Friday’s Opinion

“It’s the economy, stupid,” is a refrain that’s been going on for too long. Either you’re a victim or one who believes you have the power to shape your outcomes. Funny thing is, you don’t hear how troublesome the economy is from horse businesses that are thriving. Doesn’t that make you wonder what they’re doing to prosper when everyone else seems to be merely struggling to survive?

Besides providing honest, professional and needed services (or products) these horse businesses are delivering beyond expectations. Sometimes it’s the little things that make such a lasting impression. Note well when something strikes you as brilliant and consider applying it to your future communications strategy. Often these will come from the strangest places – don’t limit your attention to equine businesses.

Look beyond horse businesses for your ideas

This week, I received a letter in the mail. I have subscribed to a little newsletter from Cornell Cooperative Extension for a number of years. It’s designed for hobby or small commercial gardeners. I think they just upped the annual subscription price to $15 (if you’re looking for a great resource for ideas on everything gardening, landscaping and small farm growing related check out “The Inside Dirt” or http://www.gardening.cornell.edu). One of the things they include in every renewal offer (yes, they send one with an easy to fill out form with clear directions on who the check goes to) is an area for each respondent to note what they’d like to see in future newsletters. I sent my payment just before Thanksgiving with a request for indoor plant from seed tips and handling transplants. Imagine my surprise when a prior newsletter article entitled “Helpful Hints for Growing Transplants” arrived, along with an extensive fact sheet on starting plants from seed. No note (that would have been even better), so it took me a few moments to figure out why this was sent to me, but then the light bulb went off. WOW!

Imagine how quickly you’d stand out as an equine provider if you were that personal and responsive to an unrelated request from a client.

Do you have a newsletter? How do you use it to gain new opportunities to impress prospects or customers in ways that leave them telling others stories about you?

I’ve suggested “The Inside Dirt” to others before, but now I’m on a mission to share this great resource more vigorously. Why? In part, because I’m so confident those who check this out will have an experience that exceeds expectations. That makes me the hero for sharing a secret I’ve discovered that others will appreciate. Think about what you can do to make your referral agents appreciated in the eyes of those they recommend to you. If you can give them a great reason to tell a story about what you did, even better.

How do you feel about your equine vendors?

My feed guy is a joy.

I always try to buy local when I can, and supported a small family-run operation for a good number of years. They do a lot of things right – sadly, there were a couple of stupid things they did wrong that lost them a business that is now going through a ton and a half of grain a month (a pretty big operation for a small town – we weren’t that big at the time, but growing).

So, I went elsewhere (but stayed local – imagine my shock to learn there were at least two grain suppliers supporting a town of 1830 people). I wasn’t buying enough tonnage to qualify for the delivery requirements of my new provider. Yet, Marlin was gracious about special ordering anything I wanted. His family was quick to load my car and out collecting bags ordered the moment they saw my car enter the driveway.

After about three weeks, Marlin called me and offered to drop feed off because he had to pass my place with another client’s order. He’s been doing it ever since.

He’s a great consultant and knows his products. In fact, when I mentioned I was considering bulk delivery from an area mill, he brought his feed rep up from out-of-state to visit the farm, discuss my needs and address the issues of such a decision. Marlin also suggested I share his huge savings on a new (cheaper) feed by ordering in quantity (which he was happy to store, guarantee and be paid for as he delivered) that was similar in quality to what I was feeding. I didn’t buy from the mill.

This guy comes with a smile on his face every week and a work-ethic that’s admirable. Plus, he not only knows every customer by name, but takes the time to get to know their horse business requirements and is quick to suggest less expensive alternatives when he sees them. What a gem!

Do you make your clients feel like royalty by offering knowledge and customer service others want to brag about? If not, maybe you should.

Some equine businesses will take a long time to recover

Granted, horse sales are down and prices for most are lower than what we saw more than three decades ago for comparables, but if you’ve staked your entire equine business on a single activity, log it as a lesson learned. At Halcyon Acres, we’re seeing an uptick in buyers willing to pay a fair price for the right horse – but it will likely be a long time before the kind of numbers that used to be commonplace come back. We’ll continue to breed on a small scale, but have shifted our focus to serving the mature amateur rider market. Two of our horses are getting a lot of interest, including a 7 YO TB Children’s Hunter prospect (she’s a kind and quiet sweetheart, eager pleaser and loves to jump) and a 3 YO Irish Draught Sport Horse  filly that’s been started under saddle and proved unflappable for all requests, including time on the trials. Might be the pricing on these two ($3000 and $7500 respectively) or just their placid nature that makes them so suitable for a variety of riders and disciplines, but it’s nice to see strong interest in these two and a lot of nibbles on others.

What are the growth opportunities we’re seeing at Halcyon Acres?

This winter we’re at capacity (actually beyond – we’re putting up more fencing this week and have shelter coming for some of the farm herd that will be outdoors now that stalls are no longer available). As has always been the case, we have a good number of horses in for starting under saddle. It’s unclear if this is due to the results we deliver and associated client buzz or the fact that much of our clientele is from the Thoroughbred racing industry, but this service does not seem to be impacted by economic conditions. Where we’re seeing a new growth is in clients seeking conditioning training with access to the hills and extensive trail network on the 117-acre property. This wasn’t something we anticipated, but it’s rewarding to see some recognizing the benefits of such slower-paced workouts that strengthen all parts of the body prior to building up the lungs.

While it hurts to have to turn away business, we’ve had lulls too, so it’s gratifying to be looking at winter with guaranteed cash flow throughout. Hopefully, some of those we couldn’t accommodate immediately will be back in the spring, but it’s a fickle crew sometimes seeking immediate facilities. Still, if history repeats, we’ll have a slew of new referrals coming in once the current crew goes out to owners and trainers.

Oh, and one of the things we do that’s a bit different than most trainers is, we send a letter with our invoices to owners updating them on activities with their horse and some standout stories we feel they may appreciate. Some find this weird and ignore it, but most enjoy the opportunity to live some moments with their youngster here vicariously. Of course, it’s our customized training approach designed to channel and focus the proclivities and talents of each horse that gets the referrals and keeps people coming back. After all, what really counts is what a client horse does once they leave here. People ask how that was accomplished.

What are you going to do in 2011?

Thriving in today’s, and tomorrow’s equine economy will require thinking out-of-the-box. If your plan is to keep doing what you’ve always done, maybe you should rethink that strategy if it’s not working. Better to focus on a segment of the market than to try to be all things to all people. Diversify your offerings so you can make your business economy-proof. Develop ideas and practices that have jaw-dropping reactions to how much you care – even if there’s not an immediate return on your customer service investment (it will come). Do things that get people bragging about how lucky they are to have found you. Develop a philosophy and a game-plan that sets you above the rest. If you take some time at the end of the year thinking about what you can do to impress clients and prospects with responses that are beyond what they imagined, you’re well on your way to seeing a very prosperous new year. Go do it!

Do you have great stories about how you’ve bolstered your business or what you’ve seen others do that have left you shocked with their ingenuity or responsiveness? Please share your tales in the comments below. Let’s see if we can’t get a revolution started that propels great equine businesses to a new level, together.