Visualize being on a Zoom call with a book publisher that wants your elevator pitch for a science-fiction novel. You conjure a global pandemic: The world shuts down, businesses close, commerce halts, families stay home for months in relative isolation. To control the spread of infection, citizens everywhere are told to physically distance.
As summer nears, people realize that boating is a safe way to be outdoors with friends and family, which triggers a surge in interest for boats and marine products. Now comes the conflict: Manufacturers don’t have products to meet the demand. Worse still, weather-related interruptions are hindering boat manufacturing — say, a winter deep freeze and power outages in Texas, halting production of much-needed fiberglass, foam and upholstery. Computer chips are scarce, as are other manufacturing parts and pieces, and a shortage of shipping containers limits worldwide distribution. All while demand for boats continues to soar.
Truth is sometimes stranger than fiction, as we have learned thanks to Covid-19. Manufacturers are looking at full order books for the foreseeable future and are scrambling to keep up with demand. Dealers on the front lines are left with little inventory and no concrete delivery dates for boats they can sell to the legions of interested buyers.
One thing marine dealers in New England and the Southeast say they have learned during this supply-chain quagmire is that fast-flowing information is paramount to keeping customers happy, even if they have to wait a long while to get on the water.
Communication Helps Customer Service
Jeff Husby is the owner and general manager of Regal & Nautique of Orlando in Florida, and president and CEO of WaterSports Central, a boat dealership with six locations in Georgia and South Carolina. He says the keys to maintaining relationships with manufacturers, and to helping customers, are communication and transparency.
“I use the word transparency when we discuss supply-chain issues, whether it’s parts or boats or whatever it may be. We have certain manufacturers that have been very, very transparent with us as a dealer,” Husby says. “There are some that are much more transparent and do a wonderful job of communicating. That has allowed us as a dealer to then communicate with our customers, whether it’s about service parts or sales.”
Clearer communication can smooth out some of the roughest bumps of the current industrywide situation, he says. Frustration arises among employees and customers alike when communication fails — say, when a boat’s delivery date has been expected for three months and then, all of a sudden, another two months are added to it. Nobody likes those kinds of surprises.
Trying to keep communication lines open as the pandemic intensified led Husby to shift the focus to customer service in all of his stores.
“We don’t have boats on the lot, so even some of the sales guys have been helping to pick up and drop off customers’ boats, to assist with picking up parts and checking in parts throughout the organization to make sure that our customer-service level stays high or higher than it was pre-Covid,” he says. “We’re still selling a lot of build slots with our manufacturers — or at least the ones that are transparent enough to tell us what slots we have available. We’ve got more than 50 percent of our allotment for 2022 presold.”
New-boat owners, he says, want a lot more than first-time buyers used to want. The automotive industry has set a bar that new-boat owners want to see in the marine sector, too, with products that are turnkey.
“Unfortunately, boating is much more complicated than operating a car,” Husby says. “That’s why we water-deliver every new boat. Even a 19-footer or entry-level boat, we still are going to go to the lake with customers and show them the Rules of the Road and have them go through the online Coast Guard exam. A couple of years ago, I developed the Wake Responsibly exam that the Water Sports Industry Association is promoting. We promote that strongly in our dealerships.”
Preorders and Honest Information
Woodard Marine is on Lake Bomoseen in Castleton, Vt., near the Green Mountain State’s western border. Bomoseen is the largest lake completely inside Vermont’s borders and is annually ranked as one of state’s best lakes for tourism.
A family-run business for more than three generations, Woodard Marine has a sales team headed by cousins Greg and Kim Woodard, who recently held a preorder event called “Red, White and ’22” for customers who want to receive delivery in the spring of 2022. Greg says many manufacturers have already sold about half their allotments for next spring, and this sales event was a way to keep up retail excitement and introduce new buyers to the culture of boating.
“We also wanted to add a sense of urgency, or buyers will be sitting on the sidelines next year,” Kim says. “We’ve seen that this year, and we feel bad for those people who can’t get a boat. We’re really just trying to generate awareness and get buyers to commit now, even though they can’t have the boat until spring.”
Greg says he hopes the sales event helped to quell some customers’ expectations that buying a boat is as simple as showing up at a dealer and picking one from the lot. While customers who work in the construction and landscaping industries understand the current supply-chain issues, buyers who work in many other industries do not.
“It’s really about managing expectations and culture with our customers,” he says. “There are people coming into boating and expecting it to be like a car business, and not realizing that trhe supply chain is an industrywide problem.”
Greg says the goal of the event also included introducing customers to the culture of boating, which can include renting a boat from the facility before deciding on a purchase. “We try to understand and empathize with the customers and give them some avenue to at least be a part of what we do here,” he says. “We consider ourselves a low-pressure sales organization, and that fits boating because if you’re not relaxing, you’re not boating, in my mind.”
Kim says the event also included introducing customers to the site’s pro shop and service shop. “We want them to feel like, This is the reason I bought from Woodard. I know if I have a question, I can ask them,” she says.
And as with other dealerships, Woodard Marine is trying to be as transparent as possible about delivery dates, especially to help ease the pain when even more supply-chain problems arise. “I have to have tough conversations with customers saying, ‘I know you just ordered an $80,000 boat, but it didn’t come with the factory-installed kicker motor, and we didn’t want to hold up your boat any longer. And when the motor arrives, we’ll install it,’ ” she says. “If we can add two or three more pieces to the puzzle for the customer, they feel like they’re being taken care of. That helps.”
Customer service is also important to the Woodard team. They offer new-boat owners a dealer portal for learning skills such as docking or backing a trailer down a launch ramp, and now do curbside deliveries at least 50 percent of the time — something they rarely did before the pandemic. That kind of service can help customers decide to get in line for a preorder at an event like their July one.
“Some people will miss out because they’re waiting for the boat shows. And that’s the piece where the culture has always been — ‘We’ll see you in March or February at the boat show,’ ” Greg says. “But we are just going with what the market is telling us, which is that we’ll be sold out before those boat shows. We might have some used boats; we might have some stock boats. It’s just more or less being able to have those people in the buyer queues lined up.”
This article was originally published in the August 2021 issue.