“Collectors Corner” – Hobby Trust Agents

(“Collectors Corner” by Rich Mueller, Managing Editor of Sports Collectors Daily) – I just finished reading a book called Trust Agents.  It’s about the sweeping changes that have come to communications and media in just the last few years and how those trying to make a living in the business world can not only cope, but thrive in the new world. Few businesses are as “old school” as the sports collectibles hobby.  It’s one reason why many businesses have to really fight to maintain good cash flow.  Until the last four or five years, many sports collectible businesses either didn’t have websites or put one up because they thought they had to but never really took it seriously.  A print ad, business cards, a phone and a bulk mailing list was the extent of how hobby businesses reached out to customers. For many, it still is. But the game is changing.

Snail mail isn’t used much anymore.  We communicate almost instantly by email, sending documents that used to go via the post office.  Many collectors participate in auctions strictly via the company’s website, never looking at a catalog.  I happen to like catalogs, but many are just as comfortable without them.

The idea, though, is that it’s no longer good enough to sit in an office or attend a card show with a stack of business cards.  Hobby dealers today need to work harder than ever to connect with customers and potential customers.  The good news is that the field is wide open.

Online forums are everywhere.  Some of what’s written isn’t true.  Some of it is. Some people air their gripes.  Others spread rumors.  Overall, though, the discussion is generally a good thing.  The profiles of just as many companies are raised online than are denigrated.  Collectors can share information so quickly and easily that everyone’s knowledge bank multiplies much quicker than ever before.  What’s the old saying…a rising tide lifts all boats? 

I heard someone once tell a room full of dealers that participating in online forums and discussions is a bad idea. Sure it’s possible you could find yourself answering some questions that might make you uncomfortable.  By not getting involved, though, you run the risk of being labeled a crook when you’re not.  Integrity and accountability are vital parts of being a trust agent.  If collectors see you in the trenches, working to answer questions in a public forum, they’ll trust you because of your willingness to be vulnerable.  If you’re doing things that could make collectors mad or that are dishonest, it’s probably a good idea to stop.  You don’t need to be omnipresent.  Just pick your spots and be upbeat.  Most importantly, be honest and professional.
 
Many times when businesses do get involved in forums or social media like Twitter and Facebook, their first inclination is to sell you something.  Bad move.  Being a trust agent means helping the community at large.  We collectors expect that you’ll have things to sell, but we’re more inclined to like you if you tell us about a great article you found online about the T206 set.  Or if you help answer a question about old World Series programs.  Maybe that person is a collector.  Maybe they’re not.  If they’re not, you may have just picked up a new client by getting them interested in the topic. 

If you don’t specialize in a certain type of memorabilia, don’t just offer a curt “not interested” when you’re speaking on the phone or responding to an email.  Point them in the direction of someone who can help them.  The favor you do might return someday.

Answer emails quickly, promptly and politely.  It’s how virtually everyone communicates and most collectors are legitimately upset when their communications expectations aren’t met. 

Many dealers prefer the ‘old school’ methods of dealing with people.  Yet for many, including the under 30 crowd, Facebook, Twitter and online forums are a part of daily life.  It’s how they communicate. If  hobby businesses aren’t reaching out to them, a company that may not even have formed yet but has figured all of that out—will. And chances are they’ll have figured out how to connect with those potential customers that the old school crowd has ignored or never bothered to court. .
 
It doesn’t mean you stop dealing with people in person or on the phone.  In fact, socializing is as important as ever when you’re being a trust agent.  However, the days when someone was expected to trust you just because you’re a dealer are over. 

Collectors now expect you to earn it.