She’s a featured speaker on the subject of service departments at Yamaha’s dealer education courses. She has consulted for more than 500 dealerships. And she’s the star of “Fix it the First Time In,” a marine service videotape.
If there’s an expert when it comes to marine dealership service departments, Valerie Ziebron is it.
In her travels around the world, Ziebron has witnessed the good and the bad in service departments. She has learned what works and what doesn’t. She has picked up tips from boat dealers who have devised practical solutions to help make service departments profitable.
“It boils down to one word,” Ziebron says. “If you want to be profitable, you have to be proactive.”
Being “proactive” might require a dealership to change the way it schedules service to maximize its technician’s time. It might involve a reorganization on the shop floor to make tools and parts more accessible. It may mean better technician training programs.
The steps required to achieve a profitable service department are not necessarily always large ones. It’s the recognition that the steps themselves are needed, however, that is the most important component to taking a proactive approach.
“Most of the time it is small tweaks [that are needed],” Ziebron says. “But they affect the dealership in such large ways.”
Dealers employ Ziebron to evaluate how they operate and provide recommendations for improvement. At larger stores, Ziebron may need two or three days to properly assess the situation before creating a plan to make the necessary changes.
Often, she will videotape the service department as it goes about its business. This video record can reveal subtle inefficiencies and help augment first-hand observations.
And even after a dealership adopts her recommendations, Ziebron says it takes about two months before new procedures or practices begin to take hold and run smoothly.
Ziebron’s expertise has been built from years of dealer consultations and from the thousands of dealers who’ve attended her seminars. But in that time she’s also gained as much as she’s given, and is constantly hearing of new ideas.
Ziebron says dealers used to be more secretive when it came to revealing their successful programs. But those times have changed.
“When I first started doing this, dealers were so hush-hush,” Ziebron says. “Now a lot of them are much more open. There has been a real loosening of tongues. They realize the more we bring people into boating, the better it is for all of us.”
Her willingness to help others in the marine industry extends beyond the more than 500 dealers who’ve hired her for one-on-one help, and even beyond the more than 6,800 dealers who’ve attended Yamaha University courses. Ziebron has teamed with Boating Industry to present some of the most easily adapted, yet exponentially beneficial tips she has learned over the years.
As the title of her videotape suggests, Ziebron believes the most obvious step a dealership can take in providing customers a positive service experience is to make the necessary repairs — correctly — the first time a boat is brought in.
“It’s 50 percent off on the labor [billing] if it has to be brought back,” Ziebron says. “That just kills us. A majority of the problems that occur in not fixing things properly the first time happen because of not getting enough information at write-up.”
Ziebron favors giving the customer a service diagnostic form, in addition to the paperwork the service writer completes, to let the customer explain the problem in his or her own words. She says it is also important to walk around the boat with the owner, to ensure there is no confusion about what the problem is.
Here are some other ideas she has picked up through the years:
Service Case Studies
A Sense of Urgency
More than half of the boats brought in for repairs at the 13 Crystal-Pierz Marine dealerships have problems that can be fixed in less than an hour. In an effort to help its customers spend less time in the technician’s bay and more time on the bay, Crystal-Pierz developed what is basically a boat-repair triage program.
Urgent Care Repair is more a common-sense approach to service rather than a brand-new way of doing things. When a customer brings a boat in, an Urgent Care Repair technician will examine it with the customer present, diagnose the problem on the spot if possible, and, if the malfunction allows, make the necessary repairs immediately.
If the problem requires more in-depth work, or parts that are not in stock, the parts will be ordered immediately, and the boat receives priority when they arrive. If multiple boats are brought in on a particular day, they are examined in the order they arrived.
In the four years since the concept was proposed, Crystal-Pierz has successfully rolled-out the Urgent Care Repair service at each of its locations, proving quick service and turnaround times at boat dealerships are not only possible, but profitable, too.
“Urgent Care has been great for us,” says Luke Kujawa, Crystal-Pierz Marine vice president. “The cost to the customer really isn’t any more, but it’s the efficiencies that we gain. We’re turning everything around a lot faster. We’re not dealing with the yard damage. We need a lot less space in the yard to store the service boats while they are waiting to be fixed or looked at. You start adding up all those savings and it just really is cost effective.”
The customer benefits as well. Kujawa says that up to 60 percent of the boats that come in for service are now fixed and able to leave the same day.
A program like Urgent Care isn’t for every dealership. The idea may be a simple one, but implementing it is a bit more complicated. Other dealerships may not be able to afford the additional staffing required to make the service possible.
However, Kujawa says Crystal-Pierz has achieved the business volume necessary to make Urgent Care feasible for his company.
“It does take additional staff, it takes a whole change in your service process,” Kujawa says. “You kind of have to draw a line in the sand and just say, ‘Urgent Care isn’t something we’re trying to do, it isn’t something we’re going to do. It just has to become,’ one day, ‘this is what we do.’”
The Loan Wolf
In a day and age when the marine industry is constantly compared to the automobile industry, one Kentucky boat dealership has borrowed an idea long since abandoned by most of its four-wheeled peers. And it is setting a standard for service that all businesses would be wise to follow.
The program — underway at Plapps Pro Outdoors since not long after the dealership opened a few years ago — can be summed up in one word: loaners.
Any customer who buys a boat or an engine unit from the Florence, Ky., dealership, then has a problem that requires an extended fix, is given a loaner boat to use in the meantime.
“We take used boats that we’ve taken on trades, some of them are a year or two old, we make sure that they are ready and we loan them for customers to take on their trips or to use in their fishing tournaments,” says Sam Plapp, the dealership’s co-owner and service manager.
Plapp says the word of the program has spread quickly, delivering strong word-of-mouth advertising in the community. And because Plapps has the name of its dealership decaled to the side of its loaner boats, on-the-water advertising is another benefit.
The majority of the boats loaned by Plapps are bass boats, although pleasure boats have been loaned too. Customers are free to keep the boats and take them where they please until their own are repaired. Plapp says he’s heard from people who’ve seen his boats in Florida.
Of course the dealership doesn’t just hand over the keys and say a little prayer. Customers must sign an insurance form provided by the dealership, which adds the boat they are taking possession of to their existing policy. That way the dealership isn’t liable should there be problems.
Plapp said they haven’t had any difficulties arise from the program, but says the benefits, in addition to the free advertising, are numerous. For one, the program helps keep the used boats in better condition because they get regular use and don’t just sit on the lot for weeks on end. And it’s hard to put a price on the kind of goodwill the program buys among customers.
“I think if the customer sees that you’re serving them and trying to do what you can for them, then sometimes you can get away with having problems getting a part,” Plapp says. “They know that you’re working your best for them, because you wouldn’t be doing so much for the fishing community and the local community if you weren’t.”
Boating is a seasonal activity in much of the United States, and is, therefore, a seasonal business as well.
In-season, most boat dealers are slammed with as much business, and often more, than they can handle. But during the offseason, especially in the service department, work can be scarce.
However, one Texas boat dealership has begun to change that, starting a program designed to lessen the peaks and fill in the valleys.
Rod Malone, the primary owner of Sail and Ski Center, with locations in Austin and San Antonio and a service center on Lake LBJ, says that his dealership set the goal of moving 10 percent of its service business — those tasks the dealership calls “low-hanging-fruit work,” like oil changes and routine maintenance — from the summertime to the offseason.
The effort to do this consisted of a marketing campaign designed to change the customer’s boat-servicing habits. The dealership created a brochure called “Your Guide to Hassle-Free Boating,” and now gives one to every customer who purchases a new boat.
The brochure guides customers through the service requirements that boat ownership involves, letting them know what they need to have done and when, including an annual service visit that it says should be completed every fall.
Sail & Ski also developed a series of “service infograms,” mailings that are sent out periodically to its customer base, emphasizing the importance of service and offseason scheduling.
“We have a substantial core of our customer base that’s on the program with us,” Malone says. “It has increased and exceeded our expectations in terms of service revenues. We have increased our service revenue in the offseason by about 15 percent.”
The benefits of the program, which is now entering its third year, don’t stop there. Moving business to the offseason not only increases revenue during what had been downtime, it also frees up more service capacity during the summer.
Malone says Ski & Service has now begun to market service, and has hired two additional service writers to do nothing but sell service and follow-up on completed work.
“We’re a sales-driven company, but we’ve always been reactive from a service standpoint,” Malone says. “We decided that we were going to be proactive. Our sales are improved, and I think our reputation has improved because of this program. That certainly has value.”
If the last 2,000 years of human existence are any indication, apprenticeship seems to be a fairly tried and true method of work-force training.
Donald Trump certainly believes in it.
So does MarineMax.
But where Trump’s television program is a shameless publicity grab, the recreational boating retailer, which recently opened its 71st store, takes its apprenticeship program seriously. MarineMax is in the early stages of implementing the instructor/apprentice model as a means to train service technicians throughout the company.
Brett McGill, vice president of information technology service and parts at MarineMax, Inc., says the company has 10 to 15 stores experimenting with service apprenticeship. Of those, McGill says there are about five that have set-up programs that will be able to serve as models for MarineMax to use as it expands the program company-wide.
And that’s what MarineMax intends to do. McGill says that although the company has been experimenting with apprenticeship, MarineMax is fine-tuning a few things before a more concrete framework is created.
In those stores where the program is already underway, the system operates in its standard fashion, pairing the inexperienced employee with a seasoned technician. The veteran offers guidance and education in return for the increased productivity an assistant can provide.
That productivity can take many forms. Having extra help on hand allows certified techs to focus on the areas where they can be most valuable. When a boat needs to be moved or a part looked up and ordered, the apprentice is given those tasks, while the technicians continue to make repairs.
As the apprentices gain knowledge, they learn to perform many of the simple, time-consuming fixes, or basic maintenance duties that keep more experienced techs from working on the complicated repairs.
“The service technician is one of the most profitable positions in the dealership,” McGill says. “When somebody brings a boat in for its 100-hours service, it’s awfully costly to bill that out to your best technician.”
MarineMax tracks the productivity of all of its service technicians, and has seen productivity jump, in some cases by up to 50 percent, in those technicians that have apprentices. So the company knows the system works.
And as alarms warning of technician shortages continue to ring around the country, McGill believes apprentices may be the answer.
Helping certified technicians spend more time turning wrenches while helping another generation take its first steps toward certified status may not solve the problem, but it’s a good start.