Your Horse Business Must Grow or Die

How change affects your horse business. By Lisa Derby Oden for EquiSearch.
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How change affects your horse business. By Lisa Derby Oden for EquiSearch.

Change, both planned and unplanned, is a part of the landscape for
every horse business. A riding facility is likely to make daily operation
policy changes as it grows. For example, perhaps when this business opened
it was quite small, and so allowed people to bring their dogs. As the
business grew, and the general traffic in and out of the stable increased,
the initial policy contributed to disruption. Another example may be that a
freelance trainer increases fees because of increases in transportation
costs. The following scenario provides a more detailed look at this and how
it affects the horse business.

"I run a girls summer camp that specializes in horseback riding. In addition
to daily riding, we also offer horse care, trips, aquatics and other fun
summer activities. The camp is 50 years old now, and has established a
tried-and-true reputation with second and third generations returning each
season. Yet over the past 2-3 summers I've noticed a problem that seems to
be growing. At first I attributed to it being just a little bit of an off
year, but I can no longer say that's true.

Traditionally, our campers arrive at camp and choose what activities
they want and then stick with those for at least a two week stay. (Some of
our campers stay longer than that.) Over the last couple years, several
campers haven't been happy with the first choice and have then asked to be
changed to another activity. After trying the next activity, they often
request a third, or a switch back to the first activity. This has also
resulted in counselor's being angry at each other. They feel that the other
counselor has convinced the camper to change, and just at a critical moment
of skill learning. By the end of the camp session, the camper is
dissatisfied with her experience, and our counselors are at odds with each
other.

We've decided that we need to make a change in our program due to
these difficulties. We're going to ask that the parents and campers take
time to really think about the choices prior to arrival at camp, and make
their choices prior to arrival. The camper will have to stick with their
initial choices. We've talked to parents this year about this, and asked for
their feedback, but we haven't gotten any. If we make this kind of change in
our program, will we lose some of our customers?"

This scenario has many facets to it, and is not an unusual situation to face
as a business. In evaluating the situation, take a step back and ask
yourself these questions:

  • What triggered the change? Are outside events forcing the change? Is this
    change necessary for your business to stay alive?
    It sounds like some campers are not able to focus on one particular
    choice and become dissatisfied because of their lack of focus. This may be
    reflective of the wide variety of choices we all have these days, but
    particularly young people with their after school activities. You are right
    to be concerned about losing customers when you make a change, but you must
    acknowledge that you may well lose these customers through the child's
    dissatisfaction whether you make changes or not.
    What percent of your campers are currently dissatisfied, and how has this
    figure been changing annually? If it's a large percentage and growing you
    are justified in your concern and attempts to make changes. If it's a small
    percentage and remaining stable, you may need to make other changes in your
    business, but perhaps not in the program. Perhaps your staff needs more
    training in handling campers that aren't as focused instead of invoking a
    bigger programmatic change.
  • Have you built "change" into your business?
    You've built a reputable business on solid tradition, but have you also
    provided a mechanism for change as needed? It's human nature to have a
    resistance to change. Change always means giving something up. Uncertainty
    and ambiguity are involved too. Many people resist change due to a sense of
    loss, others will protect the past (even if they don't like it) because of a
    fear of the future, and hence the unknown. If you make changes as needed
    (for example: prices go up due to inflation; policies change because of
    insurance requirements), and update your customers about these changes, they
    become comfortable with the idea that your business grows, changes, and
    evolves.
  • How do you handle change?
    One way to increase customer retention during a change is to invite their
    participation in solving the problem. You can do this by conducting a survey
    of the changes you're proposing and asking what their preferences are. You
    can also do this by simply stating the problem and asking how they would
    resolve it. Given people's tight schedules these days, you'll probably be
    more successful in asking multiple choice questions, and leaving room for
    additional thoughts than if you ask it as an open-ended question.
    If you've decided to go ahead with a change, take some time to
    anticipate what problems will emerge as a side effect of the change. Role
    plays are a useful tool here and provide more insight than you have on your
    own. Get your employees and friends involved, and set up scenarios using
    your new program ideas. Ask some to role play as staff, some as campers.
    Have them switch roles in another scenario. You'll be surprised at what
    emerges.
    Your employees will need training about the change too. If they aren't
    on board, the process will be stressful for them, which then gets
    transferred to the customers inadvertently. You may ask your employees to
    help solve the problem, similar to asking your customers. Remember, they are
    a resource that you invest it. They may well provide some thoughtful and
    resourceful solutions.
    Whenever you can, inject humor into the process. It can help to
    relieve anxiety about change, and will keep things more on an upbeat note
    rather than an uncertain one.
    How do you address the change in your marketing materials? If you refer
    to the changes as "new and exciting", or "come look at us NOW!" - you'll
    create curiosity and interest rather than a tentative and apprehensive
    climate.
  • Are the changes a good fit?
    Do your new ideas align with your horse business or organization's mission?
    What are the financial ramifications if you make this change? What is the
    financial impact if you don't make this change? Do your new ideas match
    customer needs and interests? In the long run, a horse business needs to make many tough decisions
    throughout its history. Many of these decisions will be made knowing that
    the business may lose some of its customers, because it is impossible to
    keep them all in all situations. With careful thought and work the loss can
    be minimized, and your new program will attract newcomers because of the
    positive changes you've made.
    Lisa Derby Oden has been providing business development, marketing, and
    association consulting services to the horse industry since 1995. Oden is
    author of "Growing Your Horse Business" and "Bang For Your Buck: Making
    $ense of Marketing For Your Horse Business." She is the 1999 AHC Van Ness
    Award recipient for outstanding service to the horse industry. She can be
    reached at: (603)878-1694; email at Lisa@horseconsulting.com; or visit her
    website at www.horseconsulting.com