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Dealer certification: the next phase

christmas tree 2010, anja, lori, mamma

The program has been a godsend for those who have signed on, but, unfortunately, that’s only 10 percent of the industry’s dealers

The writer and business expert Tom Peters once said, “Excellent firms don’t believe in excellence — only in constant improvement and constant change.” As we here at the Marine Retailers Association of the Americas have become more involved in the industry’s dealer certification program and have begun exploring ways to improve it, we have taken this thinking to heart.

Eight years ago, dealer certification was built to help improve the boat buying experience at retail. We were on the verge of launching an industry-wide marketing campaign, and the industry sought to do everything it could to ensure a quality experience so consumers would not only choose boating in the short term but also stick with it for the long term.

Since then, there have been many great outcomes realized by the certification program. One of the most prominent has been its ability to teach dealers how to map out their processes and use them to continually improve their businesses. Through customer follow-up and ongoing updates to those processes, continuous improvement has become a cornerstone of the program. But therein lies the rub: While it fostered this thinking among dealers, the program itself has not achieved meaningful improvement.

Dealership certification has certainly evolved, both by adding new requirements and expanding the areas of dealers’ businesses touched by the program. But the program we have today has failed to attract and maintain more than a small fraction of the industry’s dealers, and therefore its ability to improve consumers’ experience at retail hasn’t garnered the reach the industry desired.

Today, plans are under way to transform marine industry dealership certification into a next-generation program that better fulfills its original mission. We’ve held nearly a dozen meetings on this topic, as well as individual conversations with more than 50 people from around the industry. Please consider this our attempt to open the dialogue to you.

While it remains very early in this process, I’ll share some initial thinking with you on where we’re focusing.

1. We want to make the dealership certification program more accessible to the majority of the industry. Today, only about 10 percent of the industry’s dealers are certified. Those who are certified will testify that it has an incredible impact on the success of their businesses; however, there are many barriers to entry that need to be addressed.

2. We need to stop talking about dealer certification requirements and instead communicate the opportunities it offers for continuous improvement. That’s the foundation of this program, and that foundation is solid. Few business people would pass up an opportunity to uncover new, better strategies for success.

3. We need to ramp up the return on investment that dealers receive through the certification program by adding new opportunities for continuous improvement so that the value remains tangible on an annual basis. The more such opportunities that certification provides to dealers, the higher the return on investment they will realize from the program.

4. We need to reduce the cost burden associated with certifying dealers, as it is one of the top reasons dealers decide not to pursue certification. There are many ways in which we can do this, including reducing the initial out-of-pocket expense, providing a lower-cost point of entry, changing the cycle time for recertification and more.

5. We need to reduce the time and resource burden associated with the program. Today’s program is more attainable for large dealers with large staffs than it is for small dealers with just a few employees. It needs to be accessible to every business, no matter their size. Additionally, the current certification (and recertification) process is time-intensive and must be completed within a specific time frame, which doesn’t take the seasonality of the business into consideration. We need to create a focus on year-round continuous improvement so that living up to certification means doing so on a daily basis, as opposed to demonstrating it over one month or one quarter of the year.


6. Finally, we need to intensify the marketing surrounding the certified dealers so that once we identify them as certified, we do everything we can to push boat buyers in their direction. That is a key component if we’re going to fulfill the original purpose of this program.

There are countless examples of how the certification program has impacted the success of today’s dealers. There are two that stick out in my mind. First, a small New England dealer who considered himself a “C” level dealer used the certification program to help him create a stronger business and has unquestionably become an “A” tier dealer. Similarly, a large “A” level dealer who was already one of the top retailers in the industry went looking for the best “template” for running a great marine dealership. He found the answer in certification and used the program to make his business even stronger.

While numerous success stories exist, there is a greater number of dealers who simply can’t afford the time or money required to become certified, don’t see the value in the program or don’t understand why they need to pay money for a stamp of approval when they already run an industry-leading business. These are legitimate concerns, and as we look to improve this program, we will address each and every one of them.

The bottom line is that we don’t believe that there is any one definition for “excellence.” Rather, we believe that if we can foster an environment where dealers have the tools, resources and the means to continually improve their businesses, then the certification program will have finally met its mission of improving the boat-buying experience. Stay tuned for the “big reveal.” n

Matt Gruhn is president of the Marine Retailers Association of the Americas, which focuses its efforts on providing dealers with the resources they need to strengthen and grow their businesses. In June, the MRAA took on the administrative and management responsibilities of the Marine Five Star Dealership Certification Program. Continue the dialogue with Gruhn at or 763-315-8043.

This article originally appeared in the September 2013 issue.



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