Bob Tiffin is a legend in the motorhome business with 41 years of experience. He shared some well-earned business and innovation wisdom with me after I toured his production facilities. Bob founded Tiffin Motorhomes, based in Red Bay, Alabama, in 1972 and it remains a family business today under his leadership with approximately 750 employees.
Just a few of the innovations from Tiffin include: first-of-its-kind durable construction with a combination of steel framing and aluminum skin (new in the 1970’s, based on building practices from Bob’s previous experience in manufactured housing); the first motorhome basement greatly improving storage; the second to offer slide outs to create more spacious floor plans; and today constructing its own diesel chassis for a new class of shorter diesel pushers that better matches what some customers want in their motorhome.
Tiffin’s innovation strengths lie in four core areas:
- Strategy and Culture Working in Alignment
- Customer Service that Creates Raving Fans
- Trends Chart the Way
- Walking the Walk – Bob Tiffin
1. Strategy and Culture Working in Alignment
Bob Tiffin’s innovation strategy can be best characterized as a Fast Follower, also called a Market Reader. This strategy requires Tiffin to have keen insights of their customers and competitors. A Fast Follower is not typically first to market with a new product, but provides more value in its products than competitors do. Fast Followers also must be able to pivot, quickly changing their products to beat competitors’ offerings.
The ideas that are the catalyst for innovation at Tiffin come primarily from customers. Bob shared that RV shows and Allegro Club Rallies are of key importance. Tiffin participates in about 25 shows every year – selling motorhomes and listening to customers. To sum up the relationship between innovation and customer insights, Bob said, “In one form or another, we try to innovate from what they tell us – that’s basically what it’s all about. [We] look at what the customers tell us they want and innovate from that end of it.”
The customer-focus is also reflected in the culture. Customers are not far-away people represented by faceless orders as many visit Red Bay at some point while owning a Tiffin. Employees are accustomed to customers watching them make motorhomes. Further, the culture, as well as the design of operations, allows for changes to quickly be made. Although some automation is in use, much of the production process is accomplished manually by skilled workers who can quickly embrace a new process to improve products. Bob provided the example of adding slide outs to their floor plans after seeing another motorhome company use them. In a mere four months, Tiffin had models available with slide outs. That is a culture that embraces change and finds ways to make improvements. As Bob said, “you have to be able to turn on a dime.”
Bob also promotes another element important to both Tiffin’s innovation strategy and its culture – using their own products. The software industry knows this as “eating your own dog food” and that is what they do at Tiffin. The Tiffin core leadership team is small, primarily consisting of Bob, his sons, and a few others. They all own and use Tiffin motorhomes, taking RV trips and attending rallies with notepad in hand to capture ideas that will be discussed later.
2. Customer Service that Creates Raving Fans
Tiffin services everything they sell, regardless of how old it is. That is an impressive capability; to service motorhomes that have been on the road for many years. They work on about 5000 motorhomes a year in their Red Bay service center and have other service centers planned. Creating a service capability was a necessity in their beginning because there were few RV dealers at the time that could provide quality service. This also provides additional customer touch points – seeing what is and is not working well on motorhomes and listening to customers’ praise and complaints. Bob shared that the feedback from the service operation is used to make production changes and also influences R&D.
Customer service is not limited to just the service operation. Everyone I encountered at Tiffin — the person who greeted me in the parking lot and helped me find a parking place for my RV, the cashiers in the parts store, the campground host that answered some questions, my factory tour guides, and Bob’s assistant – all provided friendly and professional service. The Tiffin website says they treat customers like family and that is how I felt.
In the process, they have created raving fans that are eager to recommend Tiffin Motorhomes. As I travel in my RV, I often encounter numerous proud Tiffin owners. It is a loyal bunch. Further evidence is the reputation Tiffin has in RV forums. A quick web search will find owners supporting and promoting the brand. Motorhomes seem to often have quality issues and Tiffin is not immune to this, but the service Tiffin owners receive is making loyal customers.
3. Trends Chart the Way
Bob, as well as many of the innovators I have interviewed, stressed the importance of trends. Seeing a trend begin to take shape and acting on it before others is critical to the success of Fast Followers. Similarly, recognizing that a trend is changing avoids mistakes that could result in inventory few people want. Bob attributes his ability to spot trends, such as a new feature/benefit that customers will value, to his deep industry experience and constant customer contact. By watching competitors, participating personally in numerous RV shows, and talking with customers nearly every hour of every work day, Bob’s trend-spotting powers are refined.
Coupled with an organizational culture and operation management that can “turn on a dime,” knowing the emerging trends turns into a means to differentiate the company. This highlights the two pieces of the puzzle that can make Fast Followers successful: keen customer insights + agility and speedy execution = ability to beat competitors by providing greater value. Bob shared, “It doesn’t take long for us to get something done. We decide to do something this afternoon; we’ll be making arrangements to do it in the morning. That’s just the way it always works.”
4. Walking the Walk – Bob Tiffin
There is nothing phony with Bob. You get what you see. He sets the tone for the organization, which includes strong ethics for doing the right thing, providing great customer service, and always being willing to listen to customers. I find what Bob does is unique, not only for the RV industry, but for any industry. I have yet to meet a senior leader or founder who spends so much time interacting with customers as Bob Tiffin. I read several of the posts on the Tiffin-owners forum independently managed by IRV2.com. It was common to see a response like “Call Bob, he’ll make it right” when someone posted a problem with their Tiffin motorhome.
Wisdom for Small Business Owners
I asked Bob what advice he would give small business owners. My summary of his suggestions are:
- Know your business and be hands-on. You build the product, you be at the customer counter, you sell, you solve customer service issues.
- Have something no one else has. For Tiffin, this is their highly lauded customer service.
- Selling is a matter of knowing what customers want – provide a product your customers want and keep selling.
- Spot trends quickly by knowing your customers and your competitors.
- Cash flow is critical – businesses of all sizes fail when they are not making sales.
- You must have a reputation for honesty. Do what is right.
- Take care of your customers’ business and you’ll take care of your business.
End of Interview – Time to Get Back to the Customers
Bob was very gracious to spend an hour with me. I could tell he was getting a little anxious. After all, his voicemail light was flashing faster by the minute. I reiterated what he said on a video I watched during the factory tour, “every customer has my phone number and can give me a call.” He replied that was correct, and that “some of them are stacked up now.” It was an appropriate end to an interview with an innovator focused on customers.