On any given day in Monroe, N.C., a bedroom community of Charlotte, shoppers may find themselves watching Karl Seibel at work. The veteran club fitter has made sure of it. “We have a shop in the very front of our building,” he says, “where the magic is worked. It’s for everybody to see. It’s in the window, just like in an old-timey pizza parlor.”
It’s a small innovation, perhaps, but one among many that illustrates Seibel’s business philosophy, a vision that has brought him remarkable success — even as the latest recession hits its stride — and a spotlight at the latest Golf Clubmakers Association International Conference.
There last month, he shared his story with fellow GCA members, as well as his three-pronged approach to building a powerfully profitable custom club shop, regardless of economic circumstances. By focusing, he told the audience, on helping others, presenting himself to the public in the best possible way, and continuously seeking professional improvement, Seibel has realized a lifelong ambition.
I believe what makes our success is the fact that we pay so much attention to detail and the customerís needs.…
After abandoning early attempts to qualify for the pro tour (“There were too many guys,” he says, “named Jack and Arnold and Hubie and Tom, Tom and Tom”), Seibel took a job at a golf shop in Cincinnati, where he learned the trade in part by working on pros’ clubs for then-local manufacturers Wilson Staff and MacGregor.
“I got away from it when I got into flying again,” Seibel says. A medical issue had prevented him from becoming a military pilot, but rules changes later revived his aspirations, and he was able to earn a commercial aviation license. Piloting for Piedmont Airlines/USAir kept him busy for over 20 years. “But,” he says, “I always had a little club shop in my garage.”
Facing his mandatory retirement from the airline industry, Seibel, along with his wife Carol, decided to return to his first passion and open a golf shop. Exploring relationships with various franchisors led to a unique arrangement. “Golf Etc. came back to us and said they would like to do something in the fitting area,” he recalls, “so we worked out a test situation where we would have a studio, like a boutique golf shop — a specialty shop — and we called it Golf Etc. Tech Studio.” The partnership turned out to be ideal, providing the support of a national brand while letting Seibel focus on the small-scale, hands-on service at which he excels.
“One thing the GCA member needs to realize,” he says, “is that they can’t compete with the big box stores. Let them do what they know how to do. What we need to do is a better job at customer service, a better job at fitting, a better job at building the clubs, so that they do feel different than those clubs off the rack.”
That focus has more than doubled Seibel’s business in the past year. With 15 courses within 15 miles and strong word-of-mouth driving traffic, he has all the clients he can handle, resulting in recent expansions of his facilities and payroll.
Karl at work in his shop.
“There’s no big secret to it,” he explains. “It’s just hard work and paying attention to what your customer needs.” But what he makes sound so simple is actually a sophisticated approach based on superior service, smart marketing and professional development.
“It’s all about people,” Seibel says with conviction. “We have to find ways to make them feel special.” That means paying attention to clients as individuals, greeting them — by name — when they come into the shop, spending time on in-depth, one-on-one fittings, and even sending handwritten thank you notes once the service is complete. He also prides himself on fast repair/regripping turnarounds and most importantly, his personal guarantee to every customer.
“If it doesn’t work,” he warns them, “don’t tell anyone else. Come back and tell me. I guarantee my work. I will fix it. I will make it right. Then when it does work, tell all your buddies so they’ll come and see me.”
Recruiting satisfied clients to spread the word is only one of the modest but highly effective ways that Seibel markets his business. It’s an effort, he says, that involves every aspect of how he presents himself, both inside and outside the shop. From creating a highly professional “doctor’s office feeling” for new fitting customers, to hosting promotions like Ladies’ Night Out and Kids’ Clinics, to giving away services as last-place tournament prizes, Seibel misses no opportunity to connect with the golfing community — at little or no cost.
He does sponsor the morning weather report for a local radio station, but he has found, he says, that his most successful marketing tools are not ads. Instead, they are those that “sell the sizzle, not the steak,” that creatively show what a satisfying experience he has in store for his clients.
The third secret of Seibel’s success is a commitment to expertise that he has pursued throughout his career. He is quick to remind his peers of the importance of constant learning, especially in light of clients’ common misperceptions. “There are a lot of myths in golf,” he says, “driven by the magazines kowtowing to whoever spends the most advertising with them. That’s what’s so refreshing about the GCA. It’s not driven by how much money anyone spends. It’s very objective, and that’s the kind of knowledge that our customers can really use.”
In the end, Karl Seibel has managed not just to survive tough economic times, but to thrive in them. And he has done so by diligently, genuinely applying an ethos that all club fitters can learn from. “I believe what makes our success,” he concludes, “is the fact that we pay so much attention to detail and the customer’s needs. We’re not trying to push equipment out the door. We’re trying to help the golfer enjoy golf better.”