Shell dealer Mike Turner isn’t short of an idea or two to improve business. His 20 years as dealer principal at Cuff Miller, a Ford dealership and Shell forecourt in Littlehampton, West Sussex, have seen him try all sorts of weird and wonderful ways to increase custom and boost loyalty.

But Mike’s most successful feat to date is ‘happy hour’, in which customers receive 2ppl off fuel between 12.30 and 1.30pm Monday to Saturday. The promotion accounts for about 12-15,000 litres a week on the site’s volume. “It does make me smile when I think about it,” says Mike.

“It denies the opposition business and it promotes goodwill by building a relationship with the community – people know that Cuffs do that sort of thing for their customers. The happy hour only gives us a little profit, but it gives us extra volume, which is useful when you’re talking to Shell.”

Before Mike started happy hour seven years ago, the site’s volume had fallen to 40,000 litres, and the forecourt down the road was also pumping a similar volume. “Now we’re up to 60,000 litres and just before the other guy packed in, he was down to 28,000 litres,” says Mike. “When I came here, we were pumping 90,000 litres a week, and all we had was two windows on the forecourt handling cash.

“Going back to when I came here, all there was in the way of competition was one site down the road, which was a garden shed with petrol pumps,” he adds. “But then it changed tremendously, with another Shell forecourt opening up 14 years ago, and Tesco two years later.”

But Mike plugged on regardless and continued to run a range of promotions to claw back some business. “We used to run something called the 45 Club,” he says. “We had the problem of £5-10 fill-ups, so we offered customers a free drink if they bought 45 litres, and extended it to Slush Puppies to encourage the child pester power. We might try that again soon.”

Customer satisfaction comes first and foremost to Mike and his team. “I used to think that the most important thing is people coming back, but it’s not,” he says. “The most important thing is they come back and recommend their friends as well.”

But Mike says customer satisfaction is helped along by the fact that the company has a relatively low rate of staff turnover. “It’s the toughest of all on the forecourt,” he says. “It’s a job that people tend to pass through, it’s not a long-term aim so we’re fortunate that we have a good mix of people.

“One young man went to Australia for a year and has since come back to us, and another lady used to work for another petrol station but was sick of her treatment there. We treat people differently. We don’t do blame here; we encourage everyone to have ideas.

“And stealing other peoples’ good ideas is all part of it,” adds Mike. “Something we instil in our staff is that if they see someone doing something better than us, to tell us.”

Many of Mike’s philosophies come from the management and business books he reads avidly. For example, on joining Cuffs, staff sign up to what Mike calls the company’s ‘Lean Principles’, which means that all staff must agree to take an interest and get involved in the business. And he also sends his staff on an American course called The Dale, which teaches interpersonal skills. “It’s a 13-week course, three hours after work one day a week, and includes things like 12 ways to get your own way without people realising,” reveals Mike. “We sent four people last year, including the forecourt supervisor. It really changes people and encourages them. It gives them confidence. They’re often frightened at first, but they come back wondering what they’re going to do with those evenings.”

Mike is always looking to improve business, and next on the agenda is to develop the forecourt shop. “If you don’t take shots, you’re not going to hit any targets,” he says. “Inevitably you miss targets sometimes, but there’s no crime in making some mistakes. The problem with the forecourt is there’s not a lot of money in fuel so investment plans have to be tempered a little bit. The way I justify that side of the business is by saying that it’s the fuel that brings people onto the site, and hopefully you get them to buy other things while they’re here.

“We want to use someone else’s expertise,” he says. “But the most important thing is dealing with someone who will talk to you, not at you. If we get in bed with a partner, we’ve got to get it right. We talked to Somerfield about five or six years ago, and we had a deal with Safeway before it got close to BP.”

The deal involved a 2ppl voucher to spend at Cuffs with every £10 spent at the Safeway supermarket. “We did that for two and half years and it was the Safeway/BP partnership that put the kibosh on that. It worked really well at the time. Safeway did all the advertising and promotion, Shell kicked in the 2ppl, and we administered it. We sold just over one million litres during that time as a direct result of the promotion. With everyone counting a tenth of a penny on a litre, there’s not a lot of room for that kind of thing anymore.”

Mike is reproachful of the lack of support and help from the oil company. “Shell is a big bureaucratic organisation – different to Ford. Ford is a lot about targets, while Shell is more laid back and has become even more distant in the past few years. We have a dealer association with Ford, where we share best practice and act as a buying group, which is brilliant. That’s missing with Shell. One of the recent benefits we’ve gained through the Ford buying group is we now pay less than a third on phone calls than we did five years ago. Shell should be encouraging its dealers to talk to each other.”

Mike says it doesn’t help that turnover of Shell employees is so high. “We usually have a dealer meeting when a new manager flies in. That first meeting is always like a lightning conductor, and the bolt can be quite horrendous. We have two Shell reps, one for petrol, who changes regularly, and the oil rep who we’ve had for 10 years. Our petrol reps have varied

from being good, to mediocre, to downright useless.”

Now Cuffs no longer has the Select franchise fascia, Mike has a lot more freedom to seek out better supply deals for the shop. “The Select sandwiches were expensive,” he says. “You can get a sandwich for £1 at Tesco around the corner so we’re looking at providing our customers with better value by putting a meal deal together, for example.”

Shop turnover now stands at £23,000 a week, and Mike is also awaiting the installation of a new VBi epos system, which will improve stock control. “The leap forward I want us to make with the shop, can’t be made until that’s in place,” he says.

“Our next deal with Shell will also be a Platts deal – Shell has been the last to go to Platts. And if Tesco decides to do a blitz, you can find yourself 5/6ppl dearer, but there’s very little point in looking backwards. If you can’t change it, don’t worry about it.”