You'd be wise to get yourself a school janitor-sized key ring if you're looking for the key to success in selling handheld outdoor power equipment (OPE) to rural lifestyle customers.

Because there isn't any one key - there are many. Chances are you'll need them all to unlock handheld equipment sales and maximize profitability.

Keys to successfully selling handheld OPE products include knowing how to approach and deal with rural lifestyle customers; stocking a manufacturer's complete product line; knowing those products inside and out; and fully servicing any products sold. These keys and others were identified by Rural Lifestyle Dealer through interviews with four dealerships that have been successful in growing their sales of handheld OPE products.

Cahall Bros.

From left, Kyle, Cory, Roland and Toby Cahall of Cahall Bros., a Stihl dealership with two stores in Ohio. "Word-of-mouth has brought more new customers through the door than anything else we've done," Roland says.

Each dealer is an owner or partner in the dealership they represent. Combined, they sell such notable handheld brands as Echo, Honda, Husqvarna, Shindaiwa, Stihl, Subaru Robin and Troy-Bilt. Each dealer was asked how they go "above and beyond" when it comes to selling handheld OPE products. Not one failed to mention the necessity of knowing how to approach and deal with rural lifestyle customers.

Listening is the Key

"What do you want to do? That's the first question we ask a customer," says Shane Fisher of Fisher & Father in Cranberry, Pa. "That's an especially critical question for lifestyle customers who generally want to do a job quickly and are willing to pay for quality - as long as they get performance and reliability in return."

Rural lifestyle customers are especially important to the dealership because, Fisher estimates, 50% or more of their customers fit that customer profile. They generally sell about 1,000 handheld units annually, with an estimated 700 units evenly split between chain saws and string trimmers. He believes strongly in research that indicates 70% of first-time buyers of a quality handheld product will purchase a second product within 10 months.

"Once we know what they want to do, we can make the right recommendation on a product to do the job," Fisher says. He adds that listening is one of the most important things you can do as a dealer. By listening you get a sense of what the customer knows about the tasks they're out to perform. One may be a complete novice and the next customer may be so well versed to their needs they can pick out brands and model numbers with little or no guidance.

Jake Longnecker of Sumner Lawn 'N Saw in Puyallup, Wash., agrees that qualifying a customer's needs is critical to the sales process. Sumner Lawn 'N Saw is within commuting distance of the Seattle headquarters of Microsoft and Starbucks, whose employees count among their customers. They face competition from two Lowe's stores and two Home Depot stores within 15 minutes of their single-store location.

"Rural lifestyle customers are generally more task oriented than product oriented," Longnecker contends. "They know what they have to do, but they don't especially know what they need to do it with. Yes, they know they need to cut wood with a chain saw or move leaves with a blower, but they won't always have an idea of the performance differences between product lines or between models in a line. That's where we come in as experts and offer knowledgeable advice on what they need for the job."

Longnecker explains how to manage the sales process. "The landowner comes in and tells us they want to clean leaves with a blower," he says.

"More often than not they have little idea of the differences between equipment. We ask them about the area to be cleaned, get an idea as to the size of the job and then, if warranted, we can recommend a high-capacity backpack blower that saves them time and aggravation because it has the power necessary for the job. We win rural lifestyle customers with this type of advice."

In its two Ohio stores, Cahall Bros. retails an estimated $300,000 to $350,000 of handheld tools annually, with a majority of the sales equally split between chain saws and weed trimmers. The company relies on a business philosophy that's been honed over nearly 60 years, according to second-generation partner Roland Cahall. "No matter if the deal is on a big-ticket ag tractor or a small-ticket chain saw, we want the customer to know they're getting a fair and honest deal from us," he says. "We take great pride in selling products that meet their needs and don't sell them more product than necessary. We believe this has contributed tremendously to new business. Word-of-mouth has brought more new customers through the door than anything else we've done."

Stark Street Lawn & Garden has five Oregon locations. Ryan Sale estimates 35% of the company's business can be traced to acreage owners who have between 3 to 10 acres. Backpack blowers, chain saws and string trimmers are the primary products sold to their rural lifestyle customers.

"We cater to customers who value product quality," says Sale, "and rural lifestyle customers are willing to pay for the added performance, reliability and efficiency they're getting."

Looking for the Expert

Jay Larsen, a marketing manager for Shindaiwa, emphasizes product demonstrations as the direct path to sales of handheld OPE products. "We have a saying at Shindaiwa, that the three best ways to sell our products are to demonstrate, demonstrate and demonstrate some more," he says. "This is the opposite of the mass-merchant mentality that simply directs a customer to the cash register and collects their money."

Larsen adds, "We want our dealers to take the time to get to know their customers and interact with them. When someone comes in to buy a product, dealers qualify them - for instance, asking them how much property they own - in an effort to match the customer with the right product. Their goal is to form a relationship with the customer, get the customer to recognize the dealer's expertise and then, once trust is established, get that customer to interact through a demo. If they treat the customer right, dealers are establishing a basis for repeat business in the future."

Steve Meriam, manager of national sales and product development for Stihl says getting the customer into the store is the first challenge for any dealership. But the best predictor of a sale is whether or not you get that customer to participate in a demo. He notes, "If you can demonstrate products to the customer, nine times out of 10 you will sell him or her."

Meriam adds that lifestyle customers especially "look for the expert." Dealers that create an "expert" persona are positioned best to draw in new customers, retain existing customers and meet competition from mass-merchant retailers who leave product knowledge and servicing to someone else. Being the recognized expert is the great antidote for competition from big-box retailers such as Home Depot and Lowe's, according to Meriam.

Put Inventory on the Floor

Sale says rural lifestyle customers are an impatient lot. Dealers must recognize this tendency and make sure shelves are properly stocked.

"If the rural lifestyle customer can't walk out with product when they're at the store shopping, you're at great risk to losing them to someone who has product on hand," Sale says. "As a dealer, you must be willing to put inventory on the floor."

Fisher, a third-generation owner who grew up in the business, is also a firm believer in stocking product. His location features a 150-foot wall of products in a 13,000-square-foot showroom with a 15-foot ceiling. He reports, "We believe in the 'one to show, one to go' philosophy as a minimum, general rule. If you don't have it, no one is going to buy it."

An experience with a cut-off machine convinced Fisher of the importance of stocking a full product line. "A few years back we put a cut-off saw on display and I thought to myself, 'Why in the world are we doing that?' But as the year went along, lo and behold, it was sold to a professional landscaper.

"Our interest was peaked. The next year we sold five and now we may sell 25 of them a year. If people can come into your store, get what they want when they want it, the word gets out."

Differentiate with Service

Dealers that want to maximize sales of handheld OPE products need to be committed to servicing the products they sell. It enhances the customer's perception that they are dealing with an expert who can do more than just talk features and benefits.

Meriam says, "The servicing segment of the industry has been contracting for some time." He believes aggressive handheld OPE dealers can take advantage of their competitors' weakness in this area with a commitment to outstanding service. "Aggressive dealers not only differentiate themselves from one another, but also from mass-market retailers who leave service up to someone else."

Service is a powerful force in the handheld OPE product business, Fisher says. "We're located two hours north of Pittsburgh and are blessed with a location where roughly 15,000 vehicles a day pass by on the roadways. On the other hand, our customers have to run a gauntlet of big-box retailers, including Wal-Mart, Home Depot, Sears and even a Tractor Supply Co. store to get to us. What's more, we know for a fact they pass by other dealers selling the same product on their way in. Our customers must want to do business with us. We have no doubt a major reason for them coming to Fisher & Father is they know they can get top-notch service on their products."

"The investment in service personnel and their training is one of the best investments a dealer can make," Sale adds. "Without service, we're just another retailer with our hand out. We need to be more than that to succeed in this business."

Carry Innovative Products

The dealers interviewed had a variety of advice for dealers who want to get serious about sales of handheld OPE products to rural lifestyle customers. Cahall and Longnecker pointed to the advantage of handling equipment from innovative manufacturers. Cahall cited the Stihl Easy2Start System, which requires two-thirds less effort to start their OPE products compared to conventional systems. "This really opens the door for sales to rural lifestyle customers who enjoy working outdoors, but are frustrated by hard-to-start equipment," Cahall says.

Longnecker says Shindaiwa's multi-purpose, split-boom units give his dealership sales advantages with rural lifestyle customers because they simplify customer equipment needs. "This design allows one engine to power several different tool heads," he says, "so the customer can realize the economy of not having to purchase an engine with each and every tool."

Longnecker also believes new dealers should start by limiting themselves to one or two product lines. He says this limits the investment in products and parts, plus makes learning about those products easier than if you have three or four lines to contend with right out of the gate.

"Another thing you should look at is the profitability of the line," he says. "There can be a great deal of difference between manufacturers on margins and price breaks. We're all in this business to make money and some lines are positioned better to do that than others. It can make a big difference in profitability for new and established dealers alike."

Sale gives two pieces of advice to new dealers. First, listen to customers. "They pretty much know what they want to do, but they don't necessarily know how to get it done efficiently and economically. But if you listen, you can get them headed in the right direction. And they will remember your patience in helping them make a great product decision."

Second, make the necessary investment. "To generate sales you have to make the investment in inventory, parts, service and product training for both sales and service personnel. If you're not willing to make those investments, you're limiting the business right from the start."

Fisher says the goal of any dealer, whether new or established, is to be ready to make the sale. "Be ready to take care of everyone on the first stop," he says. "If you aren't ready to make the sale you'll be watching customers and their money walk out the door."

Cahall adds four focus points for new dealers or existing dealers wanting to improve their handheld OPE product business:

1. Choose a line or lines that feature good products.

2. Fully staff the service department with trained personnel.

3. Treat customers right.

4. Demonstrate a strong work ethic to both customers and dealership personnel, because customers appreciate it and it's contagious with employees.

Larsen also adds a bit of advice for new dealers. Sales of handheld OPE products to rural lifestyle customers is all about building relationships and providing the personal touch customers will remember. "If you treat him or her right," he says, "the customers will come back for more repeat business."