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What 3 years in the wheelchair business can teach you about your customers

What 3 years in the wheelchair business can teach you about your customers

Today we mark our 3rd anniversary since we took a career left turn from corporate marketing and opened a business serving the disabled – our name is Step Ahead Mobility.  We’ve served over 1300 customers since we opened in 2019.

In that time we’ve learned a ton about the industry, but also about customers – and a lot of it applies to any industry.

We’re not really about just wheelchairs. 

Our mission is to help people improve their independence – whether it’s a power wheelchair to get around the house, a lift recliner to for those who can’t otherwise get out of a chair, to a hospital bed for hospice care, to a cool shouldn’t-be-this-fast mobility scooter for people who just aren’t able to walk very far on their own. 

Refused to give a thumbs-up

Our customers are disproportionately older, but we’ve also had pediatric customers undergoing brain cancer treatment, weekend warriors who have blown out their Achilles doing Crossfit, former HS quarterbacks who had a disabling stroke in their 40s, and otherwise very healthy young customers recovering from cosmetic or reconstructive surgery.  We serve a lot of veterans (including WW2), a fair number of amputees, and people suffering from degenerative conditions such as MS, MD, Parkinson’s, etc.

Sounds depressing, right?  Couldn’t be further from the truth.  While we got into this business for strategic market reasons (demographic trends, recession- and Amazon-resistant), the biggest plus by far has been having the ability to directly impact the lives of others.

And while we help others, it’s more than made up for by what we’ve learned from them.

Here are a few observations:

  • Listen to the customer!  We have a strict rule to never recommend anything before hearing from the customer what their needs are.  Sometimes they come in convinced they need A, but they really need B.  Our job is to get them what they need, not necessarily what we want to sell. 
  • Our success depends on trust.  Our customers are often faced with an unexpected challenge, when they’ve been perfectly healthy all their lives.  Sometimes the customer is the adult child of an older parent, sometimes it is the parent of a grown adult child.  They need solutions quickly in an area they are unfamiliar and uncomfortable with.  Like a good car mechanic, they need to have complete faith that you are working on their behalf, with integrity.
  • We try to see our customers at their best – – not just how they appear today.  While they may not be as able to communicate as they used to, the majority of our customers are smart and thoughtful, and want to be treated that way. The stooped 85-year old man was a hero in military service; the frail woman was a striking ballerina.  The woman who can’t speak clearly was a popular philosophy professor.  The little quiet guy with the walker was a CEO.  This is part of their self-image; and this is how we try to see them.  Treating our customers with dignity is absolutely essential – -always. 
102 year old dancer – – then and now
https://seeitlive.co/102-year-old-sees-herself-dancing/
  • Play the long game.  We sometimes have hour-long consultations with walk-in customers about the best solution to a challenge they’re facing, only to have them walk out without buying anything.  But we feel that by providing good information and building trust, they may return later – -and this has proven to be true many times.
  • You don’t know the customer’s story – so don’t judge.  Yes, they may be in a wheelchair or have a walker or be severely overweight or be cranky or impatient – – but chances are they’re dealing with something you’re glad you don’t have to deal with.  So be patient.
  • Never underestimate the strength of everyday people.  We are amazed and humbled by the incredible quiet love and courage of loved ones and caregivers – – whether it’s a husband’s patience in taking care of a severely disabled wife, to a daughter uncomplainingly caring for both her kids and her parents, to a mom dedicating her life to an adult child who cannot communicate.  These people are true everyday heroes, and they are all around us.
  • Customers don’t want to be serious all the time.  Without question, every single person who contacts us would rather be doing something else, and many are dealing with something serious.  You get to be very good at consoling in this business. But they’ve got enough stress already – a little humor can provide a welcome break. In our case, our slightly creepy mannequin carries our ‘think positive’ slogan, as well as an ever-changing quote to hopefully bring a grin – which it usually does. We want our customer experiences to be as positive as possible. Just be thoughtful as to what’s appropriate to each situation.
Think Positive!

—> One of our favorite customers, Mr. Moses, came in looking for a fancy walker. He was “98 years old; going to be 99 in 2 months”. WW2 vet. Armed with a pile of printouts about specific models and pricing. He asked about all the details and then said, “what’s the warranty”? He thought about that for a few seconds, then said “never mind”. <—