How change affects management of your horse business.

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.

Contributed By: Lisa Derby Oden

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. Visit her website at www.horseconsulting.com