Getting certified

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For one New Jersey dealership, the process was relatively easy, and the rewards are great

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Michael Davidson, chief operating officer of Green Cove Marina in Brick, N.J., leans against the service counter facing Jim Edwards of Five Star Solutions, the company contracted to conduct workshops and on-site visitations for the NMMA’s Marine Industry Certified Dealership program.

“This area used to look like a doctor’s waiting room, with walls and one sliding window,” says Davidson, 52, pointing to the now-open space. “We had this former employee who … would open up the window a crack when the customers came in. After he [retired], we tore down that whole wall to make us more approachable.”

Edwards, 62, a training and certification consultant with Five Star, nods his approval, and the two men continue with the evaluation of Green Cove for certification.

In a sense, tearing down walls is what the certification program is all about. Through a series of workshops, dealers learn what best practices they can put into effect, such as friendly, well-informed employees; quality products; and dependable service. These should translate to increased customer satisfaction and loyalty and, ultimately, increased sales and profits, say certification advocates.

Certified dealers also have direct access to leads or prospects on the National Marine Manufacturers Association’s Discover Boating site. In many cases, certified dealers are eligible for financial incentives offered by manufacturers, including partial reimbursement for certification costs.

Green Cove Marina is one of 604 dealerships to have participated in the NMMA’s three-year-old Dealership Certification program, which was created to help dealers improve the experience for customers. The program focuses on everything from employee performance and training to quality of sales and service to the upkeep of facilities and overall customer experience. As of November, 437 dealerships had been certified nationwide.

A shot in the arm
For Davidson, joining the Dealer Certification program, a key component of the Grow Boating Initiative, was an opportunity to reorganize his 35-year-old family business.

“It was the question of why do we seem to work harder and make less money?” says Davidson. “We needed to get rejuvenated. I knew we had to make some important changes, but I didn’t know what to do.”

Davidson’s full-service marina has 275 slips and 14 employees, with roughly 140 boats stored in the winter. Services range from pumpouts to fuel to boat repair and winterization. As for sales, Green Cove carries the Jupiter and Maxum lines and also sells used boats. Sales manager Jason Cavaleri, 25, says 40 to 45 boats are sold in a typical year.

Among the amenities at the marina are a swimming pool, a fuel dock, pumpout facilities, a landscaped picnic area, air-conditioned bathrooms and a locking security gate that surrounds the property.

The service department is certified in MerCruiser, Yamaha and Honda engines, has an extensive inventory of parts, and even does electronics installations.

Word of mouth
Davidson says he heard good things from other dealers about the certification program and decided to find out more about it. He says the tools provided through the program already have proven valuable. He singles out the survey and evaluation procedures for employees and customers, which he says foster a spirit of teamwork.

“Everyone feels like a part of what we are doing,” Davidson says. “People want to believe that their input is important.”

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Davidson says the certification process helped him identify improvements that would make the main office more welcoming — many of them relatively simple steps. For example, office and service hours now are clearly posted on the front door. A list of sales and service rates also has been posted.

“I never thought of that before,” says Davidson. “But I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback about [it].”

A more open and welcoming reception area was created in the main office, parking and direction signs have been installed, landscaping improved, and tables and chairs placed outside near the water for the use of customers and employees.

The efforts have paid off. Green Cove passed the test Oct. 30 and earned certification.

Good business
Terry Leitz, director of Customer Satisfaction Index programs for the NMMA, says the idea for the program began in 2004 at a Grow Boating meeting. The goal was to create something that would be flexible enough for any type of marine dealership.

Surveys indicated that customers who were new to the process of buying a boat wanted a set of standards that would be adhered to by dealerships. (The NMMA also has certification programs for boatbuilders and trailer manufacturers.)

“We realized we needed to give dealerships a tool to make themselves better and create a repeatable positive experience,” says Leitz, 54. “Customers wanted some type of third-party evaluation of the dealer.”

The program was launched in November 2005, and the first dealer workshops were held two months later. Leitz says it takes dealerships 90 days to go through the program and improve their facilities before they schedule a certification visit. He says about 20 percent fail to earn certification on the first try, but usually the rejections involve only minor problems.

“Often it is paperwork issues, such as not having all the job descriptions in place,” says Leitz. “We’ve done 41 [workshops] and just completed the process where dealerships go through the workshop via the Web. It makes it much more convenient and cuts down on traveling costs.”

The first of the new interactive online workshops was scheduled to go live Jan. 20-21, and it will break up the standard eight-hour session into two days.

“The most that ever attended was 27, and the smallest group we had was eight,” says Leitz. “This will hopefully bring the certification process to a wider audience.”

Keeping the edge
The challenge for Green Cove Marina — as with all dealerships that earn certification — is to maintain a high level of customer service, because certification must be renewed each year. Davidson says that should not be too difficult because Green Cove has been doing many of the requirements for years, such as maintaining clean and orderly facilities.

Leitz says being certified gives dealers a competitive edge and gives consumers more peace of mind regarding the level of professionalism at the dealership. All involved agree that the economy makes it imperative for dealers to leverage any extra advantage they can.

“I get the feeling that Green Cove was doing about 80 percent of the things that we require, but they also did a few more as a result of the certification,” says Leitz. “Also, there is nothing in this process that isn’t already well-established good business practice.”

A checklist
Certification requires a dealership to track seven areas: customer satisfaction, employee performance, employee training, upkeep of facility, sales, service, and follow-up process. There must be a CSI program in place to measure performance in handling customer needs. A customer “bill of rights” must be posted where it is readily visible, and employees must be educated on what those rights are and charged with carrying them out.

Each employee must have a clearly stated job description with an annual performance evaluation and satisfaction survey. Technicians must receive annual training on all products serviced at the dealership and maintain factory certification records. The facilities must have a pleasing appearance and appropriate permanent signage for parking and other facilities. Service areas have to be uncluttered, and facility check sheets must be completed quarterly, one by a customer.

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Give and take
“We are not the certification police, we are trying to work with the dealer to get certified,” says Leitz.
For instance, Edwards gave Davidson and Cavaleri some tips on how to improve customer service. For one thing, he determined that customers rarely returned the service evaluation forms they were given.

“One of the biggest problems is getting customers to respond,” says Edwards. “But give them a coupon or an incentive to come back, and they’re much more likely to hand the survey back.”

Although the certification process does not guarantee a perfect experience, Leitz says it effectively moves people to the purchase point. According to a recent Discover Boating survey, 79 percent of customers say they were more likely to buy from a certified dealer than a non-certified competitor.

“Once dealers are certified, they get a logo they can put on their Web site, business cards, letterheads,” says Leitz. “They also receive a banner they can hang up in the dealership, and for NMMA boat shows, we denote in our programs which dealers have certification.”

As for the cost and time it takes to become certified, Edwards says every situation is different.

“It really depends on what kind of practices they already have in place,” says Edwards. “I’ve seen places that didn’t have anything filed, and records weren’t in place, so obviously it was going to take more time than the 90 days in the program.”

Sales manager Cavaleri says the changes required at Green Cove were relatively minor.

“We probably put $500 into this; however, every dealership is different,” says Cavaleri. “It may cost another larger place significantly more than that. You can’t generalize.”

Green Cove also earned the title of Clean Marina in the fall of 2006, and Cavaleri believes that designation, along with certification, will give the customer even more confidence.

“They know we’re not some fly-by-night company,” says Cavaleri. “They know where we stand.”

This article originally appeared in the February 2009 issue.

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