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Technical training is considered crucial

Customer service is getting a lot of attention these days, as competition for a diminishing pool of consumer dollars intensifies. Those in the marina industry - a service industry at its root - are well aware that boaters have lots of choices in the current economic climate.

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Service is now a matter of survival. "You do it right, or you don't do it at all," says Rives Potts, general manager at Brewer Pilots Point Marina in Westbrook, Conn.

With that mantra in mind, more than 75 mechanics representing 28 Brewer yards from New York to Maine gathered March 4-5 at Pilots Point for two days of intensive technical training.

CEO Jack Brewer talked briefly about the importance of service and acknowledged that techs are the company's front line - the ones who ultimately shoulder the service load. The annual event represents a sizeable investment of company resources and a large number of logistical man hours.

"There's probably $10,000 in wages sitting in this room, to say nothing of all the logistical costs," said Patrick Peck, assistant yard manager at Brewer Cove Haven Marina in Barrington, R.I., and one of several managers who handle event logistics, at the event. "This is a big commitment."

The common thread connecting all of this year's presenters was electrical systems - wiring, inverters, alternators, batteries, charging systems. Technical staff and reps from nine companies gave presentations on their products.

Paul Belisle, 54, a service manager and 11-year veteran at the Brewer yard in Mystic, Conn., sees the training as critical, if costly. "With NMEA 2000 standards, things are changing constantly. If you don't stay on top of this stuff, you get left behind," he says. "You've got to know how to do everything these days, give the customer everything he's looking for in one place. Jack knows this. That's why we're all here."

The value of this forum isn't lost on presenters, either. Rick Jones, vice president of market development with Balmar Alternators, sees the benefit to communicating not just with a few isolated techs but, ultimately, with an entire network of yards.

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"You can hear the feedback between presenter and the techs," he says, preparing his own remarks. "These guys know the product; they've been installing the product in some cases longer than we've been representing the product. You get a few clever questions, a few stumpers once in a while. Often a mechanic will ask a question I don't have the answer to, and another mechanic will jump in with an answer. It's an interesting dialogue.

"The training gives us a better, more direct relationship with the techs and also gives them a much better familiarity with the product," Jones adds. "It helps them with the troubleshooting, helps them recognize problems."

He acknowledged there's also marketing value for the presenters. "When [the mechanics] understand the product better, they give the customer a better feeling for the value of the product being installed."

Veteran Pilots Point mechanic Dave Bird, 49, says he's attended every one of the two-day training sessions since they began about 10 years ago. "It's good to hear the companies talk about their products," he says. "It gives us good insight about problems we'll encounter, gives us updates on what's new."

The real benefit, he says, is that a large number of mechanics gather under one roof. "We have the capability of drawing on a huge organization," Bird says. "Once a year, we get to talk to mechanics from all over, get introduced to each other. Then, months later, when I hit a problem, I can call another yard and know somebody will already have had experience with it. It's a huge advantage for us."

The diversity of talent among attendees is as striking as the geographic spread of the yards they represent. Some have been with Brewer yards longer than others have been alive. There's a range of certifications represented in the seats, including outboard specialists, diesel mechanics and air-conditioning specialists.

The greatest common ground is that all work in "the trenches" and know that the role of the marine mechanic has changed a great deal in recent years. The technology is evolving, and mechanics are under pressure to stay ahead of it. This training, as some pointed out, is vital.

And economic realities are changing the rules of service. "We're being a little more thorough now, looking mostly at safety stuff. When we're looking at an engine, we're trying to identify other things that might benefit the customer - to be a little more proactive," says Belisle.

Despite the complex subject matter - amp hours, battery charge and discharge rates, fly-by-wire Ethernet technology - there was some levity among the presenters and techs. For instance: Brain surgeons, skilled as they may be in their profession, still don't always understand the charging capabilities of their alternators. Buttons aren't toys - they can wreak havoc on a battery charger's settings - but a lot of customers don't realize that. Marina customers - "end users" in the manufacturer's tech parlance - may always be right, but that doesn't mean they'll always be easy to deal with.

"Jack Brewer is 100 percent committed to training at the highest level," says Michael Keyworth, general manager of Brewer Cove Haven Marina. "The industry's reeling right now, but we're seeing this as an opportunity to get better. It's the right message for the industry right now: Don't back off.

"Service is going to happen at a higher and higher level as we interface with the new technologies," he adds. "You have to accept that and get on with your business."

This article originally appeared in the April 2009 issue.

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