Dealing With Difficult Customers

Helping an appreciative customer may be the most satisfying experience in retailing, but dealing with “problem” customers also has its rewards-if you know how to react. Respondents to a recent JCK retail panel survey told us about some of their most challenging customers. We share their stories here in the hope that readers will benefit from their experiences.

The forgetful customer. Tim Branscomb, owner of Sierra West Jewelers in Orem, Utah, recalls a customer who came in to pick up a ring in which he had mounted some diamonds. She asked to see the stones under a loupe and expressed alarm when she spotted flaws, claiming the diamonds were not the ones she’d picked. Branscomb showed the woman the original sale card with her signature next to the diamonds’ specs. That jogged her memory. “Oh, now I remember,” she said. “What do I owe you?”

Branscomb believes in an ounce of prevention. “Check diamonds against diamond and moissanite testers, look for chips and internal inclusions,” he says. “Map out a stone’s flaws on paper like the GIA does. You’ve got to protect yourself from customers.”

The uninformed customer. A customer visiting J. Michael Horn Jewelers in Hammond, La., had just been to a discounter to look at jewelry. “Your prices on wedding bands are almost twice as much as ones I saw at [the discounter],” she said. As store owner Jerry Horn began describing his service policies, including free ring engraving and gift-wrap, the woman responded, “So what?” Horn then informed her that his rings were thicker and heavier than any piece she’d find at the discounter. “I explained to her that gold is gold, so if it costs more, it weighs more,” Horn says. To see for herself, she went back to the discounter and handled a few bands. She returned to Horn’s several days later and admitted that the discounter’s rings bent nearly in half when she squeezed them. She bought a band from Horn.

Jack Seibert, owner of Goldsmith & Jeweler in Columbus, Ohio, had a customer accuse him of selling her a defective tennis bracelet. “She never took the piece off,” he says. “The gold wore away in places because dirt was ground into the rivets, and she never cleaned it.”

He explained to her that, after years of wear and tear, jewelry needs maintenance, including cleaning and repairs. “You wouldn’t think of not changing the oil in your car or not replacing worn tires, would you?” he asked her. She admitted that she would not.

Two weeks before Christmas, a couple entered Riddles Diamond Centers, Minot, N.D., shopping for a two-piece diamond wedding set. After finding a style they liked, they asked about a larger stone for the band. Lon Hardy got the diamond they wanted, which cost $500 more. But the gentleman couldn’t see any difference between the two stones. Hardy spent the next two hours with the couple examining both stones under the microscope while patiently explaining the differences-without making the groom feel inadequate. Hardy closed the sale for $3,100.

The paranoid customer. Customers have been known to ask if a jeweler intended to switch stones during cleaning or repairs. In some stores, customers are permitted to watch the stone setter at work. Other jewelers suggest that customers call previous clients for referrals. Some customers are so wrought with fear, jewelers have no choice but to send them elsewhere.

George Baker, owner of Baker’s Fine Jewelry & Gifts, which has locations in Virginia Beach and Norfolk, Va., was offended when one of his first customers 25 years ago was hesitant to leave a diamond. “Now I can understand their concerns, considering TV exposés on stone-switching,” says Baker. These days he lets customers watch his goldsmith at work with their stones.

“We know [stone-switching] has been done at some stores, so we can understand their fears,” says Brad Marks, vice president of I.W. Marks Jewelers, Houston, Texas. “We tell people just not to leave it if they’re really that uncomfortable.”

The indecisive customer. A well-intentioned husband bought a 3-ct. oval diamond worth $21,000 from Romm & Co. Inc., Brockton, Mass., for his wife. But she didn’t like the stone and returned it. Four diamonds later, sales manager Dean Learned, CGA, suggested to the customer that perhaps his wife didn’t know what she wanted and offered to refund his money. The customer accepted Learned’s offer, save for $5,000. “He left that money on credit, swearing he’d be back for something,” Learned says.

The customer with a conscience. Some consumers are aware of “conflict diamonds” but don’t understand that only a small percentage-4%, according to De Beers-have actually reached U.S. stores, says Todd Michael, owner of Facets of Todd Michael, Detroit, Mich. When a customer refuses to buy a diamond that might be “dirty,” Michael tries to sell them on Argyle’s “champagne” diamonds from Australia and treated colored diamonds-even though the latter, which started out “white,” may have come from Africa. “People just associate white diamonds with Africa,” says Michaels.

Two of Michael’s customers won’t buy any white diamonds because “there are no guarantees” about origin. “They won’t even buy melee pieces,” he says. Another customer partial to amethysts decided not to buy one because he couldn’t be sure it didn’t come from an area of conflict in Africa.

The tightwad customer. A local businessman entered Jay Fleming Jewelers, Yuma, Colo., right before Christmas looking for a gift in the $200 range for his wife. He asked the salesperson to show him a mother’s ring with synthetic stones. He also asked for a discount. The sales associate, knowing the man had shopped in the store before, offered 20%. The man said he “needed” double that. The associate smiled at him as she closed the case and told him to have a nice day. His wife visited the same associate the next day and purchased her own gift, without requesting a discount.

A young man selected a handmade link chain from Van Guilder’s Goldsmith, Edina, Minn., but wouldn’t stop haggling over price with store co-owner Barbara Weinans. To expedite the sale, Weinans lopped a bit off the price, and the man agreed to it. But his check was $25 short of the full amount. Weinans pointed out the “error.” “You’re not going to make me write out another check, are you?” asked the man. “No, I’ll take cash,” Weinan replied. The man’s face reddened, but he pulled out some cash-a twenty-dollar bill. Tired of arguing, Weinans took it. “He was pathetic and comical, trying to squeeze every penny out of us,” Weinans says.

The customer’s mother. Accommodating a bride’s taste in rings without insulting her maternal shopping companion requires skill. Tell mom (or mother-in-law) that she’s considerate to help the couple choose the right ring, but that she won’t be wearing it. Jewelers suggest tailoring the conversation around the couple getting married, continually asking about the bride’s preferences. “But sometimes you’ll need to actually sit down with the mom and remind her who’ll be wearing the ring,” says Bill Bennion, owner of Bennion Jewelers, Salt Lake City, Utah. Often, the mother’s taste is dated, and she may not understand the styles preferred by younger women, says Bob Heiser, owner of Crescent Jewelry Co., Hannibal, Mo. It’s the jeweler’s job to ensure that the bride is happy, he says, so be firm (but diplomatic) with meddling moms.

Preparing for difficult customers. Jewelers who responded to JCK‘s survey cited a number of methods used to train staffers to deal with difficult customers. Forty-two percent use role-play, 21% use training videos and literature, and 30% trust their employees to handle problems. Twenty-four percent rely on other means of keeping the peace, including letting the manager deal with situations, talking out problems with customers, using outside consultants for training, and sending employees to seminars to brush up on people skills.

Respondents named four industry associations as especially helpful: Jewelers of America, the Gemological Institute of America, the American Gem Society, and the Independent Jewelers Organization. Respondents also found help from articles in jewelry trade magazines, state jewelers’ associations, industry trade show seminars, consultants, business organizations outside the industry, local Chambers of Commerce, and business colleges.