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Do we need a boating Bill of Rights?

The time has come for the marine industry as a whole to adopt a consumer’s Bill of Rights. So said the BoatU.S. “Consumer Protection Bureau” in a recent article in the BoatU.S. Magazine distributed to its 600,000 members.

According to BoatU.S., consumer complaints they receive “reflect the lack of vessel-repair laws; gaps in coverage between warranties offered by boatbuilders and engine manufacturers; and reluctance on the part of some builders to address serious customer problems.” 

The article goes on to cite some recent consumer complaints. They range from an unexpectedly high bill for tuning up a generator to a situation where a customer was caught between the boatbuilder and the engine manufacturer, neither willing to provide warranty work the customer allegedly deserved. Moreover, in the latter case, the two manufacturers inaccurately pointed fingers at the dealer for work they claimed fell under the heading of “final preparation and commissioning.” It didn’t.

The article wraps up by reporting that BoatU.S. is developing a boater’s Bill of Rights that the industry will be asked to embrace.

Upon reflection, I’m not convinced a Bill of Rights is needed or worth the effort. That’s not to say manufacturers can’t be butt-heads, thereby creating needless problems for everyone concerned. Like the case cited by BoatU.S. of the customer who purchased a 44-footer purported to hold 600 gallons of fuel. But the twin tanks, labeled to hold 300 gallons each, only held 250 gallons. The boatbuilder’s response: mailed the customer new labels for the tanks that read “250 gallons!"

It’s puzzling that BoatU.S. would promote a Bill of Rights concept at this point in time. After all, the BoatU.S. “Consumer Protection Bureau” was initiated 39 years ago. So why now? BoatU.S. also claims it has an effective Dispute Resolution Program. As for the industry, there has been an unprecedented emphasis on customer care and product quality in recent years through such programs as MRAA’s Dealer Certification and NMMA’s Boat Certification. In addition, studies from the likes of J.D. Power & Associates indicate continuing improvement in customer satisfaction. Many states already have laws on the books applicable to boat repairs. Alaska now has a lemon law and is likely not the last. And, CSI scores are running at an all-time high. 

Most importantly, however, big changes are just ahead that could marginalize any Bill of Rights anyway. For example, the good news is this recession will eliminate some manufacturers and dealers, hopefully those who failed to provide quality products and properly back them. Recession survivors will have to adopt different business models, too, and produce high quality boats and motors if they hope to gain back customers when this is all over.

Another trend is likely to be toward stem-to-stern warranties similar to the auto industry. Dealers will be paid regular “street” rates for warranty service as well as a margin on all parts taken from stock. And, while NMMA currently requires its member’s boats to be NMMA Certified, the next step should be to incorporate into the Certification program specific standards for good customer service by the boatbuilders.

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