Exeter Disabilty Centre’s Martin Denning gives his insight and opinion on how his move, as someone completely unfamiliar, into the mobility industry was and delves into what he has seen change in recent times:
I’ve seen a lot of changes recently, perhaps the biggest being I started working for Exeter Disability Centre in April of last year.
The business is owned by my father in law, David Denning. He had been asking me for a couple of years if I would join the business, but I always declined.
Coming from the construction industry, I didn’t know if I would fit into the mobility sector, I had no experience with disability. Never dealt with it, I don’t think I’ve ever really known anyone with a disability. I didn’t even have any experience of dealing with the public, not from a sales point of view, at least.
I must admit, I was a little concerned. How do I address people? Would I offend anyone? Are there words I mustn’t use that everyone knows but didn’t tell me? These were things that genuinely concerned me.
I know it’s ridiculous to think like that, but I didn’t want to upset anyone.
Turns out, I had nothing to worry about. Because all the people who come into the centre are… well, just people. I think that is one of the most important things I learned. There are no special words or terms, you don’t need to be careful what you say. And here was the REAL scoop, people with disabilities are the same as people without. It’s embarrassing to admit I didn’t know that.
Over the last year and a half, I’ve learned a lot of other things too, mostly about the types of equipment and prescribing products, but I have learned an awful lot about people.
Only because I’m interested in my customers, their stories, their lives, their day to day struggles and their opinions on the equipment and services provided.
I noticed there are still echoes of the dark and distant past in the mobility industry. There are still products that are inefficient, poorly manufactured or badly designed and people don’t like them.
I started to think about that, I looked at modern designs from suppliers. Many manufacturers are creating exciting new designs, efficient products using cutting edge materials and technology.
Take mobility scooters for example, ten years ago, there were half a dozen models available. Mostly in Maroon or Navy blue. They all looked like an old tractor in miniature.
Now there are hundreds, and some are fantastic! Ultra-modern looking scooters with chunky tyres or spoilers and lights, exciting new designs, scooters that dismantle to fit in the car, even scooters that fold themselves.
Manual Wheelchairs have diversified too, nowadays they can be made from carbon fibre or titanium, have motorised wheel hubs or powered add-ons underneath, they can have cross-country tyres and stylish frames, they look more like a slick BMX than a wheelchair.
And this is kind of my point, mobility products are changing.
I think that’s because their users are too. As time goes by, they are becoming more socially acceptable, the stigma that used to surround them is declining and these modern looking machines are more accessible to people of all ages with disabilities. Once, their choice was limited to a heavy, clumsy wheelchair, but not anymore.
People want more than that, they want bright colours and stand out looks, and why shouldn’t they? The generation that grew up in the sixties practically invented youth culture. So why wouldn’t they demand better, more interesting things now? the baby boomer generation may be getting on, they are not ready to be put out to pasture.
I’m very lucky that my boss is also my father in law, and he also sees the need to stay in touch with the market by constantly looking at the latest advances in the industry. What we also look at nowadays is changes in society and how that affects the industry.
Take the internet. Back in its early years, the internet was considered a tool for the young and the technologically gifted. But not anymore, the older generation are not the technophobes they were. With modern smartphones and tablets, absolutely anyone of any age can use the internet quickly and easily.
And they do.
Online sales are increasing, but perhaps more importantly, online participation is too.
Social Media is now a recognised way of marketing and communicating directly with your customers. Ten percent of Facebook users are over 55 years of age. In 2019, for the first time, more than half of people aged 65 and over shopped online. The office for national statistics says that 87% of people use the internet every day, and that by 2035 one in five people will be over 65 (myself included). By then, the internet will be the home of the older generation!
Another gradual development is that people don’t want to be told what to buy anymore, they want to research it themselves. They want to know what others say about a product, they want to compare prices and models and styles before even considering leaving the house. Browsing and researching online is becoming more and more popular.
Technology is becoming easier to use and information is becoming easier to access. Its changing. We must be aware of these changes if we are going to adapt to them.
Many household names have disappeared from our high street in the last decade, Woolworths, Toys R us and more recently Mothercare. All mostly due to poor judgement of market trends, Exeter Disability Centre will not make those mistakes, we are adapting.
Once upon a time, all you had to do in this industry was open the doors in the morning and wait for the customers to arrive. But times have changed, waiting is not enough and retailers need to be aware of these changes if they are to survive.
This evolution has become my mission, we are investing in the future, we have a new operating system, including stock control, accounts and order management. All our communication systems will be brought together and synchronised. We have a new dedicated studio for assessment and prescription of specialist seating and wheelchairs. We have moved into supplying the NHS with an exclusive range of chairs and beds. We invest in Search engine optimisation and Social Media presence and a new website is being constructed that will include all products, their reviews and even demonstration videos and hints and tips. It will eventually offer online sales as well.
I wish I had moved into this line of work years ago; in the last 18 months I’ve learned that public perception is changing, slowly maybe, but it’s happening. I’ve learned that talking to people is the same no matter who they are or what is happening in their lives. I’ve learned that sometimes, just listening can be a help. Just being honest and friendly can build a relationship and make a difference to a person. I’ve learned that supplying someone a chair or bed that gives them comfort and relief from pain is incredibly rewarding. That belonging to a company that people can trust is a wonderful thing and that helping people can make you happy.
I must admit, I didn’t know that until recently. I suppose that’s down to one simple fact: thanks to the people I’ve met, people with disabilities, I’ve changed too.