MARKHAM, Ontario, Canada—When the kid with the slingshot approached the giant, they all laughed. After all, how could a boy of such diminutive stature compete against someone of such colossal proportion?
The rest, as they say, is history.
In the biblical tale, David indeed conquered Goliath, just like in some business circles where similar battles are waged day in and day out among small, scrappy companies and their large-and-in-charge competitors.
When Sam Geist strides into a room, his weapon of choice is a metaphorical slingshot. As the former owner/operator of a chain of sporting goods stores, he went up against some of the big boys, and lived to tell of it. Now on the lecture circuit, he says he offers businesses ``the tools to do the job today, the ideas to do the job tomorrow.''
Earlier this year, during an annual meeting in Florida of Goodyear's Kelly-Springfield Tire Co. unit, Mr. Geist presented independent dealers with their own slingshots in the form of a number of tips focused on helping them ``meet the challenge of Goliath.''
In this case, the big guy was in the guise of ``the grandaddy of the box stores''—Wal-Mart Stores Inc.
The author of several books— including Why should someone do business with you?—Mr. Geist heads Ontario-based Geist & Associates Inc., which has conducted seminars and workshops for various corporations, including some of North America's largest.
Tire dealers can indeed compete against giant retailers such as Wal-Mart, he assured. But first, they have to understand Wal-Mart's operational strategies, people strategies, its strengths and weaknesses. Then they need to use that information to ``differentiate themselves advantageously from their competitor.''
The Wal-Mart of today is a ``massive machine,'' he stated, then providing several reasons why the company is so successful:
It presents a strong assortment of in-stock merchandise;
It has ``Every-day low prices''—always, and a low expense level;
It uses technology aggressively and offers superior customer service that exceeds expectations;
Its ``people program'' excels because the company treats its ``associates'' (employees) as partners and offers opportunities for profit sharing;
It has a low resistance to change;
It operates under a ``sense of urgency'' and uses a push-down decision-making process that gives its front-line people the authority to meet customers' needs and solve their problems without being overburdened by layers of management checks and balances;
It is not complacent.
How many of those points, Mr. Geist asked dealers, do your businesses excel in?
The answer could spell the difference between making the ``playing field'' a bit more level. It could also determine whether a company fails, simply survives, or successfully thrives.
Part of Wal-Mart's success hinges on its in-store alliances with other well-known retailers and operations that are giants in their own respect.
They include: McDonalds fast-food cafeterias; a Popular Mechanics hardware program; boutique-like cosmetics with designer names such as Elizabeth Arden, Polo and Passion; an upgraded look in its apparel departments—``Why are they in the fashion business? They manage the mix better than anyone else,'' he said; and services such as optical, prescriptions, film and photo developing.
Though few can compete blow-by-blow with giant retailers, a tire dealership can differentiate itself from competitors, Mr. Geist said, by using the example of the giants. That means developing business strategies that can withstand a volatile marketplace, ``whether it involves your operations, purchasing, customer service, research or follow up.''
To define what makes a company ``different and special,'' he said an owner needs to ask, ``Who are we?''
Then the following must be determined: What kind of company are we? What do we stand for? What do we represent? Do we know what's going on in our market? What are the opportunities and threats? Where do we fit in the marketplace? Where will we be in five years?
He also suggested a business owner answer these important questions:
Why should somebody do business with you?
If your major competitor was asked the same question, how would they answer?
Would you buy from you?
What is your core business?
What business are you in?
Who in your industry has ``fire in their belly''?
If there was one thing you could change in your business environment, what would it be?
Making a company visible ``in a world blinded by choice and by overexposure'' requires that a business create a strategic marketing map so clear, so inviting, Mr. Geist said, ``that you become the premier destination in your customers' consciousness, in your customers' plans.''
``The more you sell yourself,'' he added, ``the more you'll sell.''
However, don't simply sell ``things.''
To a clothes merchant, that means not selling clothes, but instead ``neat appearance, style, attractiveness.''
``Don't sell me shoes, sell me foot comfort and the pleasure of walking in the open air,'' Mr. Geist continued. ``Don't sell me food, sell me happiness and the pleasure of taste. Don't sell me plows, sell me golden fields of waving wheat.
``Don't sell me things, sell me ideals, feelings, self-respect, homelife, happiness.''
For a tire dealer, that means not just selling tires, but selling the perception of that product's reliability and safety for a family.
As for customer service, it must go beyond simply saying, ``May I help you?'' You've actually got to mean it.
He urged dealers to be detail oriented, practice ``heroic service,'' get close to customers—and staff and suppliers, as well—by dialoguing and keeping the avenues of communication open.
``You enter into a contract with every potential customer,'' he said, ``so don't waste their time.''
A customer promises to spend his or her precious time, perhaps a Saturday afternoon, at a store; they've gone out of their way to visit you, he said, even though they're busy; and they plan to spend their hard-earned money.
On the other hand, a business owner must promise to have the needed item in stock; offer up-to-date merchandise; create a great experience; give good value; employ knowledgeable staff; and ensure an easy-to-shop environment.
Remember, ``your price is your image, your customer service is your reputation,'' he noted.
Because the purpose of a business is to get—and keep—customers, Mr. Geist urged dealers to ``make certain that irrefutable fact is exemplified in everything you do everyday.''
Control the controllable, he emphasized, adding: ``It's not what you know, it's what you do with what you know.''