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Consulting With Other Business Owners

By Tom Shay

Steve Jobs is credited with having said, “Picasso had a saying – good artists copy; great artists steal!”

While there is debate about what Jobs meant, and how he saw a difference between “copying” and “stealing,” some combination of the two is appropriate for the power equipment trade.

Finding ideas that will be beneficial to your business is not going to require you reading a dealer profile article in OPE and then traveling whatever distance to see firsthand what that dealer is doing to have merited the editorial. However, taking the opportunity to visit any dealer is always a wise investment of your time. When I travel, any trip requires some time to visit other dealers.

The reality is that when you approach any dealer as your being a student of retailing, you are sure to learn something for your business. It may be an observation that tells you what to do, or what not do. Your observation may simply be confirmation that what you are doing is the best way for your business.

If for no other reason, visiting other dealers helps to provide the answer to this conversation:

“Do you give great customer service?”

“Yes, we do.”

“Have you compared your store to other stores?”

“No.”

“Then how do you know your customer service is great?”

We do understand the dealer who does not want to visit another dealer in his or her area. We understand how the other dealer would not be receptive to our visit.

And yet, from personal experience, this writer shares an idea that can work for every business.

Look about your community at other businesspeople. Who are the businesspeople that appear to be very successful at what they do? As compared to many of us, who are the businesspeople that are not putting in 60-plus-hour workweeks? What about the businesses that do not have frequent staff turnover? And what about the businesses that do give great customer service?

Regardless of the product or service they offer or produce, there is something to be learned from these people. We used the word “translate.” We have found that you could visit most any type of business, observe, and find something you could take back to your business.

For example, we attended a financial class that taught how to calculate and improve the return on investment (ROI) of your business. There was a husband and wife in attendance. He had retired from a chain store and was helping his wife in the store she had opened five years earlier.

As the presentation came to a conclusion, it was shown how a store could make a few changes to how they operate and would double their return on investment. While everyone was pleased with how they could change their business, the husband remarked, “If I had that higher ROI, I would have been fired for poor performance.”

I don’t know about you, but that man was someone I wanted to sit down with and hear what he knew about retailing. Even though he was a manager, as compared to an owner, there were apparently enough components in that chain store that were under his command that he understood and could manipulate factors to increase the ROI.

Several other industries have consultants who put together profitability study groups. Using automotive service centers and bicycle stores as examples, they often have 20 dealers who pay an annual fee as a member of the group. They meet several times each year to participate in a consultant-moderated discussion that is often held for several days. This, in itself, is interesting in that these are business owners who are able to take several days at a time – multiple times during the year – away from their business. Wouldn’t most of us want to know how these owners have gotten their staff to take responsibility for the operation of the store in the owner’s absence?

With some groups, the members submit their financial statements to the consultant who uses the information to create industry benchmarks for each member of the group.

Any such group must have something to offer each member, as the business that is doing everything right and making the most money needs some incentive to remain an active part of the group. This is a part of the task of the consultant.

Perhaps we can offer another option for your consulting with other dealers. Looking back to the translating concept, you will likely find the necessary members close to your business.

Look for a pharmacist, grocer, garden center, hardware store, insurance agent, florist, and any other businesses that peak your curiosity, because there is some aspect of their operation that you see as desirable for your dealership. This will be the basis for the start of the creation of your group. Having a member of your group that comes from a chain store can be of benefit, as witnessed by our husband and wife example.

Because all of the businesses are in the same trade area, you will likely find that members will not want someone in the group that they compete with.

A format we found that works is that of a Dutch treat breakfast. Held monthly at a local restaurant, you will likely find this to be a convenient time for everyone as it is before traditional business hours, and before problems start to occur in the average workday. 

This type of group gathering is not meant to replace any function that is created by a Chamber of Commerce, Main Street organization, or merchants association. It is, instead, created for the sole purpose of business owners consulting with other business owners, sharing best practices, and looking for solutions to existing or potential problems. Although there is a social aspect to each gathering as the meeting starts, this is not meant to be a social club. Because it is your idea, it will be your responsibility to sell the other members on the benefits of being a part of the group.

And, because of the newness of the idea, financial information will likely be something that will not be a part of your discussions.

So what can be shared and learned from other businesses? Look at the pharmacy. The counter where the action occurs – prescriptions being filled – is frequently at the back of the shop. The same is true for the florist shop and perhaps the hardware store that cuts keys at the back of the store.

The plus in each situation is the action draws customers through the business and requires them to see the merchandise offered for sale. How does each business arrange merchandise? Do any of the businesses have this part of their store designed so that the customers can see what is happening? Might that be an experiment to see what that does in a business?

Where does each business put its cash register? And which way does the traffic flow through their store? Again, this presents multiple opportunities for observation and learning.

The person with the service business can provide lessons on how important it is to stay connected with a customer. The service providers, without a product, are very likely selling themselves to the customer. Learning from this could teach us of the value of building a database of customer contact information from the service tickets we write every day.

Artist Andy Warhol once said, “The most beautiful form of art is a well run business.” 

Whether you are the good artist or the great artist that Steve Jobs is talking about, there are sure to be plenty of ideas in your community from which you can benefit.

Tom Shay of Profits Plus Solutions, Inc., is the fourth generation of his family to have owned a power equipment dealership. In addition to this column, he has written 12 books on business management, a book on vendor/dealer relations, and a college textbook on small business financials and business planning. He frequently speaks at trade shows and conferences for manufacturers and wholesalers. For more information, visit www.profitsplus.org.

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