How to be an accessible bathroom retail success

AHM Installations was started by Simon and Julie Symcox to plug what they felt was a gap for someone doing accessible bathrooms that met people’s needs. Now they employ 32 people, do 80 bathrooms a month, but it is still all about the people. Chris Frankland went to meet them and their son and MD Charles.

L to R: MD Charles Symcox, director Julie Symcox and chairman Simon Symcox from AHM Installations
L to R: MD Charles Symcox, director Julie Symcox and chairman Simon Symcox from AHM Installations

AHM Installations is not your typical KBB retailer. For founders Simon and Julie Symcox and son Charles, it’s all about people, not products.

Not just the people AHM is providing accessible bathrooms for, but those who talk to customers to determine what they need, and those who carry out the installations. And the one key quality Simon says they must all have is empathy.

“Empathy is the most important thing,” says Simon. “You will see that in all the people we have who go in and meet customers. They are not salesmen, they are people who want to help. We pride ourselves on that – our surveyors genuinely care.

He adds: “All nine are employed by us. A lot of companies use self-employed guys who have come from an industry such as construction and they don’t always understand what is required. Whereas if you bring them in and train them to the level you want, it’s a completely different ball game.”

Simon and Julie have a background in mobility and healthcare and approach selling accessible bathrooms in rather a different way.

Simon tells me that the reason they started AHM Installations back in 1999 was because they felt people in need of an accessible bathroom were not being well served.

“We found that a lot of the practices in selling products and adaptations to older folk were very questionable,” he continues. “A lot of the people they were using to sell these products didn’t know anything about the customers or their requirements or the products that were available.”

Making his point crystal clear, Simon adds: “I felt a lot of people in this sector were being used and abused and that went vagainst the grain with me.”

So what is it that makes AHM Installations different?”

Simon sums it up: “We didn’t start off from a plumbing background, we are healthcare people. And that is the essential difference between us and most other people involved in bathroom installation.


“And with Julie’s help on the nursing side,” he adds, “it really helped make sure we did the right thing for customers. It was pioneering. We would involve an occupational therapist if we needed to, or if clients didn’t want to involve one, we’d rely on common sense. And it developed from there.”

Because of the special needs of their customers and the sensitive and personal nature of the areas that will need to be discussed, AHM’s sales process involves really getting to know them to determine exactly what kind of bathroom and products will best suit their needs. To this end, the initial contact on the phone and the surveyors they send in to meet the customers for a consultation, usually in their homes, are crucial stages.

Those options generally involve a walk-in or level-access shower, walk-in bath or full wet room, depending on what is needed.

Simon explains: “The devil is in the detail and it is important that you get it right to start with. We are not expecting our surveyors to sell a product. We expect them to get to know the customers, find out what is required, come back, give it some thought and then present them with the options.”

He adds: “It is the only way to find out what the customer needs. Because the first time you see a customer, they won’t tell you everything. A lot of this is very personal. Especially with toileting. They have to be in a position where they feel confident, because the last thing we want is to install a toilet and get a phone call from a son or a daughter telling us that it needs to be higher.”

Simon’s son and company MD Charles, an ex-military officer who joined the company in 2014, also empha­sises the need for patience: “You have to cross a number of barriers with the customer, because some of them are quite guarded, and if you don’t get there in the first visit and they want us to come back, it’s fine. It is definitely a tiptoeing process.”

At AHM Installations’ HQ near Lincoln, there used to be a showroom, but they decided it wasn’t really necessary for the business.

Simon explains what may at first seem to go against established practice: “We have a different way of doing business. When I look at most companies selling kitchens and bathrooms it is all about the products. That’s not what we do. Talking to us is what it is all about.”

Years ago, AHM also had a big showroom in the Lincolnshire Co-op, but they decided to pull out. But why was that?

AHM Installations

Simon recalls: “We realised that sales were not product-based. People would come into the showroom and look vaguely at the products on offer, but then once they started talking to someone, they completely ignored it.”

Products are displayed, however, at their showrooms in Wellington, Somerset, and Maidstone and AHM also works in conjunction with eight mobility centres around the country. Usually they display a walk-in bath and have showers with seats and grab handles, but it is the walk-in baths that always seem to capture people’s attention. Simon tells me they often decide that is what they want.

However, he says they usually don’t end up with a walk-in bath and they are their least-sold products.

Simon elaborates: “We put one in recently for a customer with a muscular-wasting disease and he particularly wanted a walk-in bath, but he couldn’t bend down to pull the plug out, so we fitted an automatic waste disposal system and he just presses a button and it does it all for him. We did that adaptation ourselves in-house because no one else did it.”


So how do most people find AHM? Simon says they do some low-profile advertising in local magazines and newspapers. They also get referrals from charities, suppliers and their mobility centre partners.

“To me the tell-tale sign is referrals,” he admits. “It is a pat on the back and I know referrals in this sector are few and far between. Because not everyone wants to give a referral as they don’t want everyone to know what is going on with their bathing.”

They also do a lot of work with armed forces charity SSAFA. “Essentially that is a big part of what we do, making things right for the people who have fought for us and guarded our country.”

An interesting point made by Charles is how people tend to delay the decision-making process. He says: “Everyone leaves it until the last moment when they can barely get themselves in and out of the bath.”

As Simon says: “There is always a trigger. Maybe because someone has had a fall or they couldn’t get out of the bath and ended up in there overnight. And someone finds them in a totally distressed state and thinks they need to do something now.”

AHM supplies around 60 to 80 bath­­­­­­­­rooms a month, of which only around two are non-accessible. Nonetheless, it strives to make sure that its bathrooms do not look like a hospital.

As Julie puts it: “When we started, a drop-down seat was quite a basic thing. Now you can have some nice contemporary products, so there are ways of making the adaptations a lot more aesthetically pleasing.”

But the underlying needs of the end user are the key driver. Getting the grab bar in the right place and height for the user or carer, asking if they can operate a toilet flush lever, whether they can step into a bath or get out once they are in.

Then there is the issue of showering and the dangers of scalding or thermal shock from exposure to cold water, especially if someone cannot jump out of the way. Simon says: “If they can get out of the way, you can put in a standard shower with a thermostatic control. If they can’t get out of the way, you are better off with a remote control to get it at the right temperature before they get in.”

Another issue that AHM has to deal with is when an elderly user cannot physically climb the stairs to an upstairs bathroom.

That is why, as Charles points out, their surveyors look at the whole house layout and not just the bathroom. He explains: “We teach them to find out how the customer is going to get to the bathroom. It may take them half-an-hour to get upstairs. So we might decide to put in an extra banister for them or a stair lift.”

Simon adds: “We have also con­­verted plenty of garages into a bedroom and bathroom. We have our own qualified architect, Nathan, who works on all the bigger projects like adaptations of garages and utility rooms.”


As well as working with SSAFA, AHM also helps with advice on getting Disabled Facilities Grant. It is also looking at offering finance but it is still trialling that option.

Asked whether AHM has noticed an uptick in business driven by the increase in multigenerational house­holds, Charles admits: “I don’t see it as as big a market as we thought it was going to be. If people want their elderly relatives living with them, normally they are annexed. But if you convert a bathroom specifically for an 80- to 90-year-old grandparent, you’re never going to get your starter family with a young baby in the same environment.”

When AHM first set up in 1999, Simon admits the accessible sector was in its infancy and that products were in short supply.

He recalls that suitable non-slip trays of the right size were in short supply, so they had their own made. And they are still using it today. They also did their own wet-room panels, but now they only do the trays.

Now of course there are many more products to choose from and AHM deals among others with Gainsborough, Mantaleda, Mira, Scudo, AKW, QX, Impey, Triton and Aqualisa.

As for the future, Simon says they are looking to plug the holes where they are not represented nationally, such as Scotland. He also believes accessible bathrooms will be a growing market.

“That isn’t going to stop in the years to come,” he tells me, “because we have this huge number of old folks coming through, who will require this kind of assistance over the next 20 years. There will be new areas that we are covering.”

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