In the quest to get some insights into designing and marketing customized jewelry “customer whisperers” agreed that communication is the key to customer satisfaction. Read on for a deeper understanding of this discovery.
Shopping for jewelry used to be an easy and straightforward process: A customer walked into a jewelry store, picked something out of a case, and if satisfied with the look and fit of the piece, purchased it and walked away happy.
However, custom jewelry design has disrupted this process. Customers are no longer limited to pieces featured in a display case. They now have the ability to work directly with a jeweler, getting their say on the look of a customized and unique piece. While this has opened up the possibilities of jewelry design, it also makes the process more complicated, especially for consumers who may have a tough time visualizing a concept or who are not comfortable with agreeing to purchase a piece before they see the final version.
It also makes the selling process more complicated for jewelers. They now have to become “customer whisperers,” listening to and interpreting their clients’ desires in order to create a piece that meets expectations. Guaranteeing a client’s satisfaction with her custom piece of jewelry means being part jeweler, part salesperson, and part psychologist who can determine what a client wants while recognizing the limits of what’s possible. So it’s not surprising to learn that the key to successful custom design isn’t price, quality, creativity, or even the ability to meet a tight deadline, although they are all critically important. The key to satisfying custom clients is communication.
“One of the biggest issues in our niche is [our] ability to communicate and lend confidence to the process,” says Christopher Duquet of Christopher Duquet Fine Jewelry in Evanston, Illinois. “We have to be good communicators as well as sensitive and understanding of people’s needs and expectations.”
Whether it involves a face-to-face meeting in your studio or a phone call or Skype session, the first meeting with a new client is critical—and not just because you’ll be settling on a design direction.
It’s also the best time to get to know the client and determine whether or not you’re a good match. Just because clients are interested in a custom piece doesn’t mean they fully understand the process, or that you’re the best person to meet their expectations.
“As a new designer, it can be challenging,” admits Lee Krombholz of Krombholz Jewelers/Just Like You Designs in Cincinnati. He notes that often only experience can help you identify potentially difficult clients. “There are times, when meeting with a client, you know you can’t satisfy them no matter what you do. It’s always hard to say that ‘I’m not going to be able to design for you,’ but it does happen.”
Some warning signs of challenging customers Krombholz has learned to identify over the years include people that begin negotiating the price before there has been any discussion of price brought up, as well as clients who don’t like any of your suggestions or the visual aids you provide, including examples of your previous work.
If you do get a sense that a customer may not be a good fit for you and ultimately don’t think you’ll be able to satisfy her, there are things you can do to try to dissuade her from hiring you.
“I find the easiest way to discourage a client is to price them out of what they’re asking,” says Krombholz. “Double or triple the estimate. But if a client doesn’t object to the price, you have to accept that you’ll have to make it work.” He also cautions that while the higher price may scare off a difficult customer, you also run the risk of the client complaining about you being expensive to friends and family.
|“You could make the most beautiful piece of jewelry, but if you don’t follow the expectations that you created, no matter how beautiful, the customer won’t be satisfied.” – Lee Krombholz|
Alternatively, some clients will want something that just isn’t possible, whether it’s defying the laws of physics or a too tight deadline. “If someone comes in dead set on something that won’t work, you have to say no,” says Duquet. “They have a problem you can’t resolve and you just have to let them go.” But it isn’t always a choice you’ll have to make. “If something isn’t in our wheelhouse, we have to make that clear to them, and they usually self-select out.”
Finally, you have to determine if the client is suited for the custom design process. They’ll need to have the ability to make decisions (and accept the results of those decisions) as well as feel comfortable with not seeing the final product until after it’s completed.
“Custom jewelry is one of the [few industries] where you can have an idea and have it made,” says Duquet. “But it’s not for everybody. Some aren’t comfortable with decision making and conceptual thought. Some people will never be able to make the leap of imagination it requires. They need to see it, touch it.” In those cases, it’s worth trying to persuade them to purchase something already created, with the option of making a few minor modifications to it.
One mistake some shops can make is having sales staff who are unfamiliar with custom handle client interactions. While it can be tempting to rely on such help so you can focus on making jewelry, it can ultimately cause problems.
“Sales staff don’t necessarily operate and think the same way a custom jeweler would,” says Joel McFadden of Art of Jewelry by Joel McFadden in Red Bank, New Jersey. “Salespeople are about closing the deal as quickly as possible, but a custom job is different. They could be creating an expectation for something that doesn’t exist.”
If you must rely on a salesperson to handle some aspects of the custom process, select one staff person and train them in the art of selling custom. “Make sure all communication is done with the one person all the time,” advises McFadden.
Besides verifying that what clients want is possible, discussing design ideas directly with the client helps you to create a connection with them, which can make the process easier and success more likely. In a trust-sensitive business, “getting to sit and talk with the person who’s going to make the piece matters,” says Dawn Muscio of D. Muscio Fine Jewelry in Sandy Springs, Georgia. “My passion and excitement for jewelry comes across when I’m talking with clients. And when I’m excited, they get excited.”
|In addition to inquiring about the things a client likes, Muscio makes it a point to ask about the things a client doesn’t like, believing that those dislikes can sometimes give her better insight into what will appeal.|
Beyond taking the time to meet with clients to discuss design possibilities, Muscio starts off the meeting with a tour of her workshop. “They see the steps before they go through the process, and it makes people feel really comfortable.”
Since some customers can’t verbalize their design aesthetic, jewelers often recommend that they bring in images of items and designs they like, and not necessarily of jewelry. This will help to give the jeweler a good sense of the styles to which a client gravitates. But those images should merely be a jumping-off point.
When clients meet with Muscio, she takes the time to get to know them, asking questions not only about the styles they like, but also about their lifestyles and personalities. “I ask about their style and how they plan to wear the piece,” she explains. “I ask a lot of questions to get them to talk about themselves. I want to make something that sings to their personality, something they will want to wear forever.”
Gary Dawson of Gary Dawson Designs in Eugene, Oregon, takes a similar approach. When he meets with a client to start a custom project, he keeps it simple. “I ask questions like, ‘Do you like heavy, bulky things or light things? Sharp geometric shapes or fl owing shapes?’ After enough questions, you get a sense of what they like. You get a direction to go in, and you eliminate a lot of options. Even if you don’t exactly know what the piece is going to look like, you’re heading off in the right direction.”
And while it may be tempting to try to speed the process along with clients who perhaps can’t clearly articulate their style preferences, don’t. “Make sure to take the appropriate time,” says Krombholz, who sets aside an hour for initial design discussions. “Be patient. If you’re not patient, it could be challenging. Most of the problems occur when you don’t have the time [to spend listening to clients].”
While frustrating, it’s better to put in an extra hour or two now than to have to remake a piece later.
Beyond the obvious benefit of making sure you understand what the client wants, discussing things thoroughly with clients increases their involvement in a project, which can increase the odds that they will be satisfied with the final piece.
|“Involve them in the design process so that they own the design as much as you do,” says Dawson. “I emphasize from the beginning that this will be a collaborative effort. I won’t tell them what they want, and they can’t tell me what’s possible. It makes them more involved and ultimately more satisfied with the final result.”|
Another crucial part of discussing design elements with clients is making sure everyone is speaking the same language. Even if customers seem knowledgeable about jewelry and its terminology, it’s always best to provide them with visual aids to be sure everyone is on the same page as to what those words mean. After all, one man’s fishtail setting could be another man’s bead setting.
While some clients may be comfortable putting their trust in a designer’s vision and not needing to see a fully rendered image of the final design, it’s always wise to show them the design before proceeding too far. How you decide to show the clients your vision is ultimately up to you, and every jeweler has a preference.
Some designers prefer to hand-sketch renderings for a client, while others rely on CAD to show beautiful, life-like images of conceptualized pieces. But regardless of the method, they offer a rendering with the caveat that it is just an illustration. “A drawing or rendering doesn’t accurately depict the final piece,” Dawson says. “A jewelry artist can look at a drawing and know what it’s going to look like, but most people do not have that ability.”
“We explain that there is some imagination that has to take place,” says Duquet, who prefers to show his clients CAD renderings. “It’s not the real thing, so sometimes prongs look heavier or sharper. It’s an accurate drawing, but it’s not 100 percent realistic. We understand the engineering limitations, and you just have to talk it out.”
Muscio agrees, especially in regard to CAD. “You always have to temper people about the CAD rendering since it’s larger than life. We have to build [the CAD model] to account for finishing and shrinking. We’ll scale it down to actual size on the computer screen, but then blow it up for them to see the details.”
McFadden also likes to provide his clients with to-scale images, but he takes it one step further. “We’ll print out an enlarged rendering showing details of a piece, but we always print one to scale so the customer has perspective on the size,” he says. “We’ll even cut it out and hold it up with tweezers so the customer can see it to scale where it will be worn.”
Dawson sometimes takes it even further, to a three-dimensional realm. For clients who don’t come to him with a detailed blueprint dictating exactly what they want, Dawson will first rough out a stick-figure sketch to indicate the movement and flow of a piece. Then he takes that basic idea and begins carving a wax.
“I try to build confidence in my ability to improvise,” he explains. “While I’m carving a wax, I get inspired by the ideas we’ve discussed. They trust me to get inspired. If I feel really strong about what I’ve created, I’ll just show them the one wax carving. A lot of times, what I produce the first time around winds up appealing to them.”
Once the design vision has been conveyed, some jewelers find it helpful to send pictures of the piece as it moves through the production process. This not only builds excitement in customers, but also helps them to feel part of the process.
|“Everyone needs to learn the same vocabulary,” says Muscio. “For example, one of the biggest problems I’ve found is clients using the word ‘pavé’ for any setting using what looks like beads. We need to make sure people understand what each word means. That’s why I’ll show clients a lot of pictures so they understand what I’m talking about. Those visuals help make sure we’re all on the same page.”|
Krombholz likes to show clients pieces of jewelry as visual aids when explaining concepts. “It’s pretty common for a client to say something and not really know what it means,” he says. “We have a decent inventory of things to show. Or we’ll Google pictures online to show examples of what they’re saying, so we can determine if that’s what they mean.”
“Involve them in the design process so that they own the design as much as you do.” – Gary Dawson
“We always send process shots to clients so they can see how the piece is coming along,” says Muscio. “We keep them up to date—when it comes back from the caster, when we’re working on it, giving them a taste of the steps along the way. It helps the customer not feel far removed.”
In addition, Muscio notes that it can help identify any issues that may come up along the way when it will be easier to address them.
“Everyone needs to learn the same vocabulary. That’s why I’ll show clients a lot of pictures so they understand what I’m talking about. Those visuals help make sure we’re all on the same page.” – Dawn Muscio
If jewelers have done their due diligence throughout the custom design process, an unsatisfied customer is unlikely. But it can happen, and then the question becomes what to do next. While it may be tempting to blame a customer for having unrealistic expectations or changing her mind, the jeweler needs to accept some blame.
“If they don’t like it, it’s due to a breakdown in communication, and we didn’t do our job of making sure we were all on the same page. That’s our responsibility as a business,” says McFadden. When he’s faced with a client that isn’t happy with her piece, “we’ll remake it, at no additional cost, and it’s brutal.”
Krombholz shares a similar philosophy. “It’s my responsibility if a customer is not happy,” he says, underscoring the importance of having customers understand the process. “You manage their expectations. You could make the most beautiful piece of jewelry, but if you don’t follow the expectations that you created (including things like meeting deadlines), no matter how beautiful, the customer won’t be satisfied.”
In the end, it comes down to communication, “customer whispering.” Master that art, and you’ll be well on your way to satisfying your customers. Hopefully, they’ll then communicate that satisfaction to others interested in a custom piece— and the process will start all over again.