Shopping for a boat is a complex process for consumers. As an OEM or dealer, winning over customers requires exceptional service before, during and after the sale. While high demand and record-setting boat sales are great for the industry, the downside is that it comes at a time when lack of inventory, labor shortages, back-ordered parts and long service wait times make it harder than ever to provide buyers with a positive overall experience.

During the past 12 months, our company, Rollick, has been closely monitoring data to see where the breakdowns in the customer experience exist. Despite low boat and marine-product inventory, data shows that customers are generally satisfied with the upfront sales process, with an overall sales satisfaction rating of 89 percent. However, overall satisfaction with after-sale service provided by the OEM and dealer drops to 83 percent.

Pandemic issues aside, historical data suggest that when consumers aren’t satisfied with their service experience, they are generally unhappy with the product. Friction and disconnected experiences in the buying and ownership continuum aren’t new to the boating industry;­ they exist in virtually all industries where OEMs and dealers are communicating with prospects and customers. Both entities have the same goals in mind — new sales and customer retention — but different objectives, tactics and technology are used.

The pandemic has exacerbated many issues that exist within the OEM and dealer relationship, such as prompt and effective lead/owner follow-up. But this moment in time has also created exciting opportunities such as allowing customers to place preorders and initiate boat transactions online. Advances in marketing and e-commerce technology have begun to play a bigger role in helping OEMs and dealers become more connected in the sales and ownership process, causing less friction and producing happier customers.

Historically, it was unrealistic to expect OEMs and their dealer network to leverage the same technology platforms to manage the customer journey. In today’s new normal, OEMs are realizing that they can’t simply rely on consumers walking into dealerships to purchase their products. OEMs are now investing in new marketing-technology platforms that are more integrated with their dealer partners to make data sharing easier and bring mutual customers closer to a transaction.

Here are some new-technology trends that are bringing OEMs and dealers closer together to deliver a better customer experience.

Connected Inventory Marketing

Forward-thinking OEMs are listening to the challenges their dealer partners are facing in the field, and offering inventory solutions that integrate seamlessly with dealer websites. The inventory crunch has elevated the need for OEMs to start displaying dealer inventory on their websites, help their dealers market that inventory and even take deposits or allow purchases completely online.

The “digital handshake” between OEM and dealer websites will be especially important when inventory levels start to normalize and demand softens for outdoor recreation products.

CRM Integration and Communication Tools

One of the biggest challenges facing dealers is lead management, including a streamlined way to get all their leads into the sales workflow. Not only is lead volume at an all-time high, but dealers also receive leads from multiple sources outside of their website — such as OEM leads, listing sites and Facebook or other social media. Those leads come in many formats. The challenge for dealers, particularly when it comes to OEM leads, is keeping their prospects organized and ensuring that each lead makes it to their customer relationship management system.

Lead response data suggest that when leads are sent directly to dealer CRMs, those potential customers receive higher priority and experience faster response times because dealer sales reps can process them faster. For OEMs, this speed creates a huge advantage over competitors, as well.

To pull off this success, many OEMs and dealers are implementing CRM data hubs to process and route leads directed at the dealership, so each sales opportunity enters the CRM in a consistent format. Coupled with the right dealer communication tools, such as text, email and quoting systems, the result is more engagement from dealer sales teams and increased lead response times.

Digital Retailing

To meet consumer demand and evolving shopping trends, OEMs and dealers are implementing Amazon-style digital shopping experiences that allow customers to start a transaction online. From getting prequalified for financing and estimating trade-in values to reserving a boat and placing a deposit, OEMs are rolling out national digital retailing programs on their brand website and dealer website inventory listings. The solution is yielding an 87 percent increase in lead submissions and a 50 percent increase in close rates.

Owner Issue Resolution

When boat owners have a poor service experience at the OEM or dealer level, product and brand perception is harmed, often resulting in customers abandoning the industry. To enhance the customer ownership experience, OEMs are implementing connected issue resolution management technology tied to their customer satisfaction programs. This solution allows the OEM service team, dealer and consumer to have visibility and insight into the escalation of the customer issue. Allowing the customer to create a dialogue with both the OEM and dealer in one solution creates a better experience for the customer, and transparency among all parties.

AI and Machine-Learning Communications

One of the hottest trends is the use of artificial intelligence and machine learning to better communicate with prospects and customers. Just the same as social media companies targeting you with advertising and content based on your interests and search history, machine learning is happening with OEM and dealer websites that have the right marketing technology systems in place. This means your marketing technology system learns more about the interests of your prospects over time, and “the machine” serves specific content to them without the marketing team having to lift a finger. Not only does this system save time for marketing and content teams, but consumers also receive relevant communications via email, text and advertising based on their engagement and preferences.

The Big Takeaway

No doubt, it can be overwhelming for OEMs and dealers to implement useful new technology for their marketing and sales teams. The key to success is finding vertically focused technologies that improve the customer experience and have seamless integration points between the various OEM and dealer-centric solutions on the market.

Before taking the plunge into a new system, talk with industry partners. Find out what’s working and what’s not. OEMs, talk to your dealers to understand their needs and what will make their life easier. Dealers, ask your OEMs for best practices as well as thoughts on solutions that will improve the customer experience and integrate with existing systems.

It will be challenging for the industry, but the OEMs and dealers who can pull off a more connected customer experience will increase consumer confidence, awareness and ultimately market share. 

Jason Nierman is chief revenue officer at Rollick.

This article was originally published in the October 2021 issue.

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