It didn’t matter how long I was in the motorcycle business; I always felt that the winter would never end, and it was the worst winter ever. Spring would come and I was always amazed by how much business there was, and always angry with myself for not being better prepared.
I should have planned events. An event is a great way to remind people how much fun it is to go for a ride and hang out with friends. Charity events worked the best for me because of all the free advertising and help available. Once the warm weather came and I was busy with customers, I had no time to work on an event. I would count on some of my more functional customers to make up for my procrastination. When I was busy working hard, it was difficult to remember that most of my better customers wished they worked in the shop. Most people want to raise their status in the motor-cycling community, and they get great recognition when they work on a charity event. The word “charity” allowed me to ask them to work hard for free. What a wonderful business.
Most charitable agencies have coordinators who help organize the event volunteers most productively. I also found it useful to get assistance from my competitors who also, because of poor planning did not prepare for events.
Even something as simple as riding for ice cream on Wednesday nights was good for business. People seemed to feel good about riding somewhere with their local shop owner, even more so if it got a mention in the shop newsletter.
It was easy for me to develop a bad attitude when I had more business than I could handle. I believe that one of the reasons people come into a motorcycle store is because they like to be reminded of what they love about motorcycling. I have found that if I have a bad attitude, I’m ruining exactly the feeling they came in for and driving customers away. I would spend about 30 minutes every day thinking about how wonderful it was to be in this business and how I was living the American dream. I also had to remind myself that without the customers, my dream would quickly turn into a nightmare. Some customers are not nice or reasonable, and when I was very busy, it was harder to take the abuse. But if I drove them away, I would miss them next winter. I hoped that the employees that I had carried through the winter months would be grateful, and, therefore, loyal and willing to work hard for long hours. I imagined that they would understand that the customer was the reason they had a job. I found it useful to remind them of these truths so that they could share my attitude. After all, those tiresome customers enable me to fund their paychecks.
The seasonal upturn in the business would require cash outlays for inventory, help, advertising, and a lot of little things. My dating orders would also be coming due. This was the time that my bank account was the most empty and I were the deepest into my credit line. The first few years that this happened, I found it counterintuitive. It seemed that if I were working harder, then I should have more money. I eventually learned to expect it, even though each year was the worst ever. I had to remember to work harder at collecting my receivables and delaying my payables. I always try to pay no bill before its time, but at this time of year, I would work a little harder to use other people’s money to finance my growth. Net 30 means to me that I get to borrow each month’s payable dollars forever for free. I love this business.
It seemed that at the end of a long day, when I was just about to lock the doors, a lot of customers would show up wanting to spend money. I took this as a cue that I needed to stay open later. I also found that they liked to drop off their bikes before they went to work, meaning I needed to open earlier. I have found it profitable to listen to my customers.
Don’t be afraid to hire a few extra people. A lot kid, a counter person, and a service writer come to mind. The lot kid is excited to have a summer job, and if he is a good fit, he can make you money by detailing motorcycles without much training. He can also wipe down the bikes that have been serviced and clean up the shop. As much as I don’t like to encourage an overinflated ego, saving the mechanic’s time on cleanup and pulling parts means more opportunity for billable hours.
I have had success with hiring a counter person with very little knowledge, but with the ability to entertain the customer until a more informed staffer can take over. A service writer can help the service department bill more hours even if he doesn’t know a whole lot about the technical stuff just by using good listening skills. I found that one service writer for three mechanics is about right.
This is the time of year to plan service jobs so that you have the parts and can get the motorcycle in and out the same day. I found it easy to forget to do this because I was so busy and spending a lot of time pushing motorcycles around in the service department. These activities made it even harder to find time to plan the work. I found that spending an hour each morning making sure that the service department ran smoothly and that we had the parts needed was time well spent.
I was dealing with customers who were angry because they had waited all winter to get their motorcycles serviced. My poor performance combined with their poor planning would often cause them to act badly when they would miss a day of nice-weather riding. Their problems seemed bigger to them because of their poor planning, and in their opinion, their poor planning was my fault. This was an important time to practice my listening skills.
It was easy to rush through the sales process and forget that the process begins with questions, and that listening is more important than talking. Even if I already know the answers, it helps to allow customers to articulate their desires. A good sale takes time, and trying to rush it is counterproductive. If I didn’t have time to do a good job, I would get the customer talking to other customers so they could share their love of motorcycling with each other. We always provided free coffee and we would have donuts on the weekends, so we were a good place to hang out. I found that both parties would usually end up buying something.
I’ve found that it’s easy to lose sight of the point of being in business, which is taking care of customers when there are too many of them. Now is the time to treat them well so that you can afford the worst winter ever.
Vance Breese has been involved in the motorcycle industry since 1965. While on the race circuit, he competed on every type of bike imaginable, crashing twice at Bonneville and hitting speeds well over 200 mph. Vance owned and operated a small Harley-Davidson dealership in Santa Maria, California, until a few years ago. In 1989, he founded Santa Maria Software, which produces Counterman, a point-of-sale system used by over 600 motorcycle dealers in the US. Vance has been a consultant to the motorcycle industry, and has performed financial analyses for various motorcycle dealerships across the country.