Keep your chin up and inch your way to the ‘other side’

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We are in the midst of another "challenging" summer. With the start of the fall boat show season not far off, many of us are wondering how many folks will be showing up and will they be in a buying mood - finally?

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There is the sense that things are gradually improving - more slowly than any of us would like, but, incrementally, business is inching forward. Still, sustained traction is difficult to achieve in this choppy market. For a couple of months, you feel momentum, a spurt of forward motion. You sell a few boats, perhaps, or take some orders. Then you slip into reverse for several weeks and hold your breath.

Given the financial uncertainty in Europe, the oil spill in the Gulf, the ongoing credit crunch, talk of a double-dip recession and regulatory uncertainty in Washington, is it any wonder consumers are on edge? And unemployment continues to act as a giant drogue, holding back everything from consumer spending and confidence to the housing market.

"There's no magic turnaround," US Sailing president Gary Jobson told the 2010 Sailing Industry Conference in June, regarding strategies for rebuilding depleted ranks (Page 22). "It is an inch-by-inch process."

Jobson is right. At the moment, there's no simple cure. Pent-up demand is a faint rumble of thunder in the distance. After a while, you begin to wonder, Did I really hear something? Waiting for cyclical demand to kick in is like waiting for rain when you've been in a drought and your fields are blowing away. It's outside your control. In the meantime, you'd better have a Plan B. And keep your chin up.

"Get people out on the water, one at a time," Jobson advises. "Remove barriers and make sailing easy."

One person at a time, inch by inch. That's how you gain ground in difficult times.

It is precisely during these tough times that we have to "excite" the market with more than just fire-sale prices. A combination of quality product, exemplary customer service, innovative marketing and a positive, can-do attitude will lead to good things.

Steve Wacker of Thunder Marine in St. Petersburg, Fla., talks about how well a positive approach resonates with customers (Page 28). He says it's contagious and the "only thing that will get us through to the other side."

"The better we treat our customers," Wacker says, "the better chance we have of retaining them. And I love to hear a potential customer come back through the door and tell me, 'I get a really good feeling from your store.' "

Rose-colored glasses? Not from my perspective. A positive outlook and the confidence that emanates from it should run through your business and impact everything from sales to service to what customers on the dock are saying about your operation.

What's more important than keeping your customer happy and on the water? Nothing. In these times, you need to stay dialed in and focused on retaining existing clients, attracting what few new ones are out there and picking up those dissatisfied with their current dealer or boat brand.

Without question, expense control, cost cutting and smart budgeting have been critical to survival in this lengthy downturn. But so have leadership, a positive attitude and proactive business strategies. You can only hunker down for so long. We're in a marathon, not a sprint, and we're going to get to that proverbial "other side" by taking one step at a time.

In the larger sense, our fortunes are tied to the general economy. And the discretionary nature of boat spending makes ours a lagging industry. The boaters - the base, if you will - are still out there, even if the ranks have thinned some. A fair number are modestly upgrading their boats and systems, good business for those in a position to get it. In general, repair and service work continues to keep the wolf from many a door.

A lot of the folks I know have fallen in love all over again with their older boats. For now, they're content to sit tight until the tide rolls back in and gives everybody a lift. They wait for better times as they patiently dream of and plan for their next boat. That's the rain that eventually will fall.

A lot of eyes are on 2011. Wells Fargo Securities says it believes there should be a 10 percent recovery in new powerboat sales starting next year as used-boat inventory declines and aged "new" inventory mostly clears. But economic forecasts are a bit like predicting the weather - imprecise and subject to much change. Trust your own eyes and ears, just as you would on the water. Watch the sky. Listen for thunder.

In the meantime, as Al Pacino implored his football team in the 1999 Oliver Stone movie "Any Given Sunday," we "claw" our way forward ... "one inch at a time."

This article originally appeared in the August 2010 issue.

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