Customer service is more than a tagline

Tracy Simmons

In the mobility industry, it is difficult to find any retailer that is not keen to mention their exceptional customer service, however, for multi-award winning Parkgate Mobility’s Tracy Simmons, he is determined to prove that customer service is more than just a throwaway line in their marketing. Now, with three new stores on the way, THIIS caught up with the business manager to find out how infrastructure, analysis and dedication to a core value has led to over two decades of retail growth and customer satisfaction.

Having been trading for twenty years, Parkgate Mobility has established itself as a leading retailer of mobility equipment, employing 65 members of staff and operating 15 showrooms, with plans to open another three outlets in 2018.

With a central warehouse and distribution centre in Sheffield and branches running up and down the spine of the M1 motorway between Derby and Leeds, the company has a fleet of field-based engineers operating from mobile workshops and a central workshop to help with time-consuming repairs.

Parkgate Mobility’s Business Manager, Tracy Simmons, discussed how efficiency and infrastructure have been instrumental in the company’s acclaimed customer service, which has seen the Motability accredited dealer awarded with Motability customer service awards every single year that Mobility has presented them.

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You are adding three new stores to the 15 you currently operate in a time when high-street retailers are struggling. How has Parkgate Mobility managed to expand so effectively?

We carefully pick the locations of the new stores which has been an important factor to our success when expanding into new areas. We choose locations that have either high footfall or outside the door parking. Good passing trade is essential in generating interest and business.

We are also able to open shops very cost effectively. We are able to stock stores very easily and cheaply thanks to our central warehousing structure and because of mine and Steve’s building experience, there is not a great expense fitting them because we do all the fitting ourselves.

Footfall and outside the door parking are key considerations

What has been your approach to expansion?

In the early days, we expanded very quickly because 20 years ago – and particularly in the mobility industry – it was not hard for somebody to open a mobility shop and make money.

At that time, everybody believed they were good businessmen because they were turning over profit, however, as the market became tougher, with more competition, the rise of the internet and falling prices and squeezed margins, many struggled to respond.

As a business, we took the decision to pause expanding new stores for a while and instead look at how we operate as a company, how we wanted to operate going forward and what infrastructure we needed in place to achieve that.

That led to a restructure and heavy investment into a new system which we feel will put us into strong position to continue expanding in the near future.

You are now in the middle of implementing a new system, using Assistive Partner’s UNIQUS iRetailer software; how will the software impact how Parkgate Mobility operates?

We currently run fleet software alongside an accounts/CRM package and various home brewed databases. To describe the process, when a repair/service enquiry arrives at switchboard, it is filtered correctly to our service centre, with the call being logged by the switchboard on a home designed database, with the service centre booking the job for an engineer.

The appointment is sent from the service centre to the engineer’s iPad, where the engineer confirms receipt of the job which is logged through the fleet software.

The engineer proceeds to carry out the work and gives the customer a paper invoice where, on his return to base, the invoice is entered onto the accounts package.

UNIQUS promises to take care of each stage of the process with the customer’s history on hand for the engineer, allowing better decision making and improved customer service and it will even send an email receipt to the customer.

Having been established for so long in the industry, with multiple outlets, what have been the challenges implementing a whole new infrastructure?

We realised from the start that with a company as large and established as ours, it would be a very painful process adopting a new software platform and, in some instances, adopting a completely new way of working.

We signed up to iRetailer in June last year and we are still nowhere near being fully operational. We have started by implementing the stock control system, as this seemed to be a key strength of the software and an area that we were struggling to keep a grip on.

So far, we have redesigned the layout of our warehouse and showrooms and we have ousted old, out-of-date stock and replaced it with fresh, relevant products, as well as having labelled, priced and overhauled all of our product displays.

We have set appropriate min/max reorder levels in all areas and have started to replenish stock through the automatic min/max system. Through UNIQUS, we are starting to deal with special orders, stock movement and stock transfers in a number of showrooms and a small number of shops are selling on iRetailer at the moment quite well.

iRetailer demands that staff do not take short cuts which may sound obvious but stock must be booked in and out religiously, products must be clearly identified and shelves must be clearly marked.

Getting shop managers and sales staff to change their working practices is what is proving most difficult, especially in a company where historically we have operated a ‘help yourself’ policy. We have traditionally allowed front line sales staff a lot of leeway with the administration team picking up the pieces, however, iRetailer is turning this on its head and it’s not before time.

By fitting the stores themselves, Parkgate Mobility is able to launch new stores cost-effectively

Has the investment of time and money into the restructure been worthwhile?

The journey up to now has been very productive and worthwhile, if not frustrating. Ian is slowly walking us through the implementation and I think it would be fair to say that there has been a considerable number of holdups along the way, particularly where background settings and hardware have required reconfiguration.

It has currently come at a considerable cost in terms of licensing, hardware, training and man-hours and at the moment, it is too early to say it has been worthwhile but the outlook is promising. Watch this space and we will keep you informed.

The company is undergoing an extensive restructure

How important is it for Parkgate Mobility to have the right infrastructure in place?

It is absolutely vital. As times have become tighter in the industry, we have had to look at how we can become more efficient in all areas of the business so that we can remain profitable and continue to grow whilst competing against discounters and simultaneously providing the best customer service possible.

To do this, we need to make sure we have the right systems, processes and procedures in place to ensure we can monitor our operation and know what is going on at the push of a button.

What aspects of the Parkgate Mobility operation do you monitor?

Anyone who knows me knows that I like to analyse everything. I have graphs, charts and statistics that cover every aspect of the operation from call handling, engineer effectiveness, marketing strategy, sales success, business efficiencies and customer satisfaction.

We measure customer care levels and how customers rate our service, our staff and our products. In terms of marketing, we analyse our spend, what it generates, cost per call, what is effective and what is not.

We have over one hundred monitored telephone numbers which tell us who has phoned, about what, where and more. We measure conversion rates from call, to appointment, to sale and beyond. Every lead, termed locally as a golden ticket, is analysed and measured. If we lose a sale we know who, where and why this has happened.

Why is it so important to monitor every area of the business so closely?

By recording and monitoring every step of the sales process, from that very first initial call all the way through to the end of the job, we can very quickly identify any problems in the operation and work to change it, as well as track the customer’s level of care throughout.

For example, if there was a delay getting out to see a customer for a repair, we can examine at what point did the delay occur and look to see what needs to be done to stop that from reoccurring, such as a lack of coverage in the area requiring us to hire another engineer for instance.

At the minute, we do this but we are pulling information from a number of different systems and compiling it together which is time-consuming. We are hoping with the new UNIQUS system, we’ll be able follow that path in real-time in one place.

We want the ability to see how the company is performing at the touch of a button but it is not about beating ourselves with a stick. We are not aiming to measure staff just for the sake of measuring them.

Monitoring, tracking and measuring helps create transparency so we can praise and review in fairness and having a comprehensive system in place allows for this.

If you cannot tell someone they are doing a good job, then you certainly cannot tell them they are not.

It makes work easier and fairer for all when everyone knows clearly what the expectations and measurements are. I am proud to say we have a very low turnover of staff so something must be working and I think that honesty with people, both our staff and our customers, really sets us apart from our competitors.

What do you feel makes Parkgate Mobility’s approach to customer service different from other retailers?

I think a lot of businesses say that they offer great customer service but quite often, it is just a throwaway line. My question is, what does great customer service look like? What does it feel like? What are you doing that nobody else is doing? What state of intent is there in your claim?

Companies confuse white glove service and customer service. White glove service is just the tip of the iceberg but there seems to be a lot of internet-sellers and box shifters out there that boast about offering it but fall very short when it comes to the whole service.

Saying that we offer great customer service isn’t enough because words are cheap and customers see through them. For us, customer service is at the heart of the business and we are working hard to put our money where our mouth is.

A strapline we are working towards incorporating throughout the business is, ‘if we do not get you mobile in 24 hours, we’ll do the job free of charge.’ The reason we are investing so much money and time into our infrastructure is so that we can confidently make and stand by that claim in the future.

The company has won a Motability customer service award every single year that Mobility has presented them

Would you say it is this approach that has led to Parkgate Mobility’s decades of success?

Definitely. We are set up to ensure our staff and our business meet high customer standard levels, which in turn, leads to happier customers who return to us and recommend us.

We have actually got a customer care team whose only job is to call customers and ask if they are happy with the service provided. They aren’t try to slyly turn it into a sales call but just to make sure our customers are happy and their needs are met.

We have a strapline which is ‘treat the customer like you treat your mother’ and that is ingrained in everything we do and every decision we take.

We make sure that people have a good experience, which they tell friends and family about because people talk. The opposite is true as well; if people have a bad experience, they really talk, which is why customer care is so important.

As a company, we do not really advertise anymore. Now that the yellow pages has finished, we have the website and the catalogue and that is about all. For us, it really is mostly word of mouth, which relies on our customer service being exceptional.

What does the future look like for Parkgate Mobility?

A couple of years ago, we started putting into place what we called a retirement plan. That doesn’t mean we’re retiring – I’m no way near retirement yet! – but instead, looking at how we can set up the business in such a way that Parkgate Mobility maintains its high standard, even when we are not there to run it.

This is why we are investing so heavily to make sure we have the correct infrastructure and processes in place and I think we are getting to the place where Parkgate Mobility will be in a very strong position for the next decades to come.

The company’s website is HERE 

A new system

After reading an article about the retail software promoted as UNIQUS iRetailer in THIIS Magazine last year, Stephen Holland, Owner of Parkgate Mobility, saw an opportunity to potentially save his business time and money.

The retailer had outgrown its current software and was in the midst of developing a new database with a local software company that would have put tighter controls on the servicing and repair aspect of its business when Stephen came across UNIQUS iRetailer.

“The timing could not have been better,” said Stephen. “When I read about it in THIIS and later talked to Julian Cobbledick, the company director of Assistive Partner, I believed this new platform could provide the framework and information needed to further develop our business”.

“We were particularly impressed with the stock control element of the software. Stock levels could be controlled through a standard min/max system and we were told that it could accommodate our central warehousing structure without any problems.

“Equally impressive was the fact that the majority of our suppliers’ products, product codes and up to-date pricing could be seamlessly imported, which is important as we were regularly having to manually go through the painful process of updating all of our prices.

“This was made worse by the Brexit scaremongering, the successive drop in the value of the pound on the international market and forever increasing and fluctuating pricing. The barcode system that UNIQUS iRetailer supported was also a very attractive feature; at last a software package that would eliminate the human error element of stock control.”

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