Friday, October 2, 2009

Shop employees are like Satan’s angels

Last night about 8:30 p.m., a splitboarder picked up two A.T. skiers to go to a telemark ski movie together. What is the world coming to? Actually, it was all for a good cause, as the screening of Flakes supported the Utah Avalanche Center.

If you missed it the last two nights, it’s showing again tonight at Brewvies. Grab a date (I think last night, I was officially Jon’s date and Aaron was the third wheel, though I forgot to wear the pushup bra—good thing Dr. John’s shares a parking lot with Brewvies) and go take in the flick. The footage is great, much of it from our local spots here in the Wasatch, and I promise by the end of the film, you’ll get used to the drop-knee turns. Unless you’re Dustin, in which case the drop-knee turns looked totally normal.

Seeing lines we ski on a regular basis featured in a ski movie reminded me of just how far I’ve come as a backcountry skier since I started a few years ago. When I started, I knew pretty much nothing. I just had a colleague who did it, and it sounded like fun, so I bought some gear and decided to give it a try.

I would have never survived without the help of some trusted advisors. Initially, I relied on Bob, my colleague, for advice. After moving to Utah, Dug became my trusted advisor for all things backcountry skiing.

Dug will be the first one to tell you he doesn’t know everything about backcountry skiing, but he knows a few critical things, including snow safety basics; how to choose the right gear and supplies for a given tour; and, most importantly, I think 80% of his brain mass functions as a GPS and topographical map of the Wasatch mountains. He knows just about every route up every peak and what will be good when.

Similarly, when I started road racing, I certainly knew how to ride a bike, but I knew very little about the ins and outs of categorized road racing. As I’ve become more serious about it, Alex has become my trusted advisor. Like Dug, Alex may not know everything about road racing, but he knows the critical things, having done many of the races that are new to me and having been through the upgrade process and selected teammates. If he doesn’t know the answer to a certain question, he knows someone who does. His advice and connections have proven invaluable.

Whether cycling, hiking, racing, or running, a trusted advisor is a critical element of success in any endeavor. Which is why bike and ski shop employees are like Satan’s angels. The classic Christian paradigm for how Satan tempts God-fearing people to go astray is that he takes a good chunk of truth and mixes in just a touch of deception so that one thinks what one is doing is OK or maybe not that big of a deal until finally the sinner is so far off track he or she doesn’t care any more.

Similarly, bike and ski shop employees often give advice that’s like Satan’s temptations. What they’re saying may be 80% true and nearly always makes sense, but often they have another agenda, whether that’s pushing a particular line or getting you to buy something that will kind of fill your needs when something else they either don’t offer or that just isn’t in stock would actually be much better.

The economics of the industry are such that shop employees are almost never highly-paid professionals who know their products and their competitors’ products inside and out and will offer knowledgeable, objective advice knowing that by doing so, even if it means losing business today, the trust gained will return itself many times over tomorrow.

More often, they’re students or young kids who may or may not even ride as much as you do. If you’re a roadie, the employee you’re talking to may be a gravity-focused mountain biker who’s never even been on a road bike. It could be the owner’s nephew who’s way into motorcycles, doesn’t ride bicycles, but needed a job for the summer. You never know and never will know unless you prepare yourself to discern good advice from bad.

That’s where the trusted advisor comes into play. If you have a difficult question or are contemplating a purchase involving a significant outlay of cash, the shop is the wrong place to find the answer. Most shops like nothing more than a person walking in saying “I want a bike of a certain type and this is my budget.” They know they’ve got you. So long as they can offer skinny tires if you’re looking for skinny tires or fat tires if you’re looking for fat, the sale is theirs. Even if they only offer one line and that line happens to be a poor fit for your needs.

A better approach is to consult with your trusted advisor and find the things you should be looking for when making a purchase. Then you can go to a variety of shops and know what questions to ask. The holy grail is when your trusted advisor helps you prepare to make a decision and then you find the rare shop staffed by knowledgeable, honest employees whose first priority is seeing your needs are met.

Once you’ve found a good shop, it becomes like a three-legged stool: your trusted advisor is the sounding board against which you bounce ideas and begin to formulate a direction; the shop, with whom you should establish a relationship so that they know you by name, facilitates the decisions after you and your trusted advisor have ruled out the 90% of options that aren’t a good choice; and finally you, as the decision maker, apply sound judgment, understanding your needs, budget, and subjective factors such as feel better than anyone else.

Once you’ve found the right shop, you begin to ask direct, intelligent questions that don’t waste their time, and you demonstrate loyalty in exchange for the sound advice they have offered you. It becomes a relationship rather than a series of transactions. Don’t be surprised if they begin to give you a discount because they recognize you as a valued customer.

When this happens, reward the shop by planning ahead. For instance, if you have an event coming up and you need a particular item, go a couple weeks beforehand to pick it up or just call and ask. That way if it’s not in stock, they have time to order. (Most shops place orders every Monday or Tuesday and have them in stock by Wednesday or Thursday.) Never snub a shop that’s treated you right by ordering something from the Internet and asking them to install it. If you think you’re so smart you can buy stuff without a local shop, you better be smart enough to install and maintain the crap yourself.

Finally, in your interactions with trusted advisors, pay attention. If you discuss something where your trusted advisor pointed you in the right direction but didn’t have the final answer, follow up once you find the answer. Educate yourself and eventually pay it forward by becoming a trusted advisor to someone else. You don’t have to have all the answers, you just need to know a few critical things.


  1. The first sentence of your post sounds like the beginning of a really bad joke. The possibilities and punchlines for that joke would have been endless.

    Great shops are tough to come by. Honestly, until the past few years I wondered whether one existed at all.

  2. my friend (and fellow co-worker) turned me on to your blog and i'm stoked on your article!

    as someone who has worked outdoor retail for over ten years, and currently manages a mountain shop, it was with great interest i read your article.

    my question to readers would be - what makes a mountain shop "good"? we pride ourselves on playing as hard as we work, living the mountain lifestyle so we can convey this expertise to customers. we don't want to sell people gear, we want to educate them and allow them to make their own choice, regardless of what that may be and if it even involves us.

    and i agree with you - good shops are really hard to find. i cringe when i walk into most other shops - clothes not folded, egotistical employees, etc. the challenge we face is how can we convince customers that our expertise is worth their dollar, and that we don't get used as a marketing tool for internet dealers. how to solidify the loyalty of the local dollar so to speak.

    i'd love to hear feedback from a bunch of folks in this forum! thanks for a stellar article!

  3. What? I’m your trusted road racing advisor? Oh man, I better go read some books or something so I can sound knowledgeable…

  4. In response to Brendan: As someone new to this sport, what impresses me most in shops are salespeople that are not afraid to tell you what you need to hear, not necessarily what you want to hear. I want someone to say "don't buy that, it's crap" even if it is something on their shelves. Assess my needs and my level and point me in the right direction even if choose to walk away.

  5. Brendan, my take is that "living the mountain lifestyle" isn't nearly as important as just knowing your stuff and being honest. I don't care if you've never used a product if you know what you're talking about. I also don't care for the endorsement of a shop employee "oh, yeah, this is what I use." I want to know why I should use it (not why you choose to use it, because we're different people with different needs) and why it's a better choice than a competitive offering.

    I tend to do my homework beforehand, and nothing screams "run" louder than going into a shop and hearing the employee tell me something that is contrary to what a manufacturer says in their own literature or that just doesn't pass the sniff test. I expect someone who sells a particular product for a living to know as much about it as I do.

    And no matter what, don't try to sell me something that you and I both know doesn't fill my needs but is a temporary stop-gap measure. Either offer to order me the right product or refer me to a shop that has it.

    Finally, if I'm a loyal customer or send business your way, give me a discount. I know this is inviting a huge debate as to whether you can or should offer me a discount, but my experience has been that once I establish a relationship with a shop, the good ones reward my loyalty. And I'm absolutely more loyal to the places that give me good advice and better than retail pricing.

  6. awesome, this is great feedback.

    i think the overriding issue here is the state of shops in the outdoor industry and more importantly, the mentality they carry within their four walls. for most, it is business and bottom line. based on the tone of your commentary, you have either had some pretty poor shop experiences and/or you have less than adequate shops in your community.

    honesty is a given, which for us goes without saying. never do we try to sell items to customers they don't need. this gets back to the education responsibility of a good retail employee, qualifying your customer, and honestly, just being a good person. the bottom line is it is just smart business as well because if you burn someone once, you've lost them and probably everyone in their immediate circle for good.

    it is interesting to hear that you don't care if someone has used a product, but still somehow know what they are talking about. can you know how that carbon fibre frame corners, or that pow ski floats, or that pack fits if you've never used it? however, this gets back to the state of most shops, which mold i would say we don't fall in to - we actually live the life that most shops espouse to live and consequently do know how stuff works. we aren't convinced companies do enough product research anyway - too often we test something that sucks, and we refuse to buy! would you rather have the common employee regurgitate something they've heard at a clinic or read or their bro told them? here is an example - every winter we rigorously test at and tele skis and choose 7-8 that we feel very strongly about. not to say all the others suck, just that we really like these for our conditions, our customer, etc. then we can qualify someone, and steer them to a particular model whether we have it or not based on comprehensive knowledge. additionally, i concur that what you use as an employee bears absolutely zero weight in qualifying the customer in order to determine what is best for them.

    and as for discounts, well, yes, that is a huge debate. but, it is also a very timely one, given the fact that you can basically get anything cheaper on line, if you look hard enough. the reality is that the future of most brick and mortar is severely threatened by the internet discounting. so my question is if you know you have an honest bunch of employees (5-6 in our case) that gear test for big name companies, ski more vertical than most members of the community, and are just plain pleasant to deal with and totally know their shit - isn't that reason enough to spend? obviously these folks don't work on commission, get paid hourly, and just want to help you find what gets you out there to have fun. i understand basic discounts, that i agree with, packages, rebate programs, etc. but it speaks to a larger cultural issue of entitlement. do you ask for a discount at mcdonald's or lowe's or best buy? and while i don't disagree that discounts aren't warranted, that good customers are marketing tools for your business, when you have 35% of your profit eaten up on a daily basis just to open your doors, and you offer stellar expertise, there should be some middle ground between both parties. isn't that the goal in most things anyway, middle ground? it could be argued that if you like shop loyalty, it should go both ways. and if you value that expertise, the consumer should be willing to support that shop regardless of discount or not. what happens if the shop isn't there to mount those skis you bought on line or guide you through product choices? the reality though, is that this issue is compounded by the fact that most shop employees are chumps, honestly.

    i love the back and forth, it is highly informative and totally respect your opinions!

  7. Brendan, thanks for keeping the lively discussion going. First things first--as for "it is interesting to hear that you don't care if someone has used a product..." it really depends on what the product is. But let's use skis as an example. Let's say someone is a park skier, and they have tried a bunch of park skis and have one in particular they really like and are recommending to everyone no matter what. I don't ski park, and I probably won't like that ski.

    Alternatively, if the park skier hasn't tried a particular AT ski, but has read all the reviews in the various magazines, paid attention to what people are saying on the forums, and most importantly, listened carefully to what my needs are as a skier, and then recommends a particular ski based on that information, I'd prefer the latter case to the former.

    Similarly, boots are so particular to a given foot. A bunch of guys I ski with are in BD Factors (one of our crew is director of R&D at BD). They love them, swear by them, say they're the best boot ever. Well they don't fit my feet AT ALL, so they're a lousy boot for me. I'd rather have someone who knows that a Scarpa or Dynafit last is going to fit my foot better and recommends that, even if that boot doesn't fit his foot at all and he's never tried it.

    Of course the best situation is someone who has used the gear he recommends as well as the competitive offerings and can speak intelligently about all of them and why a particular recommendation is best for local conditions or an individual's needs. Sounds like that's what you strive for--that's good.

    As for discounts, well that is tricky. I understand the economics of the business. If you can't afford a discount, make it up in service. For instance, if you sell boots, maybe you charge full retail but do all the boot fitting for free. I'll be loyal to a shop that offers that. On the bike side, I almost always go to Revolution. They would rather get 80% of retail on 100% of my business than 100% of retail on a much smaller amount of my business. So even for no-brainer items like seatposts or tubes, I still go there. But like I said before, make it a relationship rather than a series of transactions. If you can't offer a discount, explain why and what I get instead.

    I don't expect a discount at McDonalds or the grocery store, because I don't have a relationship with them. I buy based on cost and utility and nothing else. Some bike and ski items I buy based on cost and utility. A discount makes sense there. With other items, like ski boots, service is a critical component. I don't expect a discount there and may even pay more than retail if the fit work justifies it.

    Finally, a note about our local shops. They're not all good, I'll admit that. But the good ones, like Revolution and Racer's, are good enough to earn a very loyal following. They do the kinds of things you describe. I've raced with and against Racer, but he's also the best mechanic around. Melissa and Ty from Revolution are out tearing it up on the local dirt scene as well. They know their stuff and are in the business because they're passionate about it. But they also recognize that they need more than passion for the sport to be successful, so they work hard at the other things too.

    By the way, what is your shop and where are you located?

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