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The virtuous circle of boater education

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Jon Kukuk is both an advocate and a pragmatist on the subject of boater education.

The owner since 1991 of Nestegg Marine in Marinette, Wis., Kukuk says he discovered early on that teaching his customers the basics of operating the boats he sold them helped his bottom line. They became repeat buyers and remained loyal to his dealership and marina.

From the start, Kukuk says, “We made sure every boat went into the water, and we made sure you could run it.”

He recalls a sale he made 20 years ago to a young couple with two children, two dogs and no sailing experience. They bought a new Catalina, and he spent the next two weekends getting them sorted out on the water.

“Lo and behold, we now have a new customer on the water,” Kukuk says. “They came in with a canoe, and they left with a 27-foot Catalina.”

Beyond the benefits to his own business, Kukuk says training boaters is critical for the future growth of the industry. It helps with retention; active, confident boaters tend to be long-term boaters. And as their comfort level and experience increase, they tend to travel farther, they’re more apt to move up in size, and they are likely to introduce more non-boaters to the water than people who are unsure of their skills. It’s one of those virtuous circles.

“I have a lot of strong feelings on education,” says Kukuk, who is chairman of the Recreational Boating Leadership Council’s education committee. “I believe education has to be offered [by dealers]. We need to do something.”

What’s the wrong way to sell and service a boat and a customer? A customer buys a small boat at a show and is told to return at the end of the event, when the dealer hooks the boat up to the back of the buyer’s truck and says, “Good luck.”

“What a joke that is,” says Kukuk, a Catalina dealer who also brokers used sail- and powerboats. “That’s what turns people off — no customer service before, during or after the sale.”

Kukuk, 61, and his wife, Sue, have a different mantra: customers for life. And they go out of their way to make sure each commissioning goes smoothly and that the buyers understand the boat and are comfortable with it.

“We’ll go anywhere on our commissionings,” says Kukuk, a mechanical engineer by training. “And it’s paid dividends for us. We keep bringing them back. We’re not big box movers. I hate that.”

Through the RBLC education committee, Kukuk is creating a survey/questionnaire for dealers nationwide to determine whether education is part of their selling process and if so, how they use it. Good idea.

Kukuk is the right guy for the job. He has been a member of the Coast Guard Auxiliary and U.S. Power Squadrons for more than three decades. He’s a longtime boater — “Boating has been in my blood since I was 12” — who owns a 54-foot Egg Harbor. And he loves to teach and show new boaters the ropes, something he’s been doing for more than four decades.

Kukuk says offering education and training at the dealer level will increase boat sales and improve customer loyalty. And, he notes, “The best part is seeing their eyes light up.”

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