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Five steps a dealership can use to gain customers, build loyalty

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When it comes to boat-buying customers, what’s your dream scenario? Let’s do this right. Sit back and close your eyes … can you see it? It looks something like this: The happy buyer has been your customer for years. Smiling broadly, he signs the papers and becomes the proud owner of a gleaming — loaded with every option — watercraft. Even bigger than the one he bought two years ago — by golly, he’s paying cash.

Blissfully satisfied, he backs up his V8 vehicle (with ample towing capacity), effortlessly lowers the trailer tongue onto the hitch (a perfect fit), and drives off into a bright and sunny day with a euphoric look and a merry wave goodbye. Ah, the happiness of owning a boat — a shiny new boat at that.

Poof! Now that your daydream of the perfect customer has vanished and you’re back to reality, how much of the dream can you capture on a steady basis and turn into ongoing revenue? In other words, how do you find and keep customers fresh, keep sales rolling in, as well as replace customers you lose?
I remember when I was in junior high school and my family was living in Wyoming. My parents bought a boat so we could water ski and enjoy time at the lake with family and friends. How did my parents choose where they made their purchase? Of course they shopped around for the best deal, but they also asked friends for recommendations.

That brings us to looking at ways to push your daydream out of your head and onto the showroom floor where you want to see a consistent stream of buying customers. Here are five methods and reminders for how to find customers.

Method 1: Word of mouth

When it comes to discretionary or recreational big-ticket buying, word of mouth screams “important.” Word of mouth is the buzz you produce and purposefully manage with every customer who walks through your door. Once a customer buys a boat or service or equipment, every contact you have with him/her is an opportunity to refresh your relationship and encourage them to recommend you to others. There are a wide range of marketing techniques that play off this that I won’t go into here. Instead, our focus is how to build your customer pipeline and keep it fresh and full year after year.

Word of mouth caused my parents to become a customer at the store where they bought our family boat. The impression the dealership previously left with my parents’ friends included a quality product and service experience, resulting in the recommendation to my parents. Add to that the dealership’s solid reputation, and you’ve got a friendly reminder of some simple, yet significant, stuff that always contributes to positive customer impact.

Method 2: Repeat buyers

The buyer in our earlier dream scenario is who we’re talking about here — the wonderful repeat customer. In this case, ‘repeat’ is another word for ‘relationship.’ You all know it, but like so many other things, it’s easy to take relationships for granted.  What does a repeat customer mean to you? Does he/she magically appear at your doorway with a huge pile of money? We all know it doesn’t have to be only repeat boat buyers; it can be repeat service and equipment buyers, too. Like any relationship, similar to a garden, it must be nurtured and fed on a regular basis to sustain its strength and vigor, as well as deepen relationship roots over time. Staying connected with new customers is what makes them become repeat buyers. This means following up after sales and service transactions, checking in and following up again. Great service is often the most important ingredient for maintaining repeat customers. It also means making sure your dealership is a bright, inviting, clean and fun place to visit and is well marked and easy to find.

Method 3: Trade shows and marketing

Our dream is progressing nicely, and the pipeline is starting to pump out healthy prospects. But like any pipeline, it requires a continuous booster shot or kick in the — well, you know — to keep it energized and fluid. Enter trade shows and marketing programs. Boating trade shows can be a mutually satisfying, luscious lunch of sorts for sellers and buyers where tons of customers view a wealth of boating options in one place — yummy from both buyer and seller perspectives. Trade shows are often the biggest place for multiple boat sales that can be attributed to one major marketing effort — attending the show as a boat exhibitor. Now add your ongoing marketing efforts on top of that. This may include brochures and direct mail, dealership signage, e-mail campaigns, phone contact, Web sites and online advertising, boating classes, TV and radio, partnerships with other outdoor product providers and more. These efforts give your pipeline a nice bump that further supports your trade show success and day-to-day sales activity.

Method 4: Woo them away from other dealerships

Oftentimes a new customer will wander into your dealership because of one of the methods already mentioned. They also may come in because they’re not happy with their current dealer. Now’s your chance to add another prospect to the pipeline. It may begin with selling a pair of water skies, a few life vests or a service visit; and eventually wooing them away from their previous dealer. Your quality, integrity and reputation have proven themselves again; and you now have another new customer. But what if you’re the dealership that lost the customer? You know what to do. Try to find out what went wrong. Sometimes customers just leave, but most of the time you should figure out why and make sure similar issues don’t cause other customer losses.

Method 5: Trade associations and customer advisory boards
A great way to learn more techniques for finding customers is to actively participate in an industry trade association. Get involved; inhale the knowledge. Also consider creating a customer advisory board or conducting a customer survey. These programs keep you on top of what customers want and what makes them buy.

Based on the five methods discussed above, are you living the dream? In other words, are you consistently using all these methods and more to keep your sales pipeline full of prospects? If not, where are the gaps? Also, make sure you know your target market and stay connected with current customers as you regularly reach out to new buyers. In short, never be complacent. If you are using all these methods, way to go. That’s a pretty good dream that will ultimately evolve into a rich revenue reality.

This article originally appeared in the June 2008 issue.



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