Our industry’s performance during the past 18 months is certainly something to celebrate. New-boat sales reached a 13-year high in 2020, a level of growth that will likely sustain itself this year and next. This wave of new owners will naturally cascade down-market into used-boat owners and service customers, creating a favorable forecast in our industry from the top to the bottom of the funnel.
But will it really be that easy? The new generation of boat owners will come with higher demands on time, parts and customer service. Their experiences in other retail markets have taught them to expect personalized offers, contact-free options, immediate response times and full transparency. They will not tolerate endlessly ringing phone lines, out-of-stock parts or forgotten appointments. As consumers, they are cutthroat; they have been trained to know that if you can’t offer it, someone else will.
Most important, they are quick to change their minds and switch hobbies. The first-time boat owner of today could be the ex-owner who has moved into an RV by tomorrow. To keep these new owners in our ecosystem, we need to address a hard fact: Boating is enjoyable, and boat ownership is not.
We have all heard the old aphorism: The best two days in a boat owner’s life are the day they buy it and the day they sell it. We have seen customers and friends sell without buying again because they didn’t want to deal with the hassle of maintenance, cleaning or the frequent ride to the fuel dock. Some couldn’t find a good mechanic or enough free time to keep their boats seaworthy, while others shared horror stories about their experiences with unqualified and unreliable service providers.
We know how to make boating and boat buying enjoyable, but in order for retailers to provide a better value than peer-to-peer rental and shared ownership programs, it’s time to make boat ownership easier.
And we can solve the majority of complaints by changing one thing: the way we communicate with boat owners. In the November issue of Soundings Trade Only, Matt Gruhn of the Marine Retailers Association of the Americas addressed the gaps in understanding between dealers and OEMs. For an industry full of sweet talkers, we struggle to deliver the level of communication that today’s customer expects from any service provider.
An overwhelming theme at IBEX this year was the disparity between the high amount of communication required for service customers and the low amount of bandwidth dealerships have to dedicate to it. Dealerships are already strapped for enough hours in the day to provide timely service. How will we find time to respond to the increasing consumer demand for faster, more transparent and more flexible communication?
To change the course of history and make ownership a positive experience for the newest generation of boaters, we need to focus on how we communicate with boat owners in five key areas.
Stay open 24/7
Of course, you can’t stay open all the time, but modern consumers share two key traits: a desire for instant gratification and an aversion to the idea of speaking to a human. Consumers no longer want to have to pick up the phone to schedule an engine repair, book a boat launch or request a fuel delivery. These services should be readily available to book online from a provider of their choice rather than handled solely by inbound phone calls during work hours.
Providing clients with a way to book service digitally, at any time, allows you to capture the client before he feels the need to go anywhere else because of a lack of response. Most important, offering this option allows you to continue to be there for your customers, even when you’re closed. Relying on voicemail can mean missing out on meaningful revenue. Case in point: More than 40 percent of the service requests booked by our customers on Boatyard.com are placed after hours.
Retail strategy used to include obscuring the price of a product or service, to give customers a reason to call. Now consumers want to know information upfront before they will agree to any service. Increasing transparency means your leads are better-qualified and have a longer lifetime value. When it comes to service appointments, consumers want to see labor and parts estimates upfront; photos and videos before, during and after jobs; and ongoing communication to give them comfort while their boat is in your hands.
If you’ve ever had a boat in the yard, you know how eager you were to get back on the water. A great customer experience means the owner will know the instant the boat is ready to be picked up or launched at a marina, preferably by way of a text or email that doesn’t require them to stop what they’re doing. A simple status-update message that keeps customers informed at checkpoints during the boat’s journey through service can change the entire service experience.
Don’t Tell Them, Show Them
Imagine dropping off your boat for annual maintenance only to get hit with a $10,000 bill for corrosion from a water leak that you didn’t know you had. It’s human nature to be skeptical, especially for those of us who don’t know a marine capacitor from a flux capacitor. Now imagine the same situation, but you received a video message from your service adviser showing you the water leaking from your engine block with an explanation of the cause and a suggested repair. This small difference in communication will make all the difference when it comes to getting approval for the work.
When was the last time you received a credit card authorization form from your dry cleaner, favorite hotel or auto dealer? How many companies do you know that still offer a fax number as the best way to send them a form? Customers expect the ability to pay any invoice with the click of a button, and anything less feels like a giant hassle. Providing an easy way to pay an invoice online can significantly reduce your accounts receivables, and when combined with photo and video sharing, it will dramatically improve your customer’s service experiences.
These new standards for customer communication present some challenges, yet they are also a great opportunity. We can join other industries at the forefront of customer experiences to work smarter, not harder. We can build loyalty, increase spending and grow the number of new boat owners, all while reducing the tangled web of administrative tasks we can never seem to escape.
This is an exciting time to be a part of the boating world, and there is no better time to deliver innovative customer experiences.
Nathan Heber is the founder and CEO of Boatyard.com, an e-platform that connects
professional marine services with boaters.
This article was originally published in the December 2021 issue.