The Case of the Ill-Timed Tirade A personal problem with a customer erupts into conflict inside the store. Pleasant Bay was a small town … a very small town. The southernmost bedroom community of a major city in the Northeast, it seemed that everyone in town knew everyone. Town residents had always been fiercely loyal to their own, as well — shopping locally and supporting Pleasant Bay businesses, even though many of them worked in the city. Many of the tourists who flocked to the community in the summer months were “regulars” – beachfront and cottage owners who came back year after year. Even they treated the town as their own, and the merchants in town were considered their trusted friends. Scott and Sara Chapman loved that about their hometown. Since opening Seaside Diamonds on Main Street in Pleasant Bay over 30 years ago, they had worked hard to take care of their clients and to continually earn the trust of the people who relied on them for their special occasion memories. Sara often thought that knowing just about everyone in town made the job easy. Her customers were also her neighbors, social and community acquaintances, business associates and friends. At this stage in her career, she was delighted to be selling engagement rings to the kids of her friends and the friends of her kids. Now, as Sara and Scott sat at their kitchen table with their attorney discussing a particularly dicey customer issue, they both agreed that for the first time that either could remember, the overlap between their friends and customers was not always such a good thing. Relying on their attorney’s confidentiality, they laid out the story… Peter Hannman, their former neighbor, was well known in town. He was a hedge fund manager, former high school and college football player, and coach of the town’s Pop Warner team. He and his wife, Nicole, had three wonderful boys, two of whom were studying at a prestigious Ivy League college. He and Nicole seemed to have the ideal relationship. Pre-pandemic, it wasn’t at all unusual to see them out together at events holding hands and sharing intimate whispers. Sara had sold countless pieces to the Hannmans over the years — many were Scott’s one-of-a-kind custom creations. It seemed they had it all. In the summer of 2019, Peter, Scott and several of their friends signed up for a boot camp fitness class at a new gym that had opened up in town. The class was run by a certified fitness instructor who had just moved to the area. Actually, she was the wife of a local guy who had moved to the Midwest for college some years ago, and who recently moved back home with her and their kids. By early October, though no one talked about it, it was clear to the guys that Peter’s interest in their instructor was moving beyond her facility in the gym. When the facility was shut down in April of 2020, Peter organized a weekly Zoom workout for the group and paid his favorite instructor to head it up. When the gym re-opened in September, things seemed to pick up right where they left off. ABOUT THE AUTHOR Kate Peterson is president and CEO of Performance Concepts, a management consultancy for jewelers. Email her at [email protected] At the end of February, Peter announced to Nicole that he’d fallen in love with his soulmate — and that he was leaving her to start his new life. He moved to an apartment near his office in the city, and his girlfriend moved with him, leaving her husband and kids behind. What Nicole didn’t know was that in the year before, Peter had managed to transfer just about all of their savings to a separate account in another town. What he hadn’t transferred, he’d spent freely — just as he always had. Among his purchases was a pair of 2-carat diamond stud earrings and a very expensive watch, both of which he had told Scott he was buying on behalf of a co-worker at his city office — something he had done occasionally over the years. In late April, Nicole brought her wedding ring into the store to sell. She couldn’t wait for a consignment sale as she needed the money to pay her lawyer, so she reluctantly accepted what Sara offered her for a cash buy. Two weeks later, Peter, while in town visiting his son, came into the store to buy a Mother’s Day gift for his new love. Sara couldn’t believe he actually had the nerve to come into the store. Everyone there — Sara and Scott, all of their employees, other customers — knew what he had done. She was seething. In Sara’s view, this man had destroyed two families — and here he was, acting like nothing was wrong. As she watched Peter talk with Scott, something just snapped. Before she even realized what she was doing, Sara was out at the showcase, staring Peter down. She began by calmly and coolly asking him to leave the store. He looked at Scott and said that he was there to make a purchase and that there was no reason for him to leave. At that point, while Scott (and the two other customers in the store) looked on in shock, Sara launched into a loud tirade, dressing him down for what she called his “Covid-fatigue, middle aged fantasy” with a woman his son’s age — for destroying her friend, for ruining two marriages, disrupting the lives of five kids — all while he was acting the part of the upstanding community guy, the coach and leader — a supposed mentor to young men. Peter, obviously embarrassed and very angry, handed the ring he was looking at back to Scott and turned to leave. As he did, he made it clear to Scott and Sara and everyone else who could hear that they had not heard the last of the incident. QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER What kind of trouble is Sara in at this point? Can her business be in legal trouble because of her behavior? In a small town where your customers are friends and neighbors, does a business owner have the right to refuse to do business with people who (s)he finds morally offensive? What about being forced to choose sides between customers who are also friends in a divorce situation? Is there a way to keep your business out of it when your customers are your friends? Fill out my online form.