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Create a Quality Customer Experience

It’s the most important way to differentiate your business from competitors
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In boat dealerships across North America, the pressures of the past 20 months or so have taken their toll. Team members are overwhelmed and burned out. Principals and managers are busier than they’ve ever been, feeling as if they just can’t get it all done.

External forces challenging our dealerships are stacking the odds against them, with worldwide workforce shortages that have only grown worse since the pandemic began. Also, bubbling-up supply-chain issues have now boiled over.

The conditions have reprogrammed the go-to-market approach for new-boat sales on a level once unimaginable, while further compromising the performance of dealership parts and service departments. It’s like rewriting the playbook in the middle of the highest-pressure game of the season.

Let’s start with the bad news: There is simply no end in sight for the workforce shortage and supply-chain issues. The factories that manufacture products, the ports that receive overseas goods and supplies, the railroad and trucking industries that transport goods, the retailers that sell to consumers: Every single one and every link in the supply chain needs more people. Child care, schools, restaurants and businesses from nearly every corner of the service industry are in need of more people.

From a workforce perspective, everyone’s competing for the same small pool of available help. Meanwhile, from the vantage point of the supply chain, consumers continue to buy products as quickly as they’re placed on shelves. In some cases, as those of you booked with orders into the 2023 model year know all too well, customers are buying the product before it’s even in inventory.

While all of this may seem out of your control, the good news is that you can do something about it. Your business, like all businesses, depends on the quality of the customer experience you deliver. Customer service is the one and only path to differentiating yourself from the competition. That’s true today in this chaotic marketplace riddled with new challenges daily, and it goes for whatever “normal” market conditions we’ll face down the road. The customer experience you offer will give you a competitive advantage. Let me offer some suggestions.

Create a memorable, rewarding experience with the boat-ordering process. To you, ordering boats is a kind-of-cool, kind-of-frustrating replacement for sitting on millions of dollars in inventory. For your boat buyers, it’s the highlight of a lifetime, an incredible moment when they get to custom-order the boat of their dreams. Are you putting yourself in their seat? And are you making the moment special, or is it business as (un)usual?

Communicate with your customers like never before. For months and months and months, your customers eagerly await the arrival of their new boat. They’ve told their friends and family about it, and they dream about the first time that boat will hit the water. The in-between waiting period can be depressing for them, or it can be rewarding. That’s entirely in your control. What are you doing to make it rewarding? Communicate with your customers regularly — make it a formal process, but not so formal as to make it dull and boring — so they feel that you are as excited about the boat’s arrival as they are.

Make the delivery special. The moment has arrived for the customer to see and touch and feel his new boat for the first time. Are you creating an experience out of it, or are you deflating his dreams by treating it as a routine part of your business? Is this boat just a hull identification number, a contract and a revenue generator for you? Or is it one of the most memorable moments of your customer’s life? Make it the latter.

Fix the problem. Based on common sense and backed by data, we know that your dealership can make or break the boat-owning experience. If there’s a problem with the boat, the quality with which you address it can either create loyal, long-time boaters or drive people away from your brand, a manufacturer’s brand and potentially even away from boating. In today’s marketplace, you can expect problems with the product — missing parts, price increases, warranty work needed and more. Always remember that the quality of your response will determine the customer experience.

Make the culture yours. Customer experience isn’t a one-person job. It’s a cultural movement inside your business. It starts with management leading by example, and it ends with every single team member living the mission. But this doesn’t happen on its own. You need a formal approach. You need to plan for and execute moments of customer delight and surprise. You need unique, competitive-advantage-defining deliverables that your customers will rave about. Take the time to be intentional about delivering an experience that your customers can brag about.

The culture is your people. The entire world is short-staffed, so know that you’re not alone. The companies that persevere despite today’s marketplace challenges are the ones that will win the fight for good people. But you don’t win by just hiring and empowering. You win by building a process to hire, train, develop, promote and celebrate your team.

There’s a common saying, that your customers will never be happier than your employees are. Today’s employees have the ability, with little restriction, to find a different, better-paying job at almost any moment. The way you treat them, train them and recognize them will not only help you retain them, but will also create a culture that drives the best customer experience in your marketplace. Employee satisfaction is the last item on this list, but everything begins and ends with it.

The experience you provide your customers is the one and only consistent differentiator and competitive advantage you have, no matter what the market conditions throw at you.

Ask yourself: Are you intentional about the experience you deliver, or do you just sell boats, provide service and hope for the best? Map out and live out the customer experience expectations you want to deliver, then be ready and willing to adapt them to the changing marketplace. Your success will be determined by which route you choose. 

Matt Gruhn is president of the Marine Retailers Association of the Americas.

This article was originally published in the December 2021 issue.

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