Mike’s Bikes tries business instant messaging to communicate with its ‘deskless’ workforce

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The United States is putting the pedal to the metal. The number of people who use a bicycle to commute jumped 60 percent from 2000 to 2014, helping to create a $6.2 billion industry. San Francisco has among the highest number of bicycle commuters, likely one reason why Mike’s Bikes has seen significant growth in the past decade. With 12 stores around the Bay Area and a history that goes back to 1964, the company has earned a reputation for providing a level of customer service usually not seen in cycling.

“People will often buy bikes through the big retailers or online and they may not get the right model for them, or the right accessories,” says Matt Adams, president of Mike’s. “That’s where we have a niche. We’re known for not being afraid to tell someone why we think one product is better for them over something more expensive, and customers appreciate it.”

Although the majority of Mike’s sales are in-store, they’ve made a big push for more online business, expanding their website in the last two years and launching “Mike’s Bikes Direct,” an omnichannel home delivery program.

With more than 250 employees spread out across the area, corporate communications have created challenges as the company tries to navigate the 21st-century retail landscape. An employee searching for a particular bike or part from another store had to make a phone call to find out if the product was in stock, which was time consuming. Company information sent to employee emails was often left unopened, or would take days to be answered.

Adams and his managerial team tried using text messaging but found it limiting, since groups were often restricted to no more than 10 recipients. While messaging programs such as WhatsApp could do more, Adams was interested in a system designed for the security needs of a business.

‘Less intrusive’

His search for a better way to communicate led him to Zinc in 2015. “We found it was simple to use,” Adams says, “which was great for us because we don’t have a lot of time to train on a new system.”

Zinc is attempting to fill the niche of communicating with the new “deskless” workforce.

“There’s a very high percentage of people in the workforce who don’t have desks,” says Stacey Epstein, CEO of Zinc. “Employees in retail, hospitality and other types of industries are often on a sales floor or at a separate location, and so traditional communication like email tends to be less effective.”

The system operates like commonly used cloud-based programs such as WhatsApp, but with more security features. “WhatsApp works well between friends and family, but businesses need more control over their communications,” Epstein says.

“You own the data you create, you have control over who can be a part of which group and when to add or delete someone.”

The app can be downloaded onto any mobile or desktop system and functions like any other type of instant messaging. Messages can be sent to an individual or a group of people.

“Texting short messages is very functional for business,” Epstein says. “It’s less intrusive and communicates a small amount of information instantly, which is valuable for the ‘deskless’ worker who is usually moving around quite a bit.

Building collaboration

For Mike’s Bikes, Adams finds the app’s strength is in getting employees in different stores to work together.

“A bike tech in one location may have trouble with a repair, so he sends out a message and maybe a picture of it to the group of techs at other stores,” he says. “Within minutes, one or two usually send along some ideas.”

The system also works well when searching for a product. When a customer likes a particular bike but wants it in a different color, a Zinc message can instantly find out if another location carries it in that color.

“Then we can get it to that store by the next day or deliver it to the customer’s home,” Adams says.

From experience, Adams says if something important needs to be communicated, it needs to be sent three times.

“Zinc gives us another way to reach people,” he says. “In addition to having the managers notify the staff that they need to check out a new program on the online training platform by Friday, they’ll get a Zinc message about it.”

The program also allows critical messages to remain on the employee’s feed until they’re opened.

“A bike tech in one location may have trouble with a repair, so he sends out a message and maybe a picture of it to the group of techs at other stores. Within minutes, one or two usually send along some ideas.”
— Matt Adams, Mike’s Bikes

When Adams announced that Mike’s Bikes was trying the new program, there was some pushback from the staff. “There were some people who were a little like, ‘Why does the boss want this on my phone?’ But we showed everyone how valuable it could be.”

It actually became a little too popular, as employees found they were getting tons of grouped messages. “We had to have a little meeting about using the app because someone would say they’re going to lunch and other people would get on and joke about it,” says Adams. “Anyone familiar with group texts knows it can get a little out of control at times. We tried to pare it down without taking away too much of the fun.”

Inventory uses

Mike’s has its Zinc groups organized around particular work clusters: store managers, tech specialists, etc. Each store also has its own group, allowing employees to quickly see if a co-worker can cover a shift or if someone can answer a question.

The app also has a conference call and video feature, which assists in remote meetings. “We’ll have a weekly morning conference call for the managers and the great part about it is you simply push a button on the app and you’re in,” Adams says. “That’s helpful to some of the managers who are participating while riding their bike to work.”

Adams plans to use the video feature more in inventory control. “You can look at a spreadsheet showing what’s in stock, but products can be easy to miss. We were thinking of having an employee do a periodic video of each store’s product selection so the buyer can look and quickly see that they need more of this model in that color, and adjust stock accordingly.”

The ability to share pictures is another feature used by Mike’s employees. Adams recently asked his managers to write their store goals on white boards in their back rooms and post pictures of the boards on Zinc.

“It made it easy to see what everyone else is doing without getting on a group email and have lots of email chains
going on.”

Zinc also tends to get the staff’s competitive juices flowing.

“Someone will show how they’ve created a product display and somebody else will try to top them,” Adams says. “It’s an easy way to get a group of spread-out employees to feel connected.”

John Morell is a Los Angeles-based writer who has covered retail and business topics for a number of publications around the world.

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