The Roman Weslowski Bulletin Board

The ghost of Roman Weslowski took a few bows the last few weeks. Roman owned the supermarket I worked in as a kid. He beat the pants off chain supermarkets that tried to compete with his.

One of his secrets was to ask questions. And more importantly, to listen to the answers. He spent hours every week simply asking his customers questions like “Are there fruits or vegetables we don’t stock that you think we should?” “Are there items you feel you can buy at lower prices elsewhere?” “We could get a larger size of that item. Would you prefer it?”

He took note of the answers. And he acted on many of them. In this way he forever nipped and tucked his business so that it fit the wishes of his customers.

Two weeks ago I lunched at one of San Antonio’s most popular restaurants. It is so popular the family that owns it has built two more within a quarter mile of the first. That’s right. Within a few blocks are three huge restaurants that serve pretty much the same menu.

A Mexican immigrant started the business in the early years of the Great Depression. Today his sons and daughters and grandchildren carry on his traditions.

One of those traditions is similar to Roman Weslowski’s. Every table features questionaires. Waiters and waitresses encourage you to fill them out. They ask the customers what they like and dislike. They ask for suggestions.

As I filled out mine an elderly gentleman approached. He was fitted out in Mexican formal wear, short-cut suitcoat, fancy shirt. He asked me a few more questions. And he told me the owners paid close attention to the answers customers provided.

He has worked at the restaurant for 70 years.

Shortly afterward I called at a Whole Foods supermarket. I spent ten minutes shopping and twenty minutes reading.

Near the entrance a huge bulletin board was festooned with a hundred messages from customers. And a hundred answers from the managers. If I owned the store I would call this the Roman Weslowski Memorial Bulletin Board.

“Why don’t you get those deep red cherries any more?” one of the notes read. A manager had written across the bottom “One of our shipments went bad after 24 hours. We’re trying to locate a more reliable supplier.”

“Do you plan to stock ____ soups? My husband and I love them.” The answer: “Thanks for the suggestion, but probably not. We offered them 18 months ago but nobody seemed to buy them. If we get a lot of call for them maybe we’ll try again.”

Running a business can be as complicated as sorting out strands of spaghetti. Yet in the midst of the complications a few simple things usually work. One of those is to listen to your customers.

Most companies feel they listen to their customers by monitoring sales. If Product A sells well and Product B flops they feel customers have spoken. The Weslowski philosophy was to get closer than that to the customers. His questions prompted them to speak in greater detail. Detail he made use of to improve his offerings.

Before an adult dinner party I advised my nervous teenage nephew. Ask the woman next to you questions about herself. Listen to the answers, every word. Ask further questions, based on how she answers the first. And listen. Repeat steps one and two. He did. When the woman left she told us she had never met such an interesting young man.

Roman Weslowski’s methods work for tiny businesses. They work for immense businesses. They work at dinner parties. They work in friendships, romances and marriages. They work in any relationship we value and wish to strengthen.

Pretty simple. Ask. And listen.

From Tom ... as in Morgan.

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