A book interview turns into a business and life lesson for Madeleine Chapman.
Sir Michael Hill (first name Michael, last name Jeweller) gently held my hand on his superyacht. His hands were insultingly softer than mine, and he was selling me an imaginary engagement ring. “You slide the ring on the finger, straighten it up. We don’t say anything and we wait for a reaction,” he said, gazing expectantly at my very-much-not-engaged-to-be-married face.
My reaction was to place my clammy hand back onto the new leather of Hill’s couch in the dining room of Hill’s superyacht and realise with a cold certainty that I would never acquire even half a percent of Hill’s wealth.
I was on the superyacht, a 40 metre vessel painted in navy camouflage grey and docked in the Auckland Viaduct, to talk to Hill about his new book of drawings, Catch & Release, but I was immediately distracted by the Russian nesting doll situation on deck.
On the big deck of the big yacht was a smaller yacht. Next to the smaller yacht was a sealeg amphibious craft (look it up). Under the frog craft were four kayaks. Russian nesting boats.
I had never met Michael Hill but I wanted to make sure I learned something, anything, from one of New Zealand’s most successful businessmen. I wanted to know how he did it. I wanted to know how I could achieve all my goals as he had.
“Gotta have a 30 year goal,” he said, quashing my first goal of one simple trick to a life of fulfilment. “People don’t know where they’re going! If you think of what you want to be known for in 30 years’ time, you can then work backwards from that. I say that to young people these days and they stare at me blankly.”
I stared at him blankly.
After opening the first Michael Hill Jewellery store in 1979, Hill swiftly took over the New Zealand jewellery industry, buying up competitors’ stores throughout the country and replacing them with his own. What was he doing differently? Turns out Michael Hill knows how to sell – “selling is a real art, it really is” – and he was willing to teach it to me, someone who has no ambitions to sell anything ever.
“It’s exactly like catching flounder,” he began. “You ever done that?” I shook my head. “You’ve got your gorgeous windows and the net goes down and around here,” he gestured from the front entrance of his hypothetical store, along one side, and to the back.
“In a normal shop a person will come in and gravitate towards the right. People slide in so they’re coming along the side of the net. You have your most tempting stock there at the start. They’re a little more tempted so they go in a little further. Once they’re in a bit, the salesperson can say something. Basically a salesperson shouldn’t move. If you spook [the customer] they’ll fold their arms and walk straight back out.”
I agreed. Nothing makes me leave a store faster than an aggressive salesperson. Don’t talk to me at all and I’ll work myself up into such a state that I’ll buy something out of guilt without you having to do any selling.
Once the consumer flounder has made their way deep into the net, it’s time for phase two: building a relationship. “You have to start a conversation casually, not being too pushy. Find out what the customer really wants and then it’s [about] fulfilling their desires.”
“It becomes a lifelong journey if it’s done right. If you force them to buy, they’ll never come back.”
It sounded simple enough. Make every customer a lifelong friend and your business will thrive. I have four friends and no business to speak of. It all made sense.
“It’s not easy to teach,” said Hill. “Most people talk too much. The big trick when they’re trying a ring on is not to talk at all.”
I nodded mutely and we sat in silence for a moment. Who would crack first and prove themselves to be a lesser salesperson? He did.
“You show them the product and they have to hold it. If they don’t hold the ring, they’re never going to buy it. No good talking about it, you have to get it in their hand. ‘Would you like to try it on?’ So you put it on the finger, you hold the finger…”
He grabbed my hand and I panicked. Etiquette dictates you must allow a woman a moment to surreptitiously wipe her sweaty hand on her shorts before you hold it. Instead I sat there, my flounder of a hand in his, as he mimed placing a ring on my finger.
“We don’t say anything and we wait for a reaction.”
I looked at him, he looked at me, I looked down at my outstretched hand and wondered if I was going to have to act out a reaction to a non-existent ring. Thankfully, Hill did it for me.
“There’s two reactions you’re gonna get. The first reaction is that if you don’t like it you’re going to take it straight off so quick and shove it down on the tray. We can ask ‘I can see that wasn’t what you cared for, can you explain why?’
“Of course if they like it then it’s the reverse. We say ‘can you explain what it is you like about that?’ Whereas a stupid salesperson will be rattling off everything like ‘this is a half carat diamond it’s 58 carats it’s got 18 carat gold band it’s got four claws it’s $2200 and I can give it to you for $900’. What?”
When shopping for engagement rings, people aren’t so interested in the logistics, said Hill, because “it’s emotional. It’s the most emotional purchase you can ever get.”
I stored this knowledge for later use and moved on with the interview. Before long, Hill was describing an exclusive line of jewellery sold in his stores, and why such a line was perfect for me specifically.
“You’d love one of those, that would be really you. Big time. It’s made from the Totorere shell, which are those shells you find on Northern beaches. They’re amazing. It’s made for strong women that are resilient and show strength.”
I was nodding along, wanting him to continue tangentially complimenting me. It took a while before I caught on.
“Wait a minute, is this you selling to me?”
He just laughed.
When I got back to the office I looked up the necklace he’d described to me. He was right, it was really nice. It was also $900. I closed the tab and went back to work. Maybe in 30 years.
Sir Michael Hill appears in the final episode of Two Sketches with Toby Morris. Watch the episode here.