What your customers want, this time around

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Darwin was right. Once a population of living things reaches its peak and subsequently crashes, the remaining survivors are the strongest, smartest and most adaptable.

Our powersports retail population is the leanest it’s been in 20 years. The crash happened, and we lost a third of our dealers, franchised and independent combined. If you’re still here reading this as a retailer, congratulations are in order. But you’re not completely in the clear, and the worst may be yet to come.

“You’ve survived the recession, but can you survive the recovery?” asks Paul Leinberger, EVP of the Futures Co. (formerly Yankelovich) and motorcycle-industry soothsayer. Many dealers who overstretched to get to the other side of this economic desert are arriving in a weakened, dehydrated and diseased state. They’re alive and doing business, but at the expense of any extra fatty reserves. Those who arrived in better physical and fiscal shape could catapult past those who need to stay behind and lick their proverbial wounds.

Which are you? Are you going to hunker down, or are you in a position to hit the nitrous button? It should be one or the other — nothing between. Indecision kills.

From a customer’s point of view, I’d like to help you understand the new American consumer principles as you slither out of this primordial, economic ooze:

1) WE DON’T TRUST CORPORATE AMERICA.
Wall Street, big government, and almost anyone wearing a necktie have shattered the customer’s trust for all-things business. We’ve reverted back to smaller, local economies. You can capitalize on this downsizing trend by inviting customers into your local retail business and make us part of your club, family and community brand. Is the Internet pendulum swinging the opposite direction to real people, real riding and real eye contact instead?

2) PICK UP THE DAMNED PHONE. REACH OUT AND TALK ... TO ME.
Stand out amid the e-noise; customers delete and ignore most commercial e-mails these days. When is the last time a retail business telephoned you and used your first name? E-mailing or texting is de rigueur, but voice is better — especially if it’s not from a hired service but really from you, the business owner. Customers are searching for relationships with local businesses, but if they seem to care just as little as the big mail-order businesses, then we don’t care either. If buying bikes, accessories or parts is going to be impersonal everywhere — as it is in the auto industry — then we don’t care who we buy from.

3) MATCH MAIL-ORDER DROP-SHIPPING TO MY DOORSTEP
Honestly, it’s more about avoiding the second trip back to your store than it is the price. For example, I am a DIY guy who bolts on his own stuff, and I know that you know more about what I need than a mail-order customer service phone rep.

Many new retail-direct manufacturers born out of the recession don’t provide adequate instructions or customer service — they’re manufacturers. They’re used to experienced dealer techs installing their accessories, not wannabe-mechanics like me. So don’t let a customer walk out after tapping you for free technical information only to buy from an e-tailer and still be frustrated. Satisfy his need for technical information and fitment suggestions, then add a shipping fee to his credit card for fulfillment right to his doorstep, no time-wasting or gas-sucking return trip needed. Give him the customer service and fitment advice, then capture the sale. I haven’t yet seen any signs in a P&A department that read “We drop-ship to your door. Guaranteed fitment and exchange privileges.”

4) GIVE ME A REASON TO RIDE — AND TO VISIT YOUR STORE.
Once we’re in, your job is to keep us there and give us compelling reasons to buy, and still more reasons to continue coming back. Do you have Saturday morning rides starting from your store? How about “Tech Nights” for men, women and young people wanting to do real maintenance for themselves rather than watching those increasingly banal DIY videos. (I’ve even heard of “Singles Moto Nights,” but don’t want to know more since I’m married.) It is the season for open houses, midnight madness sales and bike washes. Get involved, or get out.

Make your move now to catapult yourself past your competition. Those who snooze will lose, and those who hit the NOS button will become the new, local bosses. If you’re suffering too much from analysis paralysis, you will not be in the winners’ circle any time soon.

This story originally appeared in the Dealernews June 2011 issue.