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The 19 Contrarian
Rules of Business

Don’t promise excellent service? Run annoying ads? Business leaders insist these counterintuitive principles work.

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TO MAKE A POINT about how our brains operate, the American neuroscientist Gregory Berns likes to encourage people to close their eyes and imagine the sun setting on a beach. If you just tried it, odds are the image that arose was the clichéd one — a warm tropical island scene, most likely framed by the frond of a coconut tree, awash in orange, as opposed to, say, a dark, wind-whipped pebble beach off the coast of northern Scotland.

The brain “is fundamentally a lazy piece of meat,” Berns writes in his book Iconoclast. It needs energy to operate and has evolved to use it as efficiently as possible. As a result, it defaults to shortcuts as it can — past experience, other people’s opinions, common practice — to avoid the taxing effort of perceiving or imagining afresh.

There are, of course, people who make it a habit to buck convention, who have a knack of seeing something no one else does. Berns refers to these disruptive original thinkers as “iconoclasts.” Generally, they are probably better known as contrarians. These are the brave and often odd souls whose questioning of the conventions of society or their professional field have repeatedly caused history to change course or leap forward.

In business, entrepreneurs are often contrarian by definition — they see value and opportunity where others do not. The contrarian investor Bill Gurley notes that “you can only make money by being right about something that most people think is wrong.”

The idea of being an independent spirit appeals to many. In a recent Brain Squad survey, 58 percent of our readers identified themselves as contrarians compared to 30 percent who said they were conformists and 12 percent who said they were neither. Of course, by definition, it’s not possible for the majority to be contrarian, even more so in a tradition-bound industry like jewelry. We suspect the result reflects most jewelers’ thoughts of themselves as independent operators charting their own destinies in a world where most of their fellow citizens opt for the security of more regular employment.

It is not easy being a true contrarian. There is the risk of ridicule, having to live with constant uncertainty. Being contrarian for the sake of contrarianism is pointless.

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There is, unromantically, much to be said for doing things the timeworn “best practice” way. We thus begin our exploration of contrarianism with a caveat — doing something differently is exciting, possibly liberating, often far more lucrative than the conventional way … and often dangerous. Go charging away from the herd with care. Ultimately, you want to choose the ideas — new or old, intuitive or rational, bizarre or conventional — that serve you best.

The customer is not always right

1It’s actually irrelevant if a customer is right or wrong. This is, after all, a commercial transaction, not a debate. Just because a customer wants, needs, or expects something does not mean that delivering it is the best thing for your business. Indeed, “keeping certain customers happy can be a horribly inefficient and downright distracting way to run a business,” note Brent Adamson, Matthew Dixon, and Nicholas Toman in an article in the Harvard Business Review. It’s also not much fun.

As a business owner, you need to make decisions that best apply your company’s capital, intellectual energy, and product capabilities. Rather than customer satisfaction, the ultimate goal should be running a sustainable business. Have a written, legally defensible terms of service statement, warranties, guarantees, and a simple process to determine which clients or customers deliver the strongest ROI and which are actually costing you money. In some cases, it’s better for long-term growth (not to mention store morale) to jettison a high-maintenance client and focus on improving the quality of your customer base.

Ignore terrific opportunities

2One of the dangers of business success is that it leads to more opportunities. Pursue them at your peril. In business, there is always a trade-off. Doing one thing well invariably means you can’t do another at a high level as you spread yourself too thin. The result is a damaging mediocrity.

In his book, Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit Of Less, Greg McKeown cites studies that show the loss of focus is a key reason companies fail. The antidote? Spurning good opportunities. “Not just haphazardly saying no, but purposefully, deliberately, and strategically eliminating the nonessentials. Not just getting rid of the obvious time wasters, but being willing to cut out really terrific opportunities as well,” he says. “Few appear to have the courage to live this principle, which may be why it differentiates successful people and organizations from the very successful ones.”

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Don’t give your staff the resources they need to fix a problem

3Constraints breed resourcefulness. This is an idea that has been gaining influence in business circles for the last few years. “Is there something in the nature of constraints that brings out the best creativity?” writes Scott Berkun, the author of Mindfire: Big Ideas For Curious Minds. Consider a good haiku or sonnet, and the answer is obviously yes: it’s precisely the limits of the form that inspire new ways of working inside them. In the workplace, that means no more “blue sky” brainstorming: if you want the best answers to a question, focus it narrowly; consider a time limit, too. Google sometimes puts fewer engineers on a problem than it needs; it inspires ingenuity. Behind all this is the counterintuitive insight that discipline and structure are often the path to freedom, not its enemy. See constraints as a game. Not only are games about fun, but they are distinguished by the rules that govern them.

Forget trying to fix your weaknesses

4In a series of bestselling books, the Gallup consultant Marcus Buckingham has made a persuasive case for a strengths-based approach to life and business: it’s both more effective and more enjoyable, he argues, than struggling to fix your weak spots. According to Buckingham, most people try to “plug” their weaknesses, while the really successful focus on exploiting strengths. You’ll rarely improve a weakness beyond mediocrity, argues Buckingham, not least because it’s hard to invest sustained energy in something you don’t enjoy. If you truly know what you’re bad at, you’re already ahead of the pack. Don’t throw that away by wasting your time getting slightly less bad.

Don’t believe in long work

5Few things are as American as the belief in the merit of hard work. The problem is too many small business people confuse work and progress. A day when lots of things get done, when you arrive home exhausted after holding six meetings with staff and vendors, clearing 300 emails from your inbox, and finally straightening those old files in the backroom, sort of feels like a productive day, but it’s unlikely to have helped your business take the next step forward. Marketer Seth Godin calls this bias for efficiency over effectiveness “the trap of long work.”
“Long work is what the lawyer who bills 14 hours a day filling in forms does.
Hard work is what the insightful litigator does when she synthesizes four disparate ideas and comes up with an argument that wins the case—in less than five minutes.

“Hard work is frightening because you might fail. You can’t fail at long work, you merely show up.”

The management guru Peter Drucker suggested the best way to address this issue was by constantly asking yourself the question, “What’s the most important thing for me to be doing right now?”

Think small

6In his 1994 book Built To Last, Jim Collins introduced the world to Big Hairy Audacious Goals, or BHAGs, his term for the ambitious long-term goals that he argued galvanized successful companies. And it seems the term is rolled out in every discussion of good business practice. But the problem is that the excitement, energy, and envelope-pushing boldness stirred up by such endeavors often dissipates quickly in the face of the day-to-day running of business. Worse, such big-picture thinking, telling yourself something is epic and of crucial importance, often leads to fear, resistance and ultimately inertia and disappointment. As the psychologist John Eliot writes in his book Overachievement, “Nothing discourages the concentration necessary to perform well … more than worrying about the outcome.” The marathon runner who’s reached a state of “flow” isn’t visualizing the finish line, but looking through a narrower lens, focusing on one stride, then another, then another. Like the formula for contentment (happiness = reality – expectations), it’s often better to forget the end goal, aim low and just focus on the process if you really want to get things done. This can apply to everything from setting low targets for salespeople (spurred on by achieving the goal, they will often break through and hit a higher number) to big projects. The young Jerry Seinfeld’s scriptwriting technique involved marking an X on a calendar for every day he sat and typed. His goal was an unbroken chain of Xs. If he’d aimed instead to write masterful jokes, he’d have been distracted and intimidated.

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Forget audacious. Just go do it.

Get rid of the rules

7Too often, managers assume the key to improvement must be clearer procedures, more exactingly enforced. But the result is organizational structures that permit zero autonomy — and extremely annoying customer service (“Sorry, sir, our policy doesn’t allow you to …”). Perhaps even worse is that such management fails to capitalize on the talents of those lower down the hierarchy. Zappos’ contrarian founder Tony Hsieh made headlines a few years back when he said he was rolling out “Management by Holacracy,” which eliminates the traditional oversight role of the manager and instead relies on the employees themselves to decide how to get their day-to-day responsibilities completed on the basis that they probably know best. That may be too much for most business owners, but according to Harvard Business School research, “loose monitoring” of employees makes for higher profits as well as happier workplaces. Striking the right balance between autonomy and control is very likely the essence of being a good manager.

Give away your time

8Overwhelmed by work? Feel you are in a constant race against the clock to get things done? Try making some time for others. “While it might seem counterintuitive to sacrifice some of the very thing you think you don’t have enough of, our research shows that giving a bit of time away may, in fact, make people feel less pressed for time,” Cassie Mogilner Holmes, an associate professor at UCLA and Michael Norton, a professor at Harvard told the Wall Street Journal. Another hack to deal with time scarcity — erase a day from your schedule. Busy? Don’t schedule anything for Fridays. The work you didn’t get done will flow over, and you’ll finally knock off those to-do list items.

Hire more introverts

9On the surface, introverts don’t seem to have the makings of great salespeople or even managers. Social interaction tires them, they have trouble with insincere flattery, they don’t like to push people, and they don’t tend to contribute vocally to meetings or brainstorming sessions. But there are positive flipsides to all this: introverts tend to demonstrate a higher degree of sensitivity in emotional interactions, they are more likely to be experts in their field, they are less likely to be yes-men or women, and as for managing people, they do better than extroverts when the staff itself is full of self-directed go-getters. “Although extroverted leadership enhances group performance when employees are passive, this effect reverses when employees are proactive, because extroverted leaders are less receptive to proactivity,” says Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power Of Introverts In A World That Can’t Stop Talking.

Be last to market

10Among business gurus, few things are as unquestioned as the notion that innovation is the path to success. “Innovate or die!” goes one mantra. Yet if innovation were a surefire way for companies to achieve dominance, the world might look very different. White Castle, RC Cola, and Diners Club were all innovators, but think of fast-food, soft drinks and credit cards, and those are unlikely to be the first names that come to mind. The upsides of unoriginality are clear: imitators let others make the costly mistakes, and then incorporate the lessons learned into a far better product. (Exhibit A: the iPhone.) In his book Copycats, the management theorist Oded Shenkar argues we need “to change the mindset that imitation is an embarrassing nuisance.” Rather, it’s a “rare and complex” capability, one we could all do with cultivating, he says. In his book Zero To One, Peter Thiel argues that “it’s much better to make the last great development in a specific market and enjoy years or even decades of monopoly profits.”

Run annoying ads … often

11There’s a reason that grating TV ads work: the more they grate, the more you’ll notice them, and noticing — thanks to what psychologists call the “mere exposure effect” — leads to liking.

Depressingly, whatever we’re repeatedly exposed to, and regardless of any other reason to like or dislike it, we’ll end up growing fond of. According to Roy H. Williams, author of The Wizard Of Ads, there’s actually no way for successful advertising to avoid being irritating to some degree. “Ads that twist our attention away from what we’d been doing are always a bit annoying,” he says. But if you fail to get your audience’s attention, your ad has failed at the first hurdle. “Consequently, most ads aren’t written to persuade; they’re written not to offend. But the kinds of ads that produce results make us answer yes to these three questions: Did it get my attention? Was it relevant? Did I believe it?” Williams claims 98.9 percent of all the customers who hate your ads will still come to your store and buy from you when they need what you sell. “These customers don’t cost you money; they just complain to the cashier as they’re handing over their cash.”

Stop holding meetings

12Jim Buckmaster, chief executive of Craigslist, has a simple policy: “No meetings, ever.” There are several reasons why meetings don’t work. They move, in the words of the career coach Dale Dauten, “at the pace of the slowest mind in the room,” so that “all but one participant will be bored, all but one mind underused.” A key purpose of meetings is information transfer, but they’re based on the assumption that people absorb information best by hearing it, when only a minority of us are “auditory learners.” The key question for distinguishing a worthwhile meeting from a worthless one is this: is it a “status-report” meeting, designed for employees to tell each other things? If so, it’s probably better handled on email or paper. That leaves a minority of “good” meetings, whose value lies in the meeting of minds itself — for example, a well-run brainstorming session.

Drop some F-bombs

13The jewelry world is one of refinement, education and professionalism, not the place for profanity. Yet swearing, when done judiciously, according to various psychologists, boosts endorphins, promotes social bonding and makes people more persuasive. Periodically, let your staff and customers know you’re human.

Stop asking, “Where do you want to be in 5 years?”

14Hiring employees who will challenge management is another staple of business advice, but everyone has probably worked with “yes, but” employees who basically oppose every new idea and approach. To find true contrarians, Thiel in his book Zero To One recommends asking the following question when interviewing employees: “Tell me something that’s true that nobody believes in.” (God, global warming and aliens don’t cut it.)

Don’t ask for the sale

15The traditional approach to selling says tout the benefits, close throughout, close with an assumption and then push for the add-on followed by another. You’re just efficiently taking the customer in a direction she wanted to go anyway. In contrast, the “slow sales” movement, which has been gaining ground for a few years, argues that there are intelligent, deliberate customers who prefer an almost “do-it-your self” zero-pressure environment. Granted, getting them to the cash register may take longer. But according to INC magazine, this technique alleviates the extra costs of post-purchase dissonance from returns, customer service time, negative feedback, and customer churn.

Look for mentors and staff who do it the “wrong way”

16Tim Ferriss has an interesting approach to considering contrarians: Be on the lookout for the anomalies, like the wispy girl who can deadlift 405 pounds. They’re performing with techniques rather than genes. “These iconoclasts show the differences in techniques and attributes,” he says. “If someone has become really good at doing something in a very nonstandard way, you can infer that the standard path isn’t necessarily the best methodology for learning a skill.”

Don’t promise excellent customer service

17Ask independent jewelers what is their point of competitive advantage and they’ll overwhelmingly say excellent customer service. But, something big corporations know (but never publicly say) is that delivering excellent customer service ultimately results in unhappy customers. Thus the field of “expectations management.” “If you want satisfied customers, it’s certainly wise to act in ways that will satisfy them. But it’s also wise to pay attention to (and, if possible, influence) their criteria for feeling satisfied,” writes Oliver Burkeman in The Guardian. Training customers, employees, and partners not to expect a “yes” in response to every single request might be crucial for preserving sanity. Far better to have a reputation as a jeweler who, for example, turns around a repair within three days than one who does it overnight — because in the latter case, as soon as you fail to deliver on that tight deadline, you’ll be seen as underperforming.

Ask customers for favors

18The “Ben Franklin effect” states that if you want to get someone to like you, you should ask him or her to do you a favor. The strategy, named for the founding father’s habit of borrowing books from opposing politicians to win them over, works because humans hate cognitive dissonance: we can’t stand a mismatch between our actions and thoughts. So if we find ourselves helping someone out, we’ll unconsciously adjust our feelings for them. The implications are striking. Don’t suck up to your customers — ask for favors or even just their opinions (“Where do you think the economy is headed?”).

Don’t be so professional

19We live in an era with more opportunity than ever to burnish the image we’re projecting, and more pressure than ever to do so. But in her new book, Cringeworthy: A Theory Of Awkwardness, Melissa Dahl makes a persuasive case for celebrating those times when “someone’s presentation of themselves … is shown to be incompatible with reality in a way that can’t be smoothed over.” Awkwardness pierces that facade, exposing the imperfect life behind it. Quoting the words of the philosopher Adam Kotsko, she says it creates “a weird kind of social bond” — a solidarity arising from seeing that behind the fakery, we’re all just trying our best to seem competent. The awkward you, then, is the real you, the one without the defensive performance. And people will like you for it.

Click here for 8 more Contrarian Rules, as well as the exclusive online article, “12 Contrarian Rules of Jewelry Retail.”

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At Komara Jewelers in Canfield, Ohio, Wilkerson handled all the aspects of its retirement sale just as owner Bob Komara’s children took over day-to-day operations of the business. They’d used other companies before, says Brianna Komara-Pridon, but they didn’t compare. “If we had used Wilkerson then, it would have been so much better.”

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Cover Stories

100 Things a Jewelry Salesperson Should Never Do

Don’t ask a customer their budget … and 99 more sales no-nos.

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EVERY STORE and every salesperson is different, but some aspects of the jewelry business are universal. We suspect most INSTORE readers will agree with the bulk of the suggestions on this list (especially since the bulk of them came from INSTORE readers). No single salesperson will avoid all 100 of these “don’ts” every single day, but what matters is that they give you something to strive for. So read them, post them in the break room, breathe them, live them. Your customers — not to mention your coworkers and boss — will thank you.

1. Do not take longer than 5-10 seconds to greet a customer when they enter the store.

2. Do not greet the customer with “May I help you?” They’ll say, “I’m just looking.”

3. Do not greet the customer with “Are you looking for something special today?” They are. That’s why they’re in a jewelry store. Use an open-ended question: “What brings you in here today?”; “Where would you like to get started?”

4. Never write off a customer based on how they’re dressed.

5. Never ask a customer what their budget is.

6. Do not ask if you can show them something. Just show them.

7. Do not point or say, “Over there” when a customer asks where the engagement rings/pearls/designer cufflinks are. Walk them over to the case and take something out.

8. Do not ask a customer if they’re looking for white or yellow gold. That eliminates a chunk of inventory before they’ve even seen it.

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9. Do not show them a lower-priced item first.

10. Do not ignore either half of a couple.

11. Do not treat customers differently from day to day. If you offered them coffee yesterday, offer them coffee today and tomorrow.

12. Don’t be pushy. Never give up immediately, but don’t make the customer uncomfortable either.

13. Do not go into a “selling” mode that is different from your normal personality. Have a natural conversation.

14. Never criticize a person’s taste in jewelry.

15. Never refer to a stone as “small” or of “poor” quality. You don’t know if the customer has a stone like that at home.

16. Do not interrupt a customer.

17. Do not one-up a customer’s story.

18. Never use profanity on the sales floor, regardless of the customer’s own language.

19. Don’t expect the jewelry to sell itself. Justify your existence.

20. Don’t tell a customer to “Take a look around” and leave them on their own.

21. But do not hover over a customer who has asked or signaled clearly that they wish to be left alone to browse.

22. Do not walk away from a customer you’ve started working with. Have a free coworker bring you anything you need.

23. Do not leave a piece of jewelry in the case when someone asks about it.

26. Do not start talking about a piece of jewelry and leave it in the case.

27. Do not show a piece of jewelry until you’ve learned a customer’s name and a little bit about why they’re in your store.

28. Do not put your fingers all over a piece of jewelry before handing it to a client.

29. Never take out more than one or two pieces at a time.

30. Do not guess a woman’s ring size. When you hand her the sizer, go a little larger than you suspect. She’ll feel better having to go down than having to go up.

31. Do not make a customer feel uncomfortable asking for the price.

33. Never steer a customer away from what they’re asking for just because you’d like to sell something else. Show them what they want to see.

34. Never inflate the price just so you can discount it later.

35. Do not rely on discounts to make sales. It’s lazy.

36. Do not offer a discount after another sales associate has already quoted a price.

38. Never let the price be the last thing you mention. Try something like: “It’s $395. Isn’t that oxidized silver such a striking look?”

39. Do not misrepresent a piece of jewelry, or exaggerate to make it sound more impressive.

40. Do not stop selling before the customer is ready to stop buying.

41. But do not keep offering suggestions when a customer has made up their mind. If they’ve found a ring they’re ready to buy, don’t keep showing more rings.

42. In the course of conversation, never bring up other, non-jewelry gift possibilities or expenses that could compete with your sale.

43. Do not talk a customer out of buying a more expensive piece of jewelry.

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44. Never assume a customer is after only what they came in for. Simple battery replacements have turned into five-digit sales because the salesperson took a shot instead of letting the client aimlessly stand around waiting.

45. Don’t give up. If nothing you have in the case is what the customer wants, bring out some catalogs or get a quote from a supplier for a special order.

46. If you really can’t get what a customer wants, don’t give up then either. If they’re set on a certain line you don’t carry, advise them on where to go, and even call that store to see if they’ve got the item. The client will remember you.

47. Don’t forget to ask for a cellphone number, email address or other contact info. Ask for it in a natural way: “Can I email you, so you’ve got my information handy in case you have questions?”

48. Do not talk too much. The customer did not come in to hear about your kids or your mom or whatever. Shut up and listen.

49. Do not ever ask, “When are you due?” unless a woman has made it clear she is pregnant.

50. Never bring up a customer’s ex, especially when you’re selling something for their new partner.

51. Never text while you’re on the sales floor. Leave your cell phone on your desk or in your coat.

52. Do not use the phone in front of a customer if the call isn’t business-related.

54. Never, ever answer the phone while you’re already waiting on someone in person. People hate that. If you’re on the phone when someone walks in, end the call within 15 seconds.

55. If you are in the middle of another task when a customer comes in, do not complete it while they stand there twiddling their thumbs.

56. Do not start an unrelated conversation with a coworker while a customer is waiting. It makes the customer feel like a third wheel.

57. Never chew gum on the sales floor. Don’t use a toothpick either. And never pick your nose (especially with a toothpick).

61. Never bad-mouth another customer.

62. Do not neglect your personal appearance. You sell luxury goods. Also remember: In this business, people look at your hands — hands and nails matter for men and women.

63. Do not wear a piece of jewelry on the sales floor if the store doesn’t carry that line. That’s like hanging up an ad for something you don’t sell.

64. Unless you already have a relationship, don’t call a customer at home or work to make a sale.

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65. Do not lean on anything. Stand up straight.

66. Do not yell across the showroom.

67. Do not refer to customers as “you guys.” Just plain “you” is sufficiently plural.

68. Never guess. If you don’t know something about a stone or metal, a store policy, or a repair, admit it. Then find out the answer.

69. Don’t get too technical when selling. Few customers are fascinated by the mechanics of jewelry design. Focus on the benefits that technical features convey.

71. Never say, “No problem.” The phrase you’re looking for is “You’re welcome.”

72. Never complain about anything. When you’re on the floor, Life is Perfect.

73. Do not tell customers that sales have been slow, even if they have.

74. Never bad-mouth a competing jeweler, even if the customer is complaining about them.

75. Do not turn a customer over to another associate just because a “better” prospect has walked in.

76. Never underestimate how long it will take to finish a job or get something in. Pad your timeline; when it comes in sooner, they’ll be thrilled.

77. Never sell jewelry as an investment. You’re making a promise you can’t keep.

78. Do not take in a repair without making clear, in writing — and with a picture if possible — exactly what is to be done. If additional charges pop up, call before proceeding.

79. Do not hand back a completed repair without looking it over in the customer’s presence. If there are still issues to address, both of you want to know before they walk out the door.

80. Do not ignore younger customers. The 12-year-old spending $25 today might be back for an engagement ring in 10 years.

81. Do not give customers paying cash 96 cents in change. What is this, a gas station? Round up.

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82. Do not suddenly turn on the charm when you’re closing a sale. People will notice, and it will offend them.

83. Never tell a customer the store will be closing, to hint that they should hurry up and leave.

84. Never leave the sales floor if you’re the only one on it.

85. Never leave a showcase unsecured when you’re finished with it. And don’t leave your keys out.

86. Do not abide fingerprints or smudges on the showcases. If you’re free, wipe them down immediately.

88. Do not ask a woman if she likes the jewelry her husband bought her. It might not have been for her.

89. In fact, don’t bring up purchases with anyone except the purchaser. You don’t know whom it’s really for, or if it’s supposed to be a surprise.

90. To that end, do not leave voice or email messages that could spoil a surprise. Simply leave your name and number, and ask for a call back.

91. Do not forget to thank customers with a note or call. It’s not just polite; it’s your chance to do damage control if something went wrong.

92. Do not fail to keep good records. There are husbands and boyfriends out there who will love you for knowing what their ladies want.

93. Never forget to offer to gift-wrap a purchase.

94. Don’t be afraid to hop in the car and hand-deliver an item. That’s something customers tell their friends about.

95. Do not inconvenience a customer. If there’s a way to make their life easier, don’t dismiss it just because it’s not usually done.

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96. Do not place blame. It doesn’t matter if it’s the goldsmith’s fault, or the supplier’s, or yours. Just fix it.

97. Never forget that some things are more important than money. Where death or other serious grief is involved, don’t be a stickler over store policy.

98. Never insult a customer or act as if they don’t belong in your store.

99. Never, ever, ever lie to a customer. Or to your boss or fellow employees, for that matter.

100. Do not read while you’re on the sales floor. Not even high-quality literature like In Search of Lost Time or Anna Karenina or INSTORE. (Oops! OK, put it down beginning … now!)

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Cover Stories

20 Ways You Can Deliver Jaw-Dropping Customer Service

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JEWELERS DELIVER CHRISTMAS GIFTS in blizzards without the convenience of sleigh and flying reindeer. They whip up custom orders faster than the speed of a laser. They leap headlong into the role of emergency ring bearer. These tales are the stuff of company legend for independent retailers. But the Henderson family of Bend, OR, has a story that really stands out.

Annette Henderson had gone into labor in December at the same time that her husband, Ron Henderson, needed a finished piece of jewelry delivered to a customer.
“So he asked my mom to deliver it (the jewelry) on the way to the hospital and that he would meet her there,” says their daughter Natasha Henderson, manager of Saxon’s Fine Jewelers. Jewelry delivery made, Annette was driving over the railroad tracks on the way to the hospital when her water broke.

All was well, though, because the second “delivery” took place in the hospital. And the baby — Natasha — joined the family business and works with both of her parents at Saxon’s. “We even get along for the most part,” Natasha says. “And my mom didn’t kill my dad over that. She hasn’t yet, anyway.”
OK, they win, right!?

Beyond the heroics, though, what are you doing to deliver extreme customer service every day? And why is that so important in 2019?

Sometimes it seems there are not enough hours in the day to keep customers happy. Fifty seven percent of respondents to INSTORE’s 2018 Big Survey work more than 45 hours per week. Eric Ohanian of Eric Ohanian & Sons Co. in Boston is one of them. “I am meeting two customers on the way home tonight after working 11 hours,” he says. “We go the extra mile almost daily. I do believe it is the only reason we are still in business. Giving that extra level of service is all that sets us apart from the big box stores or the Internet.”

Besides devoting time to it, other keys to offering extreme customer service include making it personal, building relationships and developing a company culture focused on the customer.

Author and retail business strategist Bob Phibbs says simply that people who feel they matter buy more. If someone has made the effort to drive to your store, they expect to find something new and personal for them. Selling has to meet those needs and not be just about clerking or showing products.

Natasha Henderson with her parents, Ron and Annette of Bend, OR.

“To compete in 2019, you’ve got to make an emotional brand connection in your stores,” Phibbs explains. “If you have a ruthless attention to that, you’ll be fine. It’s time now to get sales training, to keep role-playing and to keep trying to figure out how to create an exceptional experience in your store.”
That means training for consistency.

“Most retailers think training is something you did already — like you changed your socks this morning. But training has to be a culture. When I work with great sales groups every day, there’s a focus; they’re looking at new products and role-playing. Instead of letting people sit behind the counter and talk about what happened on Game Of Thrones last night, keep a dialog going.”

The stakes are high because the customer experience — great or disappointing — has wider repercussions than ever before. “As soon as I walk out of your store, I can rave or rant about you,” Phibbs says. “Nobody had a microphone before like they do now.”

How to Make Someone’s Day

Consultant Kate Peterson of Performance Concepts says it’s the customer’s definition of extreme that matters — not yours. “Often,” she says, “the things we think of as over the top are really little more than what today’s experienced luxury consumer expects … and there’s nothing ‘extreme’ about simply meeting expectations.”

The standard for extreme service is most often set outside of the jewelry industry, she says. The consistency provided by high-end coffee brands or the experience of taking delivery of a new luxury car, for example, are good places to start looking for ways to surprise and delight your customer.

In other words, pay attention to good service you receive in all aspects of your life and let it inform what you do in your store.

Consultant Andrea Hill of Hill Management Group recently experienced amazing customer service at a restaurant in Tezza sul Brenta, Italy.

“I have some vendors visiting from London, and we all went out to dinner at a little local pizzeria. We got to talking and solving the problems of the world, and suddenly we realized that we were the only people left in the restaurant. For how long? Who knows! I went up front to pay, and the owner and his wife were sitting behind the counter looking very tired, but patient. I looked over at the door, and saw they had closed an hour and a half prior! They had cheerfully served more wine and checked in on us without once suggesting it was time for us to pack up and leave. Needless to say, I will be going back to that restaurant and bringing all my friends!”

Hill, in a recent blog post, outlined how important building a strong positive business culture is in providing that kind of exceptional service. Excellent customer service can be very difficult to find, even in the luxury sector, she says. In fact, it is one of the hardest things to do.

“You can’t automate it. You can’t script it or cookie-cutter it. You can’t ensure it with policy or rules. Excellent customer service is about people, and people run on motivation.”

To create a company culture that will nurture and serve customers, you must have a culture that nurtures and serves employees. That doesn’t mean coddling. Employees want to be treated as professionals, with dignity and respect. Study after study demonstrates that employees who are trusted and expected to perform admirably will rise to the occasion.

Andrea Riso of Talisman Collection, El Dorado Hills, CA, says her culture is to do everything possible to satisfy customers, including firing staff who don’t get it. “I’ve driven for hours, shown up at weddings, loaned jewelry when something is not done in time (rarely do I ever miss a deadline), give the jewelry for free if the customer had a bad experience with our staff, fired staff, taken calls and texts 24/7/365 (and I do mean 365), fixed things for free pre-wedding for people who are not my customers!”

 

20 TIPS FOR OUTSTANDING
CUSTOMER SERVICE

 

MAKE IT PERSONAL

Barry Moltz, small-business consultant, speaker and author, says online retailers are offering a kind of “faux personalization” that has become an expectation. When he signs on to Amazon.com, for example, the site greets him by name and knows what he’s bought in the past and what he might like to buy in the future. So, if you can’t remember all of your customers’ names and everything they might like or have ever wished for or purchased, collect all the information you can from your customers and get your POS system up to speed to do the work for you. “Amazon always remembers who you are, but does your local retail store?” Moltz asks.

LET THEM TOUCH THE STUFF

John Carter, CEO of Jack Lewis Jewelers in Bloomington, IL, installed a “wedding-ring playground” — a custom-made bar-height table to display bridal sample lines from vendors. It allows engagement-ring shoppers to try out many different styles in a relaxed setting. “It’s helping start the conversation with the client,” Carter says. “It’s become a way to break the ice, hear about their likes and preferences, and then we can delve into all the options.”

At Jack Lewis Jewelers, shoppers are invited to play with sample rings at the wedding-ring playground.

OFFER OMNI-CHANNEL SUPPORT

Ensure the customer has a seamless experience no matter the channel they use. If you’re cultivating e-commerce and you have a full-time social-media or marketing associate, consider chatting — offering customers online help in real time. (This can also be outsourced to a larger company.) Helping a customer on your website used to mean providing an e-mail address or listing the company phone number, says Moltz, author of Bam: Delivering Customer Service In A Self-Service World. “Real-time chat is quickly becoming a requirement to help your online clients. Can video chat be far behind, for an even more personal touch?” If you offer live-chat support, list the hours on your website so that users know when they can and can’t contact you.

SET UP A GENIUS JEWELER BAR

Daniel Pink, author of Drive, suggests a jewelry store version of the Apple Store Genius Bar. “Clueless customers — guys like me who don’t know their amethyst from their elbow — would flock to ask questions of your jewelry genius,” Pink says.

OFFER APPOINTMENTS

Some retailers have found a niche with appointment-only businesses, but it’s a nice thing to offer your favorite customers whatever your business model. Once you’ve established a relationship with a busy client, don’t leave your future availability to the chance your schedules happen to mesh. Let them make an appointment when it’s convenient to them and set aside time on your calendar to make the shopping experience special.

OFFER PRIVACY

Martin Shanker, professional trainer and president of Shanker Inc. in New York City, says that many luxury buyers would purchase more if they could be less visible when making those high-end choices. But retailers often don’t factor in the need for discretion in the sales process. “Consequently, clients are making purchases online or in cities other than where they live,” Shanker says. “Luxury sales teams need to be extra sensitive in identifying these types of buyers and take steps to offer them increased privacy.” Consider inviting them to a more private room or viewing area, away from the selling floor. “The trend to be less conspicuous has not stopped the luxury customer from making large purchases. Therefore, sales professionals need to be cautious about misinterpreting a desire for privacy as a lack of interest in buying and unintentionally trading the business down.”

MONITOR COMPLAINTS

Take a close look at customer feedback and identify the main three to five recurring complaints, whether they’re delivered in person, by phone or in an online review. Then take steps to make sure they stop recurring. Consider the feedback you receive from your customers “free customer service consulting.” This is info of great value, not an interruption of your day, says Forbes.com. What could be better than to get information directly from your customers? And yet, responding to it, reviewing it, acting on it can feel like an interruption of our work if we don’t carefully check our attitude.

HIRE THE BEST

It’s very important to have a qualified person with the right “diamond DNA” to make create a positive impression, says David Brown of the Edge Retail Academy. Research has shown the best diamond sales associates share similar traits: They are neither submissive nor aggressive, but tend toward slight extroversion, and their patience levels are in the median range (they can wait to close a sale without coming across as pushy). Once you have the right people out there, offer sales training, product knowledge and support, and make sure they are not spending their time changing batteries when they should be using their skills to greet customers and close sales

UNLOCK THEIR IMAGINATION

Chuck Kuba of Iowa Diamond in Des Moines, IA, came from a background in the performing arts before returning to the family’s traditional line of work and opening his own jewelry store. The two really aren’t so different: one is played out on the boards, the other in the imagination, says Kuba, who is a big advocate of using the “theater of the mind” to unlock a customer’s dreams, desires and aspirations. “Nothing can compare with asking a woman to close her eyes and imagine the perfect engagement ring and then describe it to you,” says Kuba. “It’s magic.”

PRACTICE EMPATHY

Put yourself in your customer’s shoes. Try out the role of counselor when selling or handling returns, if the situation calls for it. Say, “Tell me more.” It puts customers at ease, suggests author Harry Friedman in No Thanks, I’m Just Looking. And if they’re unhappy with a situation, it defuses the tension. If they’re not sure what they want, it will help them reach a conclusion.

REALLY LISTEN TO WHAT THEY WANT

“I want the client to dream his or her best dream, then I want to know the budget,” says Jo Goralski of the Jewelry Mechanic in Oconomowoc, WI. “I learned early on that if I design based on budget, no one wins. A young couple came into the studio. She wanted a yellow emerald-cut diamond in a split shank covered with diamonds, and a wedding band for him, and he had a $1,500 budget. Knowing the look she was going for, I found a semi-mount with melee diamonds. I found a killer soft yellow emerald-cut sapphire, and my shop hand-forged him a wedding band. With the sales tax, it came in at just under $1,500. They have been married over 10 years and have three kids, and they have always remembered we treated their dream with respect.”

BE VERY GOOD AT GETTING THEM TO TALK

“If they’re shopping together for an engagement ring, you need to ask her a lot of questions about style, fashion, what she’s seen, what she liked, if she has a photo on her phone,” says Shane Decker. “Too many people get defensive when they bring in a lab report from Blue Nile or James Allen or another online retailer. Say, ‘I’m so glad you did some research!’ If they bring that in, it means they haven’t bought it yet. The Internet doesn’t deliver an experience. So give them an incredible experience, get them talking about their engagement, their lives. This is something that’s among the top 10 most incredible memories of a woman’s life.”

DON’T JUDGE

It’s tough even to tell anymore who has money to spend. “They don’t just come in and say I’ve got 20 grand to spend on my wife,” says Bob Phibbs. “And they don’t dress like they did in the ‘60s to buy jewelry; they may come in in flip flops and shorts. Judging has to stop.”

MANAGE EVERY FACET OF THE EXPERIENCE

“This is my favorite exercise to do with stores,” says consultant Joel Hassler of VonHasle Jewelry Advisers. “At a staff meeting, give each associate a piece of paper and have them write down as many things as they can about your store where your customer interacts with your business. Then, similar to the game Scattergories, go around the room and get a point for each thing you have on your list that no one else had. Put a $20 gift card on the line for the winner. The point you’re trying to make is that there are way more things than you might think of, almost an unending list. The door handles, the pens, the cases, the displays, the volume of your hold music, the fonts/colors in your advertising, the ceiling tiles, the burned out light bulb, the string on your bags, etc. It’s not so much about micromanaging, but over-managing everything that leaves an impression on your customer, subtle or not.”

INVITE COLLABORATION

The fact that customers want to be intimately involved in the creation of a piece of jewelry can be considered either an annoyance or an opportunity. Collins Jewelers in Dallas, GA, opts for the latter view, starting with taking the customer out to lunch to go over their renderings and then involving them in every step of production. “One customer wanted to pour his own gold, so we took care of all the details and made that possible, and he was ecstatic,” says owner Marty Collins.

SUPPORT THEIR CHARITIES

“We open our doors to any of our customers who are involved with a charity and host a fundraising event at the store,” says Tracy Lewis of Glennpeter Jewelers Diamond Centre in Albany, NY. “We hire a caterer, bartender and cleaning crew. They bring their supporters, charge at the door and make money on raffle items.” They’ve helped raise $3 million for charity that way while establishing valuable relationships with clients and prospective clients.

At Von Bargen Jewelers, each location recruits a customer advisory board that provides valuable feedback.

GREET & GUIDE

At the Diamond Vault in Sarasota, FL, a concierge greets guests upon arriving, offers a beverage (beer, wine, champagne, coffee, etc.) and helps direct them to the appropriate person or area in the store — i.e. service/repair, vintage/estate jewelry, engagement rings, fine jewelry, etc. This approach can cut down on the “just looking” response since the concierge isn’t directly trying to sell them something. At the Diamond Vault, the concierge, who is a graduate gemologist, is also equipped with a computer and a phone and can easily answer customer-service questions, no matter how technical they may be.

PULL UP A CHAIR

Treat your customers as if you’re opening your home to them, says Elle Hill of Hill & Co., or as if you’ve invited them to a party. That means providing comfortable seating and offering them a drink, at least, along with a sincere welcoming smile and acknowledgment of their presence. Consider your level of hospitality. Would you offer your guests a glass of Champagne? Brownies on a silver tray? Wine and cheese? And consider the overall impression: Is the scent of your store inviting (cinnamon, cookies)? Or is it overpowering?

START A CLUB

Shoppers feel special if they are included in a special sub-set of customers. Invite your best customers to join a VIP club, then invite them to exclusive trunk shows and offer special deals. Or put together an advisory board of well-connected customers who offer suggestions on what they’d like to see in your cases. For example, in Vermont, each Von Bargen Jewelers location has its own customer advisory board, made up of savvy, fashionable women, who meet quarterly to discuss inventory, merchandising and marketing. The store serves food and beverages, and participants receive gift bags, including $100 gift certificates to the store.

THEY ARE NOT JUST FINE

“No one should ever ask customers any question that will result in the answer, ‘Fine.’ That’s an acronym for Feelings I’m Not Expressing,” says Scott Ginsberg, author of How To Be That Guy And The Approachable Salesperson. “Instead, employees should ask only open-ended, passion-finding questions like, ‘What keeps you busy outside of work?’ and ‘What was the best part about your week?’ The question, ‘So, what do you do?’ should be outlawed completely. Because your job isn’t to learn what people do — it’s to learn who they are. Only then can you suggest the right jewelry to fit their individual truth.”

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How to Know When It’s Time to Go

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Author Seth Godin says strategic quitting is the secret of successful organizations, while reactive quitting is the bane of those who strive and fail to get what they want. “And most people do just that, they quit when it’s painful and stick when they can’t be bothered to quit,” he writes in his book, The Dip.

In the case of retail jewelers, consultants say, some simply don’t have enough time to collect their thoughts, let alone devise a plan. Others may fear change.

If you’ve had enough, it may be time to call it quits and do something else. “Quitting is better than coping because quitting frees you up to excel at something else. All coping does is waste your time and misdirect your energy,” Godin writes.

Whether that something else turns out to be beach-combing in retirement, pursuing a hobby or reimagining a new way to do business, having a plan is a prerequisite to success. Jewelry store owners who do plan for the next phase of their lives express a strong sense of freedom, both before and after they activate that plan.

Consultant Bill Boyajian of Bill Boyajian & Associates has not run into any long-term jewelers who, deep down, don’t love what they do.

“That’s part of the problem,” he says. “They can’t envision what they will do if they leave their business. They haven’t had any free time to develop any hobbies. I encourage them to think about becoming a private jeweler, but being involved to a lesser extent.”

Josh Hayes, business analyst for Wilkerson, says retailers he’s worked with on retirement sales do want to stay involved with the industry. Many set up offices with a few display cases of sample lines and work by appointment. “It works out perfectly because you still have your customer lists from your store, so after your closing event, you can transition your old customers to your new endeavor. Then you have the flexibility to work as much as you choose.”

But even semi-retirement requires planning. According to David Brown of the Edge Retail Academy, 37 percent of jewelry store owners have no retirement plan at all; many just hope their exit works itself out. The key is to be in a position to retire — financially, physically, and mentally.

“Knowing that you can gives you answers,” Brown says. “Knowing that you can’t gives you stress.”
“Ask yourself, what options do I have: I can sell the business, close the business down, or I can groom the business so it runs without me, become an absentee owner and get a good income out of it,” Brown says.

On occasion, the millennial successor wants to speed up their parents’ exit, or in other ways would be an unpleasant or unsuitable business partner during a lengthy transition. In these cases, Boyajian advises the parents to liquidate most of their inventory in a sale to ensure they have money for retirement, and then simply let their kids take over the lease and the business and build up the inventory again.

Closing and retirement sales are regulated by law, and they can only be done once. Most of the store owners’ retirement income rests on the return from the sale event, so it’s incredibly important that the event is conducted properly. While Wilkerson can put together a closing event in about three weeks in an emergency situation, a year of planning will improve results, perhaps dramatically.

“Once the sale is complete, the new owner has lower inventory, minimal debt and can usually get some consignment inventory from vendors they know, and build up the store in the direction they intend to take it,” Hayes says.

Here are some examples of transition tales that show every indication they’ll be success stories.

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