Certification in an uncertain time

Posted on Written by Reagan Haynes

Dealers are weighing the costs and benefits of the three-year-old program, but the weak economy makes it hard to gauge its effectiveness

Joe Zahler, a sales consultant at Wayzata Marine in Orono, Minn., says industry-wide certification has given customers the best possible experience, which ultimately leads to closing a deal on boats. The sales reps use the certification as a sales tool with their potential buyers. The decades-old retailer also proudly displays its five-star, certified designation logo on its Web site and in its ads.

“I think it gives [customers] a comfort level, knowing we’re certified,” says Zahler.

Wayzata, and others who have gotten on board with the three-year-old Marine Industry Certification Program, say they now have a clear focus on day-to-day operations, first dibs on regional leads, advertising rights and, equally important, a competitive edge.

Yet, despite the advantages, at least one dealer says business is so tough he may not recertify this fall. Bruce Hawthorne of Camano Marine on Camano Island, Wash., says he’s an advocate of certification, but the money he would have to spend to re-up might be needed for more immediate expenses.

Since the program’s inception, only two other certified dealerships have chosen not to recertify, citing economic strains, according to Phil Keeter, president of the Marine Retailers Association of America and president of Marine Certification Inc.

The significant advantages associated with certification; namely, customer follow-up, a build-up of consumer confidence and the jump on leads for potential buyers are well worth the expense, some dealers say.

But they say the distressed economy makes it difficult to gauge whether certification has increased sales.

“Certainly, as we do a better job with customers and their overall experience, that’s going to translate into additional referrals from customers and repeat business from customers,” says Fred Pace, managing partner of Legendary Marine in Destin, Fla. “Because sales have been off in general in the last couple of years, it’s hard to give a quantifiable number, but I think, overall, it’s had a very positive impact.”

He says two of Legendary’s four dealerships are certified and the remaining two are in the process of getting certified. The latter would probably have reached that achievement earlier, but allocating time and resources is a costly venture.

“It is a fairly time-consuming process, but we do plan to implement all the procedures in all the stores,  and we have been working on that,” Pace says. “Some of those people who would have worked with these processes have had full plates because their duties have expanded, so that’s certainly a big driver for the delay.”

It is expensive because of the time involved in all the staff participating, but it is a “very, very worthwhile expense,” says Pace.

Simple things such as printed job descriptions, dress codes and overall policy and procedures at the dealership were among the immediate advantages of certification, Pace says.

“It made us examine what we were doing and, in doing that, we were able to see the things that needed to change and raise the bar for customer service and make the dealership run more smoothly,” he says.

A little more than 600 dealerships have enrolled in the certification program. Of those, close to 400 have completed the process and the remaining are headed toward reaching that goal.

That number likely would have risen dramatically if it had not been for troubles in the economy.

“If we had not been in a two-year downturn with sales sliding so badly, I think we’d have 1,000 dealers certified,” Keeter says. “Using the money that it takes for a dealer to get certified is an obstacle because cash supply is stretched.”

The full cost for certification is $3,995 per dealer; Grow Boating absorbs $1,500, reducing the cost for dealers, according to the National Marine Manufacturer’s Association Web site.

“It is one of the very best things that has happened to the retail dealer network in the last 10 to 15 years,” says Keeter.

He and other dealers targeted three key sales opportunities associated with certification.

The first is carefully outlining the process from the moment a customer walks through the door to the dealers’ follow-up on boat delivery, service and/or parts. This thorough examination helps dealers identify areas for improvement and standardizes each customer’s experience, Keeter says.

“The dealer certification doesn’t tell a guy how to run his dealership; it just shows them how to map their system and improve,” Keeter says. “But you’d be amazed at how many people didn’t follow up with a customer.”

Second, the dealership can advertise its certification status, which gives consumers confidence knowing they are doing business with a reputable retailer. Also, certification gives retailers an edge over their competition.

Finally, certified dealerships get first dibs on leads that come through Discover Boating. The leads are not geared to specific boat brands; instead, they are targeted toward types of boats. Those leads then get sent to manufacturers who, in turn, send them out to their dealer networks, even to those who are not certified.

Best practices
Pace, of Legendary Marine, says safety standards became a huge focus following its certification. The dealerships offered specific training programs to educate employees on towing boats, loading boats and the use of tractors to move the boats.

“This resulted in less damage to trailers and boats, and has been a big plus for the dealership,” Pace says.

Looking at every process of the day-to-day operations makes a dealer realize what can be changed to improve his company, adds Zahler of Wayzata Marine.

Dave Paisley, store manager at Marine Max Port Arrowhead in Saint Charles, Mo., agrees.

The best practices that dealers are asked to use on a daily basis — follow-up procedures, delivery procedures, what gets delivered, how it gets delivered — helps set standards, he says.

“That’s what the BMWs, McDonalds, Applebee’s have made their fortune on — consistency,” Paisley says. “Knowing the professionalism and commitment you’re going to get from the company is invaluable. It’s peace of mind.”

Industrywide standards for all dealers would benefit everyone, Paisley adds.

“Our biggest competition, I really believe in my heart, is not each other, it’s the RV people, the pool people, all the vacation people,” Paisley says. “We need to set a standard to show people how fun this industry is, and we’ll all win.

“People have options to do RVs, 4-wheelers, and all sorts of other things. By us being out there in front of them and being professional about everything we do, it’s going to help us.”

Advertising: a competitive edge
B&E Marine was already a certified master dealer for several of its brands, including Sea Ray and Boston Whaler. But the retailer still wanted to participate in the NMMA’s process so badly it was a pilot for the program, says Amy Hanske, marketing manager for the Michigan City, Ind., dealership.

Because of its other certifications, the dealership’s standards were already high. However, it was worth it because customers expect dealerships to have that industrywide certification, Hanske says.

“It’s a standard of what people are going to expect in the future,” she says. “Maybe they don’t care that we’re a Sea Ray master dealer, maybe [industrywide certification] is the one thing they’re looking for.”

And because all dealerships already contribute to Grow Boating, Hanske says even more feel compelled to take advantage of the certification benefits.

Leads
The leads are sporadic, says Hanske of B&E Marine, but when they come in there are usually about 100.

It’s beneficial to get a leg-up on area competition, and Hanske appreciates the fact that the leads are not brand-specific. If somebody down the street is not certified, but has something the customer wants, B&E is likely to end up with the sale because of the initial lead.

Not everyone, though, views the first look at leads as a benefit.

At Camano Marine, Hawthorne says he has not had much success with the leads.

“I’m not trying to poo-poo the Discover Boating system, but I haven’t [found] them to be real productive leads thus far,” Hawthorne says. “They could be long-term, and that’s what this whole thing is about — it’s a long-term thing. But from a short-term perspective, they’re not hot leads for the most part. But we treat them as hot leads. We try to respond  within an hour.”

Too expensive?
Hawthorne is debating whether to renew his certification. Business has been very bad, and the mom-and-pop dealership is just barely squeaking by, he says.

In his 30 years in the industry (five years as co-owner of the dealership with his wife), he says he has never seen such tough times.

“To be honest with you, I’m a believer in [the certification] and we subscribe to it because we already went through the process,” Hawthorne says. “But I would tell you that not much of what we do now is different from what we did then; our best practices are their best practices.”

Hawthorne prominently displays a large sign on his storefront, advertising his NMMA certification. He would like to keep that status, but might not have the cash to swing it, especially in October when the season is winding down.

“Honestly I don’t have $2,000 or $3,000 to throw at that right now,” Hawthorne says. “If it’s between that and keeping the lights on and paying one of my employees, I’ll pay my employee. Who knows? Six months from now, we might not be in business. I’m having to sell my inventory at cost.”

This article originally appeared in the September 2008 issue.

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