Matt Grainger sits down with Clifford Johnson, founder of PCs Made Simple, to look at how the business is earning the trust of the local community.
You’re a family owned company. Can you tell me when and how you came to be founded?
Me and my brother had been computer mad since we were little and had a Commodore Plus/4 back in the day. It came to a head in about 2005 when we realised that the big guys didn’t look after the home users – there just wasn’t enough money in it for them.
We found ourselves going into the bigger shops – PC World in particular – having a good knowledge of what we wanted and not getting any information, just a sales pitch.
Basically, we decided enough was enough, the time was right, so we both approached my old man and said ‘can we have some money please?’ and on September 19th 2006, we formed PCs Made Simple. We were both directors, my dad was a director and my wife was company secretary.
So how has it grown since then?
Well, like most businesses that have no money from the start, it was mainly word of mouth. We used networking but we also went around giving out leaflets. I’d often stand outside PC World and all the disgruntled customers that came out, I’d hand them a leaflet and say ‘Next time, why don’t you come and see me?’
Needless to say that got me banned from that PC World and I’m still not allowed back today!
Eventually I got invited to a networking event – a breakfast business meeting – and from there it skyrocketed really.
Mainly because I was willing to spend the time with customers, and where I spent that extra time helping them, word of mouth spread very quickly. We had customers coming down from London to see us just because we spoke in plain English.
Was that breakfast a local business thing?
Well, it’s BNI – Business Network International – which is just one of the networking events that I go to.
We were a very small group at the time, there was only around 15 of us, so we’ve managed to form really strong relationships between each other.
I’ve been a member for nearly five years now and from that platform we’ve just built up from there basically.
So what is it that marks you out from the competition? Is there a lot of competition in your local area?
There’s an amazing amount of competition! If you do a local search for computer repairs in Dorset, there are hundreds of companies.
I think it’s because we had a few large companies locally – Siemens is based here – so there’s a lot of tech guys who have been made redundant over the last few years and have decided to do it themselves. Within two square miles of my retail shop there must be at least 15 other one-man-bands.
What makes you different?
It’s cutting the jargon – speaking the language at their level. Our whole industry is governed by people who have this kind of God complex where they’re like ‘I know something you don’t, I’m going to use that to my advantage’.
Obviously people pay for my knowledge but they pay a fair price and they get a lot back for their money. I trained my staff to essentially talk like me. If someone doesn’t understand something then you explain and you use analogies. The perfect one is the car. Likening a computer to a car means you can answer almost any question and see the understanding dawn in the customer’s eyes!
We also started a home installation service and no one else in the area did it. It was a small fee and we’d go round and wouldn’t leave until they were 100 per cent ready to go. This is quite a popular service now and we do around ten a week.
I struggle with English, I can talk and talk but I’m highly dyslexic, so when you use analogies and liken things to something else it makes everything much easier.
I took a look at your website and you seem to be very much a local business. Does this make a big difference?
Well, yeah. I’d love to be a national company but one step at a time!
The good thing about being local is that we deal with a lot of other local businesses, so a number of our customers are independent people who don’t get support from the big guys.
The big IT support companies aren’t interested in these SOHOs or home office workers and there’s a massive untapped market and they appreciate your help.
They like to know that if they give you a call, and if we’ve got five minutes, we’ll help them then and there. If you phone up a big company, they just say go to our website, take your ticket and we’ll get to you.
A lot of larger companies seem to be eyeing the SOHO and SMB market these days.
They’ve kind of missed the boat on it really because they’ve ignored them for so long. People still aren’t interested. When you look at their minimum fees, well, unless you’re a corporation, you’re not going to be able to afford it.
So your store is around the corner from a PC World…
Yeah, we even get referrals from them now! We do a lot of their services cheaper.
Do you think here’s still value in bricks and mortar despite the burdens of things like high rent?
Yeah. Well, it’s not the rent so much as keeping people employed – that’s the burden to be honest.
There are massive advantages in bricks and mortar. I’d say at least 50 per cent of my sales come out of having somewhere to sit down and chat about their needs – whether they want a laptop or desktop and which type and what it’s for.
Having that face-to face contact means a lot more to them. It’s the same when things go wrong. People like to shout at people, not someone down the phone they don’t know. That’s why we’ve always said to customers ‘if something does go wrong then bring it back and we’ll get it sorted – we’re on your side’.
So do you think there’s value in face- to-face interaction, even in the internet age?
Yeah. It gives us a huge edge over others who aren’t willing to do the personal side. People forget that if someone’s buying online then they’ve probably already done a lot of homework on their own.
So the final question – what advice would you give to others starting out in retail?
The biggest bit of advice is just to not sit back and wait for it to happen.
The old saying ‘if you build it they will come’ just doesn’t work in this industry – people have a real trust issue with IT guys.
So start small, create those relationships and maintain them.
For the first four years of business, I could meet any customer I’ve ever had and I could have a conversation with them about anything, because I knew them and I took the time to listen to them.
It’s the little things.
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