Articles for Retailers - by Tom Shay


One Person Does Not Have All the Answers

   by Tom Shay

A retailer once told me "for the most part, good employees are developed, not found." His belief in this idea is evidenced by an extensive training program he has had for many years and by a unique method of working with customers.

The employees are educated to continually crosscheck with one another when they are solving customer's problems. The owner called this method a "solution by committee."

The name of this style was borrowed from Whitey Herzog, who managed the St. Louis Cardinals. A reporter asked Herzog how he decided who would be the team's relief pitcher on any given afternoon. His response was that he would ask the bullpen, "Who feels he is best able to solve the problem?"

Take a look at a store to see an example of solution by committee. A customer comes into a garden center with a problem: a patch of his yard that is dying. The customer tells the employee, Bonnie, that he wants something to kill some bugs that are destroying his yard. In too many cases the employee will simply direct the customer to liquid or granular bug killers.

Not only are these two items that traditionally have a very low margin, but also we do not even know if this is the right solution to the problem. In this example, Bonnie is trained to ask the customer why he thinks he has bugs in his yard. She will listen to his answer and go on to ask if there is an irrigation system or sprinkler being used, how long he has had this problem, how does the rest of the yard look, and if the problem area is growing in size. Bonnie's explains to the customer that the problem could be a result of bugs, fungus, or a lack of water; and she wants him to go home with the right solution for the problem.

She listens to his response, makes her analysis, and then tells the customer how to solve the problem, what products to use, and why she is making that suggestion. The customer often will ask, "Are you sure?" Bonnie responds, "Yes, but let's check with Gordon just to make sure. Gordon has a lot of experience with lawns, and it never hurts to have a second opinion." As Bonnie and the customer approach Gordon, she repeats to Gordon the situation and her solution. Using this method will result in several things.

Upon hearing his story repeated, the customer may often remember additional details that may be crucial to the solution. As Gordon hears the story, he will decide if Bonnie's solution is correct. Perhaps he will need to ask additional questions.

If Gordon agrees with Bonnie, a statement to the effect of, "She has got it solved for you. You will be rid of those bugs in no time." In the eyes of the customer, Bonnie and Gordon are both knowledgeable people and not only is he more likely to return to the store, but also he will probably seek out either of these employees when he does.

What if Gordon doesn't think this is the correct solution? The important thing is that Gordon not contradict Bonnie with the customer present. Gordon can begin to ask additional questions. As he gathers more information, he can say, "From what you first told us, I thought you have bugs; but with this additional information, I am leaning toward a fungus problem. Let me ask a couple of other questions about your yard." From the questions Gordon has asked, it confirms the problem is fungus. The customer would have wasted his money if he had bought the "bug killer" he had initially asked for.

The problem is solved, and Gordon asks Bonnie if she can think of anything else they should ask and if she is in agreement with the redirected solution. Knowing that Gordon has uncovered additional information, Bonnie will agree with Gordon and then assist the customer in selecting a fungicide. She will provide the directions for the proper application of the product and also show the proper type of applicator to use. The sale is made, and the customer is appreciative of both employees.

If Gordon is the more experienced employee, he has heard information that he can use to assist Bonnie in gaining more knowledge. And in a brief moment, he explains why he was not in agreement with her initial analysis, and why he was asking additional questions.

The important thing for Bonnie is that in addition to completing a sale, she received a brief training session and was not put in an embarrassing position in front of a customer. It was also helpful that Gordon had been educated in techniques to assist newer employees.

This successful owner is not lucky. He knows how to educate employees, not only with product knowledge but also with interpersonal relationship skills. Solution by committee is a great way to develop better employees, appreciative customers who return to your store, and a healthy bottom line.

Tom Shay is a fourth generation small business owner providing proven management and business building ideas through his Profits Plus Seminars, Profits Plus Solutions coaching, books authored, and articles written. Tom can be reached at 727-464-2182 or through his web site: