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Six Degrees of Separation

Recently, I caught up with a dealer friend I hadn’t seen in some time.

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Recently, I caught up with a dealer friend I hadn’t seen in some time. He®™s usually
at the top of his game and puts in 12- to 15-hour days but is always fresh with ideas and enthusiasm. 
On this occasion, though, he looked a little weary. “You don’t look yourself,” I said. ®What®™s keeping you up at night?®
He hemmed and hawed and tried to change the subject, but he finally conceded that there were a few business-related issues that were bugging him. Hence the extra baggage under his eyes.
I knew his business was doing well financially. He had a few stores and planned to add another one soon. Was that what was bothering him?
“Nope, I’m fine with the store. It®™s a bigger-picture issue,” he offered.
“Suppliers? Employees?” I asked. ®No, it’s not that,® he said.
“It’s not that cute little assistant you just hired?” I jokingly asked.
“Hey, watch your step,” he countered.
“Alright, let’s stop playing 20 questions here,” I said. ®What is it?®
He stammered and stuttered around for a bit and finally let on what was weighing on his mind.
“When you look around and really examine your competitors, outside of a different-looking building and slightly different product screens, you find out we’re all alike,” he said, suddenly taking a philosophic bent. ®Despite everything you want to believe, you®™re not as different from the guy down the street or across town. You®™re just another guy moving tires.®
“That’s it? That®™s what all this is about?” I asked. ®That®™s the big-picture question that®™s keeping you up at night?®
“Well, if that’s all it is, let me give you a few more reasons to lose sleep,” I said.
Two months ago I attended the 2004 Reifen Show in Essen, Germany. The show itself was a great education, but during the trip, I was able to call on a few dealers, some smaller independents and a couple of Europe’s larger dealers.
I told my dealer pal that if he was just worried about the guy down the block, he should start thinking about the guy on the other side of the country or even some of the dealers I met in Europe. “And while you’re riding down that trail,” I told him, ®you®™d better start thinking about the tire shop in Tokyo or the one in Shanghai – or everywhere else in the world.
“By the time you get done worrying about them,” I said, ®you’ll have so much extra luggage under your eyes that you®™ll be able to pack up and go visit all of them. Then you®™ll see firsthand just how alike you are.®
While I succeeded in confirming his worst fear, I felt a lot like Cher in “Moonstruck” when she slapped Nicholas Cage, screaming ,®Snap out of it!®
“Don’t you understand? You ARE all alike,” I said, throwing cold water in his face. ®As much as you®™d like to think you®™re different, it®™s good to be alike.®
“Now that’s ridiculous,” he cringed. ®What? Be alike? I need to differentiate myself, don®™t I?®
“Of course you do,” I said calmly. ®We all do. But in order to be different, you have to start from the same place. Being like your competition is a good thing. You all sell tires and service and you all pretty much do it the same way.
“In that similarity lie your differences,” I ended.
Dumbfounded by my philosophical statement, all he could say was, “Huh?”
“The brands you sell. The level of service you offer. The customers you attract. How you treat those customers. Doing the little things better than your competition,” I listed.
“That’s why you®™re adding another location. That®™s why you stay an extra hour after the store closes or run to the shop in the middle of the night when a friend of a friend has a blowout and needs a new tire. That®™s why you take a little extra time with your customers. You®™re out there differentiating yourself in all the little things you already do.
“The number of dealers doing these things maintains the viability of independent tire dealers and reaffirms the need for tire professionals in our industry,” I said, now hitting on all cylinders. ®And that keeps alternative distribution channels, like mass merchandisers and the other wannabes, at bay.
“Look what happened to small hardware stores. They’re just about all gone now because they didn®™t figure it out,” I said. ®The big boxers can sell nails by the bucket for pennies, but they don®™t give individual attention. All they care about is the next sale, not the next customer. But the little hardware stores are worried about the price of nails.
“You, on the other hand, worry about the next customer and the one after that,” I finally said. ®That’s how you differentiate. 
“See, if you weren’t the same, you®™d never survive.” 

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