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A Partner in the Storm

Small retailers turn to business coaches for a variety of reasons. Among them: to increase sales and profits, control expenses, boost morale, reduce employee turnover, achieve industry recognition and identify and train future leaders.

Mountain Hot Tub in Montana was doing well financially in 2013 when Tom Walker, the company’s founder and former owner, hired a business coach.

“I wanted to try something that would challenge our belief systems,” Walker says of his team of 20 employees. “To invite everyone to be part of something really special, something great, to create our impossible future. To make a difference in our community, our company, and quite possibly our own personal lives.”

He hired Leslie Cunningham, owner of Impact and Profits, a business coaching firm in Bozeman, Montana, who specializes in leadership and teamwork development. For about a year, Walker and his general manager, Kelly King (who bought the company from Walker in 2014), met with Cunningham weekly by telephone, then monthly in person with the whole staff.

“It was very beneficial,” Walker says. “A lot of the things Leslie touched on had to do with self-responsibility, understanding that we’re in charge and that we create our own lives. She is almost as much of a life coach as a business coach, but she also wanted [the store] to be able to have solid goals.”

Among other changes, Cunningham got the Mountain Hot Tub staff to think in terms of how much their products and services benefit the customer, and to try to put a dollar value on those benefits. That exercise led the staff to think of hot tubs as a way to lower healthcare costs, since using hot tubs is known to reduce stress and to increase productivity.

“We would take a concept like that and run with it,” Walker says.

Those exercises and others — many of them involving deep, sometimes difficult introspection — led the staff to ask larger and more expansive questions, like how they can make a difference in society and how to work for a higher purpose. The results colored every aspect of the business, from answering the phones to installing a hot tub for a customer.

Walker hastens to add that Cunningham’s approach was not just a warm and fuzzy one; she works with clients to achieve measurable results. Walker describes the difference her coaching made to the profitability of Mountain Hot Tub as “monumental.”

“Leslie always wanted us to tie the work we were doing to specific results and outcomes,” he says. “Serving others gives a business substance and meaning.”

What dealers can expect

Cunningham says an effective business coach is committed to supporting you in achieving the outcomes you hire them to deliver. If you want financial gains, expect more revenue from sales or service. If you want your leaders to become more effective and help their teams produce better results, expect to achieve that, she says: “Basically, the proof is in the end results.”

According to Pamela Chatry, a longtime business coach in British Columbia, Canada, there are both personal intrinsic and extrinsic benefits.

On a personal level, owners might learn the value of a team approach; extrinsic benefits could look like increased employee productivity, the creation of established and repeatable best practices, a sound financial picture and a happier workforce that stays with the company, Chatry says.

In addition to her private practice, Chatry is a coach for the Gemini Effect, an international business development program. Numerous spa retailers are members of the Gemini Effect and gather twice a year to compare numbers, share problems and discuss new ideas. David B. Riley, a consultant to small businesses and co-founder of the Gemini Effect, serves as the facilitator.

Sue Rogers, a veteran of the hot tub industry, has worked with a number of advisers and consultants over the years. While owner of Oregon Hot Tubs for many years, in late 2019 Rogers sold the company to Leslie’s Poolmart and is now senior vice president of Oregon Hot Tubs. A member of the Gemini Effect since its inception in 2004, Rogers says participation in the group has had the biggest impact on her business.

“You get a bunch of business owners, small business entrepreneurs, who are passionate about their business in a room for two days, basically dialing it out over KPIs [key performance indicators] and really trying to understand best practices, then going back and deploying those best practices,” she says of the group’s semiannual conferences. She credits her participation in the Gemini Effect with surviving and thriving in the 2008 recession.

Rogers says the Gemini Effect has led her to implement different bonus programs and compensation structures and change up her promotional events and advertising, among other things.

She has also shared some of her successes to the benefit of other group members. For instance, after years of writing off Thanksgiving as a lost weekend for hot tub sales, Oregon Hot Tub tried Black Friday and Small Business Saturday events one year. Sales were through the roof. When Rogers related her experience at the next Gemini meeting, a member in a different part of the country — none of the Gemini members are in competing markets — took the idea and pushed it to even greater success.

Tony Campbell, president of Campbell’s Pool and Spa in Knoxville, Tennessee, is also a charter member of the Gemini Effect, but says his foray into working with a business coach was unsuccessful. In fact, he describes it as painful, saying calls with his coach often covered fundamentals of business he was either unfamiliar with or that didn’t apply to his needs. He told the coach her advice was not helping.

“If I’m a baseball player, I don’t need a football coach.” Campbell says. “The most important thing you need to do is to communicate what you need, what’s helping and what’s not helping. From there, they’ll be able to help you grow your business.”

David Riley, co-founder of the Gemini Group, connected Campbell with a different coach, one more appropriate to his needs. Campbell says he found it helpful, especially the accountability piece. “Knowing you had to get on that conference call, and have the accountability of doing your homework [is motivating], because you don’t want to look bad in front of the coach,” Campbell says.

Barriers to coaching

Money and time are the most common reasons a retailer may decide not to hire a coach. There’s no getting around the fact that good coaches charge substantial fees for their services and to get the most out of the experience, business owners need to carve out time in their busy days to take part in coaching sessions and do assigned homework.

“It isn’t unusual for an owner to examine the cost of coaching,” Chatry says. “However, the cost is minor against the ROI.”

Cunningham says prices vary greatly depending on the scope of work the business coach provides: Some leaders only want executive coaching for themselves while others may want executive coaching, coaching for their managers and a few days of company-wide training.

“Depending upon the scope and duration it could be anywhere from $3,000 to the retail price of one or two hot tubs,” Cunningham says. “Most leaders look at it as an investment and know that they will increase their sales significantly as a result of the work. Especially when you factor in coaching the sales team.”

For Campbell, a business coach was hard to justify financially while he was working with the wrong coach, but once connecting with one more suited to his needs he finds it worth the money.

A business coach working with the Gemini Program since its inception, Chatry describes the program as a structured approach to business planning and growth that provides a valuable business assessment based on the client’s employee and management feedback. This gives the program starting points for its coaching calls, and supports the action plans needed to make effective change.

“After examining this report, we then decide together who is to be involved in task forces and where to begin the work,” she adds. “My clients soon see that new efficiencies, a deeper understanding of financials and happier employees justify the cost of coaching. The success of the company quickly outweighs the cost.”

Since there are so many coaches and a wide range of specialties, finding the right one can be daunting. Cunningham and Chatry have both specifically worked with hot tub retailers in the past. Gemini Effect can also pair you with a coaching partner who has retail experience. The International Coach Federation provides a searchable list of credentialed coaches from all over the globe.

Rogers sums up her approach to working with a business coach this way: “The value of a coach — any coach, in my opinion, whether it be a baseball coach, Pilates coach, financial coach or leadership coach — is you should be able to meet with that coach, take their concepts and apply one of them for a month and then look back and see change. You have to pick the one that feels right for you and your business, and fits your culture.”

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