An Interview with Martin Cohen
by H. O'Neill, 24 June 1996
Company Seven's Early History and Philosophy
In this interview Mr. Cohen comments on philosophical and business issues that are commonly faced by service oriented businesses during a time of change in how consumers interact with merchants. Some of these questions are often asked of Company Seven, by those bold enough to do so.
Right: One of the better photos of M. Cohen. In clean room protective "Bunny Suit" standing before the WFPC2 during Hubble Space Telescope First Servicing Mission (239,172 bytes).
Click on image to see enlarged view (879,105 bytes).
Would you open this by telling us how the company came to be?
The telescope shop aspect of Company Seven was founded in about 1982. I had been interested in astronomy since I was in elementary school. It seems to me that almost every male kid I knew went through phases where they wanted to be a policeman, then a fireman, then they want a telescope, etc. By 1980 I was in a position to afford to buy my own first decent telescope. At the time my dream telescope was a Celestron C-11, an 11" aperture fork mounted, Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope. However, there was no telescope shop in the Baltimore or Washington, D.C. region where one could see such a nice telescope. And I found no retailer who could tell me much about what could be seen or done with that telescope. Then through my affiliation with a local astronomy club, the National Capitol Astronomers, I was fortunate enough to meet Mr. Joe Macrie. Joe was by then an accomplished amateur astronomer who owned a C-11. He had progressed so that several of his astrophotographs were being published.
So, what was the catalyst to create the astronomy shop?
I visited several shops listed in the yellow pages as selling astronomical telescopes. When I visited them I usually found nothing of much interest to see. On one visit to a small, part time telescope shop the owner could only tell me that which was essentially written in the catalogs. He told me that another telescope would be better for me although his only justification had to do with price. He could offer no comparisons about the view through the telescopes, or describe their photographic capabilities. And he seemed quite preoccupied with defending his shop against the "mail order" camera/telescope businesses; years later I came to understand his feelings. I feel that profit should be the reward for a job well done however, I at the time I encountered no telescope retailer whom I believed deserved to profit from me.
At the time Company Seven was established in other areas of business. My partner knew of my interest in astronomy, and it was he who suggested we consider establishing a relationship with Celestron so that we might obtain select instruments, and better support.
How did the name "Company Seven" come about?
That is a common question, many people with a good imagination offer possible origins for the name: "there were seven founders", or "the other six businesses failed", or "the first six already burned down", these are the most common offerings.
However, the founders of Company Seven were originally career or volunteer firefighters in Prince George's County, Maryland at station (or "company") 7 - Riverdale. One of the founders was a Police Chief, the other U.S. Secret Service, and so on. We felt no need to learn how to answer the telephone any other way than what we were already used to saying "Company Seven". When we became involved in consumer telescope sales we did not wish to come up with some contrived name such as "Telescopes R Us". So, since we were already involved with industrial optics we elected to call this the "Astro-Optics Division" of the parent company.
What were the products you initially offered as an astronomy shop?
Well at first, we approached Celestron to become a distributor. As our potential sales volume was unpredictable, and we offered no amateur telescope references our application was declined. Our next step was to approach Meade Instruments, where we were accepted. It is bittersweet that after many good years together, the first company to accept us became the only one that we have ever parted with under such a cloud; we dropped the line in 1992.
Meade Instruments, under a new management philosophy would be reinstated with Company Seven in 2002. To read more about the history of Meade Instruments refer to our article Meade Instruments: A Corporate History Lesson.
Where was the original store located, and how did the first sale happen?
We set up the telescope shop office in Edmonston where a part of our company was operating in a small industrial area. We procured a separate Maryland Retail Sales Tax number bearing the fire station address for the telescope side of things - at first very part time.
We placed a small advertisement in the local newspaper classified section; it cost $18.00 and this provided an advertisement of three lines for three days. As a matter of convenience we listed the fire station telephone number and a name to contact. As people called, and after speaking with us for a few minutes, they grew confident that we were honest, well intentioned, and more capable than many other sources. So that is how we recorded our first sales several telescope sales in order to place a qualifying order with Meade.
Did you have telescopes on display in a fire station?
No we had no display space. We accepted special orders only, at the time selling off catalogs or by demonstrating our own telescopes.
What were the first telescopes that you sold?
They were Meade Instruments Model 2080 LX2 8" Schmidt-Cassegrain telescopes. We thought 8 inches provided the minimum aperture that was likely to keep the interest of our suburban clientele. And the LX2 provided admirable features and reliability. We were looking to service a market niche for better telescopes that was not already being well served in the region. We continue to adhere to a philosophy of only offering that which we think will work for the customer.
What if the customer wants something else that you do not offer?
We work with the consumer to educate them about what may be in their best interest. If they do not wish to listen or if they instead prefer to buy something else then there are a variety of sources they can go to. If they seek something desirable that we do not offer say, an "Obsession" (brand) Dobsonian or a "Takahashi" (brand) mirror system, then we may make inquiries in order to obtain the line. Or, we may refer the customer to the manufacturer, or to the most reasonably competent agent for that product.
So what products did your offer?
Before that, the telescope side of the business prospered and it came to share some licenses and resources at a Company Seven facility in Montpelier, Maryland. That was only a small office, but a few visitors came there to see samples of some instruments.
After Meade we added other product lines for resale. These products would be selected based on what we personally would like to use. We asked, and were accepted by TeleVue Optics. As has become the case with several fellow astronomers in the business, since becoming involved our friendship and admiration for Al and Judy Nagler, the founders of TeleVue has really grown. The friendships with Meade were also doing well; with Anna in customer service and Herb Diebel (the father of John Diebel - President of Meade Instruments) heading repairs. It was about that time when we were accepted by Celestron too.
Our success has been measured in terms of lack of returns and overall customer satisfaction. As proof that our approach is valid, consider the result that may go for one or more years without having a telescope returned by someone who is unhappy with it; this is an incredible success rate in retail. I know of no other telescope shop or other retailer whose customers enjoy similar success.
Since we wanted to become more and more familiar with every telescope we would deliver, and our sales were local pickup orders, it then became common practice for us to assemble and evaluate each new telescope received. This practice became more comprehensive and vital later during the mid 1980's "Comet Halley" era when the production increases made the quality control of many makers telescopes vary quote notably.
Then how did the showroom in Laurel come to be?
From 1982 to early 1984 our sales numbers were relatively few. We catered only to a small clientele who found us by word of mouth. In late 1984, we were informed by Anna at Meade Instruments that Tom Collins of "Astro-World", a telescope dealer in Baltimore, had complained to Meade that Company Seven was operating out of an office, in an area probably not zoned for retail business. Regardless, Anna told us that we were so well regarded by Meade's staff, and our customers had spoken so highly about us to Meade they would take no action on the complaint.
The complaint by Mr. Collins was ironic; he operated a part time television repair shop and a telescope store with no display out of the basement of a Baltimore city row house.
His complaint made us come to understand that there was something unfair about how we were operating. And so we needed to decide then if we wanted to stay in the business or quit. We were not sure if there might be enough demand for a "real" telescope store in the Washington-Baltimore area, in fact another shop run by an enthusiast in Damascus, MD had recently failed in the area. So we decided to give it a whirl, and in order to be convenient to Montpelier and not be too close to Astro-World in Baltimore or to Redlich Optical (another small store that sold birding equipment and some astro telescopes) of Rosslyn, Virginia. The lease was negotiated for our first small store at 930 Fairlawn Avenue in the Laurel Open Shopping Center. That store opened 1 October 1984. When we outgrew 930 Fairlawn Avenue after two years, the showroom was moved to its current site at 14300 Cherry Lane Court in Laurel.
What is the attitude about the shop, or what is the business plan?
I am not sure how to answer this since we have no plan. The shop turns out to be a genuine labor of love; there really is such a thing - it is not just a cliché. Recently one of the employees who left another career of some 20 years and is now working here commented that he "could not believe I am actually getting paid to talk about my hobby all day long". And I have never been in an environment where I have made so many good friends; I am welcome for dinner at homes around the world, and I never have to eat a lunch, or dine alone if I so choose. This is not because of any celebrity status, it is honest friendship; few people can say this about their jobs. One of the jokes about us is that we "will work for food".
What do you recall best about the first store?
The first large quantity of store stock came from buying out the inventory of Celestron telescopes and accessories from Penn Camera, then the regions largest and most competent camera store. They had tried to diversify into selling telescopes but they ended up with several thousand dollars worth of merchandise that they could not explain or sell. I was acquainted with an owner, and since they had no success selling products that were outside their area of expertise and they knew me, they invited Company Seven to buy all of it for $2,000. That is what substantially filled the first store. A relative painted a very simple "Company Seven" sign to hang out in front of the store, and this remains the only sign hanging in the front window of the current larger showroom.
The old shop was long and narrow, something one the order of 9 feet wide and 50 feet deep. If someone walked by too fast while looking for it, they might very well have missed it. It was only as we moved out of that store that we came to realize the shop we had rented was originally a hallway which had one end closed.
The shop was close to the theaters in the shopping center and when the lines of people waiting for tickets or for admission grew across the front of the store, they would come in just to get out of the bad weather. They would talk and look at the telescopes all of which really wore out our staff who tend to deal one on one with a person for an hour or more.
How did you fit the telescopes in such a narrow room?
We lined up the larger telescopes (as large as a Meade 16"f4.5 Newtonian if you can believe it!) towards the front of the shop along a wall, while several display cases were lined up along the other wall for the length of the shop.
You opened just in time for Comet Halley?
In fact, this was a good and bad time to be a competent telescope retailer. Whatever "competition" we might have had such as the mall stores - including some big science chain that later went out of business, seemed to filter out the 'chaff' so to speak. Generally only the more dedicated amateur, or more informed shopper would look further or make the thirty minute pilgrimage or more to visit the Laurel store. While the impulse buyers tended to buy elsewhere.
Our staff available to run the shop was limited as we were also involved with doing Government work, including setting up the Schmidt cameras systems and helping NASA personnel with the International Halley Watch. This also continues with a task due soon for the U.S. Naval Observatory.
You mentioned earlier that you assemble and test or evaluate each telescope received. That this became vital during the Comet Halley era. What did you mean by that?
The telescope manufacturing companies had geared up with sales and production staff to push many telescopes out, so fast that we found between 1984 and 1986 the quality control of some telescope models had deteriorated markedly. For example, by the end of 1986 we had rejected more Celestron Schmidt-Cassegrain telescopes for optical anomalies than we accepted; this was aside from making whole those instruments that arrived incomplete with missing parts. Celestron management was very upset with our return rate. They told us (as recently as May 1996 when this came up again) that we were the only dealer who complained so much - I replied "we're the only ones who really look in the packing box!" And yet when their management changed in January 1987, we were among the first invited by the new management (under one of the two the original founders - Alan Hale) to visit Celestron in California to present our views and offer suggestions.
We had to evaluate each and every new telescope as a practical matter because at that time we did not have the financial means to absorb too many returns. And as every new telescope customer of ours is a potential advocate of Company Seven, it is simply not good business to put out a poor telescope. It is best to insure the telescope is ready prior to delivery. This practice has earned for us much respect in our community. In fact, a telescope that bears our seal will often command a premium on the used telescope market.
Recently a shipment was delivered from us to a customer in Asia. After its arrival, that customer notified us that there was a deficiency of one component. He said this defect precluded complete assembly of his new telescope. We considered our packaging, and the risks of possible shipping damage. We consulted with our technician who had completely assembled and then checked the system prior to delivery. And we then concluded there could be no deficiency as the customer stated; it most likely would have been operator error. After some minutes of hand holding over the telephone the telescope was assembled properly and the customer was overjoyed. It is reassuring to know that a product we sold that cost hundreds or more dollars just in shipping costs was almost certainly free of deficiencies when it left Company Seven.
What brought about your customer teaching programs?
A prime cause of customer failure with a telescope is lack of know how. This know how is difficult to convey; imagine trying to explain something such as polar alignment of a telescope over the telephone or by mail to a novice. Or learning to ride a bicycle by phone or from a book. And so, we instituted training programs (that remain today) complimentary.
We offer this training to each customer buying a telescope from us in order to better assure his or her long-term success. We wrote a course syllabus that instructors follow with one script for each type of instrument we sell. The introductory course may last as little as a few hours on a simple telescope or accessory, or may extend to days for more complicated systems. The number of attendees is limited to assure that we will not lose anybody in a crowd. One side benefit has been that our customers tend to better equip their instruments for a wider variety of applications; they buy more from us after the initial purchase and they can do more with their telescope. We have found that as we get to know our customers better, we have also made many good friends along the way, and we have learned much from their feedback too.
Also, we were never confident in our capacity to stay in this business. We wanted to have the flexibility of closing business at a moments notice with the knowledge that our customers will continue to be happy and successful in the hobby. If we taught them well, then they would not be at the mercy of salesmen who might not give good advice.
Why not offer the training or even star watch opportunities to potential customers?
It is impractical to offer a broad course on telescope selection. We do better to spend the hours offering personalized advice that is common at our showroom. Besides, why should we do so, we are generally at capacity serving the needs of our own clientele. And when we take a telescope out, it is likely to be our own scopes that are larger than the average person is considering buying, and we are out for a good time - not to hold their hands (unless they are attractive women, of course). And Company Seven will not in any manner compete against non-profit astronomy clubs; it is a company goal to contribute to them and help to build up their membership.
What about those who can not visit your showroom?
We work with those who cannot visit by phone, mail, and E-Mail. However, people do come to visit the showroom from Australia to Zambia. In fact we have limited in house abilities to communicate in some foreign languages, and we have prepared documentation for the telescopes that we check out in several languages. I have seen persons visit to determine what they should buy, and then visit a year later to pick up an instrument and learn how to get the best out of it. We consider anyone within a 4 to 6 hour drive time to the showroom to be a local, and we will try to make special efforts to accommodate any who make a special effort (physically handicapped, visitors who do not speak English, etc.) to visit us.
Interestingly enough, a very high percentage of those who are seriously contemplating a purchase who visit or interact with us will tend to return sooner or later. And those who buy telescopes here tend to return for advice, accessories and other support. It brings to mind a scene from a 1930's movie wherein some tough guy (maybe James Cagney?) is sentenced to a prison. At the end of the movie he is released and departs from the prison pier on a boat moving off into the fog. You see the Warden and Head Guard standing side by side, and then one of them leans over to the other and says "he'll be back, they all come back".
I find it more than mildly amusing when someone who lives a half hour or so drive away calls up to ask if we have a store closer to them. At the risk of coming off as arrogant we try to advise them how privileged they should feel to have such a shop so relatively close! Yeah - I suppose it is difficult to keep that from sounding arrogant.
Why is it then that Company Seven does not advertise in the astronomy magazines, or at astronomy conventions? How do people find out about Company Seven?
We are in a community where good news travels. We have other means of reaching the community. And if they do not find us then we have other means of support in the industrial sectors so that we are not that reliant on sales to consumers.
When I attend a star watch activity, or convention it is to enjoy it as "Martin Cohen" - fellow Astro-geek". I prefer to remain very low key, and with no need to promote the firm or myself. When a hobby becomes a profession, then it is easy for one or the other to lose. We are very happy that we are able to keep some distance between the two and this too assures Company Seven a better potential to endure.
The astronomy "rags" are now vital to manufacturers and P.O. Box or "boiler room" operations. We have too much self-regard to be associated with some of the mail order dealers in the magazines, or to support a media that is their lifeline. I expect these magazines will in time come to learn how little loyalty retailers have towards them when the Internet becomes more widely available to the consumer.
Just compare the list of advertisers in any of these rags now to what they were twenty years ago...the majority of advertisers today who are not manufacturers are generally "part time" telescope shops with limited first hand experience. Or they are comparatively large and impersonal mail order or small camera stores, or "cookie cutter" science chain stores in the malls. And so where can the consumer go to see a real telescope and get a straight answer? Whose fault is this? I actually put most of this squarely on the shoulders of the consumer who generally gets just what he pays for, and on those manufacturers who are doing all they can to be Wall Street success stories at the expense of promoting the hobby and increasing their customer base.
For one recent example of shabby treatment of small shops look at the new Meade ETX telescope, arguably it is a reasonable value that an average Meade retailer could not obtain while "The Nature Company" stores in the malls had them on the shelves! Who could have found a more deserving outlet to reward with such a then marketable commodity? The Meade dealers cry and cry to the public and among themselves but do not have the balls or financial freedom of action to do anything about it! If Company Seven does not like how it is treated, then we let the supplier know. If they do not listen, then we let them know "in Spades". If they still do not listen, then they are out of here - Cya!
Almost anyone with little or no overhead can open up a volume oriented mail order business competing on price alone now. When the Internet develops, I predict highly automated ways to explain telescopes and take orders will put most traditional phone oriented mail order shops out of business - if they do not adapt first. We too could sell a telescope or any almost any other item at mail order prices or less too. But Company Seven is here for the long term - and competing on price is not really a way to keep a business healthy, and the long-term public interest is not served well by the cuts that would have to be made to accommodate low prices. The cheap way of doing business requires the merchant to simply move quantity; it cannot be a fun way to run a business or have a place (showroom or Internet site) that is really worth visiting. In the long term it is also destructive to the viability of other regional specialty stores that might offer good support to local customers and increase interest in the hobby among their community. The homogenization is happening in many areas: fast food, book stores, etc. - in another ten years maybe all amateurs will only be able to see telescopes in Wal-Mart (yeah, the $129.95 variety) if not on the Internet. The cuts in overhead will reduce financial costs to the consumer - but the consumer will pay other costs for lower prices.
Why not offer the training and telescope checkout services to other peoples customers for a fee?
You could not pay me to take care of other dealers responsibilities. The public should demand from those retailers that which we offer to our customers. That other retailers customer already got just what he paid for - and probably nothing else. Also, we have been put in an uncomfortable spot more than once of being asked by a seller or buyer to evaluate a mail ordered telescope problem. People who spend good money do not realize that many telescopes are somewhat mass-produced and so there are variations in quality control. We rejected two Celestron CG-11 telescopes in a row earlier this year; one of their customers could not understand how a $4,000 telescope could have any flaws at all!
How do you explain it, receiving a new telescope from a factory so defective that you would return it?
This may happen because the manufacturer was in a hurry to make or package the product. It may have to do with a Christmas rush to deliver, or a big celestial event, or just love of profit over quality. It may simply be a new product or component change that fails to be satisfactory. If a manufacturer is giving us more and more problem telescopes then we may implement our own engineering fix (as we did temporarily with Celestron "Star Hoppers"), or discontinue the telescope model. This was the case when in 1996 Celestron changed the tripod of the CG-9.25" telescope from the Vixen made model to a clone from Taiwan. The Taiwanese tripod and its coupling to the mount head were so poor that we discontinued selling the CG-9.25". Recently we came up with a superior (yes and costlier) alternative mount, this is the Losmandy GM-8.
Several companies in this industry tend to underestimate the public, and they make too many decisions out of much fear of their competition. They are afraid that adding a no tool hand knob set to a $1,500 telescope may add $5.00 to the cost and therefore make it less attractive to the public than a competitors $1,500 product. But then they could be right - uninformed, inexperienced people are incapable of appreciating what shortcomings a telescope may have.
And ultimately, we have the human factor in the equation where sometimes mistakes just get by - of course this does not happen at the perfect Carl Zeiss company . Our standards call for us to deliver the best example, based on our experience, of what the factory can issue.
What do you think happens to telescopes which you return defective units for replacement?
Sometimes they are serviced and returned to us. More often than not we seek a complete new unit; I do not know what happens to those we return for replacement. All we care is that they do not come back to Company Seven.
Are there telescopes that stand out in your testing?
Yes. We are happy to see a wonderful test report - but wonderful is a word we reserve to describe very few product lines. But real joy can also be derived from following how some of the relatively common telescopes have improved in function and features since 1986, and to see how they became more consistent.
Do other dealers take this testing to the extreme you do?
If you listen to the manufacturers there are no others who do this as C-7 does. I have heard rumors that "S&S Optika" does, or used to, but I am not sure. I know some other retailers say they do so, but I've seen enough of their telescopes and spoken with their customers to believe theirs is (if at all) a cursory check, if not pure marketing B.S. One camera store advertises a premium service for an added fee to select telescopes but their sales rep told us they hardly ever return a telescope to the factory as defective, this leaves me doubting their claim.
Do you think your expectations of manufacturer quality are too extreme?
If we were a low price based, mail order house - box in and box out, then yes. But, people come here for the reassurance that their decisions are correct, and their money is well accounted for.
Was the quality control issue the cause of the parting between Meade Instruments and Company Seven in 1992?
That very sad chapter began with decay of their quality control, and our perception that claims made in their advertisements for "vaporware" were misleading if not lies, and in differences over repair policies. This reached a head when a new dealer agreement was presented (to all dealers) by Meade management that we refused to sign on principle. A few other noteworthy telescope shops declined Meade's offer while some other Meade dealers later told me they wish they had declined - but money is a voluptuous mistress to some. I have to believe that since then Meade has improved at least in terms of quality control; they have by now had several years to perfect the LX-200 for example. And recently Meade dropped an outrageous advertising claim made about their new 90mm Maksutov telescope. So just maybe, someone there is listening. By 1996 Meade really had evolved to offer the most diverse, moderate priced telescope systems on the market - maybe not the best in the world but reasonable values. If Meade management would just say it like it is, then they would earn even more respect.
I have read where you have taken some criticism about being so lacking in diplomacy about your views on that matter
You mean blunt. The flak rarely comes from people that I had much respect for anyway. With maybe the exception of Ron Ezra at Meade, he seems to really be one of the guys who cares. He replied in a professionally competent and non-confrontational manner to a comment I made about Meade on the CompuServe astronomy forum - I appreciated that. It also helped me to revisit the matter from another viewpoint.
So, do you think you have mellowed?
I hope we all become better equipped to deal with challenges as we mature. I'm still growing up realizing more and more that in then end I will only have to answer to myself.
Hence your title "Field Marshal General for Life"?
I hope that I do not take myself all that seriously. Certainly I have little tolerance for others that do so themselves.
Above: First Convention where I was unanimously appointed Field Marshal General For Life of Company Seven.
Click on image to see enlarged view - if you are not a Mel Brooks fan then DO NOT click above.
Why not the title "President"?
Because I have worked at the White House in Washington, D.C. and I have seen what a real President can do. After that experience I can not see myself as President unless I can have my own Boeing 747 (besides I'd prefer "El Presidente"). Actually, next year if all goes well then I hope for a promotion to "Imperial Benevolent Dictator for Life", I also thought "Pope Cohen I" could be interesting.
You mentioned earlier problems with Celestron during Comet Halley, and more recently with Meade. Are manufacturer quality control problems cyclical?
It seems largely related to putting out too much too fast, and too unproved. Some of the problems can be attributed to personnel changes.
A year or so ago, I read in a newsletter from the "Westminster Astronomy Club" how an experienced observer attended a large star watch event. He was particularly interested in judging the qualities of one of the big two makers SCT (Schmidt-Cassegrain telescopes) models. He found more than fifty per cent of those telescopes on the field to be out of collimation (optical/mechanical alignment) - a matter easily resolved. And aside from some that, he might have other optical anomalies. What does that say about the credibility of a product line when people go searching expecting to find problems?
More than half?
Yes and it is understandable. A person spending $2,000 or more on a telescope thinks he bought a hand made "Ferrari". That SC telescope was somewhat mass produced, and then it has been "adjusted" so much by UPS (United Parcel Service or "WUps" as they're affectionately known at C7), and then again adjusted by stock boys so that what comes out of the box is not predicable. The average telescope sales staff and their customers rarely have enough experience gleaned by comparing quantities of a certain telescope model to judge quality control. The person buying a first telescope is likely to dismiss mediocre performance from a telescope as his own "operator error", atmosphere, etc. "It can not be something wrong with my $2,000 telescope!"
And then of course there are people who have been completely misled by manufacturer advertising, or other misrepresentations, or maybe their own expectations were simply too high; they will not never be satisfied by what they see with their telescope. I mean, lets face it a $2,000 SCT is still a wonderful practical value, even if not made as well as can theoretically be done.
Our concern is more a matter of our ethics. A company that has problem telescopes by design or inconsistent quality control can be dealt with if they are making a sincere effort to remedy the problem. It is the company that denies, blames others, hems and haws that we do not have the time for.
We have sent back a new telescope here and there from almost every maker at one time or another - because humans are involved in the equation of manufacturing.
I will point out too that we too are not perfect although we try to be. Last December, almost certainly due to the pressures of volume and the customers' schedule, we sent out a new Questar telescope to Australia. The customer noticed an anomaly that we may have been able to detect in out testing process. We paid to return the telescope to Company Seven, then analyzed the failure mode, repaired the telescope, then returned it to the customer by Federal Express. This was an expense to us of about $400 each way! We included a new $150 8 mm Brandon ocular as a tangible gesture of apology for the customers inconvenience. And while it doesn't cost much to say "I'm sorry" - we prefer to say it and prove it! Since then we now look for that failure mode when we Q.C. other new Questars. Company Seven Astro-Optics Division is unrivaled in terms of technical competence, we are unusually strong in product selection, but we will continue our efforts to improve these areas.
Have you considered formalizing your shop activities as a club open to the public to support astronomy?
There are many not for profit astronomy associations and clubs that already do well, or are trying to survive; we do not want to compete with them. We help to establish new clubs, then we help to build up the membership of astronomy clubs by sending customers to them. We also donate time or equipment (with no self promotion) to them. I have always felt is in the interest of all of us who care about the science and hobby of astronomy to have diverse, regional astronomy clubs.
And with the support of some U.S. Government scientists and astronomers we have instituted "off the record" programs where promising young students can spend time at government facilities learning firsthand what astronomy as a profession may be like. In turn we support the government and non profit or educational agencies involved with space in a number of ways, from furnishing the larger portable telescopes for their "Star Watch" or "Open House" activities, to discounts on equipment for budget strapped agencies.
You give the Government a break?
Yeah, call us a sucker for the space program. We have sold to Uncle Sam and to schools, sometimes at cost or a substantial loss.
Certainly there must be some law against that?
I never really cared. We do occasionally get some grief about it from purchasing people, but we have ways of dealing with them.
That "we have ways" sounds ominous.
The gist is, we try not to let small people get in the way of larger ideals.
A first impression of meeting you and after hearing you say this might be one of meeting a complicated, and quite "self assured" individual.
Yeah, I've heard that before, but then we are rather prepared and eager to bluntly state or debate our perceptions about right and wrong. Generally, we state nothing about technical matters that is not based on firsthand experience in testing and or the use of a product. On occasion, we do factor in popular consensus from experienced amateur and professional astronomers.
And our business practices reflect how we would like to be treated; we sell only what we believe in - you cannot entice us to suggest what we do not think will work. And whatever we do is done with proper regard of (without condescending to) our customers.
If other businesses elect to "whore about" on a Memorial Day or Veterans Day then that is their business; I think that for a retailer (aside possibly from a service organization) to demean a solemn holiday into a sale opportunity is crass, and it is also unfair to their employees. And so that is why Company Seven is closed on all U.S. Federal Holidays.
Then why open on any religious holiday at all?
U.S. Federal Holidays are well understood and accepted by the public, any more could become a nuisance. If an employee wants to take off a religious holiday then they are free to do so with no leave penalty. On one year we did take off on "Ground Hog Day" (one employee rented the move!)...maybe we are fishing for holidays.
I have heard it said that you are selective about your customers.
To some degree yes. We continuously seek ways to help those who we think are sincere yet we pretty much know just what "buttons to push" to send someone away too.
Is this a component of that arrogance so to speak that you mentioned?
Yeah, I know this must sound odd for a retailer but we are enthusiasts first, and retailers a distant second. Our approach does well for those who sincerely want to be successful and happy in our hobby.
I've heard it said that your staff tends to ignore visitors?
This has been exaggerated, but yes at times it may appear like that. I joke that we are sizing up the visitor to see if they are worthy of our precious telescopes, etc. Our staff are told not to "bother" visitors who may just want to browse and study the numerous telescopes and exhibits on display, but we try to acknowledge their presence as a matter of civility.
Could this be considered poor salesmanship?
Come on now, when a salesman jumps up to greet you at the door do you think it is because he is such a nice guy? I think generally not. Our showroom is set up much as a museum; one can learn at their own pace, read, see, and touch some real telescopes. They can wonder at the pictures taken by these telescopes posted on the walls with descriptions explaining what the objects are and how the image was taken. There is usually hot water on for coffee or tea - our price is right. As long as people do not handle the more serious telescopes on display, they can read and browse at leisure. Sometime after the visitor feels more at home, then they usually ask for assistance or if we sense they might need help then we will offer.
Most people selling telescopes that the public are likely to interact with will lack the interest or breadth of experience and knowledge that Company Seven's staff has. The sales people usually lack an understanding of their own and competing products which might be a better choice for the customer at hand, and more likely than not they do not use telescopes enough (if at all) to offer the benefit of first hand experience. I have heard from some others who sell telescopes that they only need to convince an uneducated consumer that they are knowledgeable and trustworthy; they throw out a few technical terms "diffraction limited", etc. Often they are reading from manufacturers scripts or reviews such as those we publish. Even worse, many sales people do not realize how much they do not know. And then of course there is the simple capitalist, who will derive an almost sexual gratification from selling anything to anyone. Yes our opinion of the words "salesman" - "sales associate", "counselor", or whatever the gobbledygook of the week is, in our industry is generally not very positive.
Our approach with a customer is to evaluate their practical desires or goals, their needs, and to gauge the personality of the customer to better understand what might work well for them. We perform valuable services for those customers who deserve our services. This is even more poignant to me since there was no one there to do the same when I was shopping for my first telescope.
We will work with some one to help them to better understand what it takes to be happy in the hobby. But sometimes it just gets to a point with those people who are just "looking for a deal" that we suggest they call should call a New York camera shop, E-Tailer, or some other shop that will tell them what they want to hear.
- We believe there is no reason to offer mediocrity here, they can get that at any number of other stores. I guess fundamentally we just never want to have to apologize for or explain away any shortcoming of something we sell. Our customer will get from us an appropriate solution for their goals, and it will be among the best possible examples of what a manufacturer can make.
- When they first visit with us we find the customer is usually wrong; they probably do not know what is best for them, or what it will do, so it is our job to educate them.
What is your approach to advising them?
First we must determine what they expect to see (terrestrial or astronomically) with the telescope, and if this is realistic. This will depend to a degree on the environment where the telescope is to be used.
Then we will determine if the telescope has to accommodate other uses: CCD imaging, or photography of planets, moon, etc. This usually impacts the mount selection more than anything else but, it may involve optics selection too.
Third, how well will the new telescope integrate into their lifestyle and how portable, and quick to set up must it be?
How competitive are you when people are price shopping?
My first reaction is to pity the caller who seems fixated on price; that mind set is probably the main reason there are so very few viable specialty telescopes shops left around the U.S. And this explains why sales are mostly done (with few exceptions) by mail order house staffs. If people call with that approach then we may try to explain what they are (or are not) buying from us.
Is not impossible to find another firm with an apparently lower price than ours. But also it can be found that some mail order houses (and most other chain stores) have much higher prices than ours. But, the price difference could easily be made up by a competitors hidden fees: "Packing and Handling" or "Credit Card Fees" which we may not charge, or their customer satisfaction policies (in house rapid service and repair if needed, return policies, training, etc.).
Furthermore, one should consider that Company Seven has earned a worldwide reputation for technical competence, and very high degree of quality control; no instrument leaves our facilities without undergoing a comprehensive mechanical and optical inspection. This has been earned one customer at a time.
In the case of optical systems this includes a check of cosmetics (coatings, etc.), mechanics, electronics, and of optical figure, mounting and collimation. No other firm that deals with the public actually has the combination of testing facilities and credentialed expertise to do this. And at times the same staff involved in servicing a customers telescope has proven experience gleaned by work with some of the most demanding optical projects ever undertaken, this includes tasks such as the repair of the Hubble Space Telescope, and numerous defense and intelligence optics projects.
Less tangible factors include the fact that few people would have learned as much as they do about making a choice in hardware as they do from working with us. This is a benefit they gain from developing a working relationship with a competent advisor. And there is a price to be paid in a capitalist economy to keep such a service available - it used to be taught "profit is the reward for a job well done".
How about another subject, what do you think about being on the Internet.
We are there, that is for sure. It took some time for our site to go on line mostly because I am still not convinced about the long-term viability of this fad.
Fad? How do you mean that?
Well like the C.B. Radio craze of the late 1970's, 8-Track Tape players, and now personal computers - I view these all as passing fads therefore, I do not wish to invest too much into them...(grin)
What to you is the strength of the Internet?
1. The ability to convey technical information to people around the world in a quick and relatively cost effective manner is a real strength. A good education (information) is power. In the not too distant future even informational videos could be hosted on Internet sites, maybe even interactive ones.
2. In time it will be easier and easier for the public to make known their joy, or their dissatisfaction with any manufacturer in so public a manner that manufacturers will get feedback faster; in worst cases a factory may be shamed into making improvements.
3. E-Mail may allow people to ask brief questions and receive simple answers at each other's convenience. In time, as Internet speeds increase beyond the typical present dial-up, then images and tables with other information might be incorporated into the E-Mails. In the not too distant future even informational videos could be sent back and forth by E-Mail.
What do you see as the weakness of the Internet?
1. Instant credibility for the incompetent: any moron who can hire high school kids will be able to set up a commercial web site that will make his company look great and on the ball. A crook will obtain instant credibility by claiming anything the public will swallow, even using aliases to sing his own praises on Compuserve forums, etc. Any shop that sells cameras or washers and dryers will appear to be a qualified and competent telescope retailer, especially to the amateur who knows little about the subject.
2. Bigger are rarely the best: As competition and numbers of on-line retailers increase manufacturers might favor the largest volume resellers to the detriment of brick front specialty stores. Regardless of the resellers competence or their lack of concern for our hobby I envision those with the 'most efficient business model' triumphing over devoted specialty shops. I imagine amateur astronomers being left stuck with the choice of only one or two regional mall stores selling crap, along with 'virtual' stores on-line offering telescopes they know nothing about, possibly having to fly from as far as LA to Washington DC to see real telescopes displayed at Company Seven.
3. Misrepresentation: an idiot can appear to be an expert by simply publishing an interview (such as this ). I recall that some time ago a fellow Mr. G. on the CompuServe astronomy forum posted a fantastic observing report about a prototype 7 inch Meade refracting telescope; everyone had heard about this telescope in advertising but no one I knew had ever seen one complete on display, or in the field. I politely questioned his information in terms of math and the seeing conditions in the location he mentioned, all the while I privately wondered about his impartiality. He continued to suggest he was just lucky to come across that "wonderful" telescope. Soon after that the owner of Orion Telescopes & Binoculars came on line and busted Mr. G. publicly for being affiliated with the company whose product he was making great claims about. Later, when the first production telescopes were delivered they were far short of the claims made by the factory, and Mr. G.
4. E-Mail abuse: Some E-Mailers do not understand how we offer advice. A simple E-Mail such as "send your catalog to..." is likely to be answered by us with none or a "canned" response; such questions are too broad to respond to in a truly concise manner. And yet I may spend the better part of a day answering one well written and thought provoking E-Mail inquiry. This is a strength of E-Mail too - one can respond in a thoughtful, manner at one's own convenience.
But E-Mail is misused by some people. One who sends E-Mail may feel their letter has not been answered promptly enough - this may be 24 hours later! E-Mail does not take precedence at Company Seven over other forms of communication. It is as if some of these people have no life, or ability to directly interact with a human - they actually prefer E-Mail for the communicating thoughts even when some are only a local telephone call away.
The worst aspect of E-Mail is that it allows little opportunity for spontaneous interaction and feedback between individuals. It is at times difficult to judge one another's' responses, we can only guess at how they are feeling about our replies and what they are or are not reading into them.
It is often not time efficient to respond to someone by typing out E-Mail (especially the way I type) more so if the question is not phrased well enough to convey the senders real thoughts; this is certainly more tolerable with someone from another country who is not fluent in English. I hate to simply send "canned" responses, but often that is the only way to get a somewhat reasonable response to a general inquiry.
You do not have much information about astronomical news or events at your site. Have you considered doing so?
Yes we have looked at this but there are many other sites (astronomy associations and clubs, NASA, museum and planetarium sites) that already do this, and several do it very well. Why should Company Sevem compete with those whom compliment what we do and vice versa? And why should we divert resources to maintain such an area? I think we may become a noteworthy presence on the Internet (if not already) in terms of technical competence and hardware knowledge - to do just one thing well is in itself enough of an accomplishment in this medium.
And finally, could you tell us, just for the curious what type or types of telescopes you own or use?
I usually own several telescopes but lately I use either of these more often than the others: 1. Astro-Physics 206mm f7.9 EDF Apochromatic refractor, and 2. a Questar 3.5". As I am most interested in observing the planets, sun, the moon, etc. I am well served by these two telescopes. Oh, I do tolerate those short and fat cement mixer looking telescopes (Schmidt-Cassegrains). And if I had to, then I suppose that I could tolerate having to use a sawed-off, chimney-looking monstrosity where one needs a ladder to reach the eyepiece (Dobson style and Newtonians). However, I already own the telescopes that I no doubt will spend the rest of my life with - at least for the next several months...
I do hope this helps those who work and deal with Company Seven to understand us better, and to appreciate what we do even more.
Thank you for your time, and insights.