Out of the Box Solutions: Case Studies
Rising Tide Raises All Ships and Vans
In late 2002 I was asked to help the second largest manufacturer of handicapped accessible minivans with sales just under $20 million grow vehicle sales revenues. What a great opportunity to help people regain the gift of mobility while also making a living for myself!
The market for mini vans that were mechanically altered to accommodate a consumer sitting in a wheelchair was dominated by a leading manufacturer at least ten times greater than the company I was asked to help. Our competitor was one of the first companies to provide product solutions for this growing need and therefore became the Kleenex and Xerox of the industry.
When purchase orders would be faxed to us they would often have our competitors name in the product description--”Braun Van.” The distant number two player asked me to join their team, establish a sales management process that would drive growth and tighten the gap between them and the market dominant supplier.
How can I help this distant, number two supplier gain market share, improve revenues and have great board meetings? Did I mention we had little or no budget?
As old school as it may be I introduced a customer centric approach. Who are your customers? The company felt the 300 or so independent mobility dealers were their customers since they wrote the orders and paid the bills. They historically focused 100% of their sales efforts asking for orders from this dealer channel and were becoming frustrated with the modest sales increases for the past six years.The perception was at the time it would be too cost prohibitive through traditional advertising to effectively reach consumers in wheelchairs.
Our team started meeting with our dealers in an effort to understand their unique needs. We took time to listen to consumers in wheelchairs while waiting in the dealership service lobbies and we conducted focus groups of consumers in wheelchairs. What consumers expressed was they did not just “want” a reliable vehicle, but “needed one” as their vehicle gave them freedom. This vehicle sale was a needs based sale that provided freedom to engage and participate in the world again, freedom to explore, freedom to visit with family, friends, and doctors. This adapted vehicle with a lowered floor enabled our true customers to regain their mobility and it addressed the number one reason consumers in wheelchairs statistically make 25% less than other consumers—they lacked a reliable way to get to work. Interstingly, our focus groups also showed that if our consumer visited a dealer and they are met with a knowledgeable consultant who listened to their unque needs and showed them respect they were least likely to shop the dealer’s price with other local dealers.
Surely the competitor was aware of the consumer needs? Actually no, the competitors were all focused on the same paradigm, the same model; build a relationship with the dealer who ultimately makes the sale to consumers and provides local service. They too were focused on the ‘win the dealer salesperson’s heart and win the sale” model. How could we, a distant number two manufacturer with limited funds compete with a market dominant supplier with deeper dealer penetration and consumer brand recognition? How could we compete with the large field inventory they provided the dealer network? Did I mention we had a small marketing budget and our competitor provided strong dealer co-op advertising and dealer incentive reward trips to destinations like the Greek Isles and Australia based on revenues the dealers purchased?
As an outsider, as is often the case when we engage with a company, this model seemed broken. I have heard the definition of insanity is “to continue to do what you always have done, but expect different results. “What if we challenge the fundamental definition of who the customer is? Yes the local dealers were and are amazing vehicle modifiers. They are strategically located throughout North America to service local clients., To be a dealer you must have a passion to serve this customer base that reaches beyond the desire to drive revenues and profit. What impressed me most about this independent dealer base selling our modified vehicles was they possess a strong ability to mechanically solve perceived limitations physical limitations to driving. However like Michael E Gerber, the author of one of my favorite books, the E-myth so brilliantly identifies. “Often brilliant technicians of a particular discipline begin their own businesses, but lack the training and experience to run a profitable business.” They are technically strong in aptitude yet they often lack the knowledge of best business practices and acumen that insures profitable sustained growth.
What if my new team commanded the position as dealer partner consultant helping train dealers and their teams in a sales and marketing? What if, instead of asking (often begging) for orders at the end of each month, we trained the dealer salespeople to become better salespeople? What if we identified unmet consumer needs and provided new product solutions to help our dealers and their companies grow? Our CFO had a question;“So, help me understand, we are going to fund a national training program that teaches our dealer’s salespeople how to better meet the needs of the consumer in wheel chairs, and dealers currently sell 8 to10 more of our competitors products than ours?” Yes, however in the process of training dealer salespeople we will use our products as examples in the new process, and dealer salespeople will learn out product.” The leading reason salespeople present one product over another competing brand is knowledge. They present what they know and what they believe in. We launched and funded the first interactive national sales training program in our industry.
What if, in this new dealer partnership we also took the time to better understand the dealers’ business, the markets they served, where they made money, as well as what the true consumers wanted and needed? For example, it’s hard enough for the average consumer to purchase a new vehicle today given the cost. We see this challenge reflected in the rise of vehicle leases as opposed to traditional financing. Just imagine how difficult it would be to afford a custom vehicle you need that averages $48,000 to $60,000 and your average income was 25% less than other consumers not in wheelchairs? So we learned dealers would often have consumers visit their showrooms with a need for the product but the inability to financially purchase it.
What did we know?
We know there is a strong correlation between the value of the purchase price and the frequency consumers will do market research, particularly on the internet. Not surprisingly consumers in wheelchairs were completing thorough research and using the internet and quickly pitting local dealer against local dealer to win their business driving down the already limited dealer gross margin. The traditional role the dealers provided of exclusively being the knowledge expert was now complimented by vehicle information on the internet.
Mobility lowered floor vans are comprised of a van that is purchased from a car dealer for $28,000 to $32,000+. The manufacturing conversion process of lowering the vehicle floor 10 inches has average consumer cost in the $18,000 to $21,000 retail range. Therefore a new vehicle with a new lowered floor conversion had a total consumer cost range of $ 46,000 to $ 53,000+.
Dealer sales people valued used trade in vans as they recognized these could often help consumers who traditionally could not afford a new vehicle. Used trade in vans also generated greater profits than new vans for mobility dealers as consumers had difficulty t researching comparable inventory on the internet with the same miles and features and benefits. Used vans became unique mobility solutions that could not be compared to other local dealer’s vehicles in inventory. We also learned national rental companies sell their used vans at national car auctions before the vehicle warranties are exhausted. Companies like Hertz and so on increase their field van inventory for summer vacation rental peak demand, and sell down their inventories of slightly used vehicles in August and September. These vehicles may only have 7,000 to 15,000 miles driven and they have manufacture vehicle warrantees. Some dealers were buying used vehicles and incurring the freight costs to ship them to our manufacturing plant.
The mobility dealers needed a consulting partner to help with marketing, strategic planning and training. Consumers desire a consultative sales approach. The consumer feels most comfortable dealing with someone who has knowledge of their unique needs. They desire a local dealer who has the ability to take these adaptive vehicles and provide additional customization based on their unique needs. Research showed these consumers often make 25% less in income than consumers not in wheelchairs and experience lower disposable income due to high medical bills and the cost of other adaptive equipment like power wheelchairs.
We can establish a sales management process that has been used successfully in other industries. What if we developed a sales management growth model that is goal focused based on a percent of market opportunity approach--that’s easy. We can project what markets can produce in sales and review opportunity for growth as it relates to the sales by dealer. We can identify our desired market share objectives and create mutually shared growth goals with our dealers.
What if, we took the position of dealer partner? What if we provided a consultative sales approach and shared our sales management model,focus group and demographic data we found? What if we trained our salespeople to become our dealer’s partners that had the mission of helping the dealers business grow? What if we listen to consumers and drive down the total retail selling price by purchasing and structurally modifying used vans brought to auction by rental companies with low miles and manufacture warrantees? What if our opportunity to grow did not need to come from fighting the 500 pound gorilla nemesis we were focusing on? What if we uniquely focused on making a new, more affordable product that meets the needs of our dealer partners and true customers?
Thought art becomes revenue
Within eight months total converted mini van sales grew 146% compared to the same period in the prior year. Dealers embraced the training program and new dealers contacted us with a desire to receive sales training and support our products. The number of dealers supporting our products increased, and used vans with new lowered floor conversions quickly became 10% of our sales. Within three years, used vans represented over 50% of the vehicles we modified and sold. Dealer partner profits per sale grew. The sales of this once distant number two manufacturer grew rapidly and used vehicles as a percent of total sales represented close to 20% of units sold the first year. New vehicle sales with new conversions also increased. This quickly turned in to a Win/Win/Win situation--Win for consumers who traditionally felt they could not ever afford a vehicle (new market), Win for dealers who realized incremental sales and increased profit per sale and sales and marketing assistance, and a Win for my manufacturer now selling significantly more conversions.
We identified a consumer group without a product solution while sharing our market growth objectives with dealer partners based on research and demographic data. Within twelve months, 2003 resulted in the largest sales and profit increase in the history of this manufacturer. A true test of a key management system and strategy is if it is repeatable and sustainable. In 2007 the manufacturer is on pace to break through the $100 million sales revenue mark with unprecedented profits.