Friday, August 19, 2011

Bicycle Consultation Services Offered Here!

Just kidding, I think.

We at HC only make money when customers spend money at the shop. Actually, it's not that simple. As a brick-and-mortar shop, we have to pay rent for our physical presence and have tools and staff and inventory, not to mention insurance, on-hand to take care of problems, answer questions, give good advice, etc, on demand, whenever a customer or potential customer walks through the door. These things cost money even when we're not working on a paid project. So maybe it's more accurate to say that we only make money when we've already paid our expenses and customers spend more money at the shop. Don't take this as a complaining: I love my job, and I certainly am not in it for the money (I take home a low-ish income, but have a modest lifestyle, so it seems to work). Based on my talks with friends, I feel lucky to have a job that I love, while so many are seemingly tormented by their daily grind.

There's a famous bicycle frame-builder, who is also reputed to be a curmudgeon, named Bruce Gordon. You might be able to imagine the work-life of an upper-echelon frame-builder like Bruce. A customer calls out of the blue to discuss a new frame order. The builder drops whatever he's working on to talk to the customer, perhaps for hours, patiently answering all the good questions and the stupid questions and assuaging serious and petty concerns. If the builder is lucky, the customer has credit card in-hand and makes a deposit on the spot. Done! The frame will be be built in 16 months! Two days later, the customer calls again to discuss the feasibility of using some vintage water-bottle cage braze-on he discovered on some photo on the internet. With a 16 month wait, the frame-builder has a lot of projects to work on, and there is ample time for the customer to ruminate on trivialities, and change his mind 95 times even about the basic genre of the bike! NOW is not the time to spend an hour on the phone talking about ANY aspect of the project that isn't due for more than a year. I used Bruce Gordon as an example in this case because of a term attributed to him, which succinctly sums up these customers and these conversations: time toilets.

I'm sure every profession has its own version of the time toilet: the little things that take a lot of time, but serve no productive purpose. My time toilets usually involve what I would consider a "consultation", where I provide a great deal of technical information and real-world expertise that helps the customer make an informed decision about, say, an expensive potential bicycle purchase, but the customer ultimately isn't serious, or buys elsewhere. I offer this consultation free of charge, in the belief that the customer is acting with the good faith intention of actually buying a bicycle. I remember one guy called me many times a few years ago, in regard to some fairly expensive bike I was selling. He was obviously a neurotic wreck about every detail of the purchase, and I spent many hours tying up the line talking to the guy, helping him dial in all the details and sooth his demons. Weeks later, he called me to victoriously announce that he'd purchased the same bike elsewhere for slightly less than my asking price, but he thanked me profusely for all the good info I gave him and pledged to buy some fenders from me in the future. That conversation ended abruptly, and he never did order the fenders. That was a somewhat extreme case, but illustrative in the sense that I've started to observe that the amount of time spent in consultation is inversely proportional to the likelihood that the person will actually buy the bicycle. I'm even starting to suspect that the long consultations are actually more a therapy session than a process of making a knowledgeable purchase of a bicycle.

I recently had the good fortune to work with an attorney on a matter unrelated to HC business. His initial 30 minute consultation was free, but after that his hefty hourly rate is billed in 1/10 hour increments. Even a simple 2-line email from him, containing little or no useful info, costs me 1/10 of an hour ($28.50). I regret all the more substantive, useful emails I've sent for free! Anyway, this gave me the bright idea to apply a similar approach to bicycle consultations. If I suspect that the discussion is becoming a time-toilet, I'm going to ask for a retainer or a credit card to keep on file before we go forward. I'll only charge $100/hr, and up to a point, it can be credited toward an actual purchase. Don't worry, if you're not a time-toilet, I won't ask. But if I ask, then you know...

4 comments:

Sean said...

Brilliant!

jim_h said...

"...the amount of time spent in consultation is inversely proportional to the likelihood that the person will actually buy the bicycle. "

In the technology business we use the phrase "analysis paralysis" to describe this behavior pattern.

Rich R. said...

Podium!

A. Mother said...

I would say, close the deal incrementally all along the way, asking for the credit card number for a deposit on the bike. You'll weed out the strokers quickly.