GBL Wheelchair Services is well-known on the dealer circuit and has established a firm base of customers over the years, finding itself a niche in high-performance specialist wheelchairs. Since it was founded in 1986 by three wheelchair users, the London-based dealership has formed relationships with 17 suppliers and is continuing to grow its base of high-profile clients which includes Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson.
It even supplies some dealerships with certain ranges itself. Recently, the company received Sunrise Medical’s ‘Doing the Right Thing’ Award and it is an elite dealer for both Sunrise and Invacare. Alongside awards it has also secured UK distribution rights for the Panthera X — the world’s lightest carbon fibre wheelchair — and for German firm, Stricker Hand-cycles.
Its success has come in no small part thanks to managing director, Ian Laker, himself a wheelchair user and former wheelchair basketball coach, who has pioneered an approach to customer service and sales which has clearly worked very well for the firm. His experience with wheelchairs since birth has allowed for a product insight and knowledge many dealers are still striving for. With around 2,000 mobility retailers in the UK, only about 20 have disabled staff involved in senior roles, claims Laker.
He tells AMP how “empathy is GBL’s big thing” and it has sold off that for years. Not all of its staff have disabilities but there are some, including those with hidden disabilities. The empathy and product knowledge staff can offer clients has been an advantage when it comes to sales and customer service.
“You socialise with your own group, you play sports with your own group, disability is the same — it’s nice to talk to people where you don’t have to explain everything again. Dealers try and do things medically, and the customer has just heard that from 25 different people — the doctor, therapists, the nurse,” says Laker.
“People come to us and we ask what do you want, what do you want to use the chair for? It’s a totally different approach, that’s the logic. Of course, the medical element is part of it and has to come up in the conversation, but some dealers will only use the medical approach — I suppose it makes some of them feel more professional. But that’s what OTs are for. Dealers are there to say what do you want the product for and can you use this? But many dealers come across as overly-medical and that means punters feel they’re getting a medical experience which they’re not — it’s a complete fabrication. I just think some dealers should ask in a different way — they don’t necessarily have to understand, it just takes a different approach on their behalf. ”
“Many dealers come across as overly-medical and that means punters feel they’re getting a medical experience which they’re not — it’s a complete fabrication”
Laker notes that unfortunately, in some instances, inexperienced dealerships can be patronising to their customers while others will see clients simply as sales targets with their first question often being, ‘how much have you got to spend?’ On the other hand, he outlines that the vast majority of companies that do have knowledgeable and experienced disabled people in their ranks are very successful and hold large stakes of the high-end market.
The real skill is combining a chair with a person’s needs. Laker explains that retailers have to help people find what works for them, so choice is absolutely paramount.
“Of course, price comes into it. People want various things, people want it to look good, people want superlight, people want functional,” he comments, reeling off key trends he is observing.
“Many people have more than one chair anyway. Active users don’t just have one chair. I think lifestyle and look are absolutely the biggest trends at the moment — chairs that make you feel less disabled. If you buy shoes, how many shoes do you try on before you buy a pair and chairs should be the same? Choice combined with lifestyle — that’s what we are. And lifestyle to us is your-self image and what you do.”
On top of its empathetic ethos and approach to wheelchair specification, GBL has a number of other advantages over some of its competitors. Laker is in the fortunate position of having been long-established and as such has direct relationships and accounts with manufacturers. GBL is able to go directly to the manufacturers of wheels for example, rather than to the wheelchair supplier — this means GBL is able to cross-match components between product ranges.
“That’s our speciality. Wheelchairs aren’t made by wheelchair manufacturers — they’re just doing the frames. Wheelchairs come from different people and there’s a lot of crossover. If you know what you’re doing you can buy a lot of parts for repair direct. We can also then charge lower so our price for repairs is lower than the average dealer because we’re not buying from suppliers.
“We know what’s safe and how to fit it, most dealers don’t know why we sell a wheelchair in the way we do — the requirements, the lifestyle for example, but it works for us,” concludes Laker.