Boat buyers warned about picking dealer

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“If you’re torn between two or three models from different brands, the quality of the dealership and its staff may well sway your decision,” Jim Hendricks advised readers in the February issue of Boating magazine.

The five-page feature article relayed a story of a couple that experienced a problem with their brand new 23-foot leaking pontoon boat and their frustration with getting the selling dealer to do the warranty work. “Within just a few days of signing on the dotted line,��� Hendricks wrote, “the couple was caught between a leaky boat and the sinking feeling that they had selected the wrong dealership.”

As an industry, we constantly talk about the importance of doing right by the customer. Stories like these in national publications don’t help us, albeit they can serve to bring home the point. “Don’t just shop for a boat — shop for a good dealer,” Hendricks urged readers. And, to do it, he offered a dozen ways to rate a prospective dealer, even providing a handy score sheet to select the best one. Here, briefly, are the ones I consider his top 10. How would your dealership rate?

1. Does the store staff seem happy to see you? Does anyone come over to say hello? Are they engaging and enthusiastic?

2. Check them out online? Use search engines to look for mentions or reports about the dealership. One or two negative comments aren’t of major concern, but a rash of bad experiences, poor warranty handling and long delays are a red flag.

3. Are the showroom and yard clean and organized? Are the boats washed and clean? Is the property free of old parts and junk? Does the dealer’s equipment look well-maintained? If not, move on.

4. Does the staff return calls and emails promptly? Lack of prompt response can be a good indicator that customer service after the sale will only get worse.

5. Are you encouraged to talk to the service manager? Are you shown around the shop and given a taste of the dealership culture? Is the shop messy or organized? Are the mechanics friendly and enthusiastic? If not, that’s a red flag.

6. Does the dealership hold a “Marine Industry Five-Star Certification,” an intensive program designed for dealers to provide the highest levels of sales and service? Does the dealer’s service department also hold manufacturer training certificates? Are they displayed for you? Are they up to date? Does the sales team point out these certifications?

7. Are you offered a chance to talk with existing customers? Testimonials and references can be important. While dealers must be mindful of customer’s privacy, refusing to provide some references, particularly if you asked for them, is a red flag.

8. Were you kept waiting? Prompt greetings are important. Moreover, if you had an appointment, there should be no waiting. But waiting can also mean a salesperson interrupted time with you to take a phone call. That’s rude and unjustified.

9. Do you like the dealership’s staff? It’s not an irrelevant question. People want to do business with people they like. A staffer who isn’t likeable isn’t likely to get your business.

10. Is the dealership conveniently located? This one might be more critical than any of the others. In his article, Hendricks tells readers: “If the dealer is more than 25 miles away, every trip will be a hate mission.” Again, he illustrates his point with the couple and the leaky pontoon. The selling dealer was 65 miles away (130-mile roundtrip). Moreover, they didn’t have a trailer or tow vehicle and the dealer would do the warranty work only if the couple brought the pontoon boat back to the dealership.

Today, dealer/manufacturer agreements (good ones, anyway) provide for a large “protected” territory. That’s what dealers want. Accordingly, dealers should have an effective plan to deal with geographic distances. To counter Hendricks’ advice, if a dealership sells to a customer, it must be prepared to handle any problems in a way that satisfies the customer regardless of distance — an honest commitment to the customer he can count on.

In Hendricks’ example, telling a customer he won’t get warranty service on his new boat (knowing the customer has no trailer or tow vehicle) is the kind of boneheaded position that triggers negative articles and will likely cost that dealer a lot more in the end than doing the best for that customer.

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