August 1, 2014

What works ... and what doesn’t


Over a period of years, I have tried many approaches to business. Here are the things I have found that worked. Your observations and outcomes may be the opposite or modified to mine, and that is to be expected.

I have mentioned this before and I still choose to lead with it: Seminars. I ran twenty-six a year, every year, and they are something I advocate. Seminars put you out front in the community, as a leader in horticulture, the go-to people for gardening products.

First rule of seminars: Be consistent. Run the seminars regularly, at the same time, on the same day and do so, every year.

Second rule: The seminar leaders should be staff members. If seminar leaders are staff members, then customers can find those people, easily. Let people know that your seminars are led by people who work at your place. I had no qualms about letting people know that I had no ‘hired guns’ at my place. A ‘hired gun’ was often brought in by chain stores and sometimes, even by independents, to lead seminars at their garden centres. Once the ‘hired gun’ leaves, so does the credibility that was paid for. Don’t be afraid to let people work on seminars who are not great speakers. They usually improve with time and experience, and they are there before, during and after the seminar. Audience members are coming for information, not for the slickness of the presenter.
Put yourself in the place of your customers; offer them seminars by knowledgeable staff and inspirational ideas.
The third rule: This one is very easy to break, but resist all temptation to do so. Never, and I repeat, never allow your seminars to be anything but educational. Do not sell. If someone asks a question about a fertilizer that you do not carry, nod your approval and say that it is a good one. If you insist that your fertilizer selections are the only ones that people should purchase, you turn off your audience. People know when they are being hustled; they also know when you treat them fairly. If you mention that you use and recommend a fertilizer or a soil amendment, they usually heed your advice and purchase that product. There is no advantage in doing a hard sell of a product. You may recommend one, or mention that you use it all of the time, but the mentions and recommendations must be discreet, if that is possible.

Rule number four: Keep the seminars under an hour. Forty-five minutes is best.

Rule number five: Always have a handout. Assume that 90 per cent of what you tell someone during a seminar will be forgotten by the time they pull out of your parking lot. Handouts keep your message in front of those who attend. Handouts also reduce the number of phone calls and mistakes. It is our job to protect customers from themselves. I have had people quote to me, something that I said the exact opposite of to do. Auditory dyslexia is not as uncommon as we might believe. 

Seminars, I found, vary in size with the lowest turnout being six and the largest being 140. Early spring seminars, prior to planting season, are usually the most well attended, as people are itching to get going. If they can’t plant, at least they want to talk about planting. Not everyone who takes in your seminar will be converted to a customer, but most will. I had a Dutch customer and his elderly mother stay behind a seminar to thank me for offering “this public service.” That was the way they saw my program of seminars, and I am certain most people shared their view point.

Think like a customer
This is a rule I learned from the late Burt Rutman from Minneapolis, back in 1987. Burt told me (and I swear by it), once a till has more than three customers lined up, open another till. He said it best: “Customers will spend two hours picking out their seeds, but when it comes time to check out, they want to leave as soon as they can.” Sadly, I have heard more than one operator brag, “they were lined up almost twenty deep at the till.” That speaker needs to have his head examined for bragging about a disaster that he has no intention of fixing.

Too many of us enter and exit by the staff door and we never walk through our own place as a customer does. Periodically, I would follow a pair of customers into my garden centre and trail behind them, listening to their conversations. The beauty of the eavesdropped conversation is the hearing of honest comments. I know that it is difficult, but often, our customers are our best teachers, even when they are complaining. One little old lady bawled me out because we treated the stairway she was climbing as an opportunity to display a product. The staff was told, “never do that again. Stairs are for climbing and walkways are for walking.” Do not block a customer’s path.

Ron Mercial had a rule: If asked the same question three or more times in a day, you need another sign. I hate places that are loaded up with signage so omnipresent that you are not certain if you are allowed to breathe. However, there must be enough simple signage to answer peoples’ basic questions such as: How tall does this grow? Will this survive deep shade? Why is a perennial in B.C. not a perennial in Alberta? All valid questions, and all need answers. I found that when it comes to signage, you must include at least two reasons to purchase the product, and no more than three. Two or three, that is it. No more, no less. Sometimes we get carried away, wanting to communicate everything we know, and we fill up time and space with information that is irrelevant for most customers.

Another tip I found for signage was to personalize an item. A simple suggestion is to use the equivalent of ‘Rod’s favourite’ or ‘Tracy recommends.’

Set signs so that people can read them. A typical garden  centre/greenhouse customer is between 40 and 80. She is female and values good products and information ahead of low price. Keep those information signs high enough so that she can read them. That is providing good information. Keep the print large enough so she can read them, as well! I actually read in a national magazine, a complaint of signage being too low and too small in greenhouses. We need to pay attention to that complaint.

Cut difficult people loose
This topic is always a difficult one for me to write about, so you can accept this as a ‘true confession.’ I hated firing people. I absolutely detested it. If caught with their hand in the till, it is easy to fire someone. But an attitude, a smirk, is not as easily definable of a situation. To cut to the chase, I hung onto people, long after the evidence suggested I should have cut ties with them. Little things that you pass off as being an oddity often become a habit. It might even be something as simple as an employee who is the youngest of the family, demonstrating her birth position, by throwing a hissy fit. There will be people in your employ who think they are the boss and you have essentially two choices: Correct them of that notion or cut them loose. You are in charge. It is your company, and no disgruntled person in your employ will be there to hold your hand if you go bankrupt.

A friend of mine worked for the Consumer Branch of the federal government for many years, as a field investigator. He told me that after all those years, his conclusion was that when there are customer complaints regarding a company, most times the complaints are aimed at one or two employees or managers. How many times have you seen the same thing happen outside of your company? For me, the event occurred while I was sitting in the Golden Mile Lab, in south Regina, waiting to have my blood tested. There were five staff members working, four were decent and one was beyond rude. As I waited my turn, I watched as this one person alienated patient after patient. Had there been a complaint box, that one staff member would have generated 99 per cent of the paper work.

The question I have to ask is: Why did I allow an employee, who generated numerous phone and letter complaints, to remain with me? Any benefit received was not worth the hassle. I should have acted, but I didn’t. I kept hanging on, hoping that person would change. He didn’t.

Shop for your bank
Last but not least, is financing. It is beyond important, it is mandatory, that every operator’s financing be solid and in place at the beginning of the season. Here is a tip that should not be a great surprise to most, but it often is: Shop around for a financial institution. They are not all the same. I did and it paid dividend after dividend. The Big Five banks all took a run at me and my business, as did the FBDB and the Ag Bank. None of their rates were even close to my local credit union for the services that I required. The Bank of Montreal sucked me into paying four percent on my Master Card purchases my first year in business. When I found a lower rate and wanted to jump ship, I got the old, “we can match that.” My question has always been — why did they wait until I found a better rate to lower theirs? Treat your bank or lending institution as you would any other supplier. Find out what they can do for you and what it will cost. A small credit union, down the street from my garden  centre, gave me lines of credit, letters of credit, mortgages and chequing accounts that were at times one half the rate of The Big Five banks. In short, they treated me well, which is not always the story told by other operators.
Stay on the road to success. It is worth it.
Rod McDonald owned and operated Lakeview Gardens, a successful garden centre/landscape firm in Regina, Sask., for 28 years.  He now works full-time in the world of fine arts, writing, acting and producing in film, television and stage.