share Techniques for Handling Common Customer Complaints

Susan Eisen of Susan Eisen Fine Jewelry & Watches in El Paso, TX, photographed a customer’s gold watch and sent it in for repair to a factory service center. When it came back, a crack in the mesh band was more visible. “The customer refused to pay and said we did it. I showed her the photo and she reneged. But when she came back a few months later, we told her since she was not satisfied with us, we felt more comfortable ‘staying friends’ and having her go somewhere else,” Eisen says. “It was a great positive way to say goodbye.”

James Sickener of Sickener’s Jewelry in Lowell, IN, always goes out of his way to please an unhappy customer. But even he has his limits. “Only once in my 50 years behind the counter have I ever told a customer to leave the store (and not come back),” he says. “As it turned out, that customer did come back several years later and ended up being a somewhat regular customer who never complained again.”



The Engineered Complaint

“There was an engineer that had designed a ring for his wife to the hundredths of an inch on how he wanted it made. We made a few recommendations to make it a bit more aesthetically pleasing to the eye, and he denied our request. We kinda insisted, and again he denied our request. We have the whole thing on video. After making the ring to his standards, he was extremely happy how it turned out. We also have this on video. When he presented the ring to his wife, she would not wear it, so he tried to return the ring. We wouldn’t take it back, and this infuriated him, as he tried to say it was not his doing. So, the next move was to challenge the charge on his American Express card. We argued with AmEx and we won because of all of the documentation we presented. This was probably one of the worst experiences I have ever been through. Thus, beware of engineers, but we all in the custom business know this already. This happened 20-plus years ago, but still is embedded in my brain.” — Tim Wright, Simply Unique Jewelry Designs, Yorktown, VA

The Frostbitten Watch Kerfuffle

“A man came into the store during the spring thaw with a watch that he had found in a snowbank. It had been there for the entire winter. When we said that it was unable to be repaired because of all the rust, interior damage and the fact that it was in pieces, he actually ‘psssheed’ at me and said, ‘I thought you FIXED things here!’ I said, ‘We sure do fix things, but we certainly aren’t magicians!’” — Mary Jo Chanski, Hannoush Jewelers, Rutland, VT

So Much for Perfection

“A client wanted to pass on his yellow gold ring with a large oval onyx to his grandson. The onyx had come out of the ring, so he brought it in to have us reset it. The jeweler reset it, polished the ring, and redid the brushed finish that had clearly worn from wear over many years. When the client came to pick up his like-new ring, he was SO UPSET. He accused us of ‘ruining’ his ring. When we asked what was wrong, he said it looked new, and no one would want to wear it like that! We were so astonished. We explained that whenever we repair an item, the jeweler will polish and get it to as perfect of condition as he can. He demanded we take the ring on trade, and he purchased a new ring (!!!!!) to pass down. So much for sentiment …” — Lucy Conklin, Toner Jewelers, Overland Park, KS

Try Windex

“A customer came in saying his wife’s D SI1 marquis was ‘developing inclusions’! Upon close scrutiny, turns out she was wearing the ring on the hand holding up her hair as she sprayed it with copious amounts of hairspray! A little Windex and he was on his way, tail tucked between his legs!” — Stacy Horcher, Synergems

Keep Calm. Carry On

“We have all 5s, a 3, and four 1-star reviews. The 1-stars are mine. Apparently, they all love ‘the guy who makes jewelry,’ but his lady employee has a bad attitude. I gently point out that I am the owner and creator of my company, and sometimes we just can’t do what the client wants when they want it. A woman walks in during COVID. I have four people spaced around the studio waiting their turn. She walks up to the counter, and I asked her to please step across the room to allow me to work with the current client. ‘I just want to know if a necklace my daughter got from someone is real.’ I said I would be happy to help her when it was her turn. She puffed herself up and started yelling at me that she just wanted some information, and she was just ‘trying to bring a small business business during COVID,’ then she slammed the door on her way out. In my response to her review, I pointed out she was not bringing me business, she wanted my knowledge for free, which I was happy to do if she had only waited her turn. I got a very expensive wedding ring repair and two custom jobs because of the way I answered another 1-star review. One-stars show people are crazy and mean, and normal people understand that. When I stay calm and focused, it lets normal people know we are easy to deal with.” — Jo Goralski, The Jewelry Mechanic, Oconomowoc, WI

The Shooting Yourself in the Foot Complaint

“A customer thought we had replaced her round diamond with another one. It wasn’t certified. She thought it looked better than hers. It looked better because it needed a cleaning. She insisted it wasn’t hers, so we asked her to tell us what she wanted us to do. She wanted another stone. We felt badly because the original stone was given to her by her husband who had passed away. It turns out she picked a lower quality stone. This happened about 10 years ago. We immediately started taking pictures of items brought in and documenting all information about the item.” — Michael Rumanoff, Rumanoffs Fine Jewelry and Design, Hamden, CT

The Off-the-Wall Complaint

“A customer was browsing our ‘wall of fame,’ which has all of our newspaper clippings, photos with the mayor, historical pictures of the store, etc. There is also a picture of the store owner handing a check for $5,000 to the local soup kitchen. The photo is dated 2011. This customer complained that it was ‘wrong, deceptive, misleading and deceitful!’ because it was 10 years ago. We told the customer we donate to the soup kitchen every year through our fundraisers. The customer continued to complain and insisted that we take the photo down. She went on and on for over 30 minutes. The photo stayed up.” — Christina Graichen, Malloves Jewelers, Middleton, CT



When the Kids Have Their Own Careers, Wilkerson Can Help You to Retire

Alex and Gladys Rysman are the third generation to run Romm Jewelers in Brockton, Mass. And after many decades of service to the industry and their community, it was time to close the store and take advantage of some downtime. With three grown children who each had their own careers outside of the industry, they decided to call Wilkerson. Then, the Rysmans did what every jeweler should do: They called other retailers and asked about their own Wilkerson experience. “They all told us what a great experience it was and that’s what made us go with Wilkerson.” says Gladys Rysman. The results? Alex Rysman says he was impressed. “We exceeded whatever I expected to do by a large margin.”

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