How Cumbria Mobility battles rural logistics and ferry crossings to deliver excellence

Stephen Cornwell and Steve Wright run Cumbria Mobility and know all about what it means to make your own luck. AMP learns that a business, saved in its early stages by a stroke of fortune, has had to work extra hard to overcome a unique set of obstacles thrown up by serving a rural client-base, including some rough ferry crossings. We explore the journey of the mobility retailer and learn how it has used customer service to make itself a dominant force in its region while refusing to sell products online.

When a ‘local call’ is a 100 mile round trip, you know you have some serious logistical challenges to beat. Cumbria Mobility operates across a vast catchment area and has had to overcome a unique set of barriers in order to build itself up to what it is today.

Consisting of three centres and as the only Motability-accredited dealer for powerchairs and scooters in Cumbria, the retailer is arguably the premier provider in its region. But it was very close to never existing. In fact, just 24 hours was the difference between the business opening a store and failing to get the cash together for a showroom.

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Managing director Stephen Cornwell, who has been on the mobility scene for around 20 years, describes how when he started out he went to a bank in his “best suit and tie” to ask for a loan for a building in Carlisle that had come up for sale.

Cumbria Mobility’s team is led by Stephen Cornwell (far left) and Steve Wright (second from left).

“I had a chat with the bank manager and we went to the auction and got the building,” he explains. “After that, the bank manager told me that if I’d had been just a day later going to the bank it couldn’t have given me the money because of the financial crash. I was a day ahead of the crash.”

Cumbria Mobility’s stroke of luck allowed it to set itself up where many other small businesses, which tried to open in the aftermath of the financial crash, were unable to. But it is impossible to put Cumbria’s success since down to chance. In the last decade, Cornwell and his team have grafted and built a business based on core values. Like any other independent business-owner piercing a competitive market, he had to show brawn.

“In any market it’s very tough,” Cornwell comments. “One major concern of mine when starting out was a mobile phone; it was going to be £20 a month and I had to ask, can I afford that? That was my major overhead when I first set out. Working from home you have very few overheads, but when you start getting premises and employees then the overheads go up and it’s a different ball game.”

“We’re not here to sell, sell, sell; we’re here to keep people independent and safe. Online competition is absolutely horrendous. But it’s customer service that wins every day of the week”

One of the dealer’s most unique challenges it has had to overcome is maintaining a quality service, evidenced by its Motability accreditation, while operating across a large region, as far away as Dumfries and Galloway, with a limited fleet and team.

But Cornwell, who has tweaked and honed the business’s model over the last two decades, brushes it off: “It’s not much of a challenge really. The basic format is two hours’ drive; our furthest customer is two hours’ drive away from any one depot, so if they have troubles we can get there.

Cumbria Mobility is the only dealer in its area to have Motability accreditation for both powerhchairs and mobility scooters.

“For us, a 100 mile round trip is a local call. The logistics is quite complicated but we sector the areas off, for example on a Thursday we focus on Morecambe and Barrow-in-Furness. We always keep Monday free because things seem to break down on the weekend and you need to react fast. Tuesday and Wednesday is focused on northern areas and out West. It’s about better balancing. We are taking on another member of staff as well. It can be difficult to ensure the service in the height season. In the summer months everybody wants to be out on their equipment so the demand is high, but we manage it. If we accomplish seven jobs [per staff member] per day in the height of the season, that’s extremely good going.”

What’s more, as the Motability dealer covering the Isle of Man, Cumbria Mobility has had to work hard on its logistics model to ensure customers on the island are receiving as much care and attention as customers who live more locally. Cornwell admits that serving islanders can be “quite a feat in winter” and has had his fair share of rough sea crossings. But on the challenge of operating across a large rural area, he adds: “We get paid for driving around the Lake District so there’s a silver lining to everything.”

“I don’t want to sell something that I’m going to have to go out every two weeks fixing, so we sell good quality equipment that we know is reliable and that comes with experience”

Serving an expansive, sparsely populated area however, does not mean an easy-going market void of competition. Cumbria Mobility did not receive its Motability accreditation through a lack of other potential dealers. Cornwell says the truth is that competition in the local area is “good” and “strong”.

“Nobody else around us is accredited with Motability as there are very high standards you’ve got to meet. I’m not a box-shifter, where something comes in a box, you unpack it and just sell it. We take the customers through a selection of products that we think would work for them and they think would be good for themselves, we deliver it and make sure it works around their home and area so we know they and other people are safe. Whereas some online sales people do things differently.

“Because it’s a piece of medical equipment I feel you’ve got to be assessed for it. That’s the low-end of the market like manual wheelchairs and basic scooters, and when you get to high-end complex areas like powerchairs, it’s even more important. It takes a lot of years of knowledge and skill to get somebody independent again in a high-end powerchair.”

The Motability scheme has actually been fundamental in helping the business to motor on when things have been tough or quiet. For example, in times of economic downturn when people have been unable to fork out for expensive items or find the money elsewhere, the scheme has kept Cumbria’s sales ticking over until consumer confidence returns.

Cornwell explains: “A high-end powerchair could cost you £17,000, and unless you’ve got very good insurance or very rich parents. Not a lot of people can afford that. But with the Motability scheme, because it’s essentially government funded, equipment like that can be acquired. It’s a very, very valuable thing.”

Such is the trust consumers and organisations place in Cumbria Mobility, garnered from things like its Motability rating, that it has signed a partnership deal with Age UK where it supplies the West Cumbria branch with its powered products. In an industry which is too often tainted by unscrupulous traders, most mobility business strive to gain the trust of potential customers and organisations supporting them. So how has Cornwell and his team built up trust?

“I used to be an engineer for a mobility company which got bought by a national one. I stayed there for a year and I thought there must be a better way to do business than this. With a national company it’s not as personal. So I started Cumbria Mobility working out of my back bedroom and we built it up. Since then, it’s just been a case of working hard, getting on with it and being that one step beyond for customer satisfaction.”

And Cornwell is adamant that it is largely as simple as customer satisfaction: “If you give customers a good service and good advice at the beginning, they and the people they know will come back. Whenever they have a problem with equipment, deal with it immediately within two hours. If it can’t be immediate then send a nice letter saying ‘we haven’t forgotten you, let us know if there’s anything we can do in the meantime’.”

Cumbria sells higher quality equipment so it can avoid having to go to repair jobs often.

Such is Cornwell’s commitment to his strategy of placing customer service above all else is his refusal to sell any products online. To some observers, this might seem a missed opportunity on the dealer’s part, but he insists that every product, small and large, must be assessed for. Cumbria’s website therefore, is used only as a portal to show customers what products are available and offer information. Further still, if a client wants something specific but it would not suit their needs then the dealer is honest and tells them.

Cornwell says: “If they’re registered blind and want a scooter then we’d choose to walk away from that sale. We’re not here to sell, sell, sell; we’re here to keep people independent and safe. [Online competition] is absolutely horrendous. But it’s customer service that wins every day of the week. It’s buying local, it’s knowing you’ve got a company who you know and who you can call up and know that they’ll solve the problem.”

Expanding on the company’s mantra for quality service, Cumbria Mobility’s sales director, Steve Wright, explains that it employs standard procedures so its customer service can be formalised and standardised.

The company operates two showrooms and features in an Age UK outlet.

“Our standard procedures allow us to get a better understanding of the customer’s home environment. We’ve got the clinical assessments which consider customers’ posture and comfort. It’s not a one-chair-fits-all approach. We ask the clients what they want to achieve with the product. It’s ensuring the end-user gets the correct product. I feel the industry needs to be regulated more. Where it is at the moment, anyone can sell online if they’re out to make a quick buck.”

As well as having to battle online sellers with much smaller overheads, another frustration for Cornwell is that business rate rules dictate that because he has more than one store he has to pay the full amount, which amounts to an additional £10,000 in overheads, whereas he would be paying less as a smaller independent.

Nevertheless, being absent from the world of e-commerce has not meant any issues for Cumbria pulling in suppliers. White explains that the dealer has accounts with the leading mobility manufacturers and suppliers.

“We’re pleased with the position we’re in and to be able to offer high-end equipment. The likes of Quantum, Invacare, Sunrise and Ottobock, not everyone has those accounts. We’re always looking at new suppliers; it’s about trying to improve what we can offer. We’re heavily investing in training, we’re invest in diagnostics equipment and making sure the end-user’s expectations are always met.”

Investment has been fundamental in helping Cumbria to fulfil its customers’ expectations. Dealers must be aware that while old-fashioned customer service is key, they cannot sit on their laurels and offer the same products they always have. White explains that while previously products were simpler, now equipment is all about giving the individual what they really want, rather than a one-size-fits-all approach.

“Now on your powerchair joystick you can switch on the TV, operate your computer, switch the lights on and off. We’re investing in new technology. Our demo site has got around £40,000 to £50,000 of demo stock, and that’s just powerchairs. We heavily invest in having the equipment to offer a good quality service.”

Cornwell adds: “As far as the products are concerned, I don’t want to sell something that I’m going to have to go out every two weeks fixing, so we sell good quality equipment that we know is reliable. That comes with experience. That’s essential when working on the Isle of Man, for example. We can go out to do one breakdown and that’ll be a full day. You sell good quality equipment and we can even do diagnostics online. We have an app where you can read the fault logs and diagnose the problem before we even set off.”

Clearly then, Cumbria Mobility’s whole journey, from a bedroom start-up to one of the most established dealerships in the North West and a leading retailer on the Motability circuit, has been one of hard work and careful thinking, rather than luck. The business is underpinned by a number of key values and an unfaltering commitment to ensuring its customers receive the best possible service. And while it is easy for retailers to shout about the great service they offer, the fact Cumbria makes a point of not selling online — which is a risky business decision in today’s environment — and turns sales away unless the product is absolutely right for the customer, shows it puts its money where its mouth is.

Looking ahead to the future, Cornwell and his team plan to maintain its strategy and ultimately ensure sustainability for the business. He concludes: “We’ve built the business over the years by moving one step at a time. Money is ploughed back into the business and we move onto the next step. As long as everything can run profitably everyone’s happy. We’re not here to be millionaires. We’re here to put smiles on faces and make a decent wages.”

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