You’re in the Wrong Line: 3 Business Development Lessons from a Sicilian Bus Station

When I was a teenager in Ann Arbor, MI, I worked in the produce department of our local Kroger. As we were the closest grocery store to the University of Michigan’s graduate student family housing, every autumn, we would welcome a horde of new international families who were experiencing the United States for the first time.

One September Saturday morning, as I was constructing an incredible pyramid of apples that would have delighted the Pharaohs’ engineers with its geometrical precision, a woman came up to me and asked in perfect English: “Excuse me, do you have Bok Choy?”

Without looking up (for fear of destroying my apple-stacking concentration), I happily responded, “Yes, we just put some out; it’s over there,” while vaguely gesturing off to my left.

After 2-3 seconds, I could sense that she hadn’t moved a muscle, so — although slightly annoyed that I had to shift my focus — I looked up and smiled. As we made eye contact, I realized that this very moment may have been the first time she had ever spoken English out in the wild.  She gave me a nervous smile as she said again: “Do you have Bok Choy?”

I answered a bit more slowly, “Yes, ma’am, we just put some out. It’s right over there in the refrigerated section,” as I pointed directly at the fresh display.

Nothing.

I literally got nothing. Just a smile that was now frozen on her face and a slightly more pleading look in her eyes. After 2-3 more seconds of awkward silence, she inquired again: “Bok Choy?”

OK, time to try something else. “Bok Choy?” I asked her in response.

“Bok Choy!” she responded enthusiastically.

So I walked slowly toward the refrigerated section using (what I hoped was) the international gesture for “come hither, weary shopper” and led her to the Bok Choy display, where she happily found a fresh head and placed it in her cart, beaming back at me.

I admit that at the time I was a little annoyed with the entire situation, but that was the perspective of an untraveled midwestern teenager who now had to rethink his entire apple display masterpiece (sadly, someone had nabbed four of my foundational fruits in the 20 seconds I had embarked on my impromptu journey from the apple orchards of Michigan to the world of international cabbage).

Now fast forward to 2023 to a bus station in Palermo, Sicily, where I needed to purchase three tickets to Taormina on the other side of the island.

Not wanting to appear an arrogant traveling rube, I set out to memorize my purchase request in perfect Italian. When I was ready, I walked up to the ticket counter and with great confidence in (seemingly flawless) Italian, said to the woman behind the glass: “Three tickets to Taormina, please.”

But then something happened that turned my scripted masterpiece into an impromptu comedy of errors. Rather than quoting me the price while her printer did its Taormina-ticket-printing magic, she frowned and looked down while saying something to me in (truly flawless) Italian.

Uh-oh.

I had absolutely no idea what she had just said. So naturally, I did the only thing that I knew how to do: remain firmly in place with a smile frozen on my face and make the request (in Italian) again: “Three tickets to Taormina, please.”

At this point, the woman looked up at me, smiling (but clearly somewhat annoyed – tone is a universal truth), and repeated what she had just said in Italian. After another 2-3 seconds of me staring at her with a smile frozen on my face and clearly nothing intelligent in Italian to say, she said in perfect English, “You’re in the wrong line – I can only get you from Catania to Taormina. To get to Catania, you first need to go buy a ticket over there,” and pointed to a window across the depot.

And that’s when it occurred to me: I was the Bok Choy lady.

I was so focused on saying exactly what I wanted to say, it didn’t actually occur to me to consider what might happen if things didn’t go according to my script. If the outcome was anything beyond the nice lady at the counter handing me 3 tickets for the next bus to Taormina … I was helpless.

The great thing was these exchanges highlighted three lessons that anyone could apply to business development (and beyond):

1. Be prepared to be in the wrong line. Just like the Bok Choy lady, I knew exactly what I was trying to communicate, but I was at a complete loss as to what to do when my sparring partner went off script. I didn’t need to be prepared to have an eloquent dialogue in Italian, but I also hadn’t thought about understanding and learning the keywords for what 2-3 alternative responses might have been; I was only prepared for a single, uncomplicated transaction.

It’s the same in a lot of our business development efforts. In The Snowball System, author Mo Bunnell opens the book by explaining how the success of your business development efforts may hinge more on the different ways your prospects subconsciously prioritize and process information than it does on the actual content of your pitch.  If you only have one rigid script — and only present it the same way every time — you can find yourself woefully unprepared when the people receiving the message are filtering the information differently than the areas you believe are important and are you are choosing to emphasize.

KEY TAKEAWAY #1: It’s just as important to think about how you get your ideas across as the ideas are themselves – and be ready for a few wildcards.

2. Even when you are understood, be open to a completely new solution. As I learned that morning, there are multiple bus companies in Sicily, and we needed to first buy tickets to the city of Catania on one bus line and then switch to a totally different bus line to complete the journey to Taormina. This was not a solution I even knew existed, but once it became clear it was actually the only way to accomplish our goal, we went with the flow to get where we needed to go.

In business, not only do you need to think about how you say something, but also to be flexible enough to find a different way to achieve your client’s goals than the prescribed products and services in your current portfolio. When I was running digital media at Ford, we used to get pitched by dozens of ad vendors who had various levels of sophistication in their approaches. As they started running through their requisite PowerPoint decks (which usually were promoting some slight variant of the same stuff we were already buying from someone else), we would occasionally reach a point where I would stop the meeting and try to build on something they presented (usually a unique solution that none of my incumbent media partners were offering).

At this point, the vendor would either (1) tell me they would get back to me, return to the script, and charge to the end of the deck with increasing amounts of enthusiasm/desperation, or (2) stop the presentation and begin to ask more questions.  As you imagine, the second approach often led to more business and collaborative solutions, while the first was one-and-done meetings.

KEY TAKEAWAY #2: The win-win alternative solution may end up being something you hadn’t even considered when you started; be open to a completely different path forward.

3. You don’t need to drive in Sicily. I’m pretty comfortable driving in different countries, even when the steering wheel is on the other side of the car, and the rules of the road are a little “loose” by US standards.  But when my Italian friends explain that THEY are terrified to drive in Sicily, I take notice.

Fortunately, public transportation is generally safe and reliable in Europe, but unlike the rest of the continent, where trains are the norm, the buses in Sicily are the most reliable, punctual form of long-range mass transportation. And after five bus journeys in four days, not only am I glad I wasn’t the one driving, I’m not even sure where to place the job qualifications for the Sicilian Bus Driver along the “confident/brave/heroic/slightly crazy/criminally insane” spectrum.

Now let’s be clear – it’s not that I couldn’t have driven in Sicily. I just realized there were others that were far more capable than I was.  When you are a fractional leader or consultant pitching a prospective client, it’s tempting to want to solve all of your client’s problems for them yourself.  But is that really the best use of your time (and their money)?  Alternatively, when you focus on the key pieces you do really well but can also tap into experts (who will almost always be the more efficient way to solve that exact piece of a client’s problem), you can provide an overall better solution for that client.

That’s one of the reasons I love being a part of the Chameleon Collective – not only is it a fantastic network of fractional/interim CXO leaders, but we also have an incredible number of subject matter experts and specialists in a myriad of different marketing functions, from branding, copywriting, and creative directors to SEO, social media and growth marketing professionals.

KEY TAKEAWAY #4:  Focusing on the best overall solution for your client might involve enlisting others.

Remember, sometimes getting in the wrong line isn’t the mark of a failure. It’s the beginning of an entirely new adventure. And while you’re waiting in line, grab a Bok Choy salad.

Alex Hultgren is a partner at the Chameleon Collective, where he delights in helping clients transform their businesses.

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With 20+ years of executive roles in corporations and agencies, Alex now works as a fractional CMO for businesses looking to focus on their customers as an engine for growth.

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