Ben Serotta was fed up. The founder of Serotta Competition Bicycles, based in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., had set out to make custom bike frames that fit riders perfectly. There was one big problem: The salespeople at the 320 independent bike retailers that carried Serotta's frames didn't really understand how to create the perfect fit. As a result, their measurements were imprecise and Serotta's hand-built frames rarely achieved what he was looking for.
It's a variation on a common dilemma for business owners who rely on retailers and other third-party salespeople: You can control the quality of your products and services, but you can't control the people dealing with the actual consumers. As far as Serotta was concerned, the old way of educating retailers--instruction manuals, brochures, and the occasional in-store demonstration--wasn't enough to drive home his fitting philosophy, which takes into account not only limb measurements but also a rider's flexibility and injuries. Serotta realized he had to train the shop workers himself. "If we were going to be the best, we'd have to marry the best products with the best service," he says.
In early 1997, Serotta flew a dozen top-notch bike fitters--the shop workers who measure customers for frames--from around the country to Saratoga Springs to create a formal training program in proper fitting. Since then, more than 500 people from the U.S., Europe, New Zealand, and Japan have attended the Serotta School for Cycling Ergonomics. Between 70 and 100 bike shop owners and employees from around the country descend upon Saratoga Springs each fall and winter for the three-day course, which begins at 8 a.m. and often continues late into the night. The classes, held in a converted farmhouse next to Serotta's barnlike manufacturing facility, kick off with a primer on biomechanics--the study of the effects of internal and external forces on the human body--which lays the groundwork for the company's holistic philosophy. The rest of the schedule is peppered with lectures by sports doctors, tips from top fitters about interviewing clients, and hands-on sessions, during which students fit each other.
During the past few years, Serotta's fitting philosophy has become something of an industry standard. The company now hosts four or five introductory sessions every year and added two advanced sessions in 2003. It recently began allowing nondealers to enroll as well; many of them are eager to start selling Serottas by the end of the course, Serotta says. Some shop owners even attend the school just to poach top fitters from other dealers.
In the beginning, getting retailers onboard was tough, especially since Serotta charged $1,000 for the privilege. (The price has since jumped to $1,600.) "The initial reaction was incredulous," he says, recalling some phone conversations with dealers. To reassure them, he offered a money-back guarantee if they were not satisfied. He promised that the course wouldn't be one long sales pitch; the techniques, he assured them, could be applied to any bike. It was risky, but Serotta was confident enough in his own bikes to take that chance. He also appoints actual bike fitters to teach the classes; Paul Levine, owner of Signature Cycles in Central Valley, N.Y., currently heads up the program. "At first, people think they should be teaching the class instead of taking it," Serotta says. "By the end, they're with us."
The school has turned Serotta's disparate network of nationwide bike retailers into a loyal salesforce. The bikes retail for between $2,600 and $15,000, and Serotta now sells 3,000 of them a year--up from 1,500 in 1998--even as it has slashed its dealer network from 320 shops to just 130 of its top sellers. Case in point: Cincinnati-based Oakley Cycles, which now sells about 60 custom Serotta bikes a year, compared with just five or six before fitter Kathleen Krumme first attended the fit school in 2001. (She's gone two more times since then.) Krumme now spends at least two hours fitting each customer, compared with a half-hour before taking the course, and the value of Oakley's average bike sale has more than tripled, to $1,400. "Serotta equips us with the knowledge to sell its product, then trusts us to do it," says Krumme, who displays her framed fit school certificate in the store. "There isn't another company out there doing that."
Ben Serotta changed the way his independent dealers sell bikes. Here's how.