Keep the Tissues Handy

One day about 10 years ago, a man came into Zenker Jewelers in Royersford, Pa., and asked owner Cathy Calhoun if she bought used wedding bands. Calhoun responded that she did and that her price would be based on the value of the gold. The man promptly removed the band he was wearing, took a hammer from a tool belt around his waist, and smashed the ring on the store?s Formica counter. ?Then he was thrilled with himself. He said, ?That made me feel great,? ? Calhoun recalls. She never did anything with the gold from the band. ?I kept the pieces because it?s such a good story,? she says.

That incident may be an extreme example, but it?s not surprising that jewelers routinely find themselves dealing with clients? tears, arguments, and other emotional outbursts. After all, the jewelry industry prides itself on its connection to love and family, and anyone who?s attended a few Thanksgiving dinners knows drama abounds when these relationships are celebrated. Emotions also run high among bereaved clients seeking to sell estate pieces from a deceased relative. It?s no wonder the item you restock most frequently is Kleenex.

?It can?t get more important than marriage, birth, and death,? notes Patti Geolat, a Dallas appraiser. ?We have taken advantage of these important opportunities in people?s lives. If we?ve taught them that for every occasion there?s a piece of jewelry that?s appropriate, we can?t turn our backs on the sentiment that we?ve built.?

The sales associates who are best at helping customers get in touch with jewelry?s sentimental significance are the ones who most frequently witness these feelings building to a crescendo. These salespeople also tend to be skilled in helping customers put a cap on the emotions. ?It?s a simple matter of sensitivity?of knowing and understanding your clients as individuals,? says Kate Peterson, a principal in Performance Concepts, which provides management consulting to retailers. Sensitive associates ?know when it?s safe to push,? Peterson explains. ?The problem is, a lot of salespeople and managers don?t really understand it.?

It?s embarrassing for a customer to realize she has cried or argued in a room full of strangers, notes Mary Beth Kroh, assistant manager at Hamilton Jewelers in Princeton, N.J. ?If it?s something they?re embarrassed about, they won?t feel comfortable coming back into the store,? Kroh says. ?You don?t want them to just sign on the dotted line; you care about having them have a good experience.?

Emotional clients need a sympathetic ear. ?We have a motto in our store: to make a friend of each person, whether we?re selling, buying, repairing, or just listening,? says Linda Abell of Sarah Leonard Fine Jewelers in Los Angeles. Customers ?feel comfortable talking to us; they know [what they say] is not going to go any further. It?s almost like talking to your hairdresser or bartender.?

Although jewelry sales staff are taught to be providers of information, when customers? emotions are high ?you have to teach yourself to keep your mouth quiet,? says Kroh. ?It?s taking off your salesman hat, keeping your mouth shut, and listening if they need to talk. If it?s an embarrassing thing, take them into the diamond room or off the floor.?

?We try to be aware of the possibilities, to think ahead,? says Paul Cohen of Continental Jewelers in Wilmington, Del. He studies clients? body language and prepares to hand over a tissue the moment it seems tears are about to flow. ?What does a tissue say? That it?s okay to cry,? Cohen explains.

Walking in customers? shoes. The key to dealing with emotional clients is to imagine yourself in their circumstances and consider how you would want to be treated, veteran jewelers say. Geolat learned the hard way that clients discovering their stone is not a diamond need a friend rather than a hard-nosed consumer advocate. ?When I first got started, I had more book learning than experience,? she recalls. Her main concern was ?impressing them with what I knew?why I knew that they got screwed. I was thinking more about the jeweler [who sold the stone] taking advantage of the consumer than I was about putting myself in their shoes and saying, ?How would I want this news delivered?? You?re about to dash somebody?s dreams.?

Today, Geolat has a reputation for being a counselor as well as an appraiser. ?I could have three or four people a day, for whatever reason, mourning,? she says. Recently, she assisted ?a little old man in his 70s? who wanted to sell his late wife?s ring but was having trouble coming to terms with the finality of the deed and the loss it represented. He needed more than a business transaction, Geolat says. ?How do you not take a minute with that person and hold their hand?? she asks rhetorically. ?How do you pry that ring out of his hand and push him out the door??

A ring is by far the most sentimental piece of jewelry??especially if it?s from a mother,? says Calhoun. When financial circumstances compel a reluctant client to sell a late mother?s ring, Calhoun frequently will suggest selling the center stone only and keeping the mounting to be set with the client?s birthstone. ?Then they still feel they have that ring; it?s the ring they saw on her hand.? One man who came in with his mother?s engagement ring began sobbing when Calhoun pointed out a feature he hadn?t noticed before: a date engraved on the mounting. ?That?s how sentimental people get about rings,? Calhoun says.

Customers don?t always take their jeweler?s advice in matters of sentiment. Abell recalls an intricately designed platinum bracelet from the 1940s that three siblings wanted cut in thirds so each could have a part of their dear mother?s prized possession. The store was working through an attorney rather than with the clients themselves. ?I felt that if we had been able to meet with the three children involved, we could have gotten across the emotion and let them see what a spectacular piece this was,? says Abell. Division of the bracelet rendered it worthless. ?It broke our hearts,? she says.

Managing emotions. Role-playing exercises can give staff the skills to turn an emotionally charged situation around. ?Practice the skills to diffuse the situation once it?s happened,? Peterson advises. Many of these skills are generic. Dealing with a client who gets angry upon learning her late mother?s treasured jewelry is worth less than she believed, for example, involves the same skills as those needed to calm a customer who?s angry because his repair isn?t ready. ?The best thing a manager can do is to create that toolkit for their people, to get them ready for any contingency,? Peterson advises. ?How do you handle the teary and upset, the hysterical for whatever reason??

It?s also important that all staff understand store policies and when it?s okay to be flexible with them. ?Work through how to say things so you don?t do what you aren?t intending to do,? Peterson recommends. Of course, a manager would give an engagement-ring refund to a distraught woman whose fiancé was killed in an accident right after the ring was presented. But a sales associate who doesn?t understand the nuances of the policy won?t be able to help the woman. ?Their attention is not on the customer; it?s on worrying about the rules,? Peterson says. Ironically, she says, emotional sensitivity is what makes someone a good salesperson, but often when jewelers hire an associate with such sensitivity, ?we train them out of that emotion and into follow-the-rules mode.?

Emotional landmines. You can?t always predict what will set a customer off. Maintaining eye contact, observing body language, and carefully listening to the client provide valuable cues. It also pays to be empathetic?to consider what your customers are going through. Here are some common scenarios.

Commitment phobia. An engaged couple may be reluctant to sit down at the diamond counter because they are ?so darned scared of the commitment they?re making,? Kroh says. A way to dispel the fear is to ?kid around with them; make it fun, make it nonthreatening,? she advises. She tries to calm these clients with lines like, ?I promise you I won?t sell you anything. It?s not going to the dentist; it?s just some old carbon we?re looking at.?

The situation can appear less threatening if the associate is on the same side of the counter as the customers. It also helps to have another associate come over and talk about new movies or some other unrelated topic. ?Get them totally away from what?s scaring them, and let the customer lead you back into why he?s there,? Kroh suggests.

Love gone bad. The happy young man who bought an engagement ring from you last month may return to your store dejectedly if his beloved declines his proposal. David Rotenberg of

David Craig Jewelers in Langhorne, Pa., will give a refund for the diamond. ?We don?t make them jump through hoops,? he says. ?If along the way somebody hits a bump in the road, we don?t try to make it more difficult for them. You have to take them out of [dismal situations] with ease and grace. Maybe someday down the road they?ll remember you fondly.?

In such circumstances, be prepared to bear the brunt of a client?s frustration. ?A lot of times when the guys come in to sell the engagement ring, they?re angry,? Calhoun says. ?They want [the woman] out of their lives, and this is the last thing to get rid of.? The key to dealing with an angry customer, Kroh says, is to ?let the bubble deflate. Let them talk it out, and then they?re probably ready to listen.?

?If a jeweler responds to that anger from a defensive posture, the person will get mad at the jeweler,? Peterson says. ?If somebody?s mad at the world, and you?re a convenient target, they?re going to get mad at you. Don?t make yourself a convenient target.?

Instead, treat the devastated client with compassion. ?We owe it to our customers to be gentle and generous with them,? says Peterson. For someone suffering an unpleasant fate, kind treatment from a jeweler ?may be the only experience that stands out in their mind as something very positive, and what are they going to talk about, given the opportunity??

True love, fake stone. The trauma of discovering that a stone isn?t really a diamond?or is not the quality it was purported to be?is magnified if the piece in question is an engagement ring, especially if the purchaser earnestly researched the topic beforehand. ?These guys have invested so much more than money; they?re spending a lot of time getting themselves educated,? appraiser Geolat says. It?s even more mortifying if a man learns this news in front of his fiancée. ?It?s the first purchase that he?s made that?s theirs together. He?s coming in, pleased as punch. The first test he takes, he fails. It doesn?t matter that it isn?t his fault. It?s so emotional at this point that it doesn?t take anything for these people to snap.? Geolat recently spent ?an entire morning? counseling a couple in this situation. She advised them to wait until after wedding photos were taken to remove their stone from its mounting and try to resolve the matter. ?It was very apparent that this was turning in their stomachs,? Geolat recalls. She had to remind them that ?what you?re doing is so much bigger than this piece of jewelry; don?t let this ruin your wedding.?

A sentimental simulant. When telling a client that an estate piece from a beloved relative contains an inexpensive lookalike rather than a precious gem, you have to be careful not to diminish the feelings the piece evokes. ?You have to do it as gently as possible, and not just matter-of-fact,? says Abell. ?Get the emotion in there and let the people down gently.?

Using the word ?gemstone? often helps, Peterson suggests. For example, if the item dates from World War II, you might say, ?During the time of the war, it was not uncommon for men to look for gemstones that looked like diamonds to represent the same thing. It looks like your grandfather did a good job.?

And Mother makes three. Among a jeweler?s biggest challenges is finessing the situation when a couple take a mother along on their engagement ring shopping trip. Frequently this can lead to an argument. ?If there?s nothing good that I can add to it, I just walk away,? Kroh says. Sometimes it?s advisable ?to take one of them out of the scenario; then the other two will calm down.? Pointing out an interesting piece in another showcase is a good distraction. This often requires the talents of a psychologist rather than a gemologist. ?It?s group encounters,? Kroh says.

Rotenberg recalls a young woman who came to his store thinking she had damaged her engagement ring. He examined the diamond and pointed out that she was mistaking an inclusion for damage. ?She became horrified to think that it was an inclusion,? the jeweler recalls. The client asked if she could return with her fiancé. ?She brought not only her fiancé; I believe she brought both families. I must have had 15 people in the store,? Rotenberg says. Apparently, members of both families had been involved in the purchase of the ring. Rotenberg felt like a clergyman conducting a service as he explained his findings. ?A fight broke out; there was pushing and shoving.? Today, he charges an appraisal fee before taking on such projects. ?If they?re willing to pay a fee, they tend to be somewhat reasonable,? he says.

Decisions, decisions. Sometimes a couple who can?t agree on a purchase will call on the jeweler to mediate. ?You have to play Switzerland and be totally neutral,? Kroh says. ?I tell them, ?You?re trying to make me make the decision, but it?s not my money.? I make them realize what they?re doing.?

But sometimes a jeweler can help one party see the other side, Abell points out. ?If I step in, I can be the one, without getting him angry at her, to voice what her thoughts are. It?s fine for the guy to say no to me without affecting their relationship.? Often, Abell will tell the man, ? ?I can see in her eyes that she would prefer this one.? I have to take that step and give him the nudge.?

Dire straits. When talking to clients who need to sell beloved pieces for financial reasons, jewelers should describe all their options, veteran retailers say. Selling a piece through a classified ad might yield them more money but involves risk and effort. Selling it through the jeweler on consignment will also be more lucrative than selling it to the jeweler outright but may take years. Cohen also suggests that clients find a friend who might ?buy? the piece from them and then ?resell? it to them a year later for an extra 10%. ?I want to plant the seed in their mind so they don?t have regrets?so they don?t beat themselves up or they don?t beat us up,? he says. Cohen will calm a despondent client by saying, ?My job is to tell you what your options are, so five years down the road you won?t say, ?If only the jeweler had told me, I could have done something else.? ?

Sometimes clients need reassurance along with an explanation of their options. ?Oftentimes, the person needs that validation: ?You need to keep a roof over your head. It?s a wonderful thing that this jewelry is able to do that for you.? Dialogue like that goes a long way to ease the pain,? Cohen says.

It also brings good results for the store. ?When we take the time to educate and counsel, when they leave, they say, ?I like that store. They were nice, and they were friendly to me,? ? Cohen says. He notes that at least a half-dozen clients who sold jewelry to his store later came back to purchase engagement rings there. ?Five years later, they were back buying.?