Evaluation Season

Yes, there IS something wrong with this picture. It's really two pictures.

Vacation season is over, and fleet evaluation season is beginning. Amy and I recently returned from several days in Colorado, visiting the Hoffman family in Aspen, with a quick trip to Vail to check out the SSCV operation (impressive).At last count we had something in excess of 220 pairs of skis in the shop, from 21 different skiers. A few of these are just early-bird pre-season grinding jobs, but mostly we’ve got skis here for evaluation.

What is this “evaluation” that we keep talking about? You might well ask! We’ll let you in on a little secret: we make our living by grinding and selling skis. In order to do that, we want to do two things for you – we want to grind your skis, and we want to sell you more skis. Always more skis. What we’ve found is that telling you, our loyal customer, that “you should have more skis” only works once or twice. After a little while, we need to make a more sophisticated argument. So, once we’ve got our hooks into you with one or two pairs of skis, we’ll probably suggest that we do a “fleet evaluation”. BE CAREFUL! We’re about to sell you some more skis!

The purpose of the fleet evaluation, aside from just selling you more skis, is to make sure that your set-up is working as intended and that you’re taking best advantage of the materials at your disposal. More often than not, we begin working with skiers who already own skis that they like. We might not even see these skis before we start adding new skis to the line-up. Often enough the starting point is something like finding a pair of skis for warm conditions to complement an existing pair of great cold skis. And often enough, it turns out that these new warm skis are better than the great cold skis, even in cold conditions. How is this possible? It’s possible because skis keep getting better, and a pair that was great three or four years ago is likely to have been surpassed by more recent developments and refinements.

The fleet evaluation process is something we do in cooperation with the skier. We know skis pretty well, but skiers tend to know when their skis are working better than anybody. So the final word on the success of a fleet set-up always comes from the skier. The fleet set-up process tends to get traction after a season or two of working together, as we start to learn the characteristics that reward a given skier, and the conditions where they’re most likely to struggle with their existing set-up.

The most common scenario is for a skier to come to us with several pairs of skis from a variety of manufacturers, and of a variety of different ages. Very few skiers are happy with their skis in an unqualified way – usually there are a pair or maybe two that they really like, and some others that they don’t. The instinct is to try to make the bad skis good by finding a set of conditions where they’ll be really great. The hardest part of the process is to convince somebody that the skis they got five years ago, that have never been good in any conditions, aren’t worth putting more money into. Our goal is (to sell lots of skis) to improve the overall quality of the fleet in two stages. First, we’ll try to identify one pair of skis that we can add to the fleet to complement the existing skis, but also to occupy a broad range of common conditions. Because we’ve got really high confidence in new materials, we general aim to have the first pair of new skis be something that gets used 60-70% of the time. We don’t want to sell a customer a brand-new dedicated slush ski to complement a fleet of three other pairs that are all four to six years old. We want to sell you something that you’ll use and appreciate right away, and often.

The next stage of fleet development is to fill-in around the edges of the most central range of conditions by identifying gaps in the range of well-covered conditions, and replacing old materials that aren’t measuring up to the standard of the new skis. This is a relatively easy thing to do when we’ve started the process with a clear vision of how the fleet will be built over time.

The easiest way to build a good fleet is just to start from scratch with three or four pairs of skis. But that process doesn’t hold many lessons, or give us a chance to get to know our customers. The better way to build a fleet is to start by looking at everything, and talking through the skier’s experience. Then the final solution evolves through mutually built understanding of all the factors that contribute to success.