OT-led mobility retail model ‘offers customers next-level service’

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Occupational therapists have an important role to play in the mobility industry and many retailers use their services to achieve the best outcome for their customers. RKS is a business that has taken OT involvement to another level and here, co-founder Bev Kelly reveals how the unique model is more than able to cope in today’s modern market.

While it is not uncommon for mobility retailers to work alongside and even employ occupational therapists (OTs), the two professions largely run parallel to each other and rarely do they attach themselves to one other. But one business in the industry has created a model that ties retail soundly with occupational therapy and makes it its USP.

RKS Ltd’s concept, which is a mobility dealership run by OTs, makes sense. Why would an end-user not choose to purchase from a qualified and supposedly objective mobility prescriber? What’s more, with the dealer having in-house OTs, the customer has the option of going through fewer people before arriving at a suitable product, supposedly making the experience quicker and easier. And a Motability Award for the scheme’s best customer service in the medium-fleet category this year confirmed RKS’s business has longevity built in.

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It appears on the surface that RKS’ fairly unique model has worked well since it set up 10 years ago in Chester. Bev Kelly, who co-founded the business alongside fellow OT Ailsa Reston, explains that RKS was founded to fill a perceived gap in the market.

RKS prefers being located in an industrial park than on the high street.

She says that when the pair began practising private OT assessments and providing equipment recommendations for clients, they soon found that end-users were unable to get the mobility aids that had been recommended to them.

“We investigated the option of being able to [provide equipment] and to do that we needed to set up a shop. In 2008 we set up our first shop and then five years ago we moved into bigger premises. We provide occupational therapy and assessments but people can tap into any aspect of the business so if they just want the OT they can have that, if they want equipment they can call into the shop and purchase products as they would with another store.”

It would be fair to say that the business naturally emerged from a perceived need rather than an industry gamble and RKS has adjusted itself accordingly as it has developed, rather than following a mobility retail blueprint. For example, it has chosen to run on an assessment-basis, which means rather than stocking its shop to max capacity, it orders in equipment based on clients’ needs. This technique would admittedly not work for a lot of dealers in the market, who prioritise volume, but RKS seems to have found a happy stock management balance.

“One of our biggest challenges is that we willingly give out a lot of advice and support and then people will sometimes go and purchase what they need on the internet. That’s one of the primary challenges but it’s a free market”

How exactly then does the RKS model work and what makes it the preferred choice for some end-users? It would be unrealistic and probably too expensive for every member of the team to be a qualified OT and so only the two directors are practising therapists. Kelly and Reston oversee the sales team and train them.

Kelly explains: “They can tap into us so if they come across something they’re unsure of and we will support them with either assessment or equipment set-up and so on. [The directors] are very hands on with every aspect of the business and we do set extremely high standards and I think that’s what enables us to maintain standards and improve on them for the likes of Motability.”

One of the inherent advantages of a mobility retailer run by OTs is that the business can have a medical understanding of people’s immediate and potentially future needs. While there are plenty of mobility dealers who will have attended clinical courses and will be more than proficient at assessing, OTs’ training and experience can boast another level of accuracy.

RKS is careful not to overstock its store.

Kelly also says that RKS offers impartiality. While some trade professionals may suspect a clash of interests in this sense, Kelly insists that the business’s bosses consider themselves first and foremost as OTs.

“We have as many different suppliers and types of equipment available to use as we possibly can to enable us to [be impartial]. We don’t fill our shop full of stock and it’s very much a case of finding out what their needs are and then buying it in on that basis.”

Purchasing stock on an as-and-when basis however, has its potential drawbacks. Logistically it can be a challenge, Kelly says, and one might question where suppliers stand on the matter in regards to achieving volume. But she insists: “We work very closely with the suppliers to acquire equipment where we need. With the majority of customers, if they do have more complex needs, they tend to accept that there might not be something there readily available and they are willing to wait for us to get the right thing in.

“With the majority of customers, if they do have more complex needs, they tend to accept that there might not be something there readily available and they are willing to wait for us to get the right thing in”

“And if people aren’t willing to wait then they are of course welcome to venture elsewhere if that’s what they want to do. One of our biggest challenges is that we willingly give out a lot of advice and support and then people will sometimes go and purchase what they need on the internet. That’s one of the primary challenges but it’s a free market. From a business point of view, you do have to be cautious sometimes.”

Most traditional physical outlets will empathise with Kelly’s point about customers heading online for cheaper products, but she notes that RKS, and other physical outlets for that matter, still appeals to a lot of customers because they are seen as trusted traders. So while a concept like RKS may take time to establish itself, once it does form a solid base of customers it begins to build trust with the client pool. Uniquely for RKS, advertising the fact it is run by OTs does give it credibility in the eyes of those consumers who know what occupational therapy is.

Rather than pen themselves in with a narrow offering though, Kelly and Reston seek to broaden their scope enough to ensure RKS remains competitive. In this way the company maintains the local health service’s wheelchairs. The business is also called upon by the council to carry out seating assessments for example and one could speculate that an OT-led retailer is the more attractive option for local authorities.

Looking ahead, Kelly says RKS has set its sights on scooping yet another Motability award, which would make it three years in a row being commended or winning the accolade. She comments: “It will be about maintaining and improving the standards we have. We’re always willing to look at ways of improving customer service. We don’t think we’re perfect and we accept there are times where we could do better so it’s working on any feedback we get from customers.”

Kelly adds that RKS has no “urgent plans” to open up further sites, especially given both she and Reston are quite mobile and often travel to see and assess clients rather than base themselves in the store. But keen not to rule out expansion, Kelly adds: “The model is working for us but who knows what will happen in the future.”

It is worth asking however, given the success of the model, why the market has not seen more retailers taking this OT-led approach? This may partly be because professionals coming from an OT background naturally tend to gear themselves towards providing a caring service rather than running a retail business, Kelly suggests.

And while there may be scope for more mobility dealers incorporating OTs into their businesses, to involve them on a largescale or permanent basis would be too expensive for a lot of retailers. While the likes of CareCo and other large players have the luxury of being able to employ an in-house OT, it is an unrealistic prospect for many. RKS is fortunate in that both of its directors are OTs but Kelly admits that smaller retailers already set up in the market might struggle to adopt this approach. Both Kelly and Reston are still privately practising OTs and support the business in that way too.

The RKS model may not work for every dealer due to costs and an unwillingness to adopt a retail approach that may be considered slightly unorthodox by some mobility professionals. Nevertheless it has undeniably identified a niche in the market and it occupies it well, winning customer service awards along the way. While the concept won’t fit all business models, it’s safe to say that many dealers will continue to look for the input of OTs and there are plenty of flexible retailers in the market who would consider approaching business in a slightly different way if it meant growth.

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Joe Peskett

The author Joe Peskett

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