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The game is still customer retention

Something curious is happening at our boat shows. Dealers are reporting two unexpected results in addition to better than anticipated attendance. They are: (1) small boats are drawing more interest and selling better than large boats, and (2) it appears dealers are talking to more new people than old prospects and customers. I don’t think we have any solid explanation for either, at least not yet. But the idea that small boats are seeing notable activity is very encouraging. For too long, small boats have seemed to ride the back seat to large boats, at least as far as show activity was concerned. Certainly interest in small boats is a positive indicator for the future.

Likewise, getting to talk to new prospects (reported by some dealers to be as high as 60 percent of their leads) is very encouraging. Small boats, new faces . . . it’s the kind of good news we’re looking for. So, let me go out on a limb here for a moment and ask: could it be we are actually seeing some results of the Discover Boating campaign?

After all, we did spend more than $15 million to run excellent ads across America and the campaign, while temporarily dry docked now, hasn’t been curtailed for very long. So, it’s very possible we are seeing a boost from it now.

All that said, however, the bottom line goal for ’09 has not changed – it is still the retention of current customers. This is not only true for boat sales (current customers are still the most likely to buy again) but for service and repair work, accessory sales, dockage, storage and so on. Moreover, it’s never been more important to accurately determine what will please the customers.

It shouldn’t surprise you that your customers are instinctively self-centered. Fact is, we all are. I mean, everyone has their own frame of reference. Customers, for example, care intensely about their own needs and desires but don’t care much about your company’s concerns.

Now, mix in the fact that all your employees also have their individual frames of reference. That’s when things can get sticky. Decisions made only inside the company, by only the managers and staff, will most likely reflect their frames of reference, not those of the customers. I believe Jack Welch, former GE Chairman said it: “When you think you know more than your customers, you better get over it!”

The world, then, isn’t what managers or staff think it is, but what our customers say it is. So, if we want to retain them, we need their input to build our services and programs around them. Every dealer and marina should have a formal, consistent customer feed back system in place where customers can express their preferences, make suggestions and answer your inquiries. Email provides the easiest method of surveying customer opinions. A customer focus group reception/meeting is another. A customer hot line for suggestions could work. A staff “customer advocate” who visits with customers is another idea.

Whatever the method, retaining customers means finding out what they want and giving it to them. Has it ever been more critical to your business than it is today?

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