Not Mistakes, Just Lessons Learned

05/14/2019
by Phil Wrzesinski

The famed physicist Niels Bohr once said, “An expert is a person who has made all the mistakes that can be made in a very narrow field.” By his definition, there are very few true experts out there because there are always more mistakes to be made.

Fortunately, Detective Chief Inspector John Luther (from the BBC drama) gave us another path: “Learn from the mistakes of others. You can never live long enough to make them all yourself.”

I’ve made my fair share of mistakes and learned some lessons the hard way. I’ve also spent a life studying the mistakes of others and the lessons they learned. When ASTRA asked if I would do a presentation at the upcoming Marketplace & Academy titled “Three Mistakes We Can Fix Tomorrow,” my biggest fear was trying to choose which three, out of the many, to discuss!

If you stop by the ASTRA booth in Pittsburgh on Monday and Tuesday mornings, June 10 and 11, you will get my top three mistakes and lessons that apply to retailers, vendors, and sales reps alike. I had several more on my list specifically for retailers.

Here are three I wish I had learned about earlier rather than later.

MISTAKE #1
The word “no”

Retailers get bombarded with questions all day long. The two most common are, “Do you have this?” and “Can you do that?” All too often the easy answer is “No.” Specifically, all day long we would hear, “Do you have the (insert hot-TV-advertised-mass-market-toy-that-no-one-has-in-stock-because-the-manufacturer-is-trying-to-create-a-false-craze product)?”

“No, we don’t.”

The problem with “no” is that it is a deal killer. The customer asks a question. You say no. They walk out the door empty-handed and unhappy. The transaction is over before it even started. The more often you say it, the sooner the customer stops asking and goes somewhere else.

So instead of saying no, think of those questions as openings. They give you the chance to engage the customer in conversation. Instead of saying no, you could ask a question.

“Is that item on someone’s wish list?”

“What are you looking for in that item?

“What are you trying to accomplish?”

They all open a dialog that will help you better sell to the customer.

Another option is taking a deep breath, saying no, and then following it up quickly with

“Can I show you an alternative?”

“Let me show you what we do have.”

“We don’t sell that product because ________. Let me show you something better.”

Some customers will be on the hunt for that one specific item and no alternative will do. Others are just asking for it because it was something their friend or family member recommended. They will be open to other suggestions. If all you say is no, you’ll never know which is which. Everyone leaves empty-handed.

One more thing you should do with all those requests for specific items: write them down. Have your staff keep a clipboard and list every product a customer requests that you don’t have. Call it your “No List.” At the end of the day, look it over. If you are getting several requests for the same item, you might want to consider carrying that item. Your customers think you have that item. That’s why they ask. Instead of going online and finding exactly what they wanted, they went to you first.

Sometimes your “No List” will uncover a whole category of toys you should be selling because your customers perceive that you already do sell them.

The same is true for your services. If a customer asks if you can do something, the best response is to say yes and figure out how to do it.

MISTAKE #2
Talk Too Much, Listen Too Little

Of all the mistakes I’ve made, this is the hardest I’ve had to overcome. You know the scenario: you ask the customer one question and then wait for your moment to pounce with the answer – often cutting off the customer before she was finished. You do it because you’ve heard the story before. You do it because you know the answer and want to buzz in like it’s a game show before the time runs out.

In your life you will spend far more time listening than you will reading, writing, or even speaking. Yet there is no formal training on listening skills during your elementary-school years. The closest is when your teacher yells, “Listen up!” to the classroom as she explains a lesson for the third time.

One technique I used myself and with my staff to overcome this problem was repeating back what the customer said. “So, you’re looking for a toy for your 5-year-old grandson because he’s ‘dumb as dirt’ and you want something that will finally help him learn calculus like his younger sister?”

Three amazing things happen when you use this technique. First, you give your customer the chance to clarify what she said. “No, not calculus. He’s still working on trigonometry. Do you have an abacus that isn’t too babyish?”

Second, you give yourself more time to consider your answer. By repeating back what the customer said, you are now hearing the request twice. You are also giving yourself more time to develop an answer. How many times have you said, “If only I had thought about it just a little more!” If you’ve said it more than once in your life, use this technique. It will give you the “just a little more” time that you need.

The third and most important reason for repeating back what a customer said is trust. In the world of teambuilding, the stepping stone that leads to trust is caring. When you take the time to listen closely, repeat back, and get clarification, you are telling your customer you care about her and her problem. She is far more likely to trust your answer after that than if you just blurted something out before she finished talking.

That level of trust is especially helpful when you’re trying to sell an alternative to the hot toy she requested earlier.

MISTAKE #3
The wrong question at the cashwrap

Have you ever noticed how the customer shopping in your store transforms into someone completely new at the cashwrap? She was in no hurry as she browsed your aisles; no sense of urgency as she peppered you with questions about STEM and Montessori-based toys. She took her time to carefully study every box to make sure the packaging of her gift had zero dented corners or wrinkles.

Then she shows up at the cashwrap and sighs loudly, as though she is going to miss a flight to Jamaica if you don’t check her out this instant. Shopping mode is quite different from paying mode. Shopping mode is leisurely. Paying mode is urgency. Yet the mistake we make to this newly transformed person in paying mode is to ask at the counter, “Did you find everything?” While it seems like a helpful phrase, it’s really dangerous because it turns your customer into an instant liar.

When you pose this question to someone waiting to check out, more often than not she will answer “Yes!” even if she didn’t find everything.

· She won’t say no for fear that you’ll stop what you’re doing to try to find the item she couldn’t find.

· She won’t say no because she already learned from another clerk that you don’t have the item, and doesn’t want to explain it all again.

· She won’t say no because she doesn’t want to be reminded that she must go somewhere else to get what she wanted. (And you don’t want to bring up that frustration for her all over again, anyway.)

· She won’t say no because she doesn’t want to hold up the line forming behind her.

· She won’t say no for fear you won’t do anything at all; the worst response she could imagine.

The time to ask that question is earlier, when she is still in shopping mode. One easy way is inquire, “Who else is on your list?” The next thing you know, you’re helping her find toys for Uncle Bill and Aunt Sally.

At the cashwrap you are too late. The answer will almost always be yes even when it isn’t. You turned your customer into a liar and you’ve missed the opportunity to sell her toys for Aunt Sally.


We all make mistakes. It’s what we learn from them that really counts. When you can learn from the mistakes of others, though, that’s when the real magic happens. I look forward to seeing you all in Pittsburgh for the ASTRA Marketplace and Academy. If I’m not in the HABA USA booth, I’m probably in the ASTRA booth talking about the three really big mistakes we all make – but can fix tomorrow!

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