ON THE PANEL:
AS: Andrew Seymour (Editorial Director at Access and Mobility Professional)
AG: Alastair Gibbs (TPG DisableAids)
DG: Daniel Griffiths (Easy Living Mobility)
GJ: Graham Johnson (Ability Plus)
AS: What would you identify as the key, two or three big changes that have really altered the market?
AG: I think probably the fact that product is changing more to meet needs is the biggest impact I’ve seen. Back in the mid-80s, and it’s interesting to remember these things, it was very much the case that a bent metal product was the solution and you made the customer fit to that solution.
The first scooters came along and they were very much a one size fits all and that’s no longer acceptable. We talk now about proper assessment, we make sure we prescribe the correct products under the correct conditions whether that be a mobility product or a stair lift product and now, at last, the product is available and that’s probably the biggest step over the years.
We can now give now give genuine, honest advice. We can be that go to place for the healthcare professionals. We know the product, we know the products that are out there on the market and it’s our place as distributers to do the research, to do that background work so that we can appropriate solutions, not just offering one product but as an integrated solution.
We sell a bed and the bed works with the chairs and so on and so, to have that choice available is a big step change from our point of view from back in the mid-80s when it was just very, very limited.
AS: Does that resonate with you Graham because you’ve come into the industry from quite a different background?
GJ: Yeah absolutely, the new kid on the block if you like. For us, when I got into it was very much customer focused, and where our competitors locally that are now out of business were so much about getting the best return for their investments in some respects and I’ve seen a number of those retailers go out of business.
Obviously it’s the good ones, as Alistair says, that have been in the industry for a number of years still caring on doing a very good job and and providing that type of service. With ourselves, we are very retail based and are into stair lift installations and wet room adaptations but we only work within the area we are located, we never go into London or too far afield. We work in about a 20 mile radius of our stores so we can offer that customer service.
AS: Daniel, what about you, how has the industry changed since you started out?
DG: I think Alistair put it pretty brilliantly to be honest with you, but products move on and I think the challenge is the education for ourselves for our responsibility to make sure we can deliver that exceptional service. I think that customers these days are a hell of a lot more aware of what is available and it’s up to us to make sure that our employees are given the best education and training. The industry needs to go forward and work harder and closer with OTs in just becoming more knowledgeable and understanding of what those details are.
AS: As you say, training has been a big theme of today. Can you guys give us some sort of insight into the types of customer service strategies you have and how you are looking to evolve that going forward?
AG: From our point of view, I think training is important. I think we can go a step further and lead on that. As retailers within the industry and as many people know, we try to remain active within the British Healthcare Trade Association. We partnered with the DLF, the Disabled Living Foundation to try and promote and push forward the trust in the setup programme.
What we’re trying to do is make sure that the customer facing staff and the backroom staff as well become accredited to trusted accessor level. Anything from level two to level four depending on the role they take up within the business. Because again, even if somebody who is playing a smaller role, it’s important that they understand and have empathy. Even if it’s just to direct the call properly or to ensure we never give poor advice and at least refer them to make sure that our solutions work with other products.
We opened up our building to bring the DLF into our space in Herefordshire to bring the training to us and open that training up to the wider community of OTs and healthcare professionals and care staff.
AS: Graham, what about yourself?
GJ: Just to add to that we work very closely with our suppliers, so we’re often up with our supplier working on the training sending our stuff up there. As I say, we’ve got a very close knit team so to bring new members on, to show them to ethos of the company which is more important, very important to us, when meeting the customers’ needs and developing those.
As we all do in the room in ensuring that the customer is looked after and not just with the product, with the aftercare service which obviously, as retailers, it’s important that we can do that over and above what the internet can.
AS: These are obviously very interesting times in the retail landscape. You guys are obviously retailers yourselves, and as part of that wider landscape, do you worry when you see big retail business struggling?
DG: I think there’s scope, and plenty of room for everybody in this room and more, I really do. I think it really just comes down to hard work. Because it’s hard work.
AG: Really I just want to add to that because what I think is, one of the things I’ve seen over the years, you see empires of very big, national players very quickly grow. Unfortunately that’s often financed by pure financials. I think that has a sticking point as the delivering of the business has to be done correctly, there has to be an alliance to cover that aftercare.
There has to be a retained margin that covers that aftercare in the way that our customers and the products deserve to be done and there’s not a manufacturer in the room who would thank us to say, well I’m sorry we didn’t retain sufficient margins on this product on day one to enable us to look after it as you’d like to see us look after it. So often that is at odds with a pure instant financial return from maybe a capital venture that is, maybe, going to really look for a percentage return on their investment. Sometimes that really just doesn’t stack up with the caring.
AS: You touched on suppliers there, your businesses depend on support from suppliers. As far as you’re concerned, what makes a good supplier partner for you?
DG: Willing to really understand when something goes wrong and go over and above to make an effort to put it right. Mobility scooters have a lot of issues and it comes to a point where it’s not our team, it’s not our lack of knowledge that we have. It’s that product, a supplier that’s going to say, yeah we get that from time to time, here’s another one. Just being a bit real about it, not putting barriers up, big high walls that can be very slippery from time to time.
AS: Are your supplier relationships quite personal? Is it an ongoing thing?
DG: I’d say it’s constantly ongoing, yeah, I think it is what a good supplier is at the end of the day. It’s people, it’s being able to literally pick the phone up and speak to somebody that’s going to literally be able to do something about it. There’s probably a few companies where you’d probably find it very difficult to get over that large high wall.
GJ: I wouldn’t deal with them if that was the case. Yeah, I only deal with suppliers that I feel have got my back as well. It’s that relationship basis, you know. We’re selling their products on the basis that we believe in them and the aftercare support with that and obviously that’s so important. So, those relationships as we see. I’ve been going 12 years and where they [our competitors] first of all went for the big buck returns, the new internet guys come in and give them nice bits of money to deflate the value of their products and then disappear so to speak.
AG: From my point of view, what’s a good supplier? A good supplier is a supplier I can talk to as a partner. I think it has to be a two way thing, those in the room that are suppliers will realise that often we don’t even want to discuss things like discounts and extras, what we want to talk about is solutions and innovation and improvements to the products and I can think of these, let’s use a stair lift as an example.
We had one supplier who had quite a difficult problem with a machine lift and the solution was to give us spares. We’re not actually going to fix the problem, we’re just going to keep giving you spares. Well that’s of no real interest because as a retailer we want to have to go keep facing that client, we have to keep apologising that it’s failed again. What I’d much rather do is speak to a manufacturer that’s going to come in with us, work together and find a solution that is a proper permanent solution that’s not just sticking plaster on the problem. And I think those that have been prepared to do that over the years are the ones that we stick with and can work with for innovation, for improvement within the market place.
I think back to 1985 when we sold the first minivator stair lift and that’s taken a number of incarnations and evolved and yet we still continue to work with that supplier and likewise, there’s two or three others that work with us and resolve problems and not just cover them up and run away.
AS: Obviously, Brexit is the key topic at the moment. How has this factored into your work?
GJ: I see some of our suppliers being short on stock. That’s one of the things, the supply chain. There’s certainly been a number of players that have been short on stock.
AS: After the false alarm of the March 31 deadline, did you see a change after that date?
GJ: Well, not so much after that date but I just think that people were just waiting for the chaos hit. Maybe there’d be hits to the supply chain and imports, not so much our industry but certainly other industries are going to be affected.
AG: Not perhaps so much with the mobility products but definitely with the hoisting products. We know they come in from overseas so we put in some provisions, some stock holdings on certain products and maybe some additional crucial spare parts but also talking with the suppliers to say, what do they have in place further up the supply chain.
One particular hoist supplier has decided they’d do things slightly differently by having a UK base and a UK bank account rather than nine or ten registered distributors having the same problem, they have just one they’ve moved in. That was a constructive change because of the effects of Brexit. I think our real fears centre around the unknown. It’s unknown.
We really don’t know if it’s going to be long term delays on stock, is there going to be real hold ups on documentation? Is there going to be an import duty? All of these things are just an unknown and we can’t sit and wait and think oh know what’s going to go wrong? We have to go on trading and giving solutions that are valid, strong solutions and just have that backstop of a little bit more stock in our warehouses. In our point of view that means increasing our stock holding by maybe 10 or 15%.
It’s all about delivering a service and this is a conversation I often have and I know Kate Sheehan is quite passionate about this. These products we sell are aids to daily living. They’re not aids to weekly living or monthly living, its daily living. So when you sell a product, whether it’s something as simple as toilet seat or it’s as complex as a stair lift or hoisting equipment – it has to work every single day. It’s not a product we can be blasé about, when a report comes through about a break down say that we might be there Thursday, that’s not acceptable.
I mean, if my parents were clients I’d want them to receive a better service than that because it’s within our power to make sure that we have that control. We can’t leave the final decision on the quality of our services down the manufacturers, we have to our stock to enable us to do that properly and that’s the choice that we make.
AS: Changing the subject slightly, you touched upon the online side of it. Looking forward to 2020, can you see online becoming a bigger part of the market and does it concern you or do you see it as an opportunity?
AG: From my point of view online sales are appropriate for certain lines of products. The real issue, I think we’ve discussed in vague terms in talks over the years, is that there are certain roles for certain elements of a product. Mobility products are not one of those things that sits comfortably in that position. Likewise, a mobility product doesn’t sit particularly well on the city centre high street.
There are better routes to the customer which means we can give those assessments, give that added value that that those types of products sometimes need. Online will always be there and I think we just have to accept that. There was an interesting debate last week with regard to high street vs online. City centres, high streets, we should think of them more as entertainment centres not necessarily retail centres. That retail will be done online as we say and that’s just an evolution of how we choose to live our lives.
AS: Graham, we discussed before this roundtable, one of the key challenges is if a product is sold online how do you service and maintain that?
GJ: Well, should we service and maintain stuff that’s been sold online? If somebody comes in with a scooter that they’ve bought online, do we take it on board or do we say no we don’t look after that product?
AS: What’s been your process?
GJ: Sitting on the fence really, we’re unsure. We may lose a customer with regards to the fact that they may have bought that product and it may be their lifeline with regards to that but at the same time do we our profit margin is in the selling and maintaining of the product.
DG: I think that the internet is just a really good platform for us to showcase our business and showcase skillsets that we have. We do quite a lot of clinical, specialist bits of kit, something we’ve been getting into over the past few years. So, I think that’s a real good platform to showcase details and what consumers can see. So, you know, these consumers are of all ages so it’s a great platform to put some funky, modern, fresh approaches on equipment, like you did earlier.
By reupholstering the seats to black and white. That’s how I see the internet, for ourselves, there’s always a need for a purchase. Maybe some incontinence products that someone doesn’t want to be seen walking to the car with. For ourselves it’s a case of showcasing what is available.
AS: What’s your feeling regarding someone who’s bringing in a product they’ve bought online?
DG: If somebody is bringing a product to ourselves that they haven’t purchased from us they will be looked after. Will they be looked after as quickly? Possibly not, sometimes. If we’re scheduling in our diaries, that person will probably come second to the person that’s bought from ourselves and, obviously be very sensitive about this, we try to allow customers to understand that if you buy from ourselves it’s not just a product that you buy. And again, to deliver the detail that comes behind that.
So, I think that comes back down to assessments again. You know, somebody is coming over for a mobility scooter and it’s so very easy for that sale to happen and for that person to go out of the store. There’s a very sensitive line there because obviously we’re a business and we do need to pay the lodge and we do need to pay for staff and you know, keep training and educating them and wanting them to be the best they can.
Then there’s that those people who come in to buy a mobility scooter, who don’t want a test ride. Where do we go? It’s all about making sure you’ve got process in place.
AS: Innovation is a key word within the industry. Coming at it from a retail side, you must be constantly scouring the market for new opportunities. What does innovation mean to you?
DG: I think there’s a lot of innovation. I’d say it’s not just the stake holding is it? It’s the education is the training the process.
AG: From my point of view, innovation is looking at the problems we know exist and looking for better solutions even if that means going out on a limb. Maybe more so than the mobility products but certainly in the access products. It’s the whole package, innovation can’t just come as a product and there it is boys, go ahead and sell it because you have to have educational story behind it.
The training that goes behind it and the development that goes with it. I think again it goes back to one of our earlier points about what makes a good supplier and what makes a good distributor. It’s a two way street. We need to be able to feedback on what has worked and what needs to be done to change it. As long as that’s received as its intended. We say jokingly that the manufacturers role in life is to is to manufacture and produce products and the distributors role in life is to criticise it. Our role is to just keep criticising.
AS: What keeps you awake at night most?
AG: Staff. I think the whole gambit of employment and employment law and doing the right thing, and we’re passionate about doing the right thing, I’m not just saying that because there’s a couple of staff I the room I feel that we have a social responsibility that for our staff and for everybody’s staff that we’re doing the right thing.
I sometimes think I’m an agony uncle to about 50 different families but that’s right, that’s how it should be. The time that I stop worrying about it the time that I stop losing sleep over it is a problem. It’s right that we’re caring and compassionate about our customers and our staff as well. I think when you lose that emotional angle, it’s time to stop.
GJ: Yeah, staff, I mean they’re so important to you. It’s maintaining that relationship and ensuring they are looked after because they are the ones looking after your business at the end of the day. I’ve got a really good team of people so it is really important.