Retention is tied to time on the water

Posted on Written by Bill Sisson

Bill SissonBoats don’t like to sit for extended periods of time on the hard or in their slips. Things deteriorate faster during prolonged idleness — systems and parts stiffen, freeze, gum up and so on. Boats like to be underway.

The same is true for their owners. Boaters are happiest when they’re on the water playing with their boats, spending time with family and friends, experiencing the intoxicating feeling of freedom that comes from being master and commander of your own little ship. Retention? There is probably no single thing more responsible for keeping people in the fold than having them happily rack up hour after hour on their boats.

We all know folks who over the years have gotten out of boating. If there is a red flag expression that typically precedes the act of swallowing the anchor, it often goes something like this: “We’re just not using the boat anymore. It sits there. It makes more sense to get rid of it.”

And from there you’ll hear a litany of reasons ranging from time to money to the kids have grown to some kind of mechanical problem that either costs too much to fix or has been maddeningly frustrating to troubleshoot.

The best cure is trouble-free time on the water. As an industry we’ve recognized this and ramped up efforts to make it a little easier for people to enjoy their boats through organized gatherings. More and more builders and dealers are hosting events, get-togethers and rendezvous aimed at generating brand loyalty through camaraderie and building great sun- and-spray-soaked memories.

The lifestyle promise that implicitly accompanies every new and preowned boat that slides into the water is a variation on the theme: “You’re going to love boating!” That’s our trump card, and we need to make sure we’re doing all we can to deliver on it.

New boaters can use help figuring out the ropes. And experienced boaters sometimes need a little guidance to get comfortable going farther afield or perhaps handling a larger boat. Cruising in the company of others is a good way for owners across skill levels to develop the confidence to do more on their boats.

The same is true of on-water training. The more opportunities we provide for owners to sharpen their skills, travel to new places and gain a greater level of comfort and competence on the water, the higher the retention.

Events aren’t easy. On-water gatherings take planning and solid execution to ensure that everyone is safe and has a good time. They require an investment of time, money and personnel. But the good ones — the ones that leave boaters looking forward to the next one — pay dividends in terms of solidifying loyalty and leading to future sales.

In the immediate post-recession there was a flurry of conversation about smaller boutique boat shows replacing the larger ones. The big shows are still here and getting even larger. Boat shows remain a magnet, and major ones allow consumers unparalleled opportunities to get on board a variety of brands and examine them carefully over the course of a day or several days.

But small shows and brand-specific gatherings have a place in the new landscape, as well. The buying decision is not linear — it’s not simply A plus B equals a sale. It’s elliptical and emotional, which is why successful builders and dealers work all venues and channels, from shows to intimate face-to-face gatherings to the Web and a host of social media offerings.

Simply selling boats is not enough anymore. Know thy customers and stay as close to them as possible.

End of the day, reliability and good service are also key parts of the fun equation. Boats that are stuck in repair sheds are anathema to keeping people in the sport. The old-school response might have been a shrug, followed by: “What do you expect? It’s a boat.”

I know mechanics who still think that way. That won’t get the job done moving forward. Customers are demanding more from the product and the folks who service them. Keeping the fleet purring is a function of well-trained techs and other tradesmen, which speaks to the work force challenges we face.

Can you spend too much time on the water? That’s never been the problem.

This article originally appeared in the July 2016 issue.

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