What buying a new lawn mower can teach your small business about features and benefits, customer service and engaging with your customers.
First, it was spark plugs, and then the petrol wasn’t fresh enough. Then the oil was a teeny bit on the thick side. Next, the air filter had a bit of dust until finally, the primer decided to go out in sympathy.
I nursed it through many many visits to the mower shop where it got to hang out with its younger cousins, but the day finally came when the mower decided it would go no more.
I reluctantly took my ancient mower to the trash and treasure shop at the local tip, to give an enthusiastic hobbyist a chance to make it like new again.
I gave my mower a pat and a word of thanks for the 15 years of great service and then drove away. As I glanced back in the rear-view mirror, I caught a glimpse of it sitting sullenly in the sunshine.
A New Beginning
It was time to fill the now achingly empty gap in the garden shed with a new mower, as my overgrown lawn would have thrilled a flock of greedy goats.
15 years on from my last mower purchase, a lot had changed with how people bought mowers.
In those days I simply went to my nearest chain store, found a mower in my budget and bought it. No research. No messing around. I just bought what was on the shelf.
This time I started with the Choice Magazine reviews of mowers to check their assessment of the sparkling new mowers off the manufacturing line and to get an idea of what to look for.
But I knew that wasn’t enough. What works well when shiny and new, can quickly fail once the gloss has faded.
I moved onto Product Review sites, to get a view from current owners. I know that people who are unhappy with a product are more likely to leave a review than happy people, and tend to discount one or two bad reviews in an otherwise satisfied group. But when the unhappy reviews dramatically outweigh the happy, then I know that there is something to watch for with that particular model.
That double-check whittled my mower selection down to just one that theoretically on paper would be able to cope with the soggy hill of doom with a 35 degree angled slope – a Toro.
I checked the manufacturer to find a local stockist of that mower and found there was only one on my side of town … a supa-sized mowing store on the north side of Brisbane.
I Googled the store to get the location, and couldn’t help but notice the swathe of 1-2-star ratings for customer service for the store.
Gulp! “Anyone can have an off day or three,” I thought, then headed to the store.
On first glance, it looked fantastic. It was filled to overflowing with rows of shiny new mowers all calling “pick me, pick me.”
I paced up and down the aisles until I spotted my target mower, but given how it was displayed I needed a salesperson to take it down so I could test the handle position and manoeuvrability. However, there were no salespeople to be seen.
I wandered aimlessly around the store for another 15 minutes trying to find a salesperson, before finally heading to the spare parts department.
I could see three people at desks in offices just off the spare parts area. All were busily looking at magazines. All had perfected the art of not looking up or making eye contact, even under the strength of my mum stare that usually can make the most intractable child fall into line.
The “let’s pretend I am not here” game continued for another 5 minutes until I finally said, “Excuse me. Can someone please sell me a mower?”
One salesperson reluctantly ripped their gaze from the pages of the magazine they were looking at and pushed their chair back from the desk, with all the enthusiasm of a sulky teenager being told to leave their Call of Duty game when dinner is ready.
“Which one lady?”
“The Toro AWD”
“Oh. That’s Mac’s (not his real name) area. I will see if I can find him.”
The sulky teenager disappeared out the back. Muttering was heard, and then 5 minutes later Mac appeared.
He pointed to the mower I had been looking at. “Here it is,” Mac said
“Could you please bring it down, so I can test how it handles?”
This was greeted with a deep sigh and rolled eyes. After a moment’s hesitation, he lifted it off the display stand and then shoved it on the ground. Then silently stood back.
“So, can you tell me how the controls work as this is my first power mower?”
“You hold this handle, and then squeeze this handle to the first one, and then reach out and squeeze this third one to the other two and then steer with your thumbs.” This was said in a fast monotone.
I repeated back the instructions and then attempted to squeeze and hold three differently shaped handles that did not dovetail into each other, while simultaneously manoeuvring a massively heavy machine with spinning blades of death beneath them … only by my thumbs.
It was not pretty. It was akin to patting your head and rubbing your stomach while dancing Swan Lake on pointe.
“Are you sure this is how you use this machine? The design seems a bit clumsy.”
“Well. That crosses the Toro off my list. Are there any other machines that have a better design for the power drive and emergency stop handles?”
“Nope. They are all the same. It’s a bloke thing. You wouldn’t understand.”
I could feel my all-to-well-known combined feelings of anger and shame explode in my stomach. I hated feeling ashamed that the salesperson obviously thought I was just a woman and that made me incapable of rational thought. Yes, I am a woman, but I can spot poor design when I see it.
I left the shop seething and was about to head to the nearest chain store and buy the first machine I saw, when my youngest daughter loudly repeated to me, “Don’t rage shop. You will regret it!”
I hate it when my kids have wisdom beyond their years!
I shared my story of my mower expedition on my personal Facebook page, and the comments exploded.
My feed was initially filled with women sharing their experience at that not so supa shop (my experience was sadly typical).
The feed then morphed into person after person sharing their tips about their mowers and what they liked and disliked. There were links to superb tiny mowing shops with terrible online presences that did not show what they did or how amazing they were, as well as links to alternative mowers to consider.
I never realised before, but people are super engaged with their mowers.
My friends are an extremely eclectic mix of all age groups and demographics. Every one of them had a strong opinion about what mowers were best.
As my friend Sharon said, “It’s a funny thing – I hate cars and any other engine related pursuit, but I love my four-stroke, self-propelled, key start lawnmower.”
People felt so strongly about their mowers that they also direct messaged me and even called me with more information about their mowers.
After being sent unsolicited videos of my friends using their mowers and a mountain of information, coupled with personal testimonials, I ended up checking out a mower that I hadn’t even considered in my first round of research.
I found a stockist near me (thankfully not a supastore but a Trade Store instead), and popped over to check it out in person.
The customer service from Trade Tools was first class from the first call to check if it was in stock, through to the instore experience. The salespeople were friendly, more than happy to share information and education, and treated me like a regular human being and not a silly, ditzy woman.
They got the sale, and my new 52cm 56V battery-powered, self-propelled Ego mower gleefully came home in the back of the car.
I was unboxing my new mower in my driveway when the first person arrived to check it out. My pruning guy was almost more excited than I was with the mower, helping to pull it out of the box and assemble it. He couldn’t wait to get it started and take it for a test run!
After driving the shiny new mower, he stood there staring at it the same way that a pre-schooler does when their best friend has an ice-cream, and they don’t. The wanting was palpable. “You’ve done real good Missus,” was his comment.
Then my kids had a go, including the one who had never mown before. They both declared it a hit and then started to niggle at each other over who would get to mow next.
As I was mowing the front median strip, three of my neighbours pulled over in their cars as they were driving past, just so they could try the new mower out. Mowers have replaced new cars as the talking point of neighbourhoods.
Finally, my wonderful next-door neighbour and his son came over to test out the mower, with their son carefully taking down the details of where to buy it in case he could convince his dad to get a new mower.
Mowers definitely bring out the passion in people!
Putting the Wow in
What was the feature that they all talked about most? Once they had gotten over the quietness and instant start, it was the headlights that the mower had.
Now, headlights on a mower will probably be extremely rarely used. But they were enough of a wow factor to make people talk. When they were talking with their spouses, they would all say, “It does this and this and this … and it has headlights!” (Said in the same way that women comment about pockets in dresses).
My new mower has now taken up pride of place in my garden shed. It feels like an over-excited puppy, itching to come out and play at a moment’s notice, and I am intensely proud of it.
What do mowers have to do with your business?
If you are designing a new product, consider how it will be used. If it is clumsy or difficult, then people will look for alternatives.
If there are already competitors in the market, see how you can make your product or service simpler and easier to use as your point of difference, and you will be able to make inroads in their market share.
Add in Wow features. Headlights on a lawnmower seem silly at first glance, but they became the anchoring point for conversations with others. Simple wow features are what people remember most about a product or service.
How people shop has changed. Shoppers are more educated and will check you and your products out online. If your presence does not reflect a level of professionalism or show your true range of products and services, then people will not shop with you.
While there were amazing local businesses that my friends raved about, when I checked their websites some said they only did repairs when my friends swore that they also sold mowers. Other sites were dated and didn’t show well on my mobile, so I couldn’t work out easily if they had what I wanted.
While I was willing to check out the small businesses on my friend’s say-so when I found a clear and effective website that matched a friend’s recommendation, that business was the first one I went to check out.
(There are 3 questions every website needs to answer for customers – does yours answer them?)
People also are swayed by reviews and opinions. Time needs to be dedicated to encouraging online reviews to show your credibility. It’s OK to have a few bad reviews here or there – just don’t make a habit of it, and respond positively to any negative feedback.
Remember also that the strangest products invoke passion bordering on fanaticism. If your product is one of these, then tap into the zeal. Encourage people to share their stories and experiences through adding product review options on your website and encouraging people to share their photos of them using your product on social media.
However, no amount of a great online presence can save poor customer service. You can have the best products in the world, but if your customer service sucks then your days as a business are numbered.