Dear Customer

Gary Hill believes communication is the key to business and personal success. And one of the most effective ways for retail jewelers to retain the loyalty of their customers is through one of the simplest and least costly forms of communication: the letter.

Hill, president and owner of Leo Hamel & Co. in San Diego, says the letter-writing program he employs has helped his jewelry business grow from one store to two, increase the space of the original store from 2,000 to 10,000 square feet, and grow from $3 million to $12 million in annual sales.

“We graph it weekly,” Hill told a group of jewelers during a seminar at the Jewelers Executive Conference in Kansas City, Mo., held April 1 and 2. “You put your letters-out graph next to the gross-sales graph; if you see a spike in the letters, six weeks later you’ll see an increase in gross sales.”

Hill has his salespersons write 25 to 150 letters per week to their customers. The administrative staff writes 25 to 50 letters per week. They are primarily small personal notes, no more than a couple of sentences. Staffers may write whatever they want, as long as it isn’t inappropriate. “There are no restrictions to what salespersons can write in their letters,” Hill says. “They write about anything.”

The notes are written on special letterhead that allows customers to write back on the same sheet of paper. After writing their responses, customers fold the sheet to display the store’s address and premetered postage, tape the top, and mail it. The personal and casual nature of the letters and the ease of returning them encourage a dialogue between salesperson and customer.

It works because it’s different from the notes and e-mails sent to customers to mark a special occasion or alert them to sales, Hill says. Those types of notes don’t encourage dialogue.

“The whole purpose of the letters is to get better communication with the customer. Most jewelers write with the intention of making a sale. We write to raise communication by raising the affinity and reality,” he says. “It makes sense to customers. Most jewelers do it to a small degree … for birthdays and anniversaries, but this is different.”

Some of the dialogue can be surprising. For example, one salesperson wrote to a customer: Hello! Why haven’t I seen you in a while? Do you need anything? Also, I wanted to remind you that jewelry cleaning is FREE!!!!!!!!!!!!!! Come see me.

The tongue-in-cheek handwritten response was: I left my wife. Married my secretary. Bought a sports car and a boat. I am broke.

In a separate card, the salesperson wrote back: Congratulations … Here’s a couple of bucks. Two $1 bills were enclosed in the card.

Hill acknowledges that he didn’t create the letter-writing program. It was started by partner, friend, and store founder Leo Hamel, who has removed himself from the daily business operation. The letters have been part of the business for 23 of the 25 years it’s been operating.

“Leo came up with the idea,” Hill says. “He came up with the design of the letter. We improved the stationery. The font and printing have been improved. And we continue to change it every so often. … My part is to build it into our company culture so that it gets done on a consistent basis.”

Hill uses the letter-writing campaign as part of a communications training strategy that he personally teaches to all new employees. The program takes from two days to two weeks to learn depending on how much time employees have to put into it. The communications program, he says, was created by L. Ron Hubbard, the founder of Scientology.

“That’s our secret weapon,” he says, “the communication skills learned and improved upon, whether you encounter it through letters or marketing or whatever.”

Hill is a Scientologist, but adapting the letter-writing campaign to fit with Hubbard’s communications philosophy and teachings has nothing to do with Hill’s beliefs. “The principals work, no doubt about it,” he says. “That’s the thing. If they didn’t work we wouldn’t use them. God knows, as jewelry store owners we get things across our plate daily that don’t work. The trick is to find those things that do work and strengthen them.”

The communications training can be applied to any business, Hill says. He should know. In a former career, Hill was a nationally recognized investment analyst for a securities and brokerage firm. Hamel convinced Hill to work for his store in 1992.

“My job was to analyze investments and determine whether this was something to be good for our customers. I just happen to be friends with Leo for the last 30-something years. I never thought I would get into the jewelry business,” he says. “When the securities business was sold, he said: ‘Why don’t you help me expand my jewelry business?’”

During his time as a jeweler, Hill has developed an appreciation of what independent jewelers have to offer, which is service—something, he says, that’s becoming less available with the increase of larger franchise operations. He also says he wants to save the independent jeweler by helping them provide better service to their customers. He says that’s why he traveled to Kansas City to talk about his letter-writing program and his approach to communications.

“I don’t like going to big stores because there isn’t a personalized service being offered,” he tells JCK. “There’s no relationship—a Cheers factor—where you walk in and everybody knows your name. I especially like that about the jewelry business. … Since jewelry itself is nothing more than a symbol—whether it’s love or congratulations or an accomplishment—and when a customer buys something to celebrate those special moments in life, I think it’s best done with someone you can trust and have a relationship with. Not from a part-time clerk who would be somebody different the next time you go in.”

He continues, “Our tagline that we use in our store branding is ‘Life should be celebrated, not just lived.’ That to me is what the independent jeweler is about. We help people celebrate those moments in life.”