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Managing in a tight market: three tips from a boat show

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Listen closely - can you hear it? I do. It's the big sound of 'quiet.' With tough market conditions, you can't help but notice how quiet things are in selected places. Not long ago, I went out of town for the weekend and found the airport to be delightfully low key.

Granted, I flew home on a Saturday evening, but the 'quiet' was definitely noticed. While this is a great way to fly, it doesn't indicate good things are going on in the economy, which was the part I didn't like. It got me thinking about the best ways to sell and manage right when the market is tight. How do you do it? I recently attended a boat show and asked several exhibitors that question. Their responses included new and tried-and-true ways to navigate choppy market waters and keep boating sales afloat.

As I drifted down the aisles at the show, I two-stepped past a conga line of dancing children (no kidding) and took in a broad range of boating options, along with a corn dog and a bag of roasted nuts. The massive Miss Geico racing craft was on display in sleek glory, along with a vintage 1950s camping trailer and matching fishing boat in marvelous condition. What a huge difference. The incredibly powerful Miss Geico, sitting a few rows away from the comparatively ancient camping trailer and wooden watercraft. Contrast? Yes. Commonalities? Yes. Both these examples represent marketable features for their time and make the public excited to buy. We all know this premise still holds true - maybe more than before - as you manage and implement methods to engage customers in a tight market. Here are three things your trade colleagues shared at the show, reflecting their relatively upbeat approach for weathering the economic storm.

Replicate and innovate: When times are tough, consumers retreat to things close to home. This holds true in many current marketing themes and is likewise an approach you'll want to replicate to attract today's buyers. Make sure you tell customers their boating purchase will enhance family enjoyment, entertainment and togetherness on a consistent basis. While managing sales and consistently replicating this message, add innovative ways that make it attractive and affordable.

Every major exhibitor at the show pitched a value-added package. This included free accessories such as water skis, life preservers, wakeboards and more.

Other package innovations or sweeteners to consider that won't break the bank? How about complimentary gas cards, free boating classes (an ongoing favorite), discounted long-term maintenance programs, or preprinted charts and directions for boating locations nearby (staying with the 'close to home' theme above)?

Of course, innovation can also include the latest bells and whistles manufacturers have to offer, but many exhibitors indicated several features are now standard equipment and may not be a primary concern for today's more conservative buyer. As you replicate and innovate, it will lead you directly to our next area to help you manage the tight economy - producing real deals your customers can afford.

The real deal: We all realize a soft market and declining demand often means bargains are plentiful. This is precisely why customers are looking now rather than later. While unemployment is unfortunately impacting many, various dealers at the show noted more than 90 percent of consumers are still employed, and a good number of them are shopping for boats. Several may be spending cautiously, but all are undeniably looking for the real deal, and dealers are smartly steering into the dock with attractive alternatives.

Managing right in a challenging market requires planning for deal-making well in advance. Planning is crucial. This means keeping inventory expenses low, maintaining healthy savings accounts to weather reduced cash flow and lining up strategic customer financing options. As boat browsers stroke the lines of fabulous boats glistening throughout the exhibit hall, they absorb the free add-on packages, salivate and strategize about how they can afford it. Here's where the deal starts getting real and it has to include financing. Where selected banks have bowed out, many credit unions have stepped forward. Be ready with financing options from credit unions or your own business bank that will work with your customers. Seal the deal with younger buyers by getting them into affordable options befitting their credit score and developing careers.

Also discuss the opportunity to beat inflation and grab a deal by taking advantage of today's low prices. Explain how their purchase will help them escape and enjoy life with their families (yes, I did sneak in the 'close to home' message again). With add-ons, discounts and financing, you've put together the real deal. Now let's talk about how you influence every opportunity even further by infusing value while protecting relationships.

Connect and protect: As always, relationships matter. Like most big-ticket items, selling boats is selling relationships. Exhibitors frequently mentioned their success is tied to market longevity and customer relationships that contribute to a unique competitive presence the other guy doesn't have. Consistently connect with customers to protect relationships and influence sales. Rigorously train your sales teams in selling relationships, product knowledge and value to strengthen rapport and credibility. Make sure the sales reps' boating know-how includes details on safety, performance, appearance, comfort and economy.

Sell the value over and over, and mention that reduced gas prices make boating more affordable. Connect with needs by highlighting size-versus-price considerations and price benefits of last year's model or a used boat. How about the earlier deal mentioned for multiple years of discounted prepaid maintenance? This shouts value and relationships as well. Your buyers get a maintenance deal and you get a built-in way to protect and maintain contact with your customers - a win-win situation.

Get repeat customers to give you referrals. I'm told many will gladly do so. At the same time, keep up your marketing efforts with postcards, phone calls, e-mail, radio spots, a robust Web site and other budget-minded programs for keeping relationships strong. Start a blog. Get your customers talking with you on a virtual basis about their boating preferences and experiences.

What happens when you apply all these approaches for managing right in a market that's tight? The dealers I spoke to said using these methods resulted in sales being down much less than other folks who aren't doing all these things. How about you? Remember to replicate and innovate with the right messaging for today's economy, offer real, value-oriented deals with inventive financing and add-ons, while continuing to connect with customers and protect your relationships. This places you in a good position for better times. Listen closely once more. Eventually the economic storm will pass, the quiet will fade, and you'll be ready for the noise of progress as market skies take on a brighter outlook again.

Mary Elston has spent more than 20 years in management in the transportation, consulting and technology industries. She is a member of the National Speakers Association and author of the book, "Master Your Middle Management Universe, How to Succeed with Moga Moga Management Using 3 Easy Steps." Contact her at



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