I recently listened to an interview of the CEO and President of Ace hardware, John Venhuizen, on the Entreleadership Podcast hosted by Ken Coleman. I was very curious before I listened to it as to how Ace has survived all these years competing against the big box stores like Home Depot and Lowes while other similar stores I remember from years ago in new Jersey like Chanel and Rickels are now distant memories. Well, John’s answers were fascinating and applicable to any small business fighting with the big box stores and Amazon.com.
First, a brief background on Ace Hardware. They have stores in all 50 states and 63 countries. What I had no idea about is that of the 4,967 stores they have worldwide, only 95 stores are corporate owned and the rest are locally owned, family owned businesses with total sales last year of over $14 billion dollars!
John made no bones about stating that they had a “David vs. Goliath” battle with the big-box stores that are “well-funded enemies.” In response, Ace has made a decision to ride the wave of supporting small and local and their unique selling proposition is their commitment to “service, convenience and quality.” However, John emphasized that these are not just words, but rather, that they have what might be described as an “irrational commitment to service” as they were “engaged in a daily fist fight with their well-funded enemies.” (I think all small business owners could identify with that statement!)
Following the philosophy espoused by Seth Godin in his book “The Purple Cow”, John stated that it is imperative in the new economy that small business “differentiate or die” if they want to compete with the Goliath’s like Amazon who he described as “the most disruptive company in the history of the world.” It is Ace’s goal to differentiate themselves with “draw dropping service” and by focusing on high quality products that want to be in a setting that emphasizes their quality instead of being lumped in with discount products in a long aisle. John stated that what distinguishes Ace form the big stores is that big box is associated with low quality while Ace wants to be associated with high quality. He summed the difference up well when he stated that Ace is for “home preservation while the big box stores are for “home renovation.”
John further stated that it is Ace’s goal to be “the best and most helpful stores on the planet” through their commitment to service. One example he gave is that Ace sells a Weber Grill for the same price as Amazon. The big difference is that Ace will put it together at no extra charge and deliver it to your home. That is the service difference they promote.
Finally, while he recognized that all companies including Ace are focused on new technology, Ace is going “all in” developing the human relationship as “it is the only thing that has the potential to stir the soul.” Before someone can purchase an Ace store, they have to demonstrate their commitment and passion for customer service. John believes that the key to Ace’s future success is to “empower humans to interact with other humans in an emotional way.”
I found this interview to be very powerful and refreshing to hear that a $14-billion-dollar company recognizes the need and benefits of making that face to face personal connection with customers. We all get too caught up in Facebook and Twitter, etc. and forget about the human connection that is so important by picking up the phone, going to a chamber of commerce meeting or sending that hand written card to thank someone or convey support in challenging times.
My challenge to you is to think of at least three ways that you can increase your direct interpersonal relations with your customers and clients and integrate that into your businesses DNA. Please share with me what you are already doing in your business to break down that technology wall and connect with your customers and clients in a direct human connection way.
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