MI Pro was invited along to Taylor's new Guitar University concept for retailers and sent back this report....
Ask any retailer about the concept of dealer training and they will tell you such schemes might be necessary, but are not the most exciting way to spend your time.
Superior product knowledge is one of the successful retailer’s primary weapons and in order to keep that weapon sharp, it’s important to once a while meet up with suppliers, see the products ‘in the flesh’ and gain a further understanding of what you’re selling. Certainly worth doing then, but going back to school is something that retailers rarely relish.
But when it was announced that Taylor Guitars was preparing to introduce its own unique training concept – the Taylor Guitars University (TGU) programme – to its European dealers – using the new European HQ in Amsterdam as the ‘classroom’ – people listened.
The company is known not just for making high quality guitars – as its iconic logo suggests – but for making the extra effort to get hands on with its dealers and end user customers. Last year, Taylor held over 250 road shows worldwide – many of those in the UK – which have been widely acclaimed for their informative, yet informal nature.
And now that its European hub – set up to deliver shipping and servicing to dealers all over the continent – has been up and running for over a year, it seemed the ideal time to invite retailers out to take a look around, as well as learn how to sell these high end instruments as effectively as possible.
As MI Pro was also sent an invite, it gave us the perfect opportunity to catch up with Taylor’s vice president of sales and marketing Brian Swerdfeger and talk about the event, the company’s new European operation and what’s changed since we spoke to him last, back in December 2010.
First of all, why Amsterdam?
“It was a combination of things. We’ve travelled extensively over the years and saw that although there’s a lot of history going on, relationships between countries and underground politics, everyone sees the Dutch as neutral, as the world’s traders,” says Swerdfeger. “This still plays in the modern world – wherever they’re from in Europe, people just said ‘I get it.’ It’s also easy to get to logistically, as the stock gets shipped right here and Schiphol (Airport) is the central hub for Europe.”
And how does he feel the company has progressed since it went direct after ending its distribution agreement with Fender? Are they hitting the targets they set before making the decision to go it alone?
“It’s all gone to plan so far. We always look at the big challenges and say ‘we can work it out’ and results are exactly what we were hoping for. Dealers have better access now and they’re getting better margin, we’re first person relational with our dealers and customers – there’s no middle man – and they’re no longer getting the distributor’s interpretation,” he states.
With the hiring of its 21st Netherlands-based employee on day two of MI Pro’s visit, Taylor has more or less completed the assembly of its European workforce. There is now always someone available to answer the phone in person from the Amsterdam office and all main languages are covered by at least one person.
Sales-wise, there are ten regional-based sales personnel spread across the continent, including two in the UK: Paul Chalder covering the North and Simon Blundell in the South.
Since setting up base in Holland, Taylor has slashed its number of European dealerships and cut out those who weren’t representing it as a premium brand (just a few models on show rather than an extensive, broad display).
“We dramatically cut down our European dealer numbers from 500-odd down to around 180,” Swerdfeger reveals. “There’s now a minimum stock requirement – 18 guitars from different levels of the range – and that means that customers can make a choice.”
But with luxuries like guitars costing several thousand pounds remaining as desirable as they’ve ever been, but less obtainable due to financial restraints, surely Taylor has found it more difficult to shift expensive products when people are more reluctant to spend big?
“We’ve just had the best January in company history and last year we were up by 30 per cent and hired 100 people. Dealers and customer want real relationships and more than just being able to click ‘Like’ on Facebook. We’ve sold guitars in places with even the worst unemployment and that’s partly because we’re a premium brand that you can be part of, whereas Ferrari for example is a premium brand that you ‘can’t have.’”
It’s all this talk of relationships that brings us on to the Taylor Guitars University itself. The company hosted 34 TGU events at its US factory over the last three years, training more than 800 store owners and sales people in the process.
The UK dealers – around 20 in all – were the last European group to take part in the scheme that got underway for the first time on March 1st with a virtual tour of the company’s factory in El Cajon, California.
It might not sound very ‘hands on’ so far, but this gave visitors the chance to see where the products they’re selling are made, but more importantly how they’re made.
And it’s worth watching. Other guitar manufacturers might struggle to understand why it takes Taylor 17 days to make each guitar, but after being shown the technology used, the techniques employed and the degree of care taken to make each model, it begins to make sense. In fact, even competitors that still don’t understand are invited to come over to the factory and take a look for themselves to see how they do it. That’s how much confidence and pride the firm has in its manufacturing process and you won’t see that in many other industries.
Next, Swerdfeger talked the attendees through the various body shapes and the differences in sound that each offers, followed by the exotic wood combinations and how these options are about a lot more than just the guitar’s appearance. On the second day, the company’s electric guitars (which are still achieving “slow and steady growth,” according to Swerdfeger) and new Built to Order (BTO) models were put under the spotlight.
As well as making it educational, Taylor wanted to ensure that the dealers could enjoy themselves in an informal environment with no pressure to get their order books out before it was time to fly home.
“We don’t ask for any sales at these events and don’t talk about prices. Bringing dealers together and taking them out for dinner creates a ‘family style’ atmosphere and breaks down the barriers between competitors,” Swerdfeger comments. “The more the dealer knows, the more money he makes as well and he’s adding value to the sale. It’s important to help customers find the right guitar, not just the best price. We want them to say ‘I’ve got a whole wall full of Taylors, let’s play through them.’”
Following the introduction of the TGU, Taylor has no plans to take its foot off the gas with its other highly popular and informative scheme – the road shows. If anything, it’s looking to shift it up a gear.
“The road show is the guitar players’ night out and it allows them to get their hands on the guitars. It’s not about sales, but in the US shops will sell on average four or five a night and the record is 17,” says Swerdfeger. “It’s a great time to be a first person company like us and a great time for us to be doing what we’re doing.”
Usually, when a company starts describing its customers as ‘family,’ and the importance of relationships, its tempting to think of it as nothing but marketing spiel, but seeing the amount of effort that Taylor puts in to promoting the brand and ensuring both dealers and end users are happy shows that it really does care about more than just sales figures.
Those figures do make for impressive viewing, however. In the US, Taylor sells more guitars in value terms than anyone else and the gap between first and second is growing.
Furthermore, as the Taylor Roadshow thunders on and retailers get more opportunities to learn about the brand, it will be worth keeping an eye on Taylor’s market position on this side of the Atlantic over the next few years as well.