A couple years ago, I found myself continually at odds with several staff members at our store. As we often find in any organization, there was poison in the well. It was affecting the mood of our whole store, and I was desperate to find the source. Although the store’s Owner, Brad Shreve, tried to explain it to me gently many times, I didn’t understand the cause until I discovered something I had never really confronted: not only was I the most experienced staff member and designated Sales Manager, but I was also a know-it-all.

This is probably not news to my wife or my father (who is a reformed know-it-all himself), but, like anyone else, my gut reaction was to defend myself. But that really didn’t help matters. As I have matured over the years, I have tried to treat adverse situations as opportunities to learn how to be a better person and a better Sales Manager. As the most experienced employee, I had always tried to educate and mentor my staff and my customers in an attempt to help them avoid various pitfalls and mistakes. After all, that’s a big part of my job and it’s why I write these columns. And, being fairly successful at what I do, it is natural to want to pass my knowledge along to others. A key consideration I had forgotten to address, however, involved judging what customers—and other staff members—did or didn’t want our relationship to be.

Many times, I’ve heard stories from my customers about why they hate going to Guitar Center…how everyone there is undertrained and everyone just wants to show you the latest metal riff. I vowed never to do that to my customers and always to be humble and not show off…musically. But it never occurred to me that I could be doing exactly the same thing verbally that those metal heads were.

There are plenty of customers who want to know things about us, but most of them just want their problems solved. We often use our own interests and personal testimonies as a way to qualify our expertise. I know that because I was the king of this for years. What I have learned is that, most of the time, we are far better off letting people find out for themselves. I’ve always seen it as my job to educate customers, and I still believe that to be the case. However, it’s important to know the difference between appropriately educating customers and other people, and offering them way more information than they need…or even really want.

Recently, a college student and self-professed DJ and “producer” came in to buy some speakers for his burgeoning on-campus DJing. After I helped him select speakers, I suggested a small, unpowered Yamaha mixer featuring a USB connection for his computer, off of which he could run all his software. I explained that it would give him the best connection to his speakers and allow him to hook in additional microphones and—nope…he cut me off. His cousin works for a sound company and told him that the recording interface he uses to produce rap tunes in his dorm room will work just fine.

Most of the time, I use these kinds of situations as teaching moments, helping someone to understand where they’re going wrong before they actually do it. Many people appreciate this and take your word for it. We’ve all, however, found ourselves accidentally in the middle of an argument with a customer because we were trying—admittedly too hard—to help him or her. Some people do not want to be disagreed with; they simply want you to find them what they asked for. In these situations, I find that it’s best to do so, letting them learn on their own. It’s against our nature not to provide good customer service that might save people from themselves. Sometimes, though, it’s preferable to yield rather than making a customer feel backed into a corner, as some tend to do when we “drop some knowledge.”

So, against my instincts, I relented and allowed the young DJ-to-be to leave with his new speakers and nothing to hook them up to. Lo and behold, an hour later, he came back and apologized to me for not listening to my advice. In that moment, I gained a customer and assured my place in his mind as an expert he could trust. I didn’t have to spend time convincing him; he did it for me. All I had to do was get out of the way and let him make the mistake.

From that experience, and others similar to it, I have learned something important: not everyone wants a mentor. As I write these columns about customers who have increasingly turned to each other and to online user reviews, it is clear to me that some people simply want the freedom to learn on their own. Therefore, we must be educated and prepared to help those who want it. But we also must receive with open arms those who, having turned away our advice, have made their mistakes and now need help. Those are real opportunities to educate our customers.

This also applies to staff members. In appointing myself The Expert and stepping in to try to keep my fellow staff members from making (what I deemed to be) mistakes, I had actually robbed them of opportunities to learn about products, customer service and how to be better employees. Would some of those situations have resulted in adverse consequences, if I hadn’t gotten involved? Sure…probably. But maybe those situations would have turned out just fine. All I could be sure of is this: I should have trusted my coworkers, who are no less intelligent than I am and who care for our customers just as much as I do, to do what they thought was best. My only other job was to be there to support them when, and if, they asked for it.

In the end, it’s just as important to trust each other, to assume that everyone is doing what’s best and to give each other the opportunity to grow—and, yes, sometimes fail—as it is to pass along what you’ve learned. By trying to “force” mentorship, I was creating a tense work environment. Once I backed off and trusted my staff to do what they thought was best, morale improved drastically. We all went back to being friendly and enjoying each other’s company. In that, I learned another important lesson: if you can’t find the poison in the well, it’s probably because the poison is you.

How do you balance educating your customers and staff with giving them the freedom to grow? How do you avoid that “the boss looking over your shoulder” feeling?

E-mail me at

No more articles