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Communication Breakdown

The leading fix for dealer-manufacturer relationships is a surprising one
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Several times over the decades, leaders among the marine industry’s dealer cohort and manufacturer contingent have locked bow eyes over their relationships. Debates about cancellations, warranty work, territories and the like have spurred battles, and attempts to bridge the divide have elicited several renditions of a dealer-manufacturer agreement. Throughout the 1980s and then off and on through the 1990s, dealers and manufacturers traded finger-pointing as tensions rose and then cooled. In the early 2000s, the industry commissioned J.D. Power and Associates to conduct a marine dealer attitude study. Finally, after all those years, a neutral participant would offer dealers and manufacturers a better framework for managing their relationships.

And lo and behold, can you guess what dealers ranked as the most important element of those relationships? Was it product quality? Nope. Handling of customer complaints? Not that, either. How about fairness of boat allocations among dealerships? Nope. Was it the one area — warranty reimbursement — that has created the most dealer-manufacturer tensions? Nope. Wasn’t that, either.

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Out of the 45 attributes measured in the study, dealers placed the greatest importance on (drumroll, please) “the manufacturer’s ability to communicate with the dealer.”

Communication. Can you believe it? It was the most common-sense, anticlimactic concern of them all: Dealers, quite simply, wanted better communication from their vendor partners.

Although communication may register as a soft skill (more of a life lesson than a best business practice), let’s fast forward nearly 20 years from the time of the J.D. Power study to the present day. Today’s issues in dealer-manufacturer relationships center on price increases and on the timing of boat deliveries and parts supplies. Right?

Hold on. When we asked dealers about what’s not working in today’s marketplace — we ask dealers this question every month through the Pulse Report, a survey conducted by the Marine Retailers Association of the Americas, Soundings Trade Only and Baird Research — they didn’t cite any of those things. Instead, what they said, was: “Lack of communication from builders and engine companies with regards to updated lead times and just being kept in the loop in order for us to keep our customers informed.”

“Communication from the manufacturers has been awful. We don’t know if it is because they don’t know what is going on, or they are afraid to tell the dealers the truth.”

“We all must work extra hard to communicate product delays to help keep the consumer up to speed and informed.”

In a separate survey from August, dealers were asked to complete this sentence: “With all the supply-chain issues, it would really be helpful if our vendor partners would …” And here again, 22 of the 24 responses indicated that all dealers wanted was better communication.

This reality isn’t meant to portray vendors or manufacturers in a negative light. Certainly, dealerships have their own communication issues. The No. 1 request the MRAA finds in dealership employee satisfaction surveys, for example, is that “Communication needs to improve.” So we all have our challenges.

The communication breakdown between dealers and manufacturers, however, results in a poor customer experience, the one thing we all have an interest in improving. You see, the conflict that surfaces with most dealer-manufacturer debates is an underlying us-versus-them mentality. No matter the circumstances, there is no rationale for our industry to indulge in that thinking. There is only the industry serving customers.

Today’s situation doesn’t call for a new draft of a dealer-manufacturer agreement. It doesn’t call for unrealistic supply-chain demands. It simply calls for better communication. That’s it.

The trouble with that simplicity, as originally noted by George Bernard Shaw, is that “the single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place.” Or, as Amanda Ripley notes in her book High Conflict: Why We Get Trapped and How We Get Out, “We consistently overestimate our ability to communicate. We lack empathy for what it is like to be outside our own heads.”

Today’s opportunity isn’t just about empathizing with the inherent challenges in running a manufacturing operation or a retail business. It’s about empathizing with boaters and the experience they’re having with our industry. Together, dealers and manufacturers can improve that experience. It all starts with better communication.

Today, the questions manufacturers ask our team here at the MRAA center on what they could be doing better in today’s marketplace. And while “communicate” seems like such an inconsequential answer, it’s the easiest, most effective path to a winning customer experience.

Here are seven communication methods that can improve today’s customer experience.

1. Provide regular updates on new-boat delivery dates. The key here is updates. This boat is someone’s dream becoming reality. The delivery date may change, but boat buyers deserve to know every time it does.

2. Communicate, even if all you have is bad news. Any news at all is better than keeping boat buyers in the dark.

3. Present a united front with communications. Delays are originating at the vendor level; we shouldn’t be leaving dealers alone to explain those challenges. The dealers will explain the issue, but a message directly from the manufacturer that mirrors the message from the dealer will demonstrate that both care about the customer getting his boat.

4. Notify dealers of options that are missing on a boat at the time that it ships. Give the dealer time to prepare so he’s not caught off-guard when the boat shows up missing parts and the customer’s on her way to pick it up.

5. Provide regular updates on parts delivery dates — whether those are missing parts from new boats or parts intended for service work. Consider product availability information updated (and visible to dealers) in real time. While it’s clear to us that supply-chain issues are creating moving targets, it is definitely an illusion of communication to assume boat buyers know it.

6. Support dealers in communicating pricing changes. Supply issues are increasing costs, and builders are (often) passing on those costs to dealers. Dealers, then, are faced with a tough choice — to eat the additional cost or pass it on to their customers. Help them tackle this issue with their customers so dealers aren’t left taking the blame.

7. Respond to warranty claims quickly, and work together to exceed customer expectations. With the pace at which we are producing, shipping and delivering boats today, quality issues are everywhere. How we respond to them will define our future success.

Overall, today’s digital world can make us feel overwhelmed, with messaging coming at us from every angle. And while we feel like we’re constantly communicating with our partners and our customers, the heady pace of today’s market conditions makes it more important than ever that we don’t just communicate but, rather, that we communicate effectively.

There can be no illusion of communication if we want to deliver the experience that our customers expect. 

Matt Gruhn is president of the Marine Retailers Association of the Americas.

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