Living up to the name

After taking over the reins of Skegness-based People First Mobility, Karen Sheppard’s inspirational journey has seen her shake hands with industry titans, win multiple awards, overcome incredible challenges and even seen her walk the halls of 10 Downing Street! The inspirational businesswoman shares her story and views on the industry with THIIS.

What was it that inspired you to get involved in the mobility industry?

I have been in the mobility industry for around 16-years, working in pretty much all areas of the business, from the shop floor to managing accounts and all the administration side of things.

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My motivation to work in the industry stems from my mother. She suffered from bad asthma and sadly, she suddenly passed away in January 1999. A couple of months before that, in 1998, she rang me to tell me about a really important experience she had at her local supermarket.

She said that the shop had something in there which she could pay a fee to use which helped her to get around the shop – she was talking about a mobility scooter and whilst I am not sure how long they had been around, this was the first time my mum had seen one. She rang me so excited because she could get around the shops easier with a basket and said to me she was going to do it again.

Her asthma progressively got worse to the point where she couldn’t walk very far at all and couldn’t get even get to her local shops which were down the road.

She rang and told me, ‘I’ve looked in the local paper Karen and I really want one of these scooters’, however at the time they were very expensive.

It became really bad towards the end for her and she couldn’t even manage to cross the road to go to the post box to send me a birthday card, so anything that gave her more mobility was a godsend.

I remember hearing the happiness and joy in her voice when she was talking about being able to move around freely and get her mobility back with a scooter and it really inspired me to want to give that to other people.

Now, when I see the smiles on the faces of my customers, it really reminds me of my mum.

Karen Sheppard outside 10 Downing Street

Can you tell us a bit more about yourself and the business?

I left school at 15 to go abroad with my parents who moved to Nigeria and started a business over there. There was no schooling so I didn’t come away with qualifications such as O-levels, but I was always keen to develop myself.

I and my ex-partner set up People First Mobility about 15 years ago and when it was first set up, I did an accountancy course for three-years and became qualified, as well as doing courses on computer software such as Word, Excel and Access when they first began to be used throughout business.

In 2015, after suffering severe depression and the breakdown of my marriage, I purchased my ex-partner’s share of the business and most recently, I just finished a Retail Management Course, including Maths and English functional skills.

What inspired you to become the sole owner of the store?

I had no second thoughts when it came to taking over the business; I couldn’t see myself doing anything else so I grasped the chance!

After the split, I wanted to continue helping people and making them happy and I still had the drive to make People First Mobility successful. For me, it’s more than just a business; it is a passion.

Now that I have sole control over the business, it has given me the opportunity to really turn it into something special and to push ahead with a lot of the ideas that I didn’t have the opportunity to pursue before.

What products do you sell?

We sell everything, from scooters and wheelchairs to rise recliners and an entire range of accessories. Tables, commodes, weather wear… you name it. We try to stock as much as we can so that we are always able to provide a solution for a customer.

Are there any particular products that seem to be doing particularly well at the moment?

We don’t really have products that sell all the time but instead, we will have a run on something. There is a seasonal element to it but mostly it is pretty unpredictable I find.

It really is the case of trying to have as much in as you can so you can find the perfect product for any customer.

You recently won the Customer Care award at the Skegness Business Awards in 2017, as well as reaching the finals for Retailer of the Year. How important are these awards for People First Mobility and what are you doing to achieve such award success?

Winning and being shortlisted as finalists for competitive awards really helps to prove to our customers, and ourselves, that we are getting something right with our customer service.

There is so much bad customer service out there; I come across it daily. For our industry, customers really don’t want that.

People come to our shop because they are looking for a solution for themselves or for another person and they can be under a lot of pressure, so they want to deal with someone who is friendly, knowledgeable and approachable.

I ensure all my staff are well trained, both in terms of customer service as well as the products, so that customers see smiling, happy staff that they can trust.

For us, it is about working hard, having passion and having the determination to offer the best service possible. That’s what we aim for, so when we are up for awards and someone who is independently judging our business sees that, it really is a great feeling.

Importantly, it is good for the customers because the awards confirm to them that we really do put people first and that we work hard at what we do. The awards are difficult to get and with more and more people entering each year, organisers really do not just give them away.

We are always trying to do things better all the time and always trying to go the extra mile and the awards are just one way of showing that all the hard work brings results.

Can you tell me one of your proudest moments working in mobility?

That’s a hard one because I’ve got so many. A huge moment for me was achieving Business Person of the Year in 2016 whilst battling cancer with depression. It showed me that I am a fighter and that I can do this!

My recent visit to 10 Downing Street, however, is definitely my proudest moment.

I’m part of Small Business Saturday which is an annual campaign to encourage small businesses to promote themselves and to trade with other small businesses and encourage customers to support their local businesses.

They choose 100 businesses each year to be part of the #smallbiz100 and this year on the 2ndof December, we were invited to 10 Downing Street for a reception. We were asked to keep it a secret until the day which is hard when you want to tell everyone where you are going!

I travelled down to London and when I asked the taxi driver to take us to 10 Downing Street from our hotel, I don’t think he believed me.

The experience was amazing. We queued up outside the gates and after security checks, we entered through the famous door and had a chance to walk around the prestigious building and up the renowned staircase with all the past prime ministers adorning the wall.

We had a talk from both Michelle Ovens MBE and from MP Stephen Barclay, with Baroness Fairhead also in attendance.

It was an amazing opportunity to be invited to go inside Downing Street and a memory that I will treasure forever.

You mention winning business Person of the Year in 2016 whilst going through a scary time personally. What is it that motivated you to keep on driving the business forward during this time?

It only feels scary if you sit and think about it, so I didn’t. I just pushed ahead and tried not to dwell on anything. You want to get on that train and just ride it, without looking at all the stops.

Karen awarded Business Person of the Year 2016

Being on the coast of a popular seaside town, there are a lot of competitors in your area. How do you try and stay ahead of them?

We use the awards we enter to raise awareness of our business and we find that word of mouth brings the customers through the doors, however, it is the experience customers receive when they come into the store that separates us from our competitors.

We make sure we are competitively priced and we greet each and every customer with a smile. Most importantly, we really try to listen to them and provide them with a service that they can’t get anywhere else.

We get a lot of repeat customers and have a lot of regulars which is always a good indicator that customers are pleased with us.

How important is word of mouth for your business?

Word of mouth is a big thing for us because people talk. You only have to do one bad thing to override 10 good things, which is why we are so keen to make sure our customer service is always exceptional.

“Bariatric products that are available are usually expensive and I understand that they have to be but the range and options available are usually very limited for our customers.” Karen Sheppard

It requires a lot of work to maintain a high standard of customer care but trying to change a customer’s bad opinion takes a lot more work. This is something that all our staff understand so the commitment to customer service is ingrained into everyone.

What do you see as being the biggest challenges facing the industry and your business in the coming years?

Internet sales are certainly the big one. Cheap prices, no assessment, lack of advice & training and customers’ buying the wrong products for their needs means that people are at risk and the strain on retailers is growing.

We find that this is something we are coming up against all the time. In the past, suppliers would only sell to brick and mortar shops but today it seems that they will sell to anybody, regardless of a showroom, training and the other factors needed to safely sell their products.

The internet sellers will just drop a scooter to somebody’s front door and the customer will not know anything about it. It’s dangerous and certainly a challenge that will need to be addressed.

I’m also finding that there is lack of products out there for heavier weight people. Peoples weight are increasing due to medical conditions and medications, so more bariatric options for products are needed.

There are still a lot of products out there that are still 18-stone max user weight and people are now 25 to 30-stone and there is a need for more products to reflect that.

Bariatric products that are available are usually expensive and I understand that they have to be but the range and options available are usually very limited for our customers.

A personal challenge I find is being a female boss and owner of a business. Even in today’s modern world, this can still be quite a challenge and it seems that in the world of mobility, a lot of businesses still seem to be run by men or by partnerships. I notice it when I go to business network meetings and events particularly.

What I find is often someone will enter the shop or call on the telephone and naturally will assume the male member of staff is the owner or that I am the owner’s wife.

It can be annoying some days when I am working 24/7 to make the business a success and give everything and people still make that assumption.

Do you find that this holds you back at all?

If anything, it gives me more determination to show that women can be just as successful.

On occasion, I have found that even dealing with suppliers who may not have entered the store before but want to sell something will walk straight past me and go directly to a male member of staff.

It is something that I think will need to continue to change in the industry.

What does the future hold for People First Mobility?

We are always looking for ways to drive it forward and improve because it is essential to be that one step ahead all the time. Continuously increasing our product range is something we are always looking at and personally, I would love to expand and open more shops throughout Lincolnshire as well.

Most importantly, ensuring that we continue to keep making our customers happy is the main goal for the future.

Awards season

People First Mobility Awards

2013: Queen of Twitter by @AquaDesignGroup – Winner
2013: #purplebiz Twitter Award – Winner
2013: #twittersisters Twitter Award – Winner
2013: Winner of Theo Paphitis’ Small Business Sunday competition
2015: Skegness Business Awards – Retailer of the Year – Finalist
2015: Skegness Business Awards – Customer Care Award – Finalist
2016: Skegness Business Awards –Retailer of the Year – Finalist
2016: Skegness Business Awards – Business Person of the Year – Winner
2016: Community Lincs Age Friendly Award – Winner
2016: Jacqueline Gold CBE #WOW Award – Winner
2017: Smart Social Twitter Award
2017: East Lindsey TED Age Friendly Award
2017: East Lindsey Business Awards – Independent Retailer of the Year – Finalist
2017: Skegness Business Awards – Retailer of the Year – Finalist
2017: Skegness Business Awards – Customer Care Award – Winner
2017: Small Business Saturday – #smallbiz100 – Winner

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