Friday, January 7, 2011

Pay it Forward Golf

Brian Dobak’s website “Pay It Forward Golf “ is a terrific read for anyone in the industry but particularly for his target audience of assistant pros. Brian is as fine a young man as I have had the pleasure to meet in the industry. He is enterprising, enthusiastic and energetic and you only have to know him ten minutes to realize to what extent he is exceptional as far as those qualities go. I was honored when he asked me if he could interview me for his blog and I am going to reproduce it here not so much to blow my own horn as his. I’m sure that his first head pro job is somewhere just around the corner and that someone is going to be very lucky to have given him that opportunity.

During the last weekend of August, Craig Kirchner, one of the countries leading golf retail consultants was visiting family in Jacksonville, Florida and we decided to rendezvous and have lunch together, accompanied by a great conversation about the golf business.

One of the things I learned about Craig is his approach to golf retail. Many of us might think that the hard part about merchandising a golf shop is the budgeting and buying, and the easy part is the selling aspect. But I think what you would quickly come to see by speaking with Craig and learning of his approach, is that it is quite the opposite. He actually simplifies the budgeting and purchasing process, and he tells vivid tales of how difficult it really is to sell.

While Craig’s philosophy is not revolutionary, the philosophy is under utilized in our business. What is his underlying philosophy that is the basis of his lucrative business? Service, and more importantly relationships, is what sells. Providing exemplary service by going above and beyond is hard to come by. And that can be confusing when all it takes is a mustard seed of initiative to "wow" a member or guest. Most think the deeper your level of service, the more money you have to spend to attain that service and that just isn’t accurate.

Service is not a product that you have to purchase. Service is not a tangible object or something you can touch and feel. Service is a way. It is an approach. It is even a decision that does not cost anything if you are thinking “outside the box”. Being well staffed does not amount to great service. You can be very well staffed and the service might still be less than impressive. Your ability to serve your members and guests can certainly correlate to the QUANTITY of staff, but it most definitely does not hinge on it. Ultimately, the be all and end all of the degree of service you provide is found within the QUALITY of your staff.

These aren’t the only things I learned from Craig though. The afternoon with Craig was the case of a golf professional and a golf retail consultant sharing their passion for the golf business.

If there is one thing Craig is not without, it’s perspective in the golf retail business. Before breaking into golf retail, Craig’s experience in general retail dates back to 1980 when he worked for Joseph A. Bank’s SWAT Team responsible for opening new stores, closing stores, and hiring and training sales staffs. Craig then found golf retail. Craig was given an opportunity to jump aboard an up-and-coming company called IZOD as a sales representative in the Mid-Atlantic. Craig also worked as a sales associate for Ashworth in the mid 90’s. Then from 1995 to 2000, he served as the Vice President of Sales for the IZOD Golf division. After some time in that role, Craig decided the days of working for somebody else was over and he ventured out on his own.

He often helped some friends merchandise their golf shops and consulted them in the process. It wasn’t long before they told him to simply “start charging us for your consulting”. Enter stage right: SPS Consulting. It started with a blog, The Successful Pro Shop, and turned into a business. Since establishing SPS Consulting, Craig has worked with some of the finest clubs and events in the country including Robert Trent Jones Golf Club, Bulle Rock, Old Chatham, The Hasentree Club, Kinloch Golf Club, Park Country Club, Belle Haven Country Club, The Patterson Club, and the merchandising operations for the 2005 President’s Cup, the 2001-2005 McDonald’s LPGA Championships, and multiple U.S. Open Championships.

Given his experience, when I asked Craig what were some ways assistant professionals can be better salesmen in their pro shops, he followed with some great insight.

“Being good at anything usually involves being confident. Being confident in sales begins with knowing what you are talking about. Training golf staffs to be better at retail involves planning product knowledge seminars with your vendors and having round table discussions about service and sales. Bettering yourself involves taking every advantage of information available and reading things like Pay It Forward Golf. We recently had Andy Plate from Polo speak at Old Chatham not only about the new line but Polo’s new management, attitude, and marketing. Dean Hurst at Bayville now sets up his vendor meetings so that the entire golf staff can see the line and spend time with the rep. It all really begins with understanding the service aspect of retail and realizing that anyone walking into a retail space deserves to be acknowledged and provided quality assistance. The challenge in each shop should be to know three things about any item in inventory that aren’t readily apparent so as to be able to strike up an interesting conversation.”

When listening to Craig, the old adage of “knowledge is power” certainly comes to mind and it is quite fitting in these circumstances. You really can’t be good at something unless you are knowledgeable of it. Confidence comes from having knowledge in a particular field or career path. If you think back to your early apprentice days, or you may be a young apprentice right now, you may have or are probably lacking some degree of confidence because you don't have the stripes on your shoulder that come with experience. If you are not knowledgeable of the product in your golf shop, it will be difficult for you to sell it and sell it with confidence. However with time, patience, and proactive effort on your part to educate yourself, that confidence will arrive.

Craig has worked with some of the finest clubs and he has spent time with his fair share of assistant professionals. I asked Craig about what he thinks sets the great assistant professionals apart from the "not so great" ones?

“They understand that they are in a service industry wrapped around a great game and that it’s not just about playing golf. They know how important it is to anticipate customer needs and recognize how it correlates to their success and the success of their club or facility. They are genuinely empathetic and make everyone feel at home and they develop the skills to become good at teaching and inspiring others to do the same. Assistant pros looking to become head professionals must realize that the most important qualifier is the ability to produce a winning culture and believe that exemplary service creates sales and word of mouth marketing.”

It speaks volumes to think about what the root of what we do really is and what makes us successful. Being a great player is certainly helpful, being able to run a tournament flawlessly is important, being able to teach the game of golf is no doubt critical to our success as golf professionals. We can have all of these strengths, but if our weakness is anticipating customer needs, or our ability to serve others, or of lacking empathy and making people feel at home, or if our weakness is in teaching and inspiring others to do all of these things. If these aren’t strengths, then we will continue to miss the boat and struggle to rise to the success we might hope for in this business. The best and most engaging assistant professionals are the ones that embrace the servant-mentality and put the customer first at all times.

As golf professionals, we always seem to be asking our reps for something, i.e. product, orders, ship date leeway, free-bees, etc. At some point, the sooner the better, we need to stop and ask our rep/consultant, what can we do for you? I asked Craig that simple question and he aptly stated:

“Pro’s should understand that the vendors want to get the golf staff educated as much as the leader should. Every vendor should be given the time, space, audience and opportunity to make golf professionals aware of their product. Consultants should be leading the way with this process and their knowledge of retail and service should be given full co-operation.”

Think about it. How often do you have product knowledge seminars at your facility? Do you work at a club where not much energy is devoted to educating staff in this manner? When product is received and merchandised on the floor, are you knowledgeable of the product? Is it a knowledge that is befitting of a golf professional? Or is the product merchandised and expected to sell by itself with out much fanfare from the staff?

Moving on to our next topic of discussion. If we’re on the verge of transitioning into our first Head Professional position, a great question to ask yourself is, what should I do first when I arrive to the club from a retail standpoint? When I am finally called upon to run a golf shop, what should be my first steps in the transition? Craig gave some great advice that should help us during our path.

“Create a buy plan that revolves around healthy inventory levels – that makes your shop well merchandised but not over-inventoried. Develop the culture and staffing that we have discussed above realizing that one bad apple can ruin everything. A HP is only as good as the weakest link on staff. It's all about people and wanting to do business with them.”

Service is people. As I wrote earlier in this article, service is not a product and it is not something that is tangible, or something you can hold. If you give a member a gift as an expression of appreciation for their loyalty to the pro shop, it is not the gift that is the service rather it is the gesture that represents the service. Not the gift...the gesture. Service is people and relationships and without a great staff that genuinely lives this mantra, then you may always be fighting a very uphill battle.

With regard to the process of always educating ourselves, I asked Craig about what books he could recommend that would help us take our “games” to the next level. He offered some great suggestions:

“Every head pro should give a copy of ‘Hug Your Customer’ by Jack Mitchell as Christmas gifts to his staff this holiday. “The Winning Golf Culture” and “Merchandise Buy Plan Guide” that I have available were written specifically for golf pros wanting to get better at their trade. I highly suggest that all golf professionals, no matter their niche, pick up these reads."

In particular, Craig’s book, “The Winning Golf Culture”, is the summation of his philosophies as a golf shop retail consultant. In explaining his book, Craig states,

“The opportunity for the golf industry and more specifically golf retail to separate itself from the box-store mentality of no-service has never been more poignant. Fine men’s clothing stores are fast going the way of full-service gas stations but a goodly number of their customers are members of the local club. Many of the shops at these clubs are a revamped product selection and tweaked salesmanship level away from being able to replace this part of their member’s lives and this is the reason I wrote “The Winning Golf Culture”.

“There is no question that the best prospect for a new member is a wowed guest and that customer loyalty is the by-product of proactive customer service. One thing that will never change is that people patronize those shops that make them feel special and avoid buying from those where they are ignored. Cutting-edge service is what it is all about. “The Winning Golf Culture” is in some ways the summation of that guarantee but by no means the last word.”

We will be posting Orlando Preview interviews at with Tom Nolan from Polo, Todd Martin with Peter Millar, Chris Heyn with Summit Brands and Marshall Mancillas with Carnoustie over the next few weeks and take a look at Pay It Forward, the link is to the right under "Sites To Visit".