Rules of Engagement

Forty minutes before closing on the Saturday of a three-day holiday weekend, four drunken yuppies walked into Susan Eisen Fine Jewelry in El Paso, Texas. One of them had decided to propose to his girlfriend-in an hour-and his friends were accompanying him to bolster his courage as he bought an engagement ring. “You could smell the beer on their breath,” recalls Eisen, who was going to a wedding that evening and had planned to close her store early.

The customer’s friends were yelling at him to hurry up so they could watch a football game on television. “I asked him, ‘Are you ready to buy today?'” Eisen remembers. “I said, ‘If you’re ready to buy, I’m going to turn on the TV so your friends can watch the football game.'” She ended up selling the customer a $3,000 mounting. Because the store was closing early, there was no time to replace the cubic zirconia used for display; the customer had to come back to the store later for a diamond. The staff sent him off with stern reminders to tell his girlfriend the stone was a cubic zirconia. “We were worried that he wouldn’t remember,” says Eisen. But the customer did remember and returned for the diamond; in the end, the sale totaled $6,000.

While it may be unconventional to make a $6,000 purchase under the influence of alcohol, it’s no wonder an engagement-ring customer might feel the need to take courage-enhancing measures. “It’s a nerve-wracking time,” notes Skip Robbins, owner of E.E. Robbins in Seattle and part owner of Robbins Bros. stores in Southern California. “For some guys, it’s the first time they’ve been in a jewelry store. They’re making a lifetime commitment, and they’re buying a product they don’t know anything about. And for most people, it’s a considerable amount of money.”

How do you put a prospective groom at ease? By focusing on his sweetheart and the forthcoming marriage proposal, many successful jewelers suggest. “Face it, nobody needs a diamond,” says Robbins. “The purpose of it is as a symbol of the relationship; that’s what makes it special.” The key to a successful engagement-ring sale, he says, is “an understanding of your customers and a true desire to help them and to make the experience a beautiful one.”

Shopping for a reaction. Rather than a product, what the engagement-ring customer is really buying is a reaction-“the look on her face when he gives it; the look on the faces of her family and friends when she shows it to them,” says Kate Peterson, a partner in Performance Concepts, which provides retail training to the jewelry industry. Thus, it’s important that the ring and accompanying marriage proposal be tailored specifically to appeal to the woman as an individual. “Every little girl dreams of having that engagement ring,” Peterson says. “Your job is not to sell the ring; it’s to make sure that the reality matches the fantasy.” In order to do this, you need to elicit information that gives you an understanding of the person who’s going to be wearing the ring and what will make the moment memorable, she adds.

Instead of asking questions about the product-what size, shape, or quality of diamond the customer prefers-ask about the woman who will be wearing it, Peterson advises. By doing so, you will avoid violating a cardinal rule of engagement-ring sales: “Never ask the man a question to which he has to answer, ‘I don’t know,'” she says. Because most men don’t know very much about diamonds, asking about the product-“What styles have you seen?”-will make a man feel vulnerable.

On the other hand, asking “wide-open questions” about the woman-such as, “What is she like?”-yields answers that will offer clues to your next step. “He’s really relying on the salesperson to bring a suggestion to the table,” Peterson notes. If he describes her as traditional, you know to suggest a round brilliant rather than a princess or trillion cut. If she’s a graphic artist, you might suggest a platinum mounting, noting that the metal’s hardness allows for a greater level of detail in the design. If she has an active lifestyle, you might stress platinum’s durability instead.

“Our ultimate concern is that the customer is happy-that we pick the right ring for the person,” Eisen says. “The only way you can do that is by probing. Most people are willing to talk to us because we’re objective; we’re not their family. We’re kind of in this guy’s camp.”

Eisen asks whether the woman is big-boned or petite, whether she dresses up for work or has a casual lifestyle, and what other jewelry she owns. It’s not always easy, though. “Sometimes, the guy doesn’t have a clue,” she notes. Although she offers a credit on the solitaire mount if the woman prefers to pick out a different style, most often “she likes it because it’s the one that he gave her; it’s got so much emotion charged into it.”

Everything you say in the presentation should relate to something the customer has told you about his intended, Peterson advises. Feeding back information about her based on what you’ve gleaned from the customer will help overcome his nervousness by reassuring him that you’re suggesting the right ring for her. “When he picks what he likes, there is a fear that she’s not going to like it,” she says. “You take that fear away.”

A decent proposal. Many jewelers say they try to put the customer at ease by asking how he plans to propose and offering suggestions based on others’ proposals if the customer expresses a willingness to hear them. “Storytelling puts people at ease,” says Marc Green, vice chairman of Lux, Bond and Green, West Hartford, Conn. “It sets a whole different tone in making the sale. It makes it more of a pleasant experience if people talk about themselves,” says Green, who’s also a justice of the peace and has performed about 40 weddings.

Eisen has found that most customers are interested in hearing how others have popped the question. Those who have unusual ideas of their own like to receive compliments, she notes; when a shopper describes his approach, associates will often call colleagues over to listen. “It strokes the customer-you’re telling him that, hey, he’s so creative.” There’s a benefit for the associates, too, she notes: “It’s enjoying the personalities of our customers.”

One of the most innovative stories Green has heard took place on a golf course. A caddy surreptitiously picked up the woman’s golf ball and placed it into the cup. When she couldn’t find the ball, her sweetheart suggested that it had gone into the cup. She found it there-and when she picked it up, she found a ring hidden underneath it. Another customer proposed to his girlfriend during a Fourth of July fireworks display.

Kate Peterson encountered a gentleman who planned a special three-day weekend in Maine for his girlfriend’s birthday. She suspected something was up, and he wanted to disguise his intentions. On the first day, he gave her a diamond pendant as a birthday gift. On the second day, he surprised her with diamond earrings. On the third day, when they were on a mountaintop looking at the countryside below, he presented her with a diamond engagement ring.

La Rog Jewelers in Portland, Ore., has a relationship with two renowned local restaurants, enabling store personnel to suggest a scenario to customers, says co-owner Dave Rogoway. The customer excuses himself during dinner and hands the ring box to the maître d’. The ring is placed on a plate that is presented with a silver cover. When the meal arrives, the cover is lifted, and-voilà!-the ring box is sitting on the plate. In discussing this option with customers, “We play the movie in their minds,” says Rogoway.

La Rog Jewelers also offers engagement-ring customers a booklet suggesting ways for customers to pop the question. The book was developed by Robbins Diamonds of Philadelphia, which also posts the suggestions on its Web site, www.weddingband.com, along with a contest to determine the most innovative proposal. The booklet was given to Rogoway by his friend Jerry Robbins, co-owner of Robbins Diamonds. “Sometimes they don’t need the book because they have their own ideas,” says Robbins. “It’s there if they need it.” He says his staff advises engagement-ring customers to “Find a nice, exciting way to give her the ring because it’s something she’ll remember forever; it’s important.”

The Helzberg Diamonds chain also offers a booklet, the “Guy’s Engagement Manual,” which includes proposal ideas; information about the “four Cs,” ring styles, and prices; and tips on budgeting for the wedding, honeymoon planning, and the groom’s role in the ceremony. John Goodman, vice president of marketing at Helzberg, notes that the goal of the manual is not to tell men how to propose. “We’re not trying to get into that side of someone’s world; these are just fun little thought-starters,” he says. “The engagement manual gives the groom a communications piece to fall back on. Some men are more focused on concrete facts and figures about diamonds; others want to know a little bit more about the surrounding issues described in this piece.” The information is also available on Helzberg’s Web site, www.helzberg.com.

Diane Warga-Arias, education director for the Diamond Promotion Service, says jewelers don’t need to suggest the specifics of a marriage proposal. “It’s one thing to be a catalyst; it’s another thing to direct his engagement,” she says. “I believe the man knows how to propose, and he knows how to make the moment special-because he is the one in the relationship, and he knows her best.

“Associates need to learn how to integrate emotion and romance with the technical aspects of the transaction,” Warga-Arias stresses. “In order to include the technical and the emotional in a sale, associates need to stop visualizing the sales transaction in a linear fashion-first focus on the diamond, then the proposal. When associates explain the ‘four Cs,’ they need to use metaphors to help them transition from technical explanations to more emotional conversations that have texture. For example, after speaking about carat weight, you can transition to more emotional language with a metaphor: ‘When it comes to size, a diamond can be an intimate whisper or a shout of joy. It’s up to you.’

“When an associate asks the question, ‘So, how did you two meet?’, the answer is relatively unimportant,” Warga-Arias notes. “What is more important is that the man has now thought of his fiancée.”

Making a friend. Sometimes a customer doesn’t want to discuss the personal details of his imminent engagement. “It’s really none of our business,” acknowledges Eisen. “There’s a fine line between what’s in our realm as jewelers and what’s private.” Her staff determines the proper tone to take with a customer by probing and establishing rapport, she says. “When you ask, ‘How are you going to propose?’ you have to have broken the ice.” Lightness goes a long way toward building a bond with the customer, she says. “There’s a lot of joking and humor that goes on in the presentation.”

“You have to be an amateur psychologist,” says Skip Robbins. Because an engagement-ring presentation at his store often takes several hours and may involve multiple visits to the store, associates have ample opportunities to “read” their customers, he says. “You go where the customer allows you to go.” A customer who offers only curt, abbreviated answers to questions about his relationship is sending a signal that he doesn’t want to share, Robbins explains.

“Sometimes you get a customer who is so conditioned to a less-than-ideal retail experience that he gets suspicious,” Peterson notes. The way to overcome this objection is by explaining why you’re asking the questions. “Explain that no two diamonds are alike, and it’s important to find the right one for her,” Peterson suggests.

The best salesperson “quits being a salesperson and starts just being a person” when discussing how the customer met his sweetheart, Peterson says. After all, she notes, “They have these conversations all the time with their friends.”

Talking as you would to a friend not only enables you to determine the tastes of the prospective fiancée but also signals to customers that associates aren’t pressuring them; they have a real interest in them as people, Skip Robbins says. “We’re not looking for that hardcore salesperson who just wants to make the sale; we look for people who are likable, who have a warm heart, who are sincere,” he says. “It all boils down to taking whatever pressure you can away.”

Many happy returns. Sometimes a customer’s nervousness stems from fear that his intended will turn down his proposal. Jewelers say that the promise of a no-hassle return policy goes a long way toward erasing those doubts. “We tell them they can’t lose-they’ve got 30 days to return it,” says Skip Robbins. “I don’t want people to be stuck with something they’re not going to use-to shove it down their throats.”

“They’ll ask, ‘What’s your return policy, because I’m not sure this is going to go,'” says Rogoway. “We say, ‘That is your least worry-our business is engagement rings and wedding rings, and we understand. You don’t have to crawl in here and be embarrassed. We’ll catch you next time.’ We take it back with a smile. Why give them bad body language and make them feel like a louse?”

“It’s called making a friend,” says Green. “Here’s a young person who could be a customer for a long time. You want to do everything you can to keep a relationship.”