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A changing industry

Jun 18, 2012
Sales focussed organisation or Operationally focussed organisation? Which will your company become? An interview with Anthony Robinson, by Steve Jordan.

Anthony Robinson is the managing director of Robinsons Relocation, a company that has been in his family for four generations.  Robinsons began life in Manchester in 1895 as coal merchants, today the company is one of the UK’s best known and most successful moving and relocation companies with offices throughout the country.

The recession was hard for Robinsons, just as it was for everyone.  But the diversity of its products helped it through perhaps better than most.  However, the recession did require Anthony to look carefully at the way the business worked.  If it didn’t cause a fundamental change it probably did hasten it.  And it’s a change that probably affects the whole industry and challenges many of its accepted truths.

It was actually long before the recession hit that Robinsons started changing.  In 2001 it made the decision to centralise its private international sales in one office. “It seemed to us that having a network of shipping administrators dispersed all over the country in various different branches for international moving didn’t make sense.”  By centralising the operation it meant that Robinsons could focus all the relevant skill and experience in one place helping to provide a consistently high quality of service to its customers.

When the recession hit in the second half of 2007, Anthony admitted that he thought it would be over within a couple of years. “I was considering buying a new warehouse in 2006.  I’m so glad I didn’t. However, moving on from all this talk of recession we have to accept that how things are today is actually the new normal.”

For Robinsons it had long been clear that the old ways of working were not right for the new market. People were becoming at ease with using the Internet and more able to make their own judgements about the services on offer. They had also become more used to doing things for themselves (such as booking an airline ticket, ordering a book from Amazon or selling on eBay) with the administration of such being done by the customer, the cost can be removed. The removals business was no exception. “It required us to get used to a new way of thinking,” said Anthony.  “We needed to take costs out of the process and it seemed that people don’t always want or need the personal contact.  They just want the job done right first time and this comes down to understanding and developing the process, training your people and delivering your supply chain effectively.”

Companies have always sold, as a benefit, the fact that they employ all their own staff. But taken to its logical conclusion, if Anthony is right, customers aren’t interested in your company payroll: they just want the job done right. It’s also possible that the estimator might also be unnecessary. “In the past we always insisted that we are the only people who can place an accurate and correct volume on a job,” Anthony added. “That might be true, but many customers are also happy to do it themselves and take the responsibility if it means they can get access to a price for the job and book the work much quicker.  It works perfectly well in self storage.  A customer books the size of room he thinks he needs, if all his stuff won’t fit, he takes another. There’s no problem.”

Operationally driven businesses are fearful of this concept because they like certainty and they say it will mess up their day, they cannot plan accordingly and have to build contingency into the plan. “But it’s not about that any more,” said Anthony. “We have to provide what the customer wants and adjust our operations to fit. I think customers are willing to accept that if they get it wrong, they also believe they are required to take part in putting it right, provided we give them the process to work with.” Many would say that it’s commendable of the industry to try to offer a wholly responsible, professional, turnkey service which builds in the operational contingency for the what if’s, but Anthony does not believe that in the majority of cases it is valued or wanted by the customers. “If the customers don’t want it, or value it, why do we insist on trying to provide it?”

But becoming a sales focussed business in the modern world is becoming more and more expensive.  Companies have to invest in Internet marketing, SEO, pay-per-click and social media.  That’s all before you work on your more traditional local area word of mouth, local advertising, canvassing, sponsorship based methods. Some jobs might not need a survey, but getting the enquiry in the first place is now a very competitive and expensive business.  And where a survey is needed or performed one has to be very slick with how the information is collected, how it is interpreted, how it is transferred back to base, stored and used, all before the salesman has left the house.

Robinsons started moving in the direction of focussing more on the sales approach a number of years ago. When the work is secured Robinsons use either their local operations or sub-contract it to trusted local partners. They save money on running a smaller, slicker home grown operation and spend the savings on generating more revenue. The company has also continued its policy of centralisation. “I always felt awkward about centralising the domestic moving product because it requires local knowledge and local presence. But in so doing it has meant we can get the right number of quality people in one knowledgeable office, all pushing together.  In 2006 I had 260 people on my books. I now have 170 and yet our turnover continues to grow.”

The physical work we book is increasingly being carried out by owner operators, sub-contractors or other BAR members.  In future it seems that companies will need to make a choice: to fight for the work direct from the customer; or to let the sales companies do that and become an operational supplier to the industry.  It’s exactly the same dilemma that international movers had some years ago when the relocation companies started taking their core business. “There will be those who offer simple services to the industry and those who want to offer multiple bundled services. So there will be those who provide removals operations for others and those who invest in developing and maintaining a client base of the moving population.”

The recession didn’t cause Robinsons to change, but it did make it focus on what it spends its money on and exactly what customers want. Robinsons has chosen the sales route.  Other companies will choose to provide an operational service both to their local market and to customers such as Robinsons.  It’s only when they start going for the mass market, through Internet marketing, that a conflict arises and a choice has to be made. The switch to a more polarised industry will not happen overnight but it has started and history shows that it is likely to continue.  Which will your company become?  It’s time to make a choice.

Biography in brief: Anthony Robinson

Anthony Robinson is 40 years old and has a BA(Hons) Degree in Business, Finance and HR; and is also a CPC holder.

He worked in removals during the school holidays from the age of 13.  After university he lived in Australia for a few years working in IT and also the removals industry.  On his return he worked for Robinsons as a branch manager, progressed onto becoming IT director and then managing director in 2004. 

Anthony is married to Natalie; they have two children: Max, who is seven and Woody, who is five.

He says he likes steak and driving Spa Francorchamps (the Belgian Grand Prix circuit) on a sunny morning.  He dislikes shellfish and the M40 when it’s shut.  His hobbies are racing historic touring cars, playing drums, singing in an amateur rock band and fine wine.

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