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Executive Hire News › Archives › April/May 2016 › Profile: Smiths Equipment Hire : Sweet success for Smiths

Profile: Smiths Equipment Hire : Sweet success for Smiths

Alan Guthrie visits the new Liverpool depot of Smiths Equipment Hire, Winner of the Passionate Hirer 10/10 Award in the Multi-Depot Hire Company category, to discuss the reasons behind the company's continued success.

A tempting tin full of chocolates on the hire counter greeted customers when EHN visited the recently opened Liverpool depot of Smiths Equipment Hire, the Blackpool-based company’s eleventh location. The unexpected sweet treat was a small indication of its efforts to make customers feel welcome and to build rapport.

Smiths constantly monitors its performance and strives to make improvements. “Hirers operate in a service industry and we all basically offer the same kinds of tools, equipment and plant. None of us are manufacturers, so what differentiates you is the standard of service you offer,” said Thomas Smith, who is Joint MD with his brother, David. “Like a restaurant, it is the total experience you provide that customers remember.”

The company also bears in mind the adage that, if you are not moving forward you are moving backwards. “Hire has always been competitive, but this simply reinforces our commitment to continuous improvement,” said David. “If you keep getting better at what you do, you can take anything in your stride. Changing Health & Safety requirements, and the resultant demand from customers seeking appropriate solutions, is another factor driving our progress. It means that some items will become obsolete more quickly and we have to keep investing in new kit, but it keeps the fleet fresh, which users appreciate. We aim to provide what the market demands, and to stay one step ahead to meet future changes.”

This reflects an attitude that has underpinned Smiths’ success. Established in 1971, the hire operation has steadily expanded as more customers have been attracted across its north west of England region. It now has two depots in Blackpool, with others in Cleveleys, St Annes on Sea, Kirkham, Preston, Blackburn, Bolton, Manchester, Warrington and now Liverpool. Smiths was the inaugural Winner of our Passionate Hirer Award in 2008, and this year won the Passionate Hirer 10/10 Award in the Multi-Depot Hire Company category, as the outstanding operation re-judged from the previous Winners.

“Our attitude is, if you need something we will get it to you as quickly as possible,” said Thomas. “That is why we opened the additional depots, because people like to deal with local businesses. And we have steadily broadened our range. The market changes constantly. In the early days we would hire half a dozen engine hoists on a Saturday morning to people working on their cars. Now they go to garages. Instead of doing DIY, more people are calling in professionals, so you have to adapt your fleet. It was a bold step when we introduced powered access equipment, again to meet customer requests, but today we have more than 400 platforms in the fleet.”

Smiths constantly updates its website and marketing tools, such as colour brochures explaining different aspects of its operation. Several slogans recur regularly, such as ‘We’re on it’ to reflect a can-do attitude, and Service 4, an initiative to help larger customers in four key areas of planning, logistics, support and value. These reflect principles that underlie the operation. Comprehensive training services are also offered, and a full-time training officer was recently appointed to expand these.

A busy retail activity complements the hire operation, offering items from diamond blades and PPE, to ladders and equipment. “We are not trying to compete with the likes of Amazon, but it is all part of offering a complete service. Customers can get everything from one source, and they know we will charge a fair rate, offering products that meet our standards of quality,” said Thomas. “People can hire and buy items or book training courses on-line, and the website gives information about extras they might need with certain products, such as Health & Safety equipment.”

Increasing emphasis is placed on promoting a strong corporate image. Premises are currently being re-branded in the company’s white, blue and red colours, and they are attractively finished with heavy-duty wooden floors and slat walling. Television screens are being installed at the hire desks to show details of new fleet additions and other company services, and staff will be able to display information and videos of equipment direct from the Smiths website to give virtual demonstrations. Small signs are installed at head height on walls to promote the company’s activities, such as training, as a discreet reminder of the breadth of services available. Customers can also ring a local rate phone number, which is said to be free on most mobile networks, to make it as easy as possible to call the company, and Smiths has launched an app, called On-Site, linked to the mobile and tablet-friendly website and designed so that users can make enquiries or hire items while out in the field.

“Drivers keep vehicles clean and tidy and wear corporate clothing at all times,” said Thomas. “They are the public face of our business and their appearance gives customers confidence. We now have 120 personnel and we like to think we are recruiting better, training better and retaining staff better than ever. New employees now follow an induction programme and are given a detailed welcome pack, explaining the company’s activities and structure, together with a folder of information that they keep as a reference. If you train staff better, they enjoy the job more and they bring others up to their level of performance, again improving overall standards.”

Smiths has also used ‘mystery shopper’ techniques for staff training. “Last October, an assessor visited each depot asking to hire a diesel site mixer. Secret cameras on their lapels filmed how staff interacted with them and we identified what we could do better,” said Thomas. “Often, for example, when the shopper said what they wanted, staff immediately went on to the computer to check details and availability. Such eagerness suggested we have almost trained them too well, as it meant they lost eye contact. So they now try to keep talking with customers and look up from the screen occasionally, to ask about the job they are doing and other details, to maintain the conversation. Similarly,
we have rearranged the monitors and counter displays at some depots to avoid creating barriers between us and the customer. Not one staff member objected to the mystery shopping test and we all learned from it. Parking facilities, cleanliness of depots and other areas were also assessed. We plan to do a similar exercise again in the future.”

The new Liverpool depot opened in January and provides 4,000ft2 of space with a similar sized yard. “We had established our Warrington depot in 2012, and the business it was attracting from Liverpool has grown steadily, so again we acted to meet customer demand,” said David. “We have invested more than £200,000 in new kit for the operation, and more is being added constantly. The new depot’s busy main road location makes it easy to find and it is just half a mile from the city centre. A lot of development is taking place, as well as at the docks nearby, including a large biomass energy plant.”

“We were genuinely thrilled to win the Passionate Hirer 10/10 Award,” said Thomas. “It is recognition from our industry peers of the efforts made by all our staff. We have worked constantly to improve the business, re-investing to develop our operations. Our turnover for the current financial year is expected to be £9m to £10m, and that is planned to reach £12m within five years. We still have plans to expand, with up to three more additional depots within that time.

“Success is based on serving the customer as you would expect to be yourself, and our real gratification comes when someone says ‘thank you’ for the help you have given them. Again, using the restaurant analogy, our 2008 Passionate Hirer Award was our first Michelin star and now the 10/10 Award is the second.”

Maintaining the theme of food even further, the large tin of chocolates was almost empty by the time I left the Liverpool depot. This says more about the high number of customers through the door, than their sweet tooth.

www.smithshire.com


     
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