The power of a positive customer approach

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With sales down, Florida's Thunder Marine connects with clientele through raft-ups, service and more

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The "saving grace" that is helping Steve Wacker's Thunder Marine dealership survive the recession is customer service and care.

"We're a relationship dealership," says Wacker, co-owner and sales manager of the business he owns and runs with his wife, Tracy LaPrade-Wacker. "We always have been and it's been key to our survival."

The St. Petersburg, Fla., dealership is a second-generation family business started 25 years ago by Wacker's father-in-law, Mark LaPrade. It carries the Four Winns, Hydra-Sports, Nautic Star and Sylvan brands in addition to brokerage boats. He carries as a loose engine dealer Mercury, Yamaha, Honda and Volvo Penta and plans to add Suzuki.

Beyond the seminars and fishing tournaments Thunder Marine regularly holds, its pool parties and "Floatapalooza" raft-ups are customer favorites. "When you're sitting in the water belly-to-belly with a person and you each have a cold drink in your hand, you really find out what they're thinking," says Wacker. And that's the philosophy he ingrains in his staff: "What does the customer think - forget about what we think," he says. "What do the people who pay our paychecks think?"

The most recent Floatapalooza, held off nearby One Tree Island, drew 62 boats for a day on the water. For a $2,000 investment to pull it all together, Wacker says he earned valuable customer loyalty - and came away with "three good deals" and four consignment listings.

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The fishing trips and group cruises have another benefit, he says. At least one service technician usually comes along for the ride to answer technical questions or deal with problems a customer may have. The interaction also "puts a face and a name" to a boat that may come through the service shop. "It's not just another boat to them," Wacker says.

The cruises also help his customers expand their horizons and become more experienced - and more confident - boaters.

"It makes the boat more valuable to them," Wacker says. "We need to do things like this to keep our customers, in this environment."

Thunder Marine also holds Ladies at the Helm classes, Wacker says, to "bring them into the loop" and make them partners in the boating lifestyle - and the next boat purchase. Service School classes enhance the confidence of customers in their ability to handle problems on the water.

Wacker says that with more savvy customers and well-maintained vessels, the boats better retain their value, which closes the cost gap in a trade-up, another benefit to customers.

Service with a smile

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The key to customer service starts with his staff, Wacker says. Thunder Marine has 22 employees in the sales, parts and service departments. Management hired the marketing consulting agency Wendt Productions, which instructs retail boat dealers worldwide on how to increase sales through a better business philosophy and by building customer relationships. Also, department head meetings every Tuesday yield one or two issues that can be improved, followed by an action plan with a deadline.

As for the sales staff, if they're not boaters when they sign on, they are encouraged to borrow an in-house boat and head out on the water, where they can develop "real-world enthusiasm and excitement" for the sport, which translates to the showroom floor.

"When they're a boater, then they're an equal to the customer. They speak the same language and speak of the product with knowledge and experience," Wacker says.

Although Thunder Marine has shrunk from 80 employees at three locations to two-dozen at the single Tyrone Boulevard location, Wacker says he remains optimistic about the future.

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"We need to stay positive, which seems to be contagious, and that's the only thing that'll get us through to the other side," Wacker says of the current economic climate. "The better we treat our customers, the better chance we have of retaining them. And I love to hear a potential customer come back through the door and tell me, 'I get a really good feeling from your store.' "

This article originally appeared in the August 2010 issue.

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