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Here is What Winning Looks Like – Sweetlees Boutique

Sometimes it is easy to talk about the mistakes retailers make and simply caution you to not make those same mistakes. I’d like to share with you a story of an experience that went right. A long-time Toy House customer, my boys’ piano teacher, and dear friend Jen sent this to me. In her words …

“Well, the basic story was this…. you know where it’s going right?

Image result for sweetlees boutique mason miI went to a small locally owned (in Mason, MI) women’s boutique, Sweetlees Boutique. (Because I will tell everyone about how amazing it was, and where to find them—160 E. Ash St, Mason, MI 48854.) The workers were so attentive offering to find you sizing, suggesting things they thought would look good on your body. They were fitting both my mom and I who couldn’t be more different in that department, and they did a fabulous job, asking questions, and pulling pieces for us to look at or try. Amazing experience. Both my mom and I purchased something. It was our first time there and we will definitely go back again.”

Let’s unpack that to see what they did so right.

“The workers were so attentive …”

How many times have you been in a retail establishment where you couldn’t even find an employee, let alone one who seemed remotely interested in helping you? The Wall Street Journal just wrote Monday about the dearth of employees in retail stores. Macy’s has cut 52,000 workers since 2008. Think about that number when you’re looking for someone the next time you visit a department store.

Think even harder about that number when you’re making out the next schedule for your store. Are you making a schedule to minimize payroll or maximize sales? If you think of your staff as your greatest expense, you’ll do the former. If you think of your staff as your greatest asset, you’ll do the latter.

“… suggesting things they thought would look good on your body.”

At one time this was the norm in a women’s clothing store. It was the expectation. Anything less and you would be writing a different review. Today it seems new and different and special.

That’s the one good thing you need to understand. The overall bar for customer service has been lowered so far that just doing the things you’re supposed to do will make you stand out in the crowd.

A properly trained and properly motivated staff can do wonders for the way your store is viewed compared to the competition. While everyone is all worried about high-tech this and omnichannel that, going old-school will win the day more often than not.

“… they did a fabulous job, asking questions, and pulling pieces for us to look at or try.”

Once again, a properly trained staff makes a huge difference. This team knew that by asking questions they could get to know the customer better. Getting to know the customer better allowed them to pull better pieces that more closely matched the customers’ needs.

Every customer that walks through your door is there to solve a problem. The problem might be as simple as killing time. It might be as complex as buying the perfect series of gifts for the hardest person on your list. You don’t know the problem until you ask. (And you won’t get the answer you need if you haven’t first made a connection.) This doesn’t come naturally to everyone. You need to train your staff by showing them how, role-playing it, and practicing it. The stores that do that best are the stores that are winning.

“Both my mom and I purchased something.”

You have a lot of hurdles to overcome to get a sale from a first-time visitor. You have to make her feel comfortable. You have to figure out the problem she is solving. You have to present her with a valid solution. You have to overcome her hesitations and objections. You have to make her want the solution more than she wants her money. All of those are actual steps in a process. One misstep and it’s a no sale.

We call it browsing because many times customers want to go into a new store just to get a feel for the place. No pressure to buy, just a scouting trip to see if they like it. Sometimes you get lucky and they fall in love with a product by accident. That isn’t selling. That’s clerking. Anyone can do that.

If your sales team is waiting for the customer to come up to you, many of them won’t and you’ll have lost out. If your sales team hasn’t made a connection, unless she falls in love with a product by accident, she won’t be back, either. That’s on you.

“… we will definitely go back again.”

That, my friends, is what winning looks like. Bravo to Sweetlees Boutique. Bravo! Thank you, Jen, for sharing that story with us all.

-Phil Wrzesinski
www.PhilsForum.com

PS In the same message, Jen told me about another retail experience that didn’t end so well. I’d rather leave on a high note and save that tale for later. If you have story of someone doing it the right way, please share. Send me an email or find me on LinkedIn.

Product Selection – Curation or Saturation?

I went to visit a fellow toy store owner in Cleveland. At that time Michael had three stores in the area. The store I visited was on the opposite spectrum of mine in terms of size. He had about 1,100 square feet of selling space. I had 16,000 square feet of selling space. Yet we were both successful toy store owners in our markets. I love seeing stores like his and discovering the creative ways they show off all the wonderful and unique products they carry. I often saw many of the same brands we carried.

We got to talking about the different challenges of running small versus large stores and one of those challenges was buying product to fill the shelves, especially something as simple and common as jigsaw puzzles. Michael had about 4 feet of space dedicated to jigsaw puzzles. I had about 44 feet of space.

Michael said, “It must be hard for you to buy puzzles to fill up all that space.”

“Are you kidding? It’s easy, I just go through the catalog and buy them all and let the customers decide which ones I should reorder. I think it would be way tougher trying to narrow it down to only four feet.”

That was the big selection difference between our stores—Curation versus Saturation.

Both methods have their pros. Both have their cons. Both can be used as your calling card to advertise to potential customers the advantages of your “Selection.” (As I said in a previous post, the customers you can most easily steal from your competitors are customers who shop the category killer in your industry for the Experience and the Selection.)

This was just the young kids puzzles. Opposite that was another 44 feet of jigsaw puzzles!

SATURATION

Saturation is when you give your customer all the possible (or likely) options for any given product category. I found it was much easier, when buying jigsaw puzzles, to pick the ones I didn’t want than to pick the ones I did want. I often heard myself telling the rep, “I’ll take everything from that collection except this one.”

In a store of my size, Saturation wasn’t only easy, it was necessary. We needed a lot of product to fill our shelves and make our store look full. We used that method of stocking for many different departments and categories. We also played up the strengths of Saturation by pointing out that we carried more toys from more vendors than any other toy store in America—even Toys R Us! We bragged how we were the largest toy store in America because of it. (He who has the most toys wins!)

The downside to Saturation was twofold.

First, we had a lot of products that didn’t sell well. We had more than our fair share of slow movers. I solved that problem by having an annual clearance sale every July to get rid of the merchandise that didn’t move. Our inventory turns, however, were lower than the average for indie toy stores.

Second, sometimes we overwhelmed our customer with too many option. Analysis Paralysis. To overcome that I needed to have a staff that knew our products inside and out. We spent a lot of time training the staff to curate the selection after the customer explained what she needed.

Your Category Killers built their entire business models around Saturation. Saturation appeals to the customer who wants to browse and sort through the options. Saturation appeals to the customer who doesn’t know what she wants. Saturation makes you look like the expert. Bigger, better, bestest.

When these stores first opened up they were amazing. Nowadays, however, that saturation (especially without a knowledgeable sales staff) seems overwhelming or simply a waste of time and space. Many of these same stores are now building smaller footprints because they realized they don’t have the payroll to staff such a huge store properly.

CURATION

The other side of the coin is Curation—when you pick only the best items or options to offer your customers so that they don’t have to make any tough decisions.

Curation is great because it streamlines the process for the customer. It is attractive to that same customer who didn’t know what she wanted because it takes some of the guesswork out of the equation for her.

A carefully curated product selection can also send your customers the message that you are the experts in your category … As long as you have first earned their trust.

Curation without Trust is just a “poor selection”.

Here is how you win their Trust with your Curation:

  • Make sure you have the best solution available, no matter what it costs. If one of your competitors offers a better solution, you didn’t curate well. Be ready to defend why it is the best option. (PS You don’t have to sell a lot of that option, but you do need to have it.)
  • Make sure your selection is neat, clean, organized, and well-merchandised. If it looks like you don’t care about your products, no one will trust your Curation.
  • Make sure your sales team knows every product inside and out including how each item is used and the difference between the Best, Better, and Good options.
  • When you show a customer your options, ALWAYS lead with the Best.
  • If you don’t carry the “most popular” item in that category have a simple and understandable explanation why. (“We can’t get it,” or “It sucks.” are not good answers. Try “It is an exclusive to … but we prefer …” or “It doesn’t work as well as this option because …”)
  • Make sure you are never out of stock of the best selling option.

If you have a carefully Curated collection of merchandise, you can win the Selection crowd just as easily as if you have a Saturation of products. You do it by advertising that you’ve taken all the guesswork out of the equation.

Both methods can help you steal customers away from your competitors, but only when you do them right and with purpose.

-Phil Wrzesinski
www.PhilsForum.com

PS One big discussion taking place in the indie toy world right now is whether indie stores should pick up more of the mass market lines Toys R Us used to sell to try to win over those customers. The answer to that is Yes and No. Yes, if the product is both one of the best options to have in your Curated selection and also one that you can be profitable selling. No if it doesn’t meet those two criteria. More often than not the Category Killer had the “most popular” item. More often than not, that item was not one of the best options. As long as you can answer why you don’t carry the most popular item in a solid way, you’ll win over customers.

PPS Of the two methods for product selection, Saturation takes more money, Curation takes more time. If you have the resources (space and money), go for Saturation and combine it with a killer trained staff. You’ll be well on your way to becoming a Category Killer.

PPPS There is a Third Option. Curation with special order. The newer, smaller Category Killer store formats are using their distribution centers to order in the products they don’t keep in stock in the stores. They don’t want a customer walking out the door empty-handed. While this is the ultimate situation where you can get anything a customer wants in a day or two, it is built for the customer who knows exactly what she wants. Until your vendors can support you in that manner, make sure you have the right solutions and a staff that knows what you sell.

Hire Me to Be Your Coach

I played the role of Father in The Nutcracker Suite on stage at the Michigan Theatre. I was in eighth grade. It was part of our LEAP class (Learning Experience for Academic Progress). It was a play more than a ballet, although we did have a dance troupe come in and do some dance numbers. I don’t remember much of anything about the play itself. I couldn’t tell you anything about the story, the other characters, or even my performance. About all I remember was I played the role of Father and I loved being on that stage.

Panorama of Phil Wrzesinski speaking to a large crowd
Phil Wrzesinski speaking to a packed house in Grand Rapids, MI

I’ve never really been afraid of standing on a stage in front of people. Oh sure, I had a kaleidoscope of butterflies fluttering in my stomach moments before I took the pulpit to do a guest sermon at church. But those butterflies settled down the moment I began to speak.

Whether it is a crowd of 500 at a trade show conference, a group of screaming kids in the dining hall at camp, or a room full of revelers at a brewpub, I love to perform.

That’s why when I began building Phil’s Forum I focused on speaking and presenting, doing workshops and seminars and webinars. That’s what brings me the most joy (and people said I was pretty good at it.) 

But my real goal, my true focus of Phil’s Forum is about YOU. Your success. That’s all that matters.

That is the reason behind all the Free Resources for you to download. That is the reason behind writing over a thousand blog posts for you to consume. That is the reason behind offering all those classes, presentations, workshops, and webinars for you to attend.

That is the reason why you’ll find a new page on my website.

Many of you have contacted me about private, one-on-one consulting and coaching. While I often said yes, I didn’t have a plan in place for how to handle and structure those requests. Nor did I have a firm concept for how I felt I could best work with you.

Until now.

Coach /kōCH/ (noun) An instructor or trainer. A tutor who gives private or specialized teaching.

A Consultant is someone you consult for advice and opinions. A Coach is someone who teaches you how to do what you need to do to be successful.

I am chock full of advice. I give it away freely. You can shoot me an email with a question and it is highly likely I will answer it (for free). If you read this blog regularly then you can probably guess my opinion on a topic before you even ask. Lots of people get paid for their opinions. It always seems a little disingenuous to me. If you make your living that way, you always want to keep your client in a position of needing your opinion. There is almost a built-in need for keeping a client partially in the dark so that they don’t form opinions on their own.

A Coach, however, knows that his role is to teach you something so that you can do it yourself. A coach puts you in the best position to succeed.

I know this is mostly semantics. There are amazing consultants out there who really are more like coaches. They teach. They instruct. They help you grow. They never hold back.

Words, however, are important. Choose the right words and your advertising messages will sparkle. Know which words make up your Core Values and your business will attract the right people. I needed to know which word I wanted to use and why before I could be of best service to you.

I chose the word Coach.

If you want one-on-one, private, specialized instruction to learn how to:

  • Hire Better
  • Train Better
  • Serve Your Customers Better
  • Market Yourself Better
  • Manage Your Inventory Better
  • Manage Your Staff Better
  • Manage Your Cash Flow Better

Let’s get together for an exploratory meeting.

The first meeting is FREE. In that meeting we’ll discuss where you are, what problems you’re facing, what tools you might need to solve those problems, and how best I can help you. After that I’ll send you a few different proposals explaining what I will do, what it will cost, and how we’ll measure success. From there the choice is yours as to how much coaching you want.

While my love is still the stage and I hope to spend as much time there reaching as many people as possible, coaching is the next best way I can help you find your path to success.

-Phil Wrzesinski
www.PhilsForum.com

PS Yes, I do coaching remotely. We’ll use phone and email to get the job done. (Or if you want to fly me out to meet face-to-face, I’ll let you do that, too. The best way to get me to town is to convince your local Chamber or DDA to hire me for a presentation and have them pay my way.)

PPS One thing I will ask of any client who wants my coaching services is for you to know your Core Values. You can download the new, updated worksheets here.

PPPS Yes, you can hire me to do stuff for you, too. I’ll run a Team Building event. I’ll write your Hiring ads. I’ll write your advertising messages. I’ll teach your staff how to sell. I’d rather teach you how to do those things yourself, though. That’s what serves you best in the long run.

Yes You Can Buy Word-of-Mouth Advertising

Celebrity endorsements don’t work like they used to. Sure, some fanboys will buy a particular brand because their favorite star told them, but the general public knows these actors, athletes, and entertainers only promote the stuff they get paid to promote. We see right through the pay-to-say ploy and aren’t convinced to buy.

The idea behind celebrity endorsements, however, was a sound investment at one time because Word-of-Mouth advertising was and still is the best, most powerful form of advertising. You are far more likely to try a new brand or a new store or a new product because someone you know and trust told you than you are because that brand or store told you.

The majority of Americans see advertising as the hype that it is. According to an omnichannel retail study done by Euclid, only 53% of Baby Boomers are inspired by traditional advertising to try something new. Generation X is even more skeptical at 40%, and the Millennials are under 33%.

After spending the last two weeks trying to tell you how to use traditional advertising more effectively, I’ve just linked you to a study that says the majority of shoppers won’t believe your ads anyway. (Note: the real reason behind those paltry numbers is because Most Ads Suck and violate the six principles of effective advertising, but that’s a post for another day.)

As the trustworthiness of traditional advertising declines, shoppers are looking more to their friends and family for advice where to shop and what to buy. Word-of-Mouth.

The good news for you is that you can still buy Word-of-Mouth. That’s what celebrity endorsements really are—a company paying someone trusted and known to talk about their products. But I’m not advocating you buy that kind of Word-of-Mouth. The way you buy Word-of-Mouth effectively today can be done four ways:

  • By spending money on the design of your store to make it so fabulous and unexpected that people have to talk about it.
  • By spending money training your staff to the point that they exceed your customer’s expectations to the point your customer has to tell someone just to validate that it really happened.
  • By being so generous giving away the unexpected to your customers, that they have to brag to their friends..
  • By showing off products in your store so outrageous that people have to tell their friends what they saw.
32,000-piece Jigsaw Puzzle!

We sold jigsaw puzzles, over a million pieces worth of jigsaw puzzles a year. (I did the math once.) Mostly we sold 1,000-piece puzzles and 300-piece puzzles, but we showed on the shelf a 32,000-piece puzzle. The box alone weighed forty-two pounds and came with its own little handcart for hauling it away. The finished puzzle was over 17 feet long and over 6 feet tall. I spent $160 to put that puzzle on my shelf. I never expected to sell it. I never really wanted to sell it. In fact, I sold it three times and immediately ordered another one.

Why?

Because every week someone would take a selfie with that puzzle and post it on social media with #toyhouse. It was worth more to me for advertising than the profit from selling one every couple years.

 

I spent $200/board for three chalkboards on the outside of our building where customers could write their own answers to the questions posed on each board.

Why?

Because every time a scavenger hunt took place in the city of Jackson, one of the stops was to write something on that board.

 

I spent another few hundred dollars to create the mileage signpost outside our store.

Why?

Rarely a day went buy that someone didn’t take a picture of that sign with our logo conspicuously in the background. Those pictures invariably made their way onto social media.

I spent about a thousand dollars a year giving away helium balloons free to children of all ages. No questions asked. No purchase necessary.

Why?

Not only did it help with crying children who didn’t want to leave the store, it made it more likely that parents would bring their kids in the store, knowing they could get out the door with a free balloon (and on Saturdays with free popcorn). Many customers told me that was what they bragged to their friends when asked why they shopped at my store.

You can get your customers to talk about you to their friends and family. You just have to do something worth talking about. Spend the money to be fabulous, outrageous, unexpected, and over-the-top and then let your customers do all the advertising for you.

-Phil Wrzesinski
www.PhilsForum.com

PS You can read even more by downloading from the Free Resources section of my website the pdf Generating Word-of-Mouth.

PPS In 2009 Toy House was featured as “One of the 25 best independent stores in America” in the book Retail Superstars by George Whalin. Every single business in that book got there because of Word-of-Mouth. Whenever George traveled he asked everyone he met about their favorite places to shop. The stores he heard the most made it into the book. In other words, it was worth it for us to spend so much time and money trying to buy Word-of-Mouth. Oh yeah, and it worked, too!

PPPS Here are the links to the posts on the other forms of advertising … Television, Radio, Billboards, Newsprint, Magazines, Websites, Email, Direct Mail, Social Media

Is the Retail Apocalypse Upon Us?

You have to be older than me to remember Shopper’s Fair. That was the first store that, back in the early 1960’s, was going to put my grandfather out of business. They were gone before I was old enough to spend my first dime. I do, however, have memories of Woolworth’s downtown and Montgomery Ward at Westwood Mall. I remember walking through Montgomery Ward, marveling at how big the store seemed. (I hadn’t yet been to Macy’s in Manhattan.)

Shopper’s Fair, Woolworth’s and Montgomery Ward are gone. Each because of their own individual circumstances. Here is a list going around the Internet these days of current closures and stores struggling in retail.

Businesses often cite a variety of reasons for closing:

  • Poor Economy
  • Changes in Industry
  • Unfair Retail Landscape Slanted Against Them

The reality is that most closures happen because of a Lack of Cash Flow. 

When the money quits coming in, the stores don’t have the money to pay the bills, don’t have the money to replenish the shelves, don’t have the money to invest in technology, upgrade the infrastructure, or train the employees. Lack of cash starts a downward spiral that is hard to escape.

More often than not, that Lack of Cash Flow happens because of Bad Management. Bad management of:

  • Employees—no training on how to relate to today’s customers, build the relationships that matter, and make the sale
  • Inventory—old merchandise, too much merchandise, too little merchandise, the wrong merchandise
  • Change—not adapting quickly enough to the changes in the industry (All industries change. Some disappear. There is a distinction.)
  • Goals and Vision—not having a clear view of where you want to be today and where you are going tomorrow

Many stores have found ways to thrive in an unfair retail landscape slanted against them. Many stores have found ways to navigate the changes in their industry and customer base. Many stores have found ways to thrive (or at least survive) in poor economies. 

Bob Phibbs, aka The Retail Doctor, posted an amazing blog about the experience (or lack thereof) in music stores today that addresses the first bullet point above. As a singer and mediocre guitar player, I can relate to everything in his post. This is a problem abundant in retail right now, and one that can be easily addressed. Amazon isn’t winning customers so much as brick & mortar stores are losing customers. Go read it right now.

It will be the best thing you read this month.

Overall, retail is growing. The stores in the meme above are losing market share to their competitors because management hasn’t trained them well, positioned them well, or managed their resources well.

Is the Retail Apocalypse upon us? I don’t think so. Stores open. Stores close. Just ask Shopper’s Fair, Woolworth’s and Montgomery Ward.

-Phil Wrzesinski
www.PhilsForum.com

PS I have seen the above meme used by the left to lay the blame for these closures at President Trump’s feet in much the same way many on the right tried to hang everything bad around President Obama’s neck for eight years. I have news for you. None of these closures are because of who is president or what the president has done. They would have happened under Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders, you, or me.

PPS Yes, my store was a victim of cash flow problems. Our market share didn’t change, but our local market did. Because of shrinkage in population, household income, and the average money spent on toys, our market in 2016 was only 53% of what it was in 2007. Our store was too big for our economy. We could have shrunk it down to fit, but we wouldn’t have been the store you remembered. We chose to close instead (a choice discussed in the boardrooms of every one of those companies listed above). With Toys R Us closing, many have asked if I will reopen. Unfortunately, the market hasn’t improved enough to justify reopening.

What to Do With the First Quarter Blues

I went for a walk/jog down the Falling Waters Trail a couple days ago. It was sunny and in the mid-50’s. My dog, Samantha, and I enjoyed getting out of the house. There is something about those early spring days when you get that sense of renewal, that rebirth of energy. Of course, today, I stare out at five inches of snow courtesy of our bipolar vortex. Just when you think you’ve turned the corner on winter, Mother Nature smothers you with another blanket of white. So much for that rebirth of energy.

It’s easy to get the blues.

Image result for cabin fever clip artEspecially if you’re a fourth-quarter retailer. January feels like a relief from the exhausting marathon of Christmas. But by February, when the bills have all been paid and it doesn’t seem like any new cash is coming in, it gets to be a drag.

If you’re a jeweler or florist, you get Valentine’s Day. If you’re a toy retailer or candy shop you get Easter. But that isn’t a lot to carry you through the First Quarter Blues.

Here is a list of different things you can do during the quiet times to combat the blues.

  • Paint the store. A fresh coat of paint brightens the mood and lifts the morale of the staff.
  • Re-do all your signs. Print new ones, change wording, make them more fun and in alignment with your Core Values.
  • Work on new selling techniques. Hold trainings, do role playing, practice new techniques.
  • Make displays for out-of-your-category gifts. For instance, January-March are big baby shower months (no one wants to hold them in November/December because of the holidays). Put together an endcap of great “baby shower” gifts – even if you don’t sell baby products! A hardware store could do a display of “build your nursery the right way”. You could also do “gifts for the mom/dad-to-be.” Get creative. The same is true for weddings. The bridal shows are January-February. Bridal showers are March-June. Put together “bridal/wedding gifts” like board games if you’re a toy store (the family that plays together, stays together), or tool kits. I got a drill as a wedding gift from a thoughtful friend.
  • Get creative with your social media. Post often about a wide variety of things (not all related to selling your products). Have a contest among your staff. Make them all admins. Allow them two posts a day. See who can get more comments and shares in a week. Pay the winner $20. Do it for five weeks. It will be the best $100 bucks you spend on social media this year because you’ll see what kind of posts move the needle.
  • Have a contest of some kind. Maybe a raffle for charity. Maybe a “taste-test” where you put two competing products side by side. (I can see this for tools, for toys, for shoes, for cleaning products, for foods, for strollers …) Maybe a competition. We did a five-week March Games Madness where we pitted four games against each other for four consecutive Friday nights. The game voted the best each week made it to the final four. The fifth week we crowned the champion.
  • Spend more time networking. Send everyone on your team to different networking events.
  • Rearrange the floor layout. Stand at the front door and look around. See what catches your eye. Redesign the store so that your customers can see farther into your store. And make sure something cool and compelling is in those sight lines.
  • Clean and fix everything. Everything.
  • Make your bathroom cool. When George Whalin wrote Retail Superstars: Inside the 25 Best independent Stores in America, he mentioned the really cool bathrooms for 14 of the 25 stores.
  • Make a list of your top 50 or 100 customers with phone numbers. Assign them to your staff to call each person and personally thank them for shopping in your store. No sales pitch. Just a simple, “I want to thank you for being a customer last year. We truly appreciate your business. Have a great day!”
  • Make a goodie-bag for those same top 50 or 100 and personally deliver them. Free. No questions asked. (Thank you Brandy & Eric for this idea!)

The customers will be back soon enough. You have new products rolling in. Take this time to plant the seeds for future sales by refreshing the store, training the staff, and getting creative with your marketing.

That’s how you beat the First Quarter Blues.

-Phil Wrzesinski
www.PhilsForum.com

PS I would love to hear your suggestions for additions to this list. I know there are some really good ideas out there. Help me share them with the world.

The Final Word on Meetings

I’ve had the pleasure to serve on a few different boards of directors for both non-profit and for-profit organizations. All the meetings start the same. Someone will call the meeting to order, take a roll call, and then ask for approval of last month’s minutes.

At this point everyone reaches for the minutes that were printed and laid out on the table. Some of us had printed a copy of the minutes we got in our email the night before. We quickly scan those minutes for errors and corrections, while trying to remember what was discussed and assigned at the last meeting.

I’ve read these last-second minutes on occasion only to find I had agreed at the previous meeting to do something but never wrote myself a note. Talk about embarrassing.

I don’t blame the secretaries of these boards. As I said, I’ve served on several boards that work this way. They all would have the secretary send out an agenda and the minutes from the previous meeting the night before the next meeting. Everyone did it this way so it must be the right way, right?

Unfortunately it is the wrong way.

We’ve already discussed the three reasons for having a meeting

  • To share information with the team
  • To collect information from the team
  • To teach the team something new

I’ve shared with you how to share information, how to collect information, and how to teach something new.

There is one more critical element for making your meeting a true success. It is what you do immediately after the meeting has ended.

ACTION STEPS

You can call it the Minutes or the Summary or the Recap or the Assignment Page or the To Do List. The most important thing you can do after your meeting ends is type up everything that was discussed including all the assignments everyone was given and all the action steps everyone is to take and immediately post it and send it to your team.

Immediately.

While it is still fresh.

Before there are any questions about who said what or who agreed to do what.
Before anyone starts doing something wrong because they heard it wrong in the meeting.
Before anyone forgets what was just discussed.
Before anyone sinks back into the bad habits you just tried to correct.
Before you look at your own email or return that phone call that came in while you were meeting.

You need to think of this step as being a part of the meeting. Even though the assembly is gone, the meeting hasn’t ended until you’ve posted these notes.

This is a revelation I came to later in life. I wish I had thought of this earlier. It would have saved some embarrassing moments for several members on the boards I served (including myself). It would have reinforced lessons I was teaching in our meetings. It would have given those who learn better by reading than by seeing or hearing, another opportunity to fully understand the lesson. It would hold people accountable for the tasks they were assigned to do.

When you plan your next meeting, plan an extra fifteen uninterrupted minutes after you have dismissed the team to write and post your recap. Include in your recap:

  • What was learned
  • Why it was important
  • When and where it happens
  • How it applies to the job
  • Who is responsible for what

Heck, if you plan your meetings well, you can write up half of this beforehand.

Do this one thing and you’ll see the effectiveness of your meetings increase exponentially.

-Phil Wrzesinski
www.PhilsForum.com

PS I only served on one team where the minutes were distributed immediately after the meeting. Looking back, that team was one of the more fun and functioning teams on which I have served. Everyone was involved. Everyone was prepared. Everything else worked roughly the same as any other board or team. The difference was the follow-through. We were all on the same page, the printed page that we got about an hour after the meeting.

PPS Here is the Staff Meeting Planner I used for creating our meetings. When you look at the check box of things to do on the right, that last box says “Action List Completed”. Make that your favorite box to check and you’ll turn your team into rock stars.

Collecting Information the Right Way – Brainstorming

(Note: this is a continuation from the blog post “Why Have a Meeting in the First Place?”)

Back in 2011, after seeing me do the presentation Main Street Marketing on a Shoestring Budget at the 2010 Michigan Downtown Conference, I had a corporate sponsor sending me to do the same presentation for several downtowns across the state. It was during one of these presentations where I learned the acronym STP.

Same Ten People.

As the Main Street Program was being developed and launched in several Michigan communities, one element that made it attractive was how it involved several people to make it work. Most communities had the STP’s that did all the work, served on all the committees, and were the most vocal about everything that was happening. The Main Street Program got more people involved which gave more feeling of ownership to the community as a whole.

You can probably name the STP’s in your town.

Your team has STP’s, too. Same Two People (or three if you have a bigger team).

Every time you go looking for feedback in a meeting, these are the people who dominate the conversation. These are the people who either have the ideas or shut the other ideas down. These are the keepers of the flame who love to say, “But that’s not how we did it last time.”

It is because of these STP’s that you roll your eyes at the idea of brainstorming. “It doesn’t work. I’ve tried it. We didn’t get any good ideas. We couldn’t stay on track.”

Brainstorming, however, can work wonders if you do it right.

Plus, it can be a fun activity for the staff because they get to actively contribute and be part of the meeting. They get to share and shine.

Here are three tips for making your brainstorming sessions more effective:

  1. Post the meeting time and topic at least 24 hours in advance.
  2. Focus on quantity, not quality.
  3. Understand that your best idea will come after the brainstorming session, not during it. (But you need that session to get to the best idea.)

POST IT

When you post in advance that you are going to have a brainstorming session about a certain topic, your introverted staff will have some time to think about the topic. Extroverts talk to think, but introverts think to talk. Give them advance notice and they’ll be much more willing to contribute ideas at the appropriate time. Your STP’s are extroverts. This is one of the reasons they dominate. You didn’t give your introverts enough time to prepare.

QUANTITY

When you make quantity your goal, you keep the STP’s from shutting everything down. They are the ones who say, “That will never work.” They shoot down every idea as it comes or at the very least start discussions on each idea which leads to fewer ideas being shared. There is a time and place for discussing the merits of each idea. That time is NOT during the brainstorming session.

Here are some techniques for getting quantity …

  • Have individuals write their ideas down. This makes sure everyone gets a chance to share.
  • Share ideas in a rapid-fire session. Allow NO discussion of the merits of each idea. Just blurt them out and write them down.
  • Share ideas in a round-robin where everyone gets a turn.
  • Have smaller groups do their own brainstorming and give them a number of ideas they need to generate. (Make it higher than they have time so that they don’t get bogged down in discussion either.)

The goal is to get as many ideas as you can without filters or discussion. In fact, when you go into a brainstorming session, have one or two really crazy out-of-the-box ideas of your own. You’ll be surprised how having those “seed” ideas can get the juices flowing.

FOLLOW-UP

Once you have a good quantity of ideas, assign different people to take those ideas and before the next meeting answer these questions:

  • What would it take to make this happen?
  • What would be the expected result?

Not only does that keep the brainstorming session from getting bogged down with too much discussion and filtering, it also keeps the STP’s from dominating the discussion. When you assign the ideas, ask for volunteers. No volunteers? No one thinks the idea has enough merit to waste their time. Move on to the next one.

The true value of the brainstorming session happens in the follow-up. You’ll find your team collaborating with each other on their own to finish their assignments. You’ll find them asking questions, getting more ideas, and looking for ways to improve on the ideas from the brainstorming session. When your team presents their answers at the next meeting you will find that several of the ideas have taken a new shape or form, one that will likely be incredibly beneficial to your business.

Oh, and there is one other secondary effect …

You get more people involved so that the STP’s no longer dominate everything.

To learn more about how to make brainstorming sessions more effective, I recommend you read this article by Brianna Hansen.

-Phil Wrzesinski
www.PhilsForum.com

PS If you have time at the end of your brainstorming session, another quick, democratic way to see what ideas people want to explore is to give everyone six gold star stickers and have them “vote” with their stickers. They can put the stickers all on one idea or spread them out. The ideas with the most votes will be the ones you assign.

Sharing Information the Right Way

I learned this exercise twenty-seven years ago while doing team-building events at YMCA Storer Camps. I have used it several times for several purposes. The exercise goes like this …

You get two volunteers, one at the whiteboard, one person sitting in a chair giving instructions. The person at the whiteboard can only look at the board. He or she cannot turn around and look at the instructor. The instructor is given a picture with shapes on it and then must instruct the person at the board to draw those shapes.

This was one of the pictures the team would have to draw.

In the first scenario, both parties can talk to each other. The instructor can also see what is being drawn. The end result is usually quite good because of the immediate feedback between both parties.

We then do a second scenario with two new volunteers. In this scenario, they can still both talk, but the instructor has to turn away so that he or she cannot see the person drawing. The end result depends on the skill of the instructor, but also on the communication between the two. The more often the person drawing asks questions to clarify, the better their results.

The third scenario is the fun one. In this scenario, not only are they facing away from each other, the person drawing is no longer able to speak. The instructor has to hope he has given clear enough instructions that the drawer can complete the task. Often I have seen unfinished pictures because the instructor moved on to a second instruction before the first was completed.

The three scenarios represent three of the more common forms of communication.

  1. Face-to-Face
  2. Phone
  3. Email

In face-to-face communication, you get both verbal and non-verbal feedback. You can see when there is confusion on someone’s face. You can see if the information makes someone feel uncomfortable or awkward. You get confirmation when people understand.

Obviously it is the best form of communication because of the clarity it brings, and therefore the reason why managers insist so often on having meetings for the sole purpose of sharing information.

The downside is the time it takes to plan the meeting, get everyone in the same room at the same time, and the disruption it causes in their workdays.

Yet, when you have a complex topic where it is critical that everyone understands the information thoroughly and without question, face-to-face is your best option. Just be sure to build into the meeting some time for feedback to make sure everyone understands and is on the same page.

Phone calls are only as effective for getting information across as the person on the other end of the line is effective at asking the right questions for clarity. If you are using such a method for passing along information, ask the other person to repeat back what you said. If you are receiving information this way, repeat back what the other person said.

The upside to phone calls is that people don’t have to be in the same room to share information. If you have information that is relatively simple, and you have good communication skills, you can share that info much more easily via phone than by requiring a meeting.

Email has both the largest pros and cons of the three.

One huge upside to email is that you have a written copy of the instructions that people can reference as often as needed. No matter how many cooking shows you watch, if you don’t write down the recipe, you’ll have a hard time recalling it exactly when you finally get into the kitchen.

Another upside to email is that the recipients can read it at their own convenience. It helps them manage their time more wisely and gives them more flexibility in their schedule.

The downside is obvious. The instructions and information have to be exact, clear, and concise because you have no immediate feedback if there are questions. You also have to write so that there are no misinterpretations.

This form of communication takes practice, diligence, and skill. 

I did the drawing exercise with a company once. For the first scenario I had two employees volunteer. For the second scenario, the owner of the company gave the instructions while an employee drew the picture. For the third scenario the owner’s right-hand gal and manager gave the instructions while the owner drew the picture.

The results were an eye-opener. While the first group did great, the second group with the owner giving directions didn’t go well at all. First, the employee was intimidated and afraid to ask questions for clarity. Second, the owner wasn’t very good at giving directions in the first place. We covered a lot of ground learning about roles in the workplace out of that exercise. The third group, however, also opened a lot of eyes. The manager was able to describe the picture to her boss in perfect, clear detail. The end result was actually closer to the original picture than the first group’s result.

The owner realized right then and there that he would have his manager do all email communication and that he would stick to having face-to-face time with her to get his ideas across. Lesson learned.

One last thing …

As Confucius said, “I hear and I forget. I see and I remember. I do and I understand.”

If you decide your information must be shared face-to-face, find a way to do more than just talk at your team. Find a fun and interesting way to share the information. First, your team will be more enthused to listen. Second, you’ll deepen their understanding.

But when you learn to write clearly and concisely, do your team a favor and send them an email.

-Phil Wrzesinski
www.PhilsForum.com

PS Since we didn’t use email as a communication tool at Toy House, I used to post notices in our employee lounge. Unfortunately, I found out that not everyone used the lounge. I had to tell two of my team members to go read the notices every time I posted something new. Lesson learned.

PPS Yes, I still do corporate and youth team building exercises. Give me a shout to discuss your needs.

PPPS If you manage people for a living, the more you know about team building, the better your team will be. It doesn’t “just happen”, it needs to be cultivated. You can start by reading this Free ResourceTeam Building 101: The Basics. 

Why Have a Meeting in the First Place?

I had just finished doing a presentation on Customer Service for a team of volunteers and staff at a non-profit organization. We had discussed the different types of “customers” and how to recognize them. We talked about their different expectations and how to meet and exceed those expectations. We laughed and listened and learned and shared. Everyone was fired up.

Then the director stepped up and said. “Okay, as I said before, we are going to have a staff meeting following the presentation. I need to address some things you all are doing wrong.” She then went on to read a laundry list of criticisms and mistakes calling out individuals in the process.

Not only did all the positive energy from the presentation leave the room in a flash, even I felt uncomfortable listening to her drone on and on chastising everyone on the team. By the time I had packed my bags I could tell everyone was jealous that I got to leave while they had to stay behind and take the verbal assault.

This wasn’t a meeting. It was an attack. I got the sense that all their meetings happened in a similar fashion.

You know exactly what I mean. We hear the word “meeting” and immediately roll our eyes.

We all have horror stories of meetings that dragged on too long or bored us to tears. We all have sat in meetings where the silence was deafening after being chewed out by our supervisors or where the energy was sucked out of the room by a brain-dead brainstorming session. The eye-roll is well-deserved.

There are three reasons to have a meeting:

  • To share information with the team
  • To collect information from the team
  • To teach the team something new

Here are three reasons NOT to have a meeting:

  • If all you are going to do is share information with your team
  • If you are going to criticize the team for something an individual or the collective team is doing wrong
  • If you are meeting because you always meet on Monday mornings

If all you are going to do is share information with the team, you can do that without inconveniencing them with a meeting. Write it all down in a clear and concise memo instead. Write it down. Proof-read it. Have a subordinate read it and tell you what they think it means. Then post it, share it, email it or whatever it takes to get the info into everyone’s hands.

When you take this approach, you eliminate the most boring part of every meeting. Plus, the written memo gives everyone a reference point to make sure your instructions are clear and that everyone is on the same page. (Make sure you proof-read and test it so that you are “clear”.)

If all you are going to do is criticize the team for a mistake they made or a mistake one individual made, you are a coward. Mistakes need to be addressed one-on-one and in private. If the whole team is doing something wrong, rather than criticize them, start by taking the blame for not having taught them the proper way to do it in the first place. This one is on you. If you had taught them correctly, they wouldn’t all be doing it wrong. Second, turn your meeting into a positive, we’re-all-going-to-learn-a-better-way meeting.

Jim Henson, the founder of the Muppets was a perfectionist and known for doing multiple, multiple, multiple takes of every scene. Yet he was also beloved by his team. Why? Because of one simple technique … Every time they did a scene, he would say,

“That was awesome!! Great job!! Now this time, let’s do it with a little more …”

Praise always goes farther than criticism because it lifts people up and makes them more open to new suggestions. Criticism shuts people down and makes them defensive.

Do yourself, your team, and your business a favor. Don’t meet to criticize. Either have a one-on-one private meeting with the individual who needs help with his or her behavior, or have a teaching meeting where you show everyone a better way.

If all you are doing is meeting because you always meet, without a broad agenda for sharing or collecting information and/or teaching something new, then you’re wasting everyone’s time and undermining your effectiveness as a leader.

“Because we always do this,” is the justification of losers. Winners have a solid reason for their actions.

Last week I showed you how to plan the “teaching-something-new” type of meeting including some fun examples. This week I’ll show you how to better share and collect information.

-Phil Wrzesinski
www.PhilsForum.com

PS There are incredibly rare instances where criticism is actually warranted. I’ll show you how to do it properly in the next post. Just remember that the true one-and-only reason for meeting is to make the team and business better. If you aren’t meeting for that purpose, with an expected outcome from the meeting, don’t meet at all.