Customer relations on steroids

Some marine dealers might fuss over the way merchandise is displayed. Others likely fuss over their financial records. But to fuss over customers? Sure, customers are likeable and appreciated, but do and should dealerships fuss over them?

The answer is a sound yes, according to F.U.$.$. Follow-Up Sales Systems, which has made it its business to fuss over customers for a variety of companies for 26 years. A significant number of Boating Industry’s Top 100 Dealers and applicants use this Arkansas City, Kansas-based company’s service to keep up with their customers.

“Customers are absolutely the lifeblood of any business,” said Kasha Kelley, F.U.$.$.’s chief executive officer. “If you don’t treat them well, they’re going to go somewhere else.”

That’s the whole idea behind customer care: to keep customers coming back … by building loyalty between a customer and a dealership. When customers return to a dealership, it ultimately leads to greater overall success for that dealership. F.U.$.$. is in the business of getting customers to come back through the doors.

Personal attention with a little personal touch at just the right time is what it takes, Kasha said.

In the beginning
Not so long ago, it used to be that people were only concerned with making money, Kelley said. It wouldn’t matter who they sold something to, as long as they could add to the bottom line. F.U.$.$. aims to change that way of thinking.

When Greg Kelley, Kasha’s father, started the business in 1979, “Customer care wasn’t something people understood,” Kasha said. “People thought about selling something and getting the money from it. We were the first in the powersports industry to do [customer care].”

In the late 70s, some follow-up systems had been developed for the automobile industry, but no one had specifically targeted motorized recreation industries. After careful research and development, Greg Kelley, and his wife Diana, decided to create a follow-up business just for the powersports industry, which was just beginning to gain national popularity.

Up until 1985, all the materials F.U.$.$. created were made specifically for motorcycles, all terrain vehicles and the like, but the company was starting to hear from boat dealers, who asked if there was a F.U.$.$. program for boats. In addition, several of the powersports dealers the Kelleys worked with also sold boats.

“We would say, ‘You know, the industry is coming to us,’” Kasha said. “We developed the program based on dealers coming to us. From what I’ve seen, I think the marine industry understands how valuable retention is.”

Communication is the key
Customer care is all about keeping in contact with, and in the process getting a company’s name in front of, customers and doing so at strategic times. With F.U.$.$., dealers can choose whether they would like a one-year boat program, in which customers are sent periodic communications throughout the year after they purchase a boat, up to a five-year program, in which some of the same communications are repeated over the years, along with varying additional pieces.

All typical F.U.$.$. programs start off with an immediate thank you card. Dealers can opt to include a coupon, if they like, although F.U.$.$. uses the word coupon loosely. It can be used to make an announcement, list store hours, make an offer of some kind or act in any other way a dealer might want.

“The idea is the better the offer, the better chance the customer will return,” Kasha said.

An owner’s letter follows the thank you, and acts as an introduction to surveys F.U.$.$. sends out. The size of a postcard, the survey’s only ask customers to check boxes answering questions such as “Was the boat clean when it was delivered?” and “What brought you in?” before they put it in the mail. Dealers have found the surveys quite beneficial, as they can learn about any customer satisfaction issues, as well as gather demographic information about their customers.

“Usually people don’t send back the postcards, but I’ve got hundreds of these,” said Chip Gahr, president and general manager of Comstock Yacht Sales. “It’s amazing the number of people who send them back. If there are any issues, a phone conversation smoothes everything over.”

Next to arrive in a customer’s mail box would be a service department letter, including a coupon for a discount on the next time the boat is serviced or some other offer that fits the dealership.

“We want to build that service loyalty and loyalty to the entire dealership,” Kasha said. “It will become a one-stop shop so they’ll step back inside the store.”

A parts and accessories letter, which also includes a coupon, comes next. F.U.$.$. creates Thanksgiving cards and birthday cards for both the primary and secondary buyer as well. Dealers can opt to include a certificate with the primary buyer’s birthday card for something they can pick up on their birthday. An anniversary of purchase letter rounds out the first year of communications.

Keep in touch
The obvious intent of all this correspondence is that of placing a dealership’s name in front of customers at certain intervals keeps the dealership fresh in their minds. Ultimately, the hope is that the mailings will lead a customer to think of the dealership for their next boating need.

A repeat customer can have a substantial impact upon a dealership over the course of his or her lifetime, not only through their own patronage, but by spreading the word about the dealership to friends, family, neighbors and others.

“If you can do something customers talk about and can talk to neighbors about, that’s positive,” said Rob Brown, owner of Clark Marine. “The real intent is not to sell them something, but to keep in touch with them.”

Retaining customers will pay dividends down the road, Kasha said.

They say, “the customer you get is the cheapest customer you have,” she explained. “Allow them to become a walking advertisement for you.”

There isn’t a specific formula for figuring out what the strategic times of communication are, Kasha said. It has taken F.U.$.$. years of experience with people in the marine industry and an understanding of business, timing and follow up to formulate its method, which changes if research and development indicate F.U.$.$. would see even greater success if it were to do so.

F.U.$.$. is working, though, dealers say, and it is a cost-effective way — even for smaller dealers — to stay close to customers.

“I would put it in the low-cost, high-impact category,” Brown said. “Maybe in a big company, you might have somebody already there [to do follow up]. Here, it’s not a full-time job, but it takes time to do it and do it properly. It’s not when [business] is slower and quieter that it only has to be done.”

Brown understands the effort it takes to follow up on customers. Before joining F.U.$.$. earlier this year, Clark Marine tried managing its own follow-up system, but found it more than the dealership wanted to deal with. Having everything come pre-addressed and needing only his signature was much easier.

“They kind of do the 50 percent that’s tough,” Brown said. “The hardest thing for me to give a card to my wife on her birthday is getting the card.”

Comstock Yacht Sales had been giving new boat owners sweatshirts and t-shirts, but wanted a follow-up system that could make a lasting impression upon customers. The dealership started using F.U.$.$. six years ago. Gahr praises the company as an affordable way to keep in contact with new and used boat customers.

“It’s something that was very easy,” Gahr said. “They do an excellent job on their end. They’re up to date on everything.”

“Everything” includes their software. Earlier this year, F.U.$.$. switched to a software system written from scratch just for the company and its unique needs. Called C.R.O.S.!, or Customer Retention on Steroids, the software was named by Greg Kelley.

Although technology enables the company to run as efficiently as it does, human interaction is at the end of the means for F.U.$.$. The company’s Web site ( even has an area where current and prospective clients can request that a representative call them within minutes.

“Calling up and getting an automated voice recording can be very frustrating,” Kasha said. “We always want people to reach somebody during business hours. That personal touch is always in style. [Follow-up software programs] are limited in their scope and have to be managed. We call ourselves a glorified secretary. We’re here all the time making sure our clients’ customers get followed up.”

Running F.U.$.$. is a challenge. The company is constantly looking for ways to stay fresh and relevant, Kasha said. Innovations such as the Very Important Customer Gold Card and F.U.$.$. publicity have moved the company along thus far, but they’re always looking for something new (see sidebar, above).

The work is not without rewards, though, Kasha said.

“One of the most rewarding things about our business is that we get to see people become more successful,” she said. “It’s very rewarding to see people grow and make their bottom line better.”

Customer care challenge

Customer care can be time consuming, especially if a dealership tries to manage on its own. It is, nevertheless, an important part of any dealership. In a small community, where the boat-buying customer base is smaller to begin with, customer care becomes even more essential.

“We’re too small of a community, too small of a company to not do customer retention,” said Rob Brown, owner of Clark Marine. “Every customer is important.”

Brown does business in Manchester, Maine, which has a population of 650. In such a small community, repeat business is imperative. Keeping in contact with customers builds the foundation for a longer-term relationship, even friendship, between customers and the dealership, Brown said. It also gets the conversation going between customers and those around them, hopefully building interest in the dealership, he added.

For any communication a dealership might send to a customer after the sale to be effective and get the customer back to the store, the customer has to have had a positive experience at the dealership in the first place.

At Clark Marine, children of former customers have started coming in to buy boats. That wouldn’t happen without a positive first experience.

“If we hadn’t treated the parents properly, [the children] wouldn’t have come back,” Brown said. “It’s the relationship you develop that’s important.”

In small communities, the fight for market share can get highly competitive. In such a case, follow up can mean the difference between a future repeat customer and one that goes away less than impressed.

A personal touch can make all the difference in the world, said Kasha Kelley, chief executive officer of F.U.$.$. Follow-Up Sales Systems. The little things do have an impact and add to those relationships.

“We want to make sure we develop relationships with our customers as we should,” Brown said. “If you don’t do right by people in a small community, you won’t be around long enough to complain.”

Amenities and Add-Ons

In addition to the yearly programs it has for new and used boat owners, F.U.$.$. Follow-Up Sales Systems has amenities available to dealers for free and add-ons, which cost extra, but, many would say, are well worth it.

Very Important Customer Gold Card
The Very Important Customer Gold Card made its debut at F.U.$.$. in February 1995. The V.I.C. Gold Card, an add-on, resembles a faux credit card, with the owner’s name, an expiration date and the make and model of the boat the owner bought in raised letters. On the back of the card, dealers can choose what offers or discounts they would like to make available to their V.I.C.s.

Comstock Yacht Sales gives the V.I.C. Gold Card out to new and used boat customers. Used boat customers’ cards expire after one year and new boat owners’ cards expire after two years. At Comstock, customers can receive specials during the summer, discounted gas prices and a special on winter storage, said Chip Gahr, president and GM of Comstock Yacht Sales.

“We did our research before we launched that product,” Said Kasha Kelley, CEO of F.U.$.$. “It’s been a very successful piece of the program.”

F.U.$.$. Print
F.U.$.$. has offered in-house printing to dealers for almost 20 years. In that time, printers have handled thousands of pieces of paper for dealers around the country. F.U.$.$. also has its own graphic artists on hand who can design custom letterheads and logos for a dealership’s communications. Diplomat Cards, a division of F.U.$.$. offers low cost greeting cards to clients that are individually customizable.

F.U.$.$. Publicity
Relatively new to the company, F.U.$.$. Publicity is free to clients. The publicity department will create professional press releases that they will submit to local print, television and radio outlets on behalf of dealers.

“Open houses, demo days, water safety training, anything that is newsworthy,” Kelley said. “If [dealers] let us know ahead of time, we’ll get it out to the press.”

F.U.$.$. Cookies
F.U.$.$. Cookies is yet another way to show customer care. The company plans to launch this add-on between March and April, although it could be sooner than that, Kelley said. F.U.$.$. representatives taste tested a number of chocolate chip cookie recipes and settled on one they are certain will prove successful with customers. The cookies will be made on-site and shipped to dealers as they are ordered.

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