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Real Deal

When a Charity Job Goes Wrong, A Jeweler Questions Her Continued Involvement

A project to assist elderly residents at a nursing home takes a bad turn.

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Carole waite always believed in giving back. She had been the store manager at Quinlan’s, an upscale store in a high-end Southwest city, for more than 10 years. It was the community involvement and philanthropic reputation of the Quinlan family and of Anne Quinlan, the store’s third-generation owner, that attracted Carole to the store in the first place, and over the years, the company had supported many of the service initiatives she’d brought to the table.

ABOUT REAL DEAL

Real Deal is a fictional scenario designed to read like real-life business events. The businesses and people mentioned in this story should not be confused with actual jewelry businesses and people.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Kate Peterson is president and CEO of Performance Concepts, a management consultancy for jewelers. Email her at [email protected]

About five years ago, one of Carole’s best customers mentioned that she and her husband had moved from their large home into a condo in Cliffs Vista, a highly regarded retirement village just outside the city. That conversation got Carole thinking. ‘The Cliffs” was an expansive, gated community with housing options ranging from independent living houses and condos to full-service nursing facilities. Knowing that there were a good number of Cliffs residents on the Quinlan’s customer list, Carole and Anne approached the community’s activities director with an offer to provide a weekly “concierge” service — free consultation and jewelry cleaning, as well as repair and appraisal take in/pickup and delivery — focused on residents in the assisted living buildings and others who might appreciate the added convenience of having a jewelry professional come to them. Their proposal was accepted, and Carole began donating three hours of her time each week to the project.

Response to Carole’s weekly visits grew steadily over the years as happy residents spread the word within the community. By 2017, the average number of repair and appraisal jobs taken in at the Cliffs each week had risen to just over 20 (though most were done at significantly reduced prices as a courtesy to the residents, and many were even free). In addition to the slight uptick in repair revenue though, Anne felt confident that Carole’s effort with the Cliffs community was an important contributing factor in the store’s consistent growth in sales and profitability.

In mid-May of this year, Carole ran into an especially challenging situation. Judith Gordon, a longtime Cliffs resident, brought her a strand of lapis beads in need of a new clasp. It was a fairly common request: replace the lobster claw with an easier-to-use magnetic ball fitting. The job was done to Mrs. Gordon’s specifications and returned a week after take-in. Carole took care to explain to Mrs. Gordon how the new clasp functioned and how to ensure that the magnet was secure when the necklace was on. It was working perfectly, and Mrs. Gordon seemed happy. The week after delivery, however, she brought the strand back to Carole again, complaining loudly that the magnetic clasp was defective and demanding that she have the original lobster claw re-attached. Carole could see that one side of the magnet had somehow been pulled from the clasp. She could also see that there would be no reasoning with Mrs. Gordon, so she refunded the amount paid for the repair (the store’s cost) and took the necklace back in as requested. It was returned the following week and it seemed that everything was fine.

In early July, Anne called Carole into her office and handed her a letter she had just received:

To the storeowner:

I falsely assumed, given a month, I would be able to overlook a grievous error made by your company’s Cliffs representative, but if you’re assuming I’ve overlooked it, you’re wrong. It still bothers me. I have not, as yet, shared my experience with other Cliffs residents and friends, since I consider it only fair that I share this unfortunate incident with you first.

I never had occasion to use your services until about six weeks ago when I met with your representative and left her with a necklace for which I wanted a magnetic clasp. When I picked it up a week later, it looked OK. She explained that I needed to “tip the magnet ball slightly” when attaching and removing. I tried the necklace on when I got home. Since some of my fingers on my right hand are bent due to rheumatoid arthritis, I could easily attach it, but had to have my husband remove it. When he did, following the “tilting” advice, the “magnetism” was no longer viable — obviously flawed. My husband immediately determined it was defective.

I returned the following week with the flawed magnet and explained what happened. Your representative said “interesting,” but she never apologized and acted as though we were obviously guilty of something. I gave her my necklace with the original crab closure to return it to the original condition and she returned my money.

Another week later, I returned and took my “repaired” necklace back home to try it on, only to discover: 1) The closure link is now two small links, making it very hard to work, and 2) the end pieces are twisted and don’t lay flat on my neck.

I have never considered myself to be mean-spirited and I am not one to “get even,” but I find your representative and your repair tech person to be guilty of a deliberate act of vandalism. I will now have to pay a real jewelry expert to repair the damage. I no longer have an interest in keeping quiet about this unfortunate incident with your store.

I am not asking for anything and will not have any further contact with your representative or your store. I just thought it fair to tell you this story first.

Both Carole and Anne were surprised and saddened by Mrs. Gordon’s rendition of the story, and they agreed that they needed to come up with a plan to resolve the situation. That conversation led to a discussion of the value of their ongoing involvement in various community and charity-related activities in today’s consumer climate. From the winner of the $3,500 designer diamond pendant in the hospital fundraiser raffle who demanded she be allowed to exchange it for something “more suitable,” to Mrs. Gordon and her accusations, it seemed that more and more people expected rather than appreciated the support of local businesses, and that the cost of giving back was starting to outweigh the benefits — to the community or to the store.

The Big Questions

  • Should Carole and Anne be concerned about Mrs. Gordon’s accusations and her threats to go public?
  • Is there a way for the store to resolve the situation?
  • In the bigger picture, are community service initiatives as valuable as they once were to businesses in terms of positive PR — or are customer “entitlement” attitudes creating diminishing returns?

Expanded Real Deal Responses

Eve A. Evanston, IL

What a great, appropriate subject! All of us face this quandary!
First, as to donations, we no longer give jewelry. Wherever possible, we instead donate an experience: the winner of the charity auction gets an evening cocktail party for 8, at our location, where they can bring an item to be redesigned, or simply have our designer sit with them and create a design while they enjoy refreshments and a tour, or a variation of this. We also throw in a gemstone and a $100 gift certificate to the winner to get them started (date and time to be arranged).

Regarding Mrs. Gordon and her peers, you have to be proactive. The owner and Carole should go to her, warmly, admit they probably did not carefully notice exactly how her necklace was strung originally (with our cellphones, it is so easy to document a repair take-in!), and also let her know that they respect her. It was a simple error and should not result in World War III.

Karen M. Oneonta, NY

Carole and Anne should consider revising the service offered at the retirement community. By going so frequently (and at considerable expense to the business), the headache it created did not justify the return. Perhaps a better use of their energy would be to schedule a visit twice a year, bringing along a small ultrasonic cleaner, some small hand tools and a laptop or collection of catalogs. That way, residents could have their jewelry cleaned and inspected, browse current offerings and consult about their jewelry needs. Repairs and purchases could then proceed normally at the regular location. This keeps in the spirit of the service but invites fewer problems.

As for the grumbler, Anne should reach out personally to resolve the complaint, but not otherwise worry too much about a spoiled reputation. Most likely, the woman is a chronic complainer and her contemporaries will “consider the source,” before thinking ill of the business.

Jacque E. Bonner Springs, KS

I think one should always be concerned about accusations. However, I don’t think customer complaints carry as much weight as they used to. I feel it is the jeweler’s job to make the customer aware of any issues that could arise when work is being done on a piece and note the issues on the receipt. Personally, I always caution my customers when it comes to using magnetic catches. I don’t like to sell them, so I try to guide them to an alternative. I used to have a customer appreciation promo and would give away a custom-made piece during my Christmas season. When one of my customers won the piece, he told his wife he had it custom-made, but she didn’t like it because it was too dressy and told him to return it. Of course he couldn’t return it for a refund, so he told her I wouldn’t take it back. She went around town telling everyone not to come to my store because I have poor service. NO MORE PROMOTIONS.

Gordon L. Santa Fe, NM

Several things disturb me about this situation. You should be proud of what you do and never undercharge; it devalues what you do in the mind of the customers and leaves no margin if things go wrong. The journeyman IS worthy of his hire!

It sounds like the magnetic clasp was faulty (magnet came unglued) and at this stage, a fulsome apology and explanation was needed.

As to the bigger picture, the jeweler is picking up a bunch of trouble with this setup. Older folks’ jewelry is heavily overlaid with emotionally charged significance and at the same time usually worn out. You touch it, you own it! Find an animal charity to support as you have yourself a lose-lose situation with this one.

Lee F. Reno, NV

Unfortunately the word “entitlement” fits here joined with another word, “elderly.” The words mixed together are more volatile than you might suspect. My suggestion: count your blessings and get out while the getting is good. There will be more to come from others, I promise you (been there, done that). All too sad but true.

Marc F. Houston, TX

It’s hard to put a value on a project designed to generate good PR. However, it is easy to determine a profit from a marketing promotion. To determine the “worth,” it’s all about ROI (return on investment). Let’s say that the company increased outside sales from 20 a week to 40 a week. The question is how much does it cost to service this outside community and how many sales AND HOW MUCH REVENUE was generated. That would be the clear answer.

Now about individual issues (come-backs, charge-offs). In my store, our accountant sets up a 5 percent return/charge-off budget. So on $100,000, the total returns should not exceed $5,000. In this case, charging the customer cost is not good business. More to this particular issue, the customer is always right. A phone call, letter of apology and a $20 store gift card would be appropriate. And I would not accept jobs from her again.

Glyn J. Victoria, TX

It seems Mrs. Gordon and her husband may be on the verge of dementia and not able to follow instructions correctly. The jewelry storeowners should meet with the owners and operators of the gated retirement community and the Gordons and explain the situation to them.

Explain what services they have provided to their residents over the past years. Let them know that if the situation can’t be resolved, that the services will be terminated rather than have their reputation tainted by one displeased couple. Explain that they have gone overboard to try to keep everyone happy and have gone so far as to even lost time and money trying to do the right thing. It sounds as though the Gordons are taking advantage of a good thing. It is a very sad situation indeed.

David B. Calgary, AB

I am going to hazard a guess and say that you will hear many readers say they have experienced something similar. I recall mine was with a Rolex that I refurbished and it stopped working every time the elderly lady left it on her night stand for the weekend. I ate that one as a charity event. Some among us will say that it is the spirit of giving that counts. And I agree, but when you get kicked in the backside over and over, it is hard to keep the spirit of charity in mind. I can say that just recently, I had a client tell me the reason they purchased an engagement ring from me was because of a donation I had made five years earlier. In 38 years in business, that is only the second time I can positively say I had a return on the charity. However, I still give to charities. In a world with such great need, I cannot turn my back. I simply make my choices far more selectively.

Rob C. Laughlin, NV

I would post a copy of this article on the condo’s clubhouse, pool area, and on the mailboxes to explain why she is no longer able to provide this service, but that she will still offer a discount to anyone from the complex that wished to bring in a repair or to make a purchase from her store. Hopefully people will get the correct story about what happened before the rumors fly!

Stacey H. Lincolnwood, IL

Assisted living facilities and old age care homes often house people who are suffering from various forms of deterioration and mental health problems that are not necessarily easy to recognize at a casual encounter such as a jewelry repair. Impaired people can do an enormous amount of damage to a business’s reputation. Maybe if Carole and Anne want to continue to do this, they should get a member of the staff at the facility to witness all transactions in case this kind of thing happens again.

Cheryl B. Coeur d’Alene, ID

I am sorry to say that yes they should be concerned, but there is no fixing crazy. I have customers like this and in this world of speedy packages coming in the mail, it’s a bust. I usually give a redo like this for free. If they have no money in it, somehow it fades away.
We live in a town that always has its hand out. I do many things for fundraising and we do get some recognition for our business. I lately have gone to giving gift certificates. I know that the charity does help get the word out about our business. We have a signature piece that we also will give. It is well known locally and no other company can make it. So my answer is yes, it is still important to give when we can because the clients are off their phones and attending an actual event.

David H. NSW Australia

There will always be cases like this where through no intent, a client becomes aggrieved. It is important, however, to cost all business activities and charge accordingly. If they were making sustainable income from this venture, would they be more motivated to stay? Be very careful which services you wish to discount in the name of charity as “no good deed goes unpunished.” I’ve found “one off” charity donations are more pleasantly received.

Suzanne L. St. Petersburg, FL

Contact the customer and apologize for not replacing it exactly as the original and offer to show her that customer service is first and foremost (even if you have to eat a little, it’s worth it). As far as the recipient of the $3,500 necklace, I would explain this was a donated item and is final.

Marcus M. Midland, TX

Carole and Anne should not worry about Mrs. Gordon. She seems like an unhappy and hateful human being who has nothing better to do. And most people she would try to badmouth Quinlan’s to probably think the same thing. I would also doubt she has many, if any, friends to even complain to. Carole did everything she could to right the wrong and it’s still not good enough. I don’t think you reach out to this mean-spirited woman again. NOTHING will satisfy her, so I would say to keep doing what you’re doing at the Cliff’s Vista and let your solid work speak for itself. It’s tough now days to try to do good in the community. People are so entitled now and don’t seem to appreciate acts of kindness anymore. It’s disheartening, but what do you do?

Joe K. Lantzville, BC

I don’t understand why it took her a month to come forward; it sounds like an easy fix. It seems nice guys finish last. There are people that have way too much time on their hands that come up with these complaints. I would personally talk to her and make it right.

Kate Peterson is president and CEO of Performance Concepts, a management consultancy for jewelers. Email her at [email protected].

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