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One Simple Change to Make 2020 Your Best Year Ever!

My New Year’s Resolution is to get back to posting blogs regularly. Now with a Christmas Season under my belt in my new role, I have a little better handle on the time requirements of this job and should be able to fit some more writing into it.

Here is the resolution I want you to adopt …

Hire for Traits, Train for Skills.

Having hired hundreds of retail employees over the years, I have learned four truths:

  1. Your business will only be as good as the staff you have running and working in it.
  2. People do not change from their true character. They may hide it for a while, but it always shows itself.
  3. You can never do enough training.
  4. A team that shares your Core Values will work harder and be more loyal than a team that doesn’t.

If you’re really good at what you do, hire the right kind of people and teach them what you know. If you’re not that good, hire the right kind of people and then go learn what to teach them. You’ll be surprised how fast you become “really good at what you do” when you have to teach it to others.

Happy New Year!

-Phil Wrzesinski

PS In case you haven’t figured it out, this blog and website are all about helping you be “really good at what you do.” Check out the Free Resources. They will shorten your learning curve by decades.

PPS Not sure how to Hire for Traits? Check out this post and the one after it.

Making it a Better Place to Work

When the tech world exploded onto the scene, everyone talked about the amazing workplace environments at these start-ups. Ping Pong and Foosball tables everywhere. Open floor concepts and collaboration-fostering layouts ran rampant. Legacy companies started changing their infrastructure to match, thinking it would help them attract better people.

News flash: it didn’t work.

In retail it wasn’t even possible. If you had a Foosball table in your retail store it’s because you sold Foosball tables. Even in my big toy store we didn’t have the room for recreational equipment in the employee lounge.

That doesn’t mean you cannot make your work environment attractive.

If you remember from my last post, the way to attract and retain a better level of workers is to pay them more and make the work environment attractive. While workplace layout and break time activities are nice perks on the job, there are two other things your employees want more than that.

Praise & Recognition


Praise isn’t a Millennial thing. Praise has been raising productivity since the beginning of time. It is a basic instinct in the animal kingdom. We use praise and positive reinforcement to train animals. When given with sincerity, it works equally well with humans.

It doesn’t have to be fancy, either. A simple, “Thank you,” every now and then, or a, “Way to go!” or “Nice job!” will do wonders for the overall attitude of your team and the feelings in the workplace. You just have to be looking for those opportunities to give that praise.

Even when someone doesn’t do something perfectly right, finding something to praise about what they did will raise the bar for their next time.

Jim Henson of the Muppets was a notorious task master. When he filmed scenes for Sesame Street, he would often shoot a scene dozens of times to get it right. You would think someone that relentless would be a tough boss to work for, yet those who worked with him regularly still sing his praises and talk about what a wonderful experience it was.

Why? Because after each take, Jim would say something like, “Wow! That was amazing! I really liked how you did that one part of the scene. I’d like to do it again, and this time try to do …”

He used Praise to get what he wanted.

Contrast that to the typical situation where you get called into the boss’s office for something you did wrong, knowing your ass is about to be chewed. How would it feel if the boss started out with, “Wow, that was amazing!”? See the difference?

Sometimes you just need to eliminate the anti-praise in the office.


Or, If you use a significantly larger font than normal in your inter-office emails, you’re yelling at your staff. Please stop.

Those types of actions negate any praise you might be giving elsewhere.


Once again, this doesn’t have to be a big deal. I’m not talking about participation trophies. I’m talking about simple things like acknowledging everyone on your team with a Hello each day, a thank you for working for you each day.

People want to be recognized as humans. Your team members have families, have struggles, have illnesses and doctor visits, have bills to pay, have fights with their spouses, have pets that need to be put down, have kids growing up and moving out, have parents moving back home, have weddings to attend, have 80th birthday parties to plan for their parents, have worries and doubts.

Recognizing them as fully-grown humans capable of great things (and big mistakes) and not just cogs in your machine is a must if you want to foster an attractive place to work.

Recognizing their strengths and weaknesses and putting them in the best position to succeed is a game changer for any business.

If you have creative people, give them room to create. If you have by-the-numbers people, give them a good list of instructions. If you have leaders, let them lead. If you have followers, give them a great example to follow.

Most importantly, recognize them for being just as human as you are. Give them a schedule that fits your needs and theirs. Be as accommodating as possible to their requests for time off. Celebrate their victories. Help them learn from their mistakes. Be in their corner to support them. Give them the tools, training, and responsibilities to help them be successful.

That’s the kind of Recognition they desire.

All the Foosball and Ping Pong tables in the world can’t overcome a toxic workplace filled with criticism and uncaring bosses. There isn’t an office layout on the planet that can overcome the hopeless feeling of being an unrecognized cog in a machine.

Those start-ups that were successful did so because they found like-minded individuals and treated them well. That’s what it means to have an “attractive place to work.”

-Phil Wrzesinski

PS Before you hire your next new employee, look at the culture of your workplace. Do you recognize and praise your team? Do you treat them like humans? Do you put them in positions to succeed? Get the workplace part right first. Then we can work on how to find better people.

PPS You might be surprised to find that when you start praising instead of criticizing, the employee you thought of as useless has just become amazingly useful.

You Can’t Overpay Good Help

My grandfather stole one of his best employees away from another job. The young high schooler was making 75 cents an hour. My grandfather offered him $1.05 to work at Toy House. He took it.

I still recall the big grin on my grandfather’s face when he told me the end of that story. The other business owner was furious and called him. “Phil Conley, you can’t afford to pay him $1.05!! What are you thinking?!?!”

Oh, but he could.

Toy House Birthday Party May 1974
My dad and grandpa are on the left in white. I’m the clown in the middle.

That was one business adage my grandfather lived by. You can never overpay good help.

Just yesterday I heard the same advice from none other than Roy H. Williams, aka The Wizard of Ads. He was speaking in a podcast and addressed the issue of how to find good employees in today’s market. (If you have to make an hour drive, this podcast will be the best way to spend that hour by far!)

Roy said there are two things you need to do to have a great team:

  1. Pay way more than the market price to attract better people
  2. Make it an attractive place to work to keep them

It’s that simple.

I know what you’re already saying. “But Phil, I can’t afford that. I don’t even pay myself.”

First, if you’re not paying yourself, go read this blog post from last summer. Second, start paying yourself.

Third, and most importantly, do the math. Ryan Deiss of The Digital Marketer said in the same podcast that the business willing to pay the most for customer acquisition will have the best customers. The same is true for employees.

The business willing to pay the most for employee acquisition will have the best employees.

If you have the best employees, if you have a full staff of rock stars, how will that affect your sales? You better believe they will go up.

Repeat and referral business are directly the result of your Customer Service. They are directly the result of your employees and their ability to rock your customer’s world.

They are directly the result of your ability to attract, hire, train, and retain the best staff.

Overpaying for good help creates an upward spiral. Cutting employee costs leads to a downward spiral. Don’t believe me? Just walk into any of the declining department stores and look around for someone to help you.

And before you go telling me Millennials aren’t the same quality of workers, I’ll counter with several Millennials I’ve hired over the years that will outwork anyone you’ve ever met.

Last month I did a presentation on how to Attract, Hire, Train, and Retain Millennials. You could sum up most of the talk like this …

  1. Pay way more than the market price to attract better people
  2. Make it an attractive place to work to keep them

Thanks, Roy, for saying what my grandfather taught me decades ago. It works!

-Phil Wrzesinski

PS That young guy my grandfather hired was my father, one of the hardest workers I’ve ever known.

PPS The podcast with Roy H. Williams and Ryan Deiss is full of other great insights from two of the most amazing marketing minds on this planet. Normally you would pay tens of thousands of dollars to have an audience with either one of these guys. Here is the link to do it for free.

The Thirty Questions to Find Your “Silver Bullet”

I got suckered in once. Long before the phrase “fake news” came into existence, back in the days when Norton and MacAfee were the only names in anti-virus protection, my computer started slowing down.

Then up popped an ad for a free diagnostic test of my computer, guaranteed to clean it up and take it to speeds the factory settings never could. I downloaded it and immediately all these warnings came flashing on the screen telling me I was infected and needed to download this fancy, official-sounding fix right away before I lost critical data.

Yeah, you can probably guess the rest.

I took the computer to a local shop who cleaned several viruses and Trojans off the hard drive and got me back to my normal, plodding, limited-by-my-service-provider-not-my-computer speeds.

We’re all looking for that quick-fix, aren’t we? That guaranteed, take-you-to-the-next-level tool that will transform your business? That’s why scams like that computer virus one worked so well. We all keep thinking there is that one silver bullet we’re missing that will make all our ills go away.

Here is where I’m supposed to tell you there isn’t a silver bullet. Eat less and exercise more, right?

The truth is there is a silver bullet. And a bronze one. And a gold one. And a titanium-plated, platinum-infused, diamond-encrusted, gold-leafed, emerald-cut, space-aged aluminum, time-released-capsule one.

The problem is that every business needs a different bullet. In retail there is no one-size-fits-all bullet.

You might be struggling with cash flow while your neighbor down the street needs help with a better marketing message. The store on the next block has a customer service problem, while the store across the street is in a market with too many competitors.

What retailers really need is a good diagnostic tool to help you identify the true problem(s). Unfortunately your business isn’t like an automobile where you can plug it in and see what’s wrong.

You can hire a consultant, but unless they have a background in understanding independent retail, they might not be able to diagnose your true problem either. You can try to do it yourself (I gave you a few Measuring Cups to use in an earlier post), but it is often hard to read the label from inside the bottle.

Since I am the DIY guy of retail, though, I want to show you the approach I would take to diagnose where your business needs work so that maybe you can find the demon holding you back. If you were to hire me, I would look at your business in this order …

  1. Core Values – Is your business aligned with your Values? If not, how and where can we change things?
  2. Market Potential – Where do you stand in your market? Who are your competitors? What is your share of the market? Is it shrinking or growing? What local factors influence your market presence?
  3. Customer Service – How much of your business is Repeat and Referral? How much training do your front line people have? What skills do they have? How well do they greet, meet, and interact with customers? How are their “closing” skills? What services do you provide? Do your services lean customer-friendly or business-friendly? Do you meet and exceed expectations?
  4. Inventory Management – How is your cash flow? What is your Profit Margin, Turn Ratio, Accounts-Payable-to-Inventory Ratio, Cash-to-Current Ratio, etc? What are the “must-haves” and how was your stock position on those items last year? Where is the fat that needs to be trimmed from the inventory? What systems do you use to keep from over-buying?
  5. Marketing & Advertising – What is your Marketing Message? Is it consistent across all platforms (including the in-store experience)? How can we make that message more powerful and effective? Where are you spending your marketing money? Are there cheaper, better alternatives for reaching the people you want to reach? Are there collaborations that make sense? Are you harnessing all the free publicity available to you?

Notice the order of things. Most businesses come to me saying they need help with their Marketing because they aren’t getting the traffic they want. Yet sometimes the problem is their business isn’t aligned with their values so they aren’t attracting the right types of customers. sometimes the problem is there aren’t enough customers in their market to sustain their business. Sometimes the problem is their service is so bad, those who do visit are telling friends to stay away.

Better Marketing won’t fix those other problems or help the business.

If you want to run your own diagnostics, there are several hyperlinks to articles and blogs related to the thirty questions posed above.

If you want to hire me to run your diagnostics, I’m going through that list in that order until we find the first problem.

There is no single silver bullet to fix any and all retailers, but there is a bullet to slay the specific demon holding you back. I encourage you to run your diagnostics on your own to see if you can isolate your problem. When you do find it, send me an email and I’ll help you brainstorm several solutions to solve your problem on your own or with help.

There is a bullet for you, but it’s buried in the haystack next to the needle.

-Phil Wrzesinski

PS I hired a consultant once. He compared my Turn Ratio to Walmart’s and told me my problem was inventory control and that I needed to go to “just-in-time” inventory where I had at most a one-week supply of inventory on hand. My dad hired a consultant. He compared our prices to Kmart and Toys R Us and said our prices were too high and then pitched a total revamp of our sales floor into a circus theme (not sure what that had to do with prices). If you’re going to hire someone, make sure they have extensive experience working with indie retailers. Make sure they have a list like this one, too, that spells out what they’re going to evaluate.

PPS Sorry for the mixed metaphor at the end. It sounded good in my head.

What’s In Your Training Packet?

There used to be a locally-owned office supply store in downtown Jackson. I bought a lot of stuff from them over the years. They had a storefront but most of their business was done by phone from their catalog. I’d call in an order today and it would be delivered to the store tomorrow. I loved going in their store even though the selection in stock was only a tiny fraction of their available merchandise.

One thing they always had in stock was three-ring binders. I bought several of them every fall to put together my Team Member Handbooks for the new hires. I spent the better part of a day prepping these books for my new employees (until I finally learned how to delegate this task).

Here is what went into this binder …


The written handbook was the basis of the binder and consisted of five sections:

  1. Policies
  2. Store Procedures
  3. Layaway
  4. Evaluation Process
  5. Addendum

Policies included all of the policies of employment including dress code, terms of employment, employment status (full-time, part-time, etc), vacation and holiday pay, sick leave, tornado warnings, and anything else related to them being an employee.

Store Procedures included all of our major services like free gift-wrapping, delivery, assembly, UPS shipping, etc. It gave explanations of how to offer and perform these services, including guidelines for each one.

Layaway was such a large and detailed service that it garnered its own chapter in the book.

Evaluation Process talked about the criteria by which an employee would be evaluated. (Note: this one should be screened by an attorney familiar with HR laws.)

Addendum was a color copy of the major forms we used with detailed instruction how to fill them out. I also included our delivery map and delivery service guidelines here.

You’ll notice there wasn’t a section for Cash Register. The instruction book that came with our cash registers was thicker than the 1-inch binders I used for the Team Member Handbook and would have been too costly (and pointless) to reproduce for the Handbook so we left it out and kept it as a separate book.

The purpose of all this information was to make sure everything was spelled out not just for the employee’s sake, but for our sake as well. It helped make sure we treated everyone fairly and equally within the guidelines of the law.

I am a huge fan of having such a handbook for your employees. It helps clear up confusion and solve disputes—as long as you follow what is written in your handbook. I had an attendee in one presentation tell me his attorney friend makes a living suing businesses because of their handbooks. Those lawsuits are almost always when a company doesn’t follow its own rules. I advised this guy to hire his attorney friend to review his handbook. That would ensure the handbook was crafted within the laws and that his buddy could never be the one to sue him.

I’ll give you the same advice …

Have a lawyer familiar with HR Laws review your Handbook before you publish it.



We had seven different brochures that we handed to customers over the years. With each new hire I made sure there was a copy of all of the current brochures in the back pocket of the binder. As I sat down with new hires the first day, I would show them each brochure and tell them since customers were reading these it was important that they knew what each brochure said.

(Here is a link to three of those brochures from the Toy House website.)



In the back pocket, along with the Brochures, I printed out three eBooks that customers could also download for free from our website titled:

These fully explained our philosophy on toys, including why we sold what we sold. These documents, more than anything else, helped teach our staff how to find the best solutions for our customers time and time again.

If you have a different philosophy than your competitors for why you sell what you sell, you need to have a vehicle for sharing that with your customers. It might turn some people off, but for everyone else it creates a higher level of trust and loyalty. Just make sure your new hires know this philosophy right away, too.

I also included an article I wrote about why I believe in Santa. I wanted my new hires to better understand me and our store’s official position on the jolly old elf.



The front pocket contained the paperwork including:

  • IRS W-4 Form
  • Schedule
  • Parking Lot Map with assigned parking spot
  • A key to the employee entry door
  • Employee Training Checklist
  • Employee Handbook Reading Slip

The first four are fairly self-explanatory.

The Training Checklist was a worksheet with all of the areas of necessary training the seasonal employee needed to complete. Each section had a blank line in front of it. As one of my regulars taught the new person a skill, the veteran would initial the line next to that skill. That way, if the new person didn’t have a skill down to my satisfaction, I could go back to the employee who trained him or her to see how to improve the training. (Page 3 of this pdf is a copy of an older version of that Training Checklist)

The Employee Handbook Reading Slip was a half-page piece of paper with the following paragraph …

I acknowledge that I have read the Toy House Team Member Handbook and understand its provisions.  I understand and acknowledge that my employment at Toy House, Inc. is indefinite and for no specified length of time.  I understand and acknowledge that my employment can be terminated at-will by myself or by Toy House, Inc. for any or no reason, with or without previous notice. 

I know that this handbook is not a contract of employment and that its provisions are subject to change.  I will ask questions about any issues or areas I do not understand.

Name___________________ Signature____________________________ Date_____________


I paid my employees an extra hour of pay for reading their Team Member Handbook and signing this piece of paper. Yes, I quizzed them on its contents. I even played a little game. In each section of the Written Handbook I hid little symbols like this . If they found all of them and included the section and page numbers on the signed piece of paper, I gave them an extra half-hour of pay. (Hey, it was a toy store. Of course we played games. And this game ensured that, if nothing else, they looked at every page in the book!)

Anyone in education knows that people have different preferred styles of learning. Some learn better by reading. Some learn better by seeing. Some learn better by doing. I made sure my new hires got all three.

The Holiday Season is your time to shine. Make sure your new hires are up to that task. Give them the tools they need. Your Training Packet is an important tool in that toolbox.

-Phil Wrzesinski

PS If you would like a word doc copy of the first two sections of my written handbook, shoot me an email. As I said before, however, before you use it for yourself (with modifications, of course) please have an attorney look it over. Times change. Different states have different rules. Different cities have different rules, too. Most importantly, don’t publish any rules you don’t intend to follow.

Ten Mistakes, One FREE eBook

I actually did job interviews in a Halloween costume once. Okay, more than once. Several times, in fact, because the end of October was when I needed to start the hiring process. I’ve often wondered what an interviewee was thinking, sitting across the desk from a bird watcher, a king, Zeus, or Sorcerer Mickey.

Yes, we celebrated Halloween in costume!

When I was on my game I would have my seasonal help interviewed, background-checked, hired, and on the schedule by Election Day. That gave me two to three weeks of training before the Thanksgiving Weekend ratcheted everything up a notch.

There is one tool I now possess that I wish I had back then. It is a Free eBook I posted back in August called “Ten Mistakes that Sideline the Sale.”

While not the complete list of all the Customer Service issues I had to deal with in training, it is a powerful list of ten things you can easily correct, and that any employee of any experience can easily understand.

It would have been a mandatory part of the training packet I gave each new employee. It would have been a mandatory part of the post-training discussion to make sure they had read and understood everything clearly.

It is impossible to cover every issue, but these ten are so common and so simple to correct, that it would be a crime for any retailer to be losing business by making these mistakes. Before you download the eBook, let me tell you two things …

  • There is nothing in this eBook you don’t already know
  • Your staff are making these mistakes daily

Heck, I would find myself making these mistakes every now and then—especially #6 and #10—cringing every time it happened.

This is such a valuable training tool because it covers mistakes we make greeting customers, selling to customers, and ringing them up at the end—all the key things your new staff will be asked to do. It shows you what not to do, why you shouldn’t do it, and what you should do instead, all in four pages.

I shouldn’t be giving this away for FREE.

I should be charging you for this download because of how much it will improve your Customer Service overnight. Download it now before I change my mind. Download it, save it, print it, incorporate it into your training manual, and share it with your fellow retailer friends.

It will be the easiest staff training you do this fall.

Your team will be super heroes for your customers (and you won’t have to wear a costume to do it!)

-Phil Wrzesinski

PS You won’t even be asked to give your email to download this Free eBook. That’s how much I want you to succeed. (But if you want to subscribe to the blog and didn’t do it with the annoying little pop-up box, you can find the subscribe box here.)

PPS Yes, there is a Live Presentation of these Ten Mistakes. It is full of stories and experiences not in the eBook (including a bonus eleventh mistake you can also easily correct) that will drive home the points in a fun and entertaining way. It’s not too late to book me to teach this to your staff this fall. (I’ll even wear my super hero cape if you ask.)

PPPS Number Three is one of the most aggravating for me personally. Don’t tell me what I missed. Tell me what is going on right now.

Payroll is Not Just a Line on Your Profit & Loss

My dad was a journalist. Got his degree from University of Michigan in 1965 and started writing for the Jackson Citizen Patriot newspaper right out of college.

He worked for his future father-in-law at Toy House all through high school and college to pay for that degree and even worked part time around his journalism job to help pay for the expenses of having a new family.

There is a legendary story about how he got his start at Toy House when my grandfather gave him a 40% raise to lure him away from another job at age sixteen.

Four years after college my dad got another job offer, this time to move to New York and write for Newsweek. Once again my grandfather made my dad a substantial counter-offer 33% higher than the Newsweek offer to stay and work full time at Toy House.

1974 – 25th Birthday of Toy House
My dad and grandpa are in the white shirts on the left. My sister and I are in the clown costumes in the middle.

Now some might say my grandmother was behind this offer. She didn’t want to see her grandchildren (my sister and me) leave town. But my grandfather knew a good employee when he saw one. He always told me …

“You can never overpay for great help.”

Talking about Sears these last few days has struck a nerve. Along with the comments here, I’ve received emails with stories of families with long ties to Sears.

One long-time reader of this blog told me how his grandfather who worked for Sears for 33 years talked about how they changed their employee stock options program in the 1980’s. He speculates that started some of their “well-trained staff” attrition. 

Wikipedia tells of how Sears changed their hourly pay structure in 1992 that ended up cutting pay for several employees. This followed on the heels of Walmart and Kmart surpassing Sears in total retail sales in 1990 and preceded by a year the demise of their catalog. Coincidence?

Circuit City did the same thing in March 2007, cutting starting hourly pay and laying off 3,400 higher-paid employees. Less than two years later they liquidated.

In both cases the C-Suites were only looking at payroll as an expense to be cut instead of an asset to invest in.

You can treat your employees as an expense instead of an asset and get away with it. Amazon has done that for years. Even their new round of raises was offset by a cut in bonuses and other benefits (and was politically motivated to decrease the chance of Bernie Sanders getting the Stop BEZOS Bill passed).

It only works, however, if you didn’t treat your employees like assets first.

I may be biased but I think my grandfather had it right. How you treat your employees affects how they treat your customers which affects your bottom line.

Go find some people to overpay.

-Phil Wrzesinski

PS I wish I could have paid my employees better. I wish I could have offered them better benefits. Since I couldn’t, I did other things to help them out like grant all their time-off requests, work with the schedule to make sure they got the hours they wanted, feed them every now and then, train them, treat them with respect, give them responsibility, pay a stipend toward their continuing education, celebrate their birthdays and achievements, and bring in a masseuse during the Christmas holidays. Even when you don’t have the budget there are things you can do to make your staff feel appreciated.

Are Background Checks Necessary?

(Note: the last three posts talked about making a character trait list, posting better job descriptions and help wanted ads, and crafting insightful interview questions. You’ve done your interviews. Now what?)

I got a phone call. “I’m doing a background check and one of our applicants listed you as a former employer. Can you verify when this employee worked for you?”

I have made this same phone call. As employers we have rules of what we can and cannot say during one of these phone calls. Each state has its own rules. A former employer can confirm dates of employment, roles/titles, and usually answer one simple question … “Is this employee eligible for rehire?” 

It kinda sucks when you’re checking someone’s background with these limitations. If they were honest about when they worked and what they did, and they are still eligible for rehire, you learn very little. In fact, most background checks are done not to confirm a potential hire but to derail that job offer. Give me one reason to say No.

Even though they rarely ever confirm a good hire, background checks are still necessary. It is better to have exhausted all the reasons to say No. Background checks still tell you something. They tell you if someone is honest. They tell you if someone has neglected to tell you everything about themselves.

Along with calling former employers I also check the court sites. One applicant had three six-month gaps in his employment record. He told me in the interview he was working for a friend doing odd jobs. His friend must have worked at the county jail each of those stints. Another applicant was being considered for a warehouse and delivery position until the list of speeding tickets and two reckless driver tickets appeared.

Sometimes, however, a background check can surprise you. I called one former employer who said, “Wait, are you telling me she’s looking for a job? I need to call her. I’d love to have her back!”

One time when someone called me about one of my former employees the caller asked, “Is there anything else you can tell us?” He knew the answer was likely No—especially if you call a big chain store. My answer surprised him …

“If you don’t hire her, you will have made the biggest mistake in your HR life.”

Sure, seasonal retail help is one of the lowest rungs on the employment ladder. These aren’t confirmation hearings for lifetime positions so you likely won’t need the Senate or FBI. But your store deserves to have the very best. Almost all my full-time employees started as seasonal staff. If you do the proper job identifying the right team members at this stage, you’ll create the team and culture you want for the long run in no time at all.


Some employers check backgrounds before doing interviews. For big positions with tons of qualified applicants, I can understand vetting before interviewing. If you have more good applicants than you have time to interview them all, do a quick search of your District Court, State Felony, and Sex Offender websites. If that doesn’t eliminate anyone, then go to social media and see what they are posting on FB or Instagram. Chances are good that might knock out one or two people.

I preferred to check backgrounds after the interview. I only checked on the people I liked, looking for some reason to sway me off hiring that person. If they didn’t show the character traits I wanted through the application and interview process, I wasn’t wasting my time checking their backgrounds.

Although I have been used as a personal reference several times (and written several letters of recommendation), in my early days of hiring I rarely ever checked those references. I only called former employers who weren’t chain stores. I also made a few bad hires in my day and twice heard from someone who had been listed as a personal reference that told me they wouldn’t have recommended that person to work for me. I learned that lesson the hard way.

References are mainly for filling in holes in the details and finding reasons to say no. It is worth checking them. Otherwise Buyer Beware.

-Phil Wrzesinski

PS Check with your state’s hiring laws to see what you can and can’t ask in a reference check (and also to know what you can and can’t answer when someone calls you). Bookmark your local District Court site, your state’s felony site, and your state/local sex offender registry sites. Your customers deserve that from you.

PPS The former employee of mine got the job. She told me her boss said it was my comment that won him over. She’s been there 12 years now. I hired the employee whose former employer wanted her back. That was all the reference I needed.

Using Character Traits to Write a Better Job Description and Help Wanted Ad

I jumped the gun yesterday. I started talking to you about interview questions before we even discussed how to get the right applicants through your door in the first place. My bad.

Did you know you can “pre-qualify” your applicants? No, I don’t mean by writing, “Only people with [ __________ ] need apply.” That’s lazy and useless. You can pre-qualify your applicants by writing a better job description and a better help-wanted ad. That traits list we created helps.


Most job descriptions follow the same pattern. First a bullet list of duties and responsibilities. Second a bullet list of qualifications. It is that second list that pre-qualifies applicants. Most companies get that part wrong by listing all the required schooling and experience, without talking about whether you even have the right traits for the job.

A typical list might include:

  • [Level of schooling required]
  • [Minimum years experience doing the actual job as listed in the title]
  • [Minimum years experience doing the tasks for the job]

Just because someone did the job doesn’t mean they were good at it or had the right traits to do it well.

Instead you should be listing the traits of the person you want to hire. Here is a list I helped a fellow store owner create as the qualifications for a manager position:

The Store Manager must be someone who:

  • Can manage and motivate employees
  • Can build and foster teamwork and collaboration
  • Can stay calm and level-headed in tense and hectic situations
  • Can juggle multiple tasks during the course of the day
  • Can keep a high level of energy throughout a long day, a long week, and a long season
  • Can listen carefully and learn quickly
  • Loves to help other people grow
  • Loves to be part of the community
  • Loves to encourage and foster creativity in the team
  • Loves to play and have fun

Notice all those “can” statements? Those are the traits for the job. All of those “love” statements are the Core Values of the company. Someone who has these traits will instantly see themselves in that job description. You also have your basis for your “Tell me …” questions.

“Tell me about a time you had to motivate someone to do something they didn’t want to do. How did you get him to do it? What was the result?”


Your ad is the other place to really highlight the traits you want to hire. Once again, most help wanted ads fail to pre-qualify because they talk about the job and the duties, not the character traits. But what if you wrote an ad that looked more like this?

“Are you a team player looking for the chance to take that next step? Do you have the skills to help other people grow into their best? Do you get fired up at the chance to lead a high-performing team that gets to solve problems and bring joy to others?

You might be the perfect candidate for GTS.

GTS is looking for innovative people with true leadership skills to join us to help create and manage the kind of team everyone wants to be on, the kind of team that has fun working together, has fun being a part of our wonderful communities, and has fun finding new and better ways to serve our customers.

Yes, you will work weekends from time to time. Those days are the most fun.”

Notice how we incorporated all the can and love statements from the above description into one ad? We posted this in November for a toy store. (Yeah, November is not the best time to be hiring new managers, but such was the case.) Not only was this store owner able to find new managers and assistant managers for all three of her locations instantly, all were a perfect fit.

The first year I switched to this style of help-wanted advertising at Toy House I noticed two things. First, I had fewer overall applications. Only the people who saw themselves in the ad applied. Second, I had far more people worthy of an interview. The pre-qualifying with character traits gave me a better pool of applicants than before and made the interviewing process even easier (if slightly longer).

It all starts with the character traits you identify for each job. When you get a good list and use it to describe the job and the applicant you get better applicants from which to choose.

-Phil Wrzesinski

PS We used Indeed.com for the store manager posting above. We also used Indeed for seasonal positions but she got several applicants from social media and signs in her store.

PPS Since I closed Toy House I put my hat into the ring for job searches on LinkedIn. Several times I have seen jobs I know I could do incredibly well, but the first two qualifications were often “Must have a 4-year Marketing Degree” and “Must have 3-5 years working as a Marketing Manager or similar title.” I had the traits (and even the experience) to do well in several of those jobs, but they missed out on me even applying because I didn’t have the degree or the title. I would hate for you to miss out on some qualified people for the same reasons.

PPPS Here is a job description using the traits from yesterday and my Core Values of Fun, Helpful, Education, and Nostalgia

  • Engaging – Can meet and greet people with ease
  • Friendly – Can build meaningful relationships with others
  • Caring – Can show empathy and caring for others
  • Creative – Can find creative solutions to interesting problems
  • Determined – Can find ways around objections and stick to a problem until it is solved
  • Fun – Loves to have fun on the job
  • Helpful – Loves to help others
  • Education – Loves to learn new things
  • Nostalgic – Loves to celebrate births, birthdays, and Christmas

Are you a fun-loving person who loves to meet new people? Do you care deeply for others and just want to help? Do you have the creativity and determination to find solutions when none seem possible? Are you the kind of person who celebrates holidays with a passion. Do you love to learn something new every day? You might be the perfect candidate to work for Toy House.

How Your Traits List Affects Your Hiring

It takes a lot of guts to tell Harvard you think they are wrong.

But that’s exactly what I was doing through the aughts as I was developing my own hiring philosophy. In the late 90’s I read the Harvard Business Essentials book Hiring and Keeping the Best People. Like all the other business books on hiring, it said the most important thing to hire for was experience.

Except I had one problem with that statement …

You can have decades of experience in retail sales and still suck at it.

Hiring and the Potter's Wheel Book Cover
Since I didn’t like the books I was reading on hiring, I wrote my own!

I knew salespeople in retail. I had hired people with several years of “experience.” I had worked with retail salespeople at the stores I visited frequently. Some were good. Some still sucked.

The reason they sucked is because so few retailers have any type of formal training or continuing education for their team. Experience alone does not teach you what you need to be successful as a retail salesperson. College doesn’t prepare you for retail sales either.

The skills you need to be successful at retail sales are those traits we identified yesterday.

  • Engaging
  • Friendly
  • Caring
  • Knowledgeable
  • Creative
  • Problem-Solver
  • Determined

Two of those traits are teachable (Knowledge and Problem-Solving). The other five, however, are not. The first key to being successful at retail is what your new hires already bring to the table in the way of the non-teachable traits.

The fastest way to raise the bar of customer service in your store is to fire every salesperson who isn’t Engaging, Friendly, Caring, Creative, and Determined, and start over. Add your Core Values to that list and go hire people who have those non-teachable traits. You’ll have the foundation for a rock star staff in no time.


How do you identify those non-teachable traits? Through the interview process. Let’s call it a “process” rather than just an interview because it is far more than just simple questions and answers.

I always went up front to greet applicants and walk them back to my office. The walk back gave me an early glimpse into how friendly and engaging they might be. Sure, many were nervous, but just the act of walking and talking not only calmed their nerves—which made the rest of the interview go better—and it also got me the chance to view them in a less formal setting. If possible I would introduce them to staff along the way and see how they interacted.

In the interview I asked questions only about what they did, not what they thought or believed. My favorite questions started with …

“Tell me about a time when …”

  • Tell me about a time when you were the most creative on the job. What did you do? How was it received?
  • Tell me about a time when you had to go above and beyond what was expected of you? What did you do?
  • Tell me about a time when you made friends with a customer. How did it happen? Are you still friends now?

When you ask questions about actual events in their life you get more authentic answers, not something they think you want to hear. You also gain better insight. You learn what they consider to be “above and beyond” or “creative” on the job.

When I switched my hiring process over to focusing on non-teachable traits instead of experience and actions instead of beliefs, I found the results changed dramatically for the better. None of that was in the Harvard Business Essentials book.

Experience plays a role only when that experience is “better” than the experience you are offering. Then again, if you are running your business correctly, there won’t be anyone else offering a better experience, better training, or better work environment. So don’t worry about experience. Hire for character traits and fit (Core Values). You can teach them the rest.

Sorry, Harvard, but from my experience and the experience of so many other retailers, you’re wrong.

-Phil Wrzesinski

PS You’ll still need to have Knowledgeable people who know how to solve your customers’ problems. Those are the teachable traits. Knowledge is simply learning all the features and benefits of the products you sell (as well as the products your competitors sell). Problem-solving is simply the process of turning a customer into a relationship into a sale into an evangelist for your store (The Ultimate Selling Workshop). 

PPS It takes a lot of guts to write your own book on hiring when it flies directly in the face of all the other hiring books out there. I did that back in 2008 and it got rave reviews. I still have a few copies left if you’d like to read it. (Sorry, only hardcover, no electronic versions.)