Whoever said the independent dealer can't compete head-to-head against the big box stores must've forgot to tell Shaun O'Connor. His family's dealership is surrounded by the four largest outdoor power equipment retailers in the United States: Home Depot, Lowe's, Sears and Wal-Mart. But that didn't stop O'Connor's Lawn & Garden from selling more than 4,000 units last year, nor has it prevented the dealership from winning three straight awards for best customer service in Oklahoma.
The two go hand in hand. The big numbers O'Connor's puts up is a result of the customer service it has provided since its inception in 1948. Founded as a pest control company, the business branched into garden supplies in the 1960s, which is also when it began to dabble in outdoor power. As time went on, equipment became a larger part of the business. Today it's the focus of O'Connor's Lawn & Garden.
"I've never understood why a dealer says he's focused on consumer or commercial customers," Shaun says. "We focus on power equipment—period. We've been fortunate enough to grow both our consumer and commercial segments over the years."
Culture enhances customer service
Much of the dealership's business comes from long-time customers. To grow the way it has, though, has also required a continued influx of new customers. Shaun says he strives to maintain a company culture that encourages existing customers to keep coming back, and new customers from wanting to go anywhere else.
That's why O'Connor's Lawn & Garden is always taking employment applications. "I need the best staff I can possibly get," Shaun says. "We have a real need for people with computer skills, administrative skills and an understanding of what good customer service is all about. It's become even more important as we've grown and become more reliant on our computer system and retail financing."
Shaun says many of the dealership's younger employees didn't go through high school and/or college with aspirations to one day work at a lawn mower shop. What they did desire was a job where they could make a comfortable living, put their skills to use and feel appreciated. That's what O'Connor's tries to provide.
For instance, Shaun says he doesn't rag on employees when he sees them chatting for a few minutes. He wants O'Connor's Lawn & Garden to be a fun place to work where everyone gets along and is treated well—and as equals. "We don't go by titles here," Shaun points out. "Everybody does what they're good at."
By creating such a selfless, team environment, "employees chatting" doesn't become a real issue. When something needs to get done, it always does.
"You see that guy taking out the trash," Shaun says as a member of his shop staff races out the door with a bag over each shoulder. "Nobody told him to do that. He saw that it needed to be done, so he did it. He knows that everyone else here has taken out the trash before. And as he's taking it out this time, three other employees will thank him on his way out the door."
Making reality perception
As the old saying goes: "Perception is reality." At O'Connor's Lawn & Garden, the reality is that each employee has a critical job to do. Shaun says a strong company culture helps ensure that each employee actually perceives that reality, which, in turn, puts the dealership in a better position to accomplish its ultimate goal of total customer satisfaction.
Another reality is that an independently owned dealership, especially one like O'Connor's Lawn & Garden, is a great place to purchase a piece of power equipment. Unfortunately, that's not always the average consumer's perception, which is why O'Connor's has established a multi-faceted strategy to address it.
The strategy seems to be working. Last year, from its one location, the dealership sold more than 1,000 walk mowers and 800 riders. Another 2,200-or-so pieces of equipment—including handheld, blowers and tillers—also went out the door. O'Connor's Lawn & Garden even won a prestigious readers' choice award for "best lawn and garden store" from The Oklahoman, an Oklahoma City-based daily newspaper with a 215,000-plus circulation. The dealership had already won the readers' choice award for best customer service three years in a row.