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Mike Hernandez bought his first boat, a 22-footer, at Mount Dora Boating Center & Marina in central Florida, and is now having the time of his life with his family. He says that buying his first boat fulfilled a lifelong dream, and that he’s been treated with refreshing honesty.

Maine-based Clark Marine salvaged leads from prepandemic boat shows by using video to communicate with customers.

Maine-based Clark Marine salvaged leads from prepandemic boat shows by using video to communicate with customers.

“Every time they’ve come out, they’ve had new questions, and we’ve helped them through that,” says Mount Dora owner Joe Lewis. “He owns a bakery service, and right now he’s so enamored of the experience and service he’s had with us, he will personally bring in bagels and muffins and cakes and stuff.”

The operation has been “an absolute pleasure to deal with,” according to Hernandez. “From the very moment we walked in for the first time, we were treated with such refreshing honesty and given the utmost courtesy, dignity and respect,” says Hernandez in a testimonial on the website. “We checked off one of our lifelong dreams and bought our very first boat here. We were and are still treated like family. If anyone is even remotely thinking about or dreaming about a boat, sincerely it’s the only place to even consider.”

Glowing customer feedback is always valued, but it’s especially important at a time when Customer Service Index ratings show an industry-wide drop in overall satisfaction. The Covid-19 pandemic led to a spike in boat sales, but also to a reduction in face-to-face contact with dealers who can answer buyers’ questions — at the same time the industry was dealing with workforce, inventory and supply-chain shortages. Dealers succeeding in this environment, and keeping buyers like Hernandez happy, are finding creative ways to communicate with and accommodate customers.

Those efforts are paramount to the industry’s future health, Marcus Sheridan, author of They Ask, You Answer, said in December during Dealer Week 2020, organized by the Marine Retailers Association of the Americas. “We must protect this industry from attrition,” Sheridan says. “If we’re not careful in the marine space, attrition could be a problem.”

Seattle-based Union Marine delivered boats into the winter months.  

Seattle-based Union Marine delivered boats into the winter months.  

Forget the Good Old Days

Complacent companies get left behind, Sheridan says, adding that everyone should have a sense of discomfort going into 2021. “The companies that are comfortable where they are,” he says, are “the ones that get left behind. Don’t wait until you’re in pain.”

Union Marine, with three locations in the Seattle area, doubled its marketing staff (from one and a half to three people) to engage with customers online as showroom traffic dwindled, owner Kevin Roggenbuck says. The company also has been stressing on social media that customers looking for a new boat this spring have to order now. “Our preorder sales this year in December compared to last year are 50 times as much,” Roggenbuck says. “It’s just unbelievable.”

Union Marine is an example of a company that is helping consumers move from brick-and-mortar to online sales, a strategy of “ominchannel excellence” that McKinsey & Company says “has become more acute as the pandemic gives rise to a hybrid model that combines digital commerce with products and services delivered by a neighborhood store.”

8-Clark-Marine-6--Empty-Showroom-Mid-March---End-of-May-B

Mount Dora Boating Center & Marina is embracing the idea of engaging in new ways. It held its first On the Water Christmas Movie Night in mid-December, showing The Santa Clause on an 18-foot screen with a backdrop of more than a million twinkling lights. The dealership also added information to its website. One of the most visited pages in 2020 was a blog post that candidly compared sterndrives to outboards, without taking a hard sales approach to either.

Capt. Dean Iverson, training manager at Freedom Boat Club of Tampa Bay, Fla., says he learned a new way to engage with consumers when he started following the members-only question-and-answer section on Freedom Boat Club’s website in 2020. “That was a great way to get information,” he says. “Sometimes people don’t want to talk to you as an employee but will talk to each other. We didn’t have anyone on that outlet before, so nobody was answering those questions. Now it’s just a normal part of our business.”

Clark Marine owner Rob Brown

Clark Marine owner Rob Brown

Information Overload

Customers have online access to information about products, but when they say they’re not sure or they don’t know about something, their position is a surefire indicator that information needs to be presented more clearly, consultant Jay Baer of Convince & Convert said in his Dealer Week keynote speech.

“From February to March, there was an 88 percent increase in questions asked on websites. That’s not questions asked on Google; that’s questions asked on your website,” Baer says. “You’ve got to rewire the customer understanding now.”

To Baer’s point, Iverson says that when he notices a question repeating on social media, he addresses it with a direct response to members on various channels. Baer recommends taking that strategy up yet another notch by posting “Ultimate FAQs” with honest and complete information.

“If I owned a boat dealership, I would … post 17 reasons why you should not buy a boat, and address head-on the reasons people say you shouldn’t buy a boat,” Baer says. “Customers are already doing Google searches on those things anyway. You may as well address it for them.”

Dealers often worry that the kind of transparency Baer advocates will erode sales, but Sheridan and Lewis say that honestly addressing tough issues, such as pricing, actually boosts revenue because the act fosters trust.

“Transparency is not one of our strong suits as an industry,” Lewis says. “On our website, everything’s got prices, and I still catch flak from some manufacturers.”

Tampa’s Freedom Boat Club franchise, which includes 100 locations on Florida’s west coast, has been fully transparent with customers as to why boats have been a challenge to obtain. 

Tampa’s Freedom Boat Club franchise, which includes 100 locations on Florida’s west coast, has been fully transparent with customers as to why boats have been a challenge to obtain. 

Digital Tools and Video

Union Marine was one of many dealers that couldn’t keep up with service during the busiest months of 2020, so much so that by the week before Christmas, the company was still scheduling work two and a half weeks out. The absence of in-person winter boat shows will give Union Marine some time to catch up, and the retailer has added the Konnect service to communicate with customers via text, Roggenbuck says.

“We can send a mass mes­sage to people that have given us their phone numbers, and give them incentives to bring boats in early,” Roggenbuck says. “They can get scheduled, and all they have to do is push a button to accept it.”

That kind of technology shift is what McKinsey is advising as part of a big-picture trend

toward digital product promotions, automated in-store activities and advanced analytics. Making the shift doesn’t have to be by text message, of course; Sheridan urges dealers to start using Vidyard, a free Google Chrome extension that lets users record and send one-to-one videos.

“It literally adds 20 to 30 seconds on each end” of composing and opening the email, Sheridan says. “It’s more personalized, and it’s more efficient.”

Boats as holiday gifts: Union Marine’s orders for the upcoming season are 50 times what they were in 2019.

Boats as holiday gifts: Union Marine’s orders for the upcoming season are 50 times what they were in 2019.

Maine-based Clark Marine used Zoom and FaceTime to communicate with customers who bought boats just before the pandemic hit, to communicate about inventory shortages. The dealer salvaged all the deals by communicating “eye to eye,” owner Rob Brown says.

Clark Marine also began to deliver three videos with each boat. One video was a walkthrough, one addressed engines and maintenance, and the third covered safety equipment and other aspects of ownership.

“We feel we did good job, but we’ve got areas we can improve on,” says Brown, adding that customers now want a fourth video, about trailering and launching boats. “It’s really about doing business your way.”

Combating Burnout

With the surge of new customers, Union Marine doubled

the number of people who answer phones in sales and service, from seven to 14. “A lot of new customers were reaching out, and the last thing we want is for them to get a message or leave a message for us to get back to them,” Roggenbuck says.

Despite the service backlog, which was four-plus weeks during peak season, Union Marine saw its Customer Service Index numbers rise, indicating that the personalized communication efforts paid off. The company was named one of eight “Great Dealerships to Work For” at Dealer Week.

Companies that left the regular rosters of employees to handle the business surge didn’t fare as well. An informal Dealer Week poll showed that half of the 106 attendees to a session about employee burnout felt emotionally exhausted. That kind of burnout trickles over to customer satisfaction, says Spader Business Management consultant David Spader, who hosted the session.

Brown addressed burnout at Clark Marine by closing down for a week in August — an almost unheard of move during a prime boating month — after letting customers know there would be a pause. “We needed a break,” Brown says. “First and foremost, we’ve got to look at customers. But if we’re putting our staff in a position to where they can’t do a good job for the customer, then you’re not doing a good job as manager and taking care of your staff first.” 

This article was originally published in the February 2021 issue.

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