Our Marketing Secret?

Our recreational boating industry is most often likened to the auto industry in analysis. The second common comparison is with housing construction. The multiplicity of sources for parts of the finished (or improved) product, the varied skills required, the longer financing available, uniqueness of the completed rig and several other parameters make the comparison valid. We also share in the construction workforce from time to time. Housing is likely the job entry port for many mechanically and electrically skilled youngsters.
Taking an unintentionally active part in the construction of a new home near my dealership has caused me significant stress and triggered this column. I apologize if reading it causes you stress. I have great respect for general contractors and their ability to overcome chaos and pull together scarce workers and independent subs to build a house. However, our marketplace will not stand this level of casual unpredictability.
This is not to say that the housing industry is populated with bad guys. They work under climatic and operational conditions we might find intolerable. They solve a lot of problems engendered by the uniqueness of their produce. They don’t, however, do a very good job of meeting deadlines.
You may blithely claim that the frequent unreliability of workers and sub contractors in the construction industry could never slop over into our well-run dealerships. Don’t a lot of your staff — particularly technicians — come from the construction industry? Mine do. These guys have the necessary mechanical aptitude, some useful skills, and sometimes very bad habits — habits you just can’t allow to creep into your boat business.
Most consumers build only one or two houses in a lifetime. They grit their teeth and plow on through the construction delays and inconveniences, because they really need the house. They hopefully buy and repair boats on a much more regular basis. Our best customers at Lockwood are moderately to significantly affluent, busily overscheduled and in great need of the diversion their boats supply. They have little patience with our personnel and supply problems. They are already dealing with their own. Even though we are generally selling a product as well as labor, we function as a service industry. Our goal should be making a boater’s life better — and we can if we do our best.
There will always be a place for the low cost, shade tree boat mechanic. We may share customers with him and gladly send him old boats owned by the financially challenged. His customers pay for his low prices by getting erratic service and parts flow. Our bread and butter customer has little patience for this approach, and it smacks of the housing construction process.
To stay away from this model and maximize boating enjoyment for our customers, we need to hold to some guidelines. There are no really new thoughts here, just reminders of what made (or will make) your dealership great (like maybe a Top 100 Dealer).
1. Never promise anything regarding time or supply that you probably can’t do: When you start a sentence with, “We will do our best to …” those words never register with the customer. He always hears the optimistic promise and not the conditions you attach.
2. Keep your customer informed — continually — good news and bad: Be sure to include the details of the problem, whether he comprehends them or not. He may be a little disgruntled on Tuesday or Wednesday when you say his new or repaired boat won’t be ready Saturday, but he deserves to really blow his stack when he finds out on arrival at your dealership with 7 family members to go cruising or fishing Saturday morning.
3. Always look for ways to short cut your customers’ miseries and expenses: This doesn’t mean you have to accept low profits (but you may anyway after the fight starts). Actually, when you become the vendor of choice, your margins should go up. The customer is counting on your experience and creativity to improve his boating “joy-to-cost” ratio. If this ratio gets too low, he leaves boating.
4. Make sure your employees understand your dealership’s conviction regarding accurate and fast service: Especially if these guys wandered in from construction jobs, they may regard our standards of accuracy, diligence and timeliness as foreign concepts.
If we want to maintain a place in the top levels of marine dealerships, we must think first of the customer (and his boat). We make his time schedule ours — at least as nearly as is possible. Forcing him to accept a schedule that suits us better will send him to a competitor, or worse, to another recreational opportunity.

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