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How to Discover How an Acquisition Target is Performing … and More Jeweler Questions for April

Plus, the right time to ask a customer about his or her budget.

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I’ve heard the owners of a jewelry store in a nearby community may be looking to get out of the business. I’m possibly interested in their store. How can I get financial information, particularly sales figures, to see what it might be worth?

Before you make a formal offer, which then entitles you to conduct due diligence, there’s no easy way to access privately held business information. The best place to start is the store’s website, which may include press releases or background notes on the store and its operations. After that try a wider Internet search, keeping a sharp eye out for articles that may have been written in trade journals or the local business media. (Remember however that figures given to the press haven’t usually been verified.) Then try public records such as legal judgments and lawsuits and business and professional licensing records. Former or current employees, if you can track them down, will often be able to give you indications of a how a store is performing, although you do risk tipping your hand. Two longshots are credit firm D&B and its subsidiary Hoover’s Online, which focuses on smaller businesses. Finally, when it comes to pricing a business you may want to check Pratt’s Stats, which is a database of business sales that allows you to compare other business sales in an industry.

When do you ask a customer about his or her budget?

If you have to ask, do it late in the presentation, says sales trainer Dave Richardson. Any earlier and you limit the range of pieces you can show him or her. You also make it harder to work in an add-on. “If he shares his budget with you, OK at least now you know,” Richardson says. “But in the end budget is really only relevant to the romance and value you build into the item.”

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I want to expand my business but am low on cash. I was thinking of hitting up my father (who doesn’t come from the industry). What do you think?

Man turns his back on his family, well he just ain’t no good… Now if you’d asked Bruce Springsteen for advice he might have said sure, go for it. But our less lyrical suggestion would be to think twice before mixing money with family or friends. Instead of trying to get all the cash from your father, see if you can’t raise half of it from neutral sources first. That way you bring some outside perspective and scrutiny to your quest. It also sends out the right message: That this is about investment funds or a business loan (or at least it should be), not a gift. You also reduce the risk of having your father interfere in how you run the business.

I’m a junior member of a sales team of five people. They’re all good people but one of the older girls bugs the hell out of me. It’s purely a personality thing. What do I do?

Focus on the positives. Continually remind yourself of the contributions your colleague makes to the team, the store, and if you can find it, to your own sales efforts. If that’s too hard then at least stop yourself from falling into the trap of recruiting allies to your divisive cause. Sure it feels better to have someone confirm she’s an annoying old biddy but it also makes her a presence a bigger issue in the store (for you). Try to minimize contact and maybe even ask yourself, does she irk everyone or is there something about you that has you grimacing like this?

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It’s tax season and I need a quick answer. Tell me, can I deduct inventory that’s gathering dust?

We like tax questions because they’re so easy to deal with: Go check with your tax pro. Otherwise, you’ll have to take the advice of Joe the CPA who drinks at our local watering hole. According to him, the bottom line on inventory deductions is that you can’t take a write-down if you’re trying to sell the goods at full price. Your accountant will need to be able to prove that you’ve offered the goods at a discount. The proof can be a clipping of a newspaper ad offering discounts or even an e-mail promotion sent to your regular customers. With that, you can claim it as a write down, even if the inventory doesn’t move. Right, now you owe Joe a beer.

Over the years, INSTORE has won 80 international journalism awards for its publication and website. Contact INSTORE's editors at editor@instoremag.com.

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What to Do with a Conservative Business Partner, How to Set Goals You Can Achieve and More of Your Questions Answered

Plus, how to get your staff to actually listen more.

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Apart from telling them to talk less, how do I actually get my staff to be become better listeners?

Robin Dreeke, a former head of the FBI’s Behavioral Analysis Program, says the secret lies in an appreciation that good listening is more than simply shutting up. “Listening is having nothing to say. There’s a difference there. If you just shut up, it means you’re still thinking about what you want to say. You’re just not saying it,” he writes in It’s Not All About Me: The Top Ten Techniques For Building Quick Rapport With Anyone. The reason is that customers can tell you’re not focused on what they are saying. Instead, Dreeke suggests, do this: “[A]s soon as you have that story or thought you want to share, toss it. Consciously tell yourself, ‘I am not going to say it.’ All you should be doing is asking yourself, ‘What idea or thought that they mentioned do I find fascinating and want to explore?’” Get your sales staff or jewelry designers to take such an approach in their interactions with customers, and the results could potentially be revolutionary. No sales pitches. Just responding to what customers are telling them. That’s listening.

Year after year, I’ve carefully plotted SMART goals for my staff, but we never attain them. Any idea what we’re doing wrong?

To the rational mind, it’s hard to argue with the SMART mnemonic — Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Timely — when it comes to goals. At the heart of it is “achievable,” after all. Except, of course, when it comes to managing humans, it’s best to be wary of anything that gives off the clinical odor of rationality. In the place of SMART goals, we thus propose an experiment for you: This year, try some Vague and Seemingly Irrelevant goals (yep, the sort of targets that can’t even be counted on to form a clever acronym). Clear goals such as “Increase sales by 20 percent” can be motivating, but also set extra hurdles to fail at, which can throw the human mind into a tizzy (like a yellow Post-it sticker on your mirror that says “Don’t eat a cream bun today!”) Vague goals, on the other hand, can be liberating. As for “seemingly irrelevant,” the key word is the first: “seemingly.” This is management at a higher level. Identify the secret drivers to business success, be it the cheery baristas at Starbucks or actions in your store that result in a positive review on social media, and you may actually get the specific financial results you desire. In his book The Antidote: Happiness For People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, Oliver Burkeman recounts the story of a Formula One pit crew whose members were told that they would no longer be assessed on the basis of speed targets; they would be rated on style instead. Instructed to focus on acting “smoothly,” rather than on beating their current record time, they wound up performing faster. It’s a seductive story. Could you do the same with your staff?

What’s a good rate of growth to aim for?

Some growth is necessary for any business to keep up with competitors, benefit from economies of scale and provide new opportunities for its people, but there are more important things you should probably be focusing on. As Brazilian businessman Ricardo Semler noted in his book Maverick, the only things in the world that grow for the sake of growth are businesses and tumors. “Growth needs to be balanced with margin, operating expenses and inventory levels, otherwise it can result in working harder but having nothing to show for it,” notes David Brown of the Edge Retail Academy. Worry about cash flow, profit, taking care of your staff and customers, and basically just doing a good job. Growth should then take care of itself.

I had an embarrassing encounter with a customer earlier this week, and now I can’t get it out of my mind. It’s tormenting me. Help!

The old-school psychoanalyst would say we need to revisit this in punishing detail (these thoughts of perfection, where do they come from?), but it doesn’t sound like you want to go there. In place of that approach, we recommend substitution (come up with a funny version of the story) or distraction. The latter gets a bad rap, but recent studies have shown it’s actually pretty effective. Want to forget that screw-up at work? Do what Gary Gordon of Samuel Gordon Jewelers used to recommend after a sale went badly and go polish silverware for 30 minutes. Or start plotting a complex dinner tonight. Your brain has trouble focusing on more than one thing at a time, so a new action interferes nicely with recollection. And running the same movie reel over and over in your head really helps no one.

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Handling the Salesperson Who Bombed at Christmas and More of Your Questions Answered

Plus, what’s a fair repair warranty?

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After reviewing my sales team’s performance over the holidays, I found I have one who underperformed. She’s a lovely person and tries to implement the training we give her, but her numbers just don’t improve. Do we just persist with training?

It sounds like she has the right attitude and work ethic to succeed, just not in sales. Almost anyone can learn how to describe a product’s features (the knowledge), they can even learn how to ask the right open-ended questions to elicit a customer’s exact needs (a skill), but they’ll never learn how to push that prospect to get excited about jewelry and to commit at exactly the right moment. That is a talent some people just seem to be born with, says Marcus Buckingham, a leader of the play-to-people’s strengths school of business management. “In the minds of great managers, consistent poor performance is not primarily a matter of weakness, stupidity, disobedience, or disrespect. It is a matter of miscasting,” he says. You’ll be doing both your store and this woman a possibly life-changing service by forcing her to apply her talents and strengths in some other field.

Any thoughts on how to breathe some fresh air into our business? We need to shake things up.

Every good idea requires not only a fresh catalyst, but also a new way of looking at things. In the words of design consultant Tom Kelley, you want to achieve “the sense of seeing something for the first time, even if you have actually witnessed it many times before.” That explains the success of asking new employees (about a month after they’ve been added to payroll) what changes they would make to the way your store is managed. Constraints, such as radically slashing a budget for a certain department, are another well-proven way of generating new ideas and inspiring creativity. Reconsidering an issue in a different physical context seems to help, as does picking some specific type of person — a doctor, an astronaut or a historical figure — and imagining what they’d do in your situation. The key is to shift perspective as randomly as possible.

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What is an acceptable warranty on a customer’s repair?

A one-year warranty on repairs from defect is the norm, according to Blaine Lewis, a master diamond setter and metalsmith. “For example, to replace a Tiffany head in four or six prongs, your store would guarantee the setting and the stone for replacement up to one year from service if, with normal wear, a problem occurs. The warranty should state that the guarantee is not applicable if abuse beyond normal wear is at fault.” Lewis says to make sure your repair prices are high enough to let you provide a strong guarantee, which can give you a competitive edge. Keep in mind that while you do offer a strong warranty, you’ll find that you seldom have to honor it (and maybe never if you’re really, really good).

Should I encourage my sales staff to use mimicry to build rapport with customers? It seems too obvious and manipulative.

If you’re worried about getting caught, take comfort in studies that show that most shoppers are actually really bad at noticing it. In his book Honest Signals: How They Shape Our World, Alex Pentland cites research showing subjects identified mirroring of their words and body movements only about 10 percent of the time and mostly only when it was a really unusual gesture. The students also liked the mimicking agent more than a neutral one, and rated him or her as being friendlier as well as more interesting, honest, and persuasive. Just adding mimicry, the research found, made a sales pitch 20 percent more effective. We humans like people who are like us, and whether it’s social background or word choice, emphasizing this similarity improves social relations. Besides, if your salespeople are paying such close attention to everything a customer is saying, they may just discover exactly what it is that customer is after and provide excellent service, which can’t be a bad thing.

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How To Decide Between Equal Job Candidates, Splitting Staff Chores and More of Your Questions Answered

Plus how to market your engraving capabilities.

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I have two good candidates for the position of sales associate, but I can’t decide between them. Can you suggest a tie-breaker?

Toss a coin and let fate be your arbiter. If they’re both equally appealing candidates and you can’t reduce the uncertainty by doing further research or interviews or trial runs, then your decision doesn’t much matter. That likely sounds like rash advice, but this paralysis you’re experiencing has a name: Fredkin’s Paradox. The computer scientist Edward Fredkin summed it up as, “The more equally attractive two alternatives seem, the harder it can be to choose between them — no matter that, to the same degree, the choice can only matter less.” To be sure, it will probably turn out to have mattered in hindsight, but by then it’ll be too late. Given that you’re unable to know how things will turn out, overthinking this one — or any similar tough choice — is futile.

How do you share the chores among sales staff fairly and in a way that is easy to enforce?

Store consultant David Geller suggests breaking your staff into groups and rotating the responsibilities. “Put some easy chores with some bad ones like vacuuming and cleaning the bathroom,” he recommends. The people whose names are under the different groups of chores (see table) do them for only one week, and then they move onto the next group of tasks. This shares around the bad and light chores and also makes it easy for the store owner to raise the issue when a job needs doing. “After doing this, I no longer complained to a person; I complained to a group,” Geller says. “If I go out and see the glass in a showcase is dirty, I don’t expect everyone to clean it, just Group 2.’”

I recently purchased an engraving machine. Any ideas on how I can market it?

One of the biggest mistakes jewelers make is keeping their engraving machine in the back room, says Annette Peloquin, marketing manager of Signature Engraving. Putting the engraving machine in the front of your store, even if it’s just for special events like Mother’s Day and Christmas sales, has a “curiosity” factor that will attract new clients into your store. Also, regular direct-mail pieces with coupons or discounts on engraving services are another way to promote your services. “Be sure to aggressively promote the wide range of engraving possibilities,” such as logos and photos engraved on charms, she says. Hand out flyers to bridal shops and bridal planners that may wish to engrave picture frames or champagne glass or guest book foiling. Also, says Peloquin, engraving corporate gift items for small-to-medium-sized businesses can be another lucrative sideline.

I found a honey of a deal at an estate sale, but I’m worried about paying so little for a piece worth far more. Are there any state or federal laws regarding the purchase of jewelry that is marked at a grossly understated value?

While laws vary widely between different states and municipalities, Elly Rosen of the AINetWork’s Gems & Jewelry Trade Reference says, “We may seek guidance from the general principles involved.” For Rosen, the simplest answer is that “we can buy as low as we wish and make as much profit as we can … so long as we do nothing to deceive or take advantage of the seller.” Estate sale buying is the easiest to answer as it’s a free and open public sale with the seller in control. In such a situation, Rosen says, “We can offer as low as we wish and it’s their option to accept. If it’s an auction and our low bid gets the hammer — it’s ours to resell at whatever profit we can fairly obtain. If we’re on the street and someone offers to sell an item far below its value, we can accept their offer. We don’t know each other, so there’s nothing leading them to believe we have special knowledge they might otherwise rely on.” However, when buying over the counter in your store, things change. “[Customers] may believe they can rely on our knowledge, so greater care is needed not to say or do anything implying low value. They ask for $50 for a $1,000 item, we can accept their offer.”

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