Chemical Interactions

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ChemicalreactionsA customer stopping in to pick up chemicals for a spa is a matter of daily routine in a retail store. Every working spa needs chemicals, so it should be an easy sale.

That's one way to look at it. Another way is to see this common everyday interaction as a retailer's best, most frequent opportunity to bind customers into the store, fend off competition from the big box, and in the long term, maximize total chemical sales.

In speaking with four spa chemical professionals from different parts of the country, AQUA found different styles, philosophies and even accents. But there's a simple underlying message from all of them on how to build customer loyalty and therefore long-term profitability:

  1. Stop what you're doing and listen to what your chemical customers are saying.
  2. Do your homework ahead of time so you can advise them accurately on chemical use.

More than any elaborate business strategy, these simple tenets can keep customers coming through the doors in good times and bad.

It's essential to a store's long-term viability, says Matt Emmett, sales manager, Dacula Pools, Dacula, Ga. "I've been doing sales a long time, and there's no substitute for taking the time to listen to your customers and explain how your product is going to solve their problems."

In the end, it's the smartest business strategy of all.

Step One: Listen

There will be a certain percentage of customers that know exactly what they want, have no problems with the quality of their spa water and want to be on their way without delay. But other customers have come to solve problems. As their stories unfold, it's important not to immediately start thinking about the store's most profitable solution. The most profitable solution in the long term, notes Chris Irvine, sales manager, AquaLand Pool, Spa & Patio, Bowling Green, Ky., is the right one for the customer.

"We just listen to what they say," he says. "We don't try to steer them into a particular solution.

"We are more interested in giving people what they want rather than trying to get them to buy one product or another. Obviously there are stores where they have a particular product they're pushing and they steer the customer toward it, but I think a customer can sense that."

There's a third type of customer that isn't consciously aware of a problem at all until a well-placed question from a sales professional draws it out. In the casual banter that takes place between a customer and salesperson, it takes a tuned ear to hear a note of dissatisfaction with the customer's current chemical regimen.

In that situation - when the existing program no longer satisfies - it presents a sales dilemma, says Jerimiah Reece, salesman, Mountain Hot Tub, Bozeman, Mont.

"You can go a couple of directions," he says. "You can simply try to sell them something different. You can go that route. But a lot of times it comes down to finding out what's really bothering the customer.

"A lot of times you can fix the problem, and they can continue with the products they're using. So when we get a customer with a problem we just start asking questions, 'What does it look like? What products do you use? How often do you use them?'"

Step Two: Educate And Solve

That's crucial, adds Mike Hiers, sales, Columbus Pools & Spa, Columbus, Ga. "You have to ask questions in order to figure out how much they know, and where they've gotten their information before.

"You've got so many different chemicals out there to treat spas with, and you've got to know what they've been using before you tell them something new."

The procedure is familiar to any professional educator (the underlying vocation of any good salesperson). First, understand the student's foundation of knowledge, and then build on it.

Good questions and an inclining ear can determine the foundation. But to build, you need something to build with. And the construction materials of a spa-chemical education are not acquired without some effort.

"You've got to take the time to do your homework and really understand hot water chemistry," Emmett says, "so you can help the customer with their chemistry problems. You have to understand exactly what the product is and what it does, and how it may react with other products you sell. You have to educate yourself in order to be able to serve the customer."

Based on his own experience and from talking to customers, Emmett believes that basic understanding of spa water chemistry is a glaring need. Frequently it's a matter of having long-term, experienced salespeople available at the counter.

"Some places may hire high school kids to help in the store in summer," he says, "but they are just that - help. They're not spa professionals. I think that's really important when you've got a customer coming in with a problem, you don't want some high school kid just walking over to them with a bottle saying, 'Here, you need this.' You want to have someone with enough knowledge to understand the problem and fix it.

"If you take the time to explain to the customer specifically what is causing the problem and how the product you're selling them will solve it, that means a lot more to the customer. That tells them that, No. 1, the salesperson is really listening to what I have to say. And No. 2, they know what they're doing and the product they're selling me should fix the issue.

"If you do that, they will be much more likely to come back to you the next time they need something."

Typical Questions

Although a broad base of knowledge of spa chemistry is ideal, customer needs and problems tend to fall into familiar categories. A good understanding of the most common issues can answer the vast majority of inquiries.

One of the most common situations is the customer who has just bought a hot tub second hand and has no idea what to do next. In that situation, Irvine says, "You really have to start from the ground up. Sometimes, it's not so much the 'what' as the 'why.' As in, 'Why do we bother sanitizing water?'

"They have no idea of the bacteria growth that can occur in warm water. So I start out with the basics, saying you have to sanitize the water - kill bacteria - and you have to oxidize the water - remove what we put in it, sweat and oils and so forth. Then we talk about controlling the pH for bather comfort and the potential for damage to your equipment.

"We really have to start at the beginning every time because you'd be surprised at the misperceptions people have. It's not that they're clueless, they just haven't been educated. We had a guy come in here that believed he was supposed to drain his spa, fill it and heat it every time he used his spa. So he didn't understand why he had to put any chemicals in it."

It takes patience and a renewable interest in a topic that comes up again and again. "We sound like a broken record going over the initial startup stuff," adds Emmett, "sometimes with the same customer that asked you the same question last time he drained his spa. But now it's been three months and he doesn't remember what he did."

Almost as often as he delivers start-up instructions, Emmett fields questions about foaming or an oily ring at the water line.

"For the ring, we recommend a maintenance dosage of a clarifier, to remove the oil out of the water, because typically what you have in a spa, the body oils and perspiration, they're going to stick to the side of the spa and any dirt in there will stick to the oil.

"A good quality clarifier to remove that oil to the filter would be good. And when you're talking about clarifiers, you have to remember that there are different clarifiers on the market - some clarifiers are oil-based, so they typically don't work as well for removing oil as some that are not oil-based. We use the SeaKlear natural clarifier for that reason - because it's a non-oil-based clarifier.

For Reece, his customers are typically interested in a "chemical free" hot tub. They come in and ask, "Is it true you can really have one?"

"Some things have been marketed in ways that lead people to believe that," he says. "Of course, that's not really possible. Most of our customers we put on a system of chlorine, ozone and silver ions, and that seems to work pretty well for them. The silver ions help to kill bacteria, and you've got the ozone oxidizing the water, helping with water clarity."

Customer Commitment

Keeping customers well supplied with good advice and products has kept Mountain Hot Tub going strong through a tough spa season. "Things are going pretty good," Reece says, "We just charted our sales and we're on the rise for this year, so we're pretty upbeat about it."

A strong customer commitment has certainly played a role in its success. It's a matter of understanding problems and solutions, he says.

"If you can listen to your customers and help them with their problems, then in the end, I think they purchase more stuff from you instead of going to Wal-Mart and buying some off-brand of supplies. And ultimately they're a lot happier with their hot tubs."

Economic Effect

With the dramatic increase in gas prices in recent years, customers are more conscious of the amount of driving needed to accomplish the day's essential tasks - and that includes picking up a fresh supply of spa chemicals.

In a place like Bozeman, Mont., that's especially true. "We have customers that drive a considerable distance to Bozeman, some of them far as Cameron and Livingston and up in the Big Sky area," says Jerimiah Reece, salesman, Mountain Hot Tub. "That's about a 30 to 40 minute drive, depending on conditions."

The company understands that its customers are trying to cut their driving time, so it pitches in to save them a trip when it can. For example, its service crews are scheduled in advance to work in certain areas. If a customer in that area needs a product, they'll arrange to bring it with them.

"Just last week I made an arrangement for a lady that needed filter cleaner," Reece says. "I just told her, 'Hey, our guys are coming out on Tuesday, how about if I just have them bring it with them? They'll call you when they get to town, and you can just meet them somewhere.'

"Customers are typically very willing to do that. If your service crew is going to be in their area, they'll just meet you there and pick the stuff up. I think that's just another facet of customer service when you can do that."

Reece also encourages customers to buy in bulk to save money on both chemicals and trips to the store. "With gas prices being so high and the economy a little bit down, we've been showing people that it's actually worth their while to buy the bigger packaging for stuff.

"They know they're going to have their hot tub for years, so they might as well buy more and save the money. They're going to use the chlorine anyway."

- S.W.

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