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Underpromise, overdeliver, keep your customers

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Volatility has been the flavor of the day, the week, the month in both the global economy and on the block where you and I go about the business of boating. Despite the economic uncertainty, one proven prescription for success hasn’t changed, even if there are fewer buyers in showrooms and on the docks.


The recipe includes building quality boats, engines and products; innovating through good times and bad; managing the expectations of your customers; being honest in your dealings with them; and, of course, providing good service.

The advice came during a seminar on customer satisfaction given by Eric Sorensen at this year’s International BoatBuilders’ Exhibition & Conference. The seminar focused broadly on building better boats and creating customer loyalty, listening to what customers have to say, and then leading in product innovation, quality and service.

As the former founding director of J.D. Power and Associates marine practice, Sorensen drew upon the results of J.D. Power surveys, along with his own extensive background in testing boats and engines, to make his observations and conclusions. He spoke about the importance of prioritizing and using CSI information in designing and building boats, and he noted how important it is to manage customer expectations.

He spoke of the “halo effect” created when a good boat and the right engine package is put in the hands of a strong dealer. That combination will “delight the customer,” which ultimately is the goal.

He cautioned boatbuilders to choose dealers carefully. After all, he noted, even a great boat needs to be backed up with great service, or customer loyalty will suffer. His advice to dealers: “Run the business like you’re going to leave it to your kids.”

Sorensen presented interesting data on first-time buyers, who he says are typically harder to please than more-experienced boaters. “They expect the same level of quality in the product and dealer that they do with their car,” he says. Not only do they expect more, they also will be much tougher at grading the quality of the boat and service.

And while these new buyers may be easier to “snow” or fool because of their inexperience, Sorensen cautioned that one travels that road at significant peril. “Don’t treat them like chumps,” he says. “You can fool them once, but that will be it. If you want to see them back, it’s much better to be honest with them.”

Whether you’re selling to a first-timer or an experienced customer, Sorensen emphasized the importance of managing customer expectations regarding the boat, engine and service. “Make sure you can deliver on whatever is implicit or explicit in your claims,” he told us. “If you tell them the boat will do 30 knots in 2-footers, make sure it can do it.” And, he notes, “If you have a high-priced boat, you really have to deliver.”

Bottom line: “Underpromise and overdeliver.” Good advice, whether you’re turning out $5 million yachts or $20 accessories.

Sorensen’s suggestions regarding service are probably nothing you haven’t heard before, though the message is worth repeating, especially in this tough market.

• Fix it right the first time.
• Always make a follow-up call to the customer.
• Don’t create another problem trying to fix the first one.

“If you say the boat is going to be ready on Thursday, it better be ready on Thursday,” he says. “Give yourself some wiggle room if you’re not sure.”

Sorensen reminded us that low consumer expectations regarding product quality provide plenty of opportunities for builders and dealers. “The bar is set very low for you in a number of areas,” he says.

Examples: A boat that rides hard and wet, a high dBA level on the bridge of a sportfisherman, steering that is unresponsive.

“There are huge opportunities to compete against these products using CSI data,” he said.

An effective way to distinguish your boat from the rest of the pack is by incorporating innovative features that customers may never have imagined or asked for. As examples, he cited the CMD Zeus and Volvo IPS pod drives, Mercury’s Axius system, and joystick maneuvering.

Sorensen opened his talk with a quote attributed to Henry Ford: “If I had listened to my customers, I would have come up with a faster horse.”

Listening is critical, he says, but sometimes you have to have the strength of your convictions to forge a new direction through product innovation. And in this downturn, there is anecdotal evidence that at least some of those who are building and selling the latest generation drive and engine systems are faring better than those who aren’t.

Sometimes the old horse just needs new shoes; other times, she’s ready for the pasture.

You can reach Sorensen at

This article originally appeared in the November 2008 issue.


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