In 1987, Bill Nusser contracted a full-time graphic artist. At that time the young woman suggested the Hands Jewelers store owner give some thought to a logo overhaul and to upgrade the quality of his store’s stationery. Nusser was against the idea as it was an unnecessary new cost.
But the graphic artist persevered. She was able to convince Nusser that everything a store does that interacts with the outside world—especially a store’s communications with customers—sends a message about quality, values, and the owner himself.
Fast-forward 30 years. Nusser still believes that consistency in the quality of customer communications is important. And he begins to wonder if that philosophy should not be expanded to include content. With that thought as a guiding principle, Nusser instituted a policy that all employee communications to customers go through a central channel for editing before being sent out.
The policy didn’t just apply to thoughtful introduction, thank-you, or detailed follow-up letters dispatched on company letterhead. The policy included e-mails, faxes, and even text messages. As communications typically are what form a good first impression, Nusser had made changes to everything in his store that was part of a customer’s initial contact with the family business. This included the store’s window display and visual merchandising elements in the store. Twice a year Nusser even holds staff training on phone demeanor.
The centralized communications policy was instituted to better control the store’s central message. Nusser’s Unique Selling Proposition in his Iowa City, Iowa, market is carrying top-end, name-brand ideal-cut diamonds and bridal jewelry that to the uninitiated, price-driven customer would seem to cost 20 percent to 25 percent more than the jewelry his competitors (down the street or online) for non-branded goods.
Before the policy was implemented, the store owner and his staff were losing significant market share. Staff members weren’t properly conveying the value proposition associated with spending more money for a better, name-brand product.
Nusser admits that the policy was met with resistance at first. “The day I announced the policy the staff was very defensive,” says Nusser. “They accused me of being heavy-handed, Orwellian, and a micromanager.”
Bill Nusser, owner of Hands Jewelers
Although some sales associates circumvented the new policy and continued to sneak out e-mails from personal accounts, after a few months Nusser successfully converted most sales staff. They started to see that the centralized customer communications policy was demonstrating direct results with fewer lost customers and increased sales.
First and foremost, the policy was established to make sure that all customer communications are grammatically correct and letter-perfect. Equally important to writing an error-free letter or email is demonstrating the ability to properly articulate value propositions for the store’s many leading name brands.
“Not properly conveying value propositions was hurting our sales,” says Nusser. “Without our knowing it, customers were asking staffers to give them prices on certain goods. Not properly explaining why our name brands cost more, the customer simply heard a higher dollar figure and then that sale was lost. What was more disconcerting was not just losing the sale in the short-term, but most likely losing the customer for good.”
Over the years Nusser’s executive secretary has demonstrated airtight editing proficiency. Once she caught on to “Hands Jewelers language,” and the value propositions for the store’s leading ideal-cut diamonds and mainly name-brand bridal jewelry lines, she became the gatekeeper for all store communications.
Nusser introduced the policy in summer 2007, giving staffers time to work with the then-new customer communications system before the busy holiday season. Since day 1, Nusser has established a set of procedures that is in keeping with the policy of many companies that requires a response to a customer meeting or correspondence within 24 hours.
The sales associate letter-writing process begins shortly after a sales presentation. “I quickly meet with a sales associate whenever possible to discuss the nature of the customer, their physical and emotional needs, the sales presentation, what product information was discussed, how it was articulated and determine if there was a call to action,” says Nusser.
A quick review of the sales presentation refreshes the sales associate’s memory of the customer exchange just before he or she composes a follow-up letter. The top-of-mind key points Nusser and a sales associate distill down from the customer exchange become the main talking points of the customer correspondence.
When a letter is completed, it is edited by Nusser’s executive secretary. From her computer, the e-mail—edited with the participation of the staff person involved or Nusser himself—is sent from the employee’s own e-mail account to the customer.
When the policy was first initiated, moving customer communications along was painfully slow. Over time, however, staff members developed templates that could be copied and pasted into many letters. These days, the post–sales presentation review is initiated by the staff member rather than Nusser as they have seen the results of using this tool effectively. Staff members have recognized the value in getting the letter writing and editing process rolling.
Hands Jewelers in Iowa City, Iowa
Staff members have also developed a better command of the Hands Jewelers language. This proficiency has helped to expedite the editing process with 90 percent of staff letters requiring only light editing before being sent out.
Incoming customer communications to employees are also monitored before forwarding them along. “You can’t determine what goes out unless you know what’s coming in,” says Nusser.
A small but important tweak to customer letters from sales associates made a big impact. Nusser’s chief Hands’ style change was emphasizing the word you and almost eliminating the word I.
“This shifts the focus onto responding to the needs of the consumer rather than the needs of the salesperson, which are almost always irrelevant and alienating,” says Nusser.
Nusser provided a typical edit of a staffer’s letter to a customer regarding the value proposition of a Lazare Kaplan ideal-cut diamond compared with a non–ideal-cut diamond.
A sentence from a staffer’s letter: “Yes, Lazare diamonds are very expensive, but they’re so beautiful.”
The Hands Jewelers language translation: “It is true that Lazare Diamonds seem to cost more than their non-Lazare counterparts. This is actually a misconception. The relevant fact is that Lazare Diamonds seem to cost 20 percent more and they are at least 100 percent more beautiful. So, regardless of anything else, which diamond do you find to be the better value? The cheap diamond or the one that costs a fraction more—and looks twice as beautiful?”
After four years with the customer communications policy in place, Nusser is pleased with the success and acceptance of a difficult but sound management decision. His sister quickly became proficient in the Hands Jewelers language, and Nusser’s son, Charlie, is coming along rapidly himself.
More hands have increased the speed and efficiency of the centralized policy. And, gone are the days when sales would disappear at the first sign of price resistance. “Drop offs from the pre-2007 levels have fallen substantially to as little as 15 to 18 percent,” says Nusser.
A side benefit from the policy’s procedures of immediately reviewing a sales presentation has added a daily training component and increased exchange between the store owner and his staff.
“My employees are learning more and selling more while adding customers to our database,” says Nusser. “The policy seems to be working. Now if only they’d ease up on me for the no-eating-in-the-showroom policy.”