G-MVDTY4C6SY 204549657578714
top of page

How The Most Effective People Learn From Their Mistakes. A Case Study

See if this sounds familiar.

You work incredibly hard to develop a great product or service. You introduce it into the marketplace with high hopes…and it bombs.

Your reaction? “The problem wasn’t me or our product. The problem was the market/customer/whoever didn’t appreciate what we had. It was a great product (or service.) The customers are idiots.  That’s all there is to it.”

And because you are convinced you are right and everyone else is wrong no learning takes place after the fact. There is nothing to learn, you argue. You did everything right.

Written down this way, it sounds silly doesn’t it? 

The only person who gets to decide whether you have a truly great product is the customer. If they love it, you do. If they don’t, you don’t.

And if they don’t buy what you were trying to sell them, you need to figure out why, otherwise you run the very real risk of making the same mistake next time you introduce something new.

Now, you could be right. It could have been a great product.  But it might have been one that solved no real need. Or maybe it solved a need, but you didn’t communicate it clearly enough. Or maybe it solved a need and the communication was good but….

Whatever that “but” is, you need to:

a) Understand it

b) Work hard not to repeat it the next time.

I know it sounds simple. I also know from personal experience it is not.

I have told a much longer version of this story before, in a different context, but it is worth repeating briefly here to show I am guilty of this problem as anyone else.

Carl Sewell, one of our smartest retailers, and I were just about done writing a book about how customer service can be a very effective business strategy—a radical idea back in the late 1980s. As we finished up for the day, Carl asked what he thought was the world’s most basic question: “When do we focus group what we have?”

Book publishers don’t like to run focus groups. The editors and salespeople think they know exactly what their readers are looking for.  Writers (like me) are guilty of this egotism, too.

“But how will we ever know what people want if we don’t ask them?” Carl responded logically. He hired a big-deal research firm and told them to give the first one-hundred pages of our manuscript to a representative sample of our potential audience.

A couple of weeks later, twelve people sat around a conference table with a moderator, while Carl, our editor, and I looked on from the other side of a two-way mirror. (The participants were told we were there. It did not inhibit them one whit, as you will see.)

The group began by discussing my proposed title. I knew we had to call it the book The $332,000 Customer. (The number is what average customers spent with Sewell at one his car dealerships over their lifetimes.) My title, I argued humbly, was: intriguing, thought-provoking, and would make the book jump off the shelves. (I cannot begin to tell you how clever I thought I was with that title.)

Within seconds, it was clear that the group was split about how smart I was. Nine out of the twelve people thought it was absolutely the worst title they had ever heard. The other three said they had heard worse.

It went downhill from there. They loved our central argument, but couldn’t we reorganize things somehow to make information easier to use? They liked the idea of checklists at the end of the chapter, but couldn’t we tell them what they should do about what they just read, and why did the book need to be so wordy? And so it went.

After a couple of days of licking our wounds, we took the comments to heart.

We created a new title. What kept resonating was the focus group thought—correctly—that the entire book was about capturing and then keeping a customer forever. Since the fundamental idea was so important to them, we ended up using it twice: Customers for Life: Turning That One-Time Buyer Into a Lifetime Customer.

To make the book easier to digest, I chopped long chapters into two or three shorter ones, and made the book completely modular so you could skip the stuff that wasn’t relevant to you. And I took out every show-offy turn of phrase I could find and used nothing but short sentences with active verbs.  The changes worked. The book is a key reason my kids were able to go to the colleges of their choice.

Painful though it was to hear the focus group tell me all the mistakes I made in the initial draft of Customers. it ended up being hugely beneficial.  I have kept those lessons learned at the very forefront of my mind in everything I have written ever since.

I don’t like making mistakes. No one does.  But when I do, like the most successful people I know, I work really hard to learn from them.


Paul B. Brown is the co-author of Just Start published by Harvard Business Review Press.

Please note this blog appears every Sunday and Wednesday. 

Click on the “follow” link on the top of this post to receive the blog the moment it goes live

0 views0 comments


bottom of page