A little experience goes a long way

Thank goodness every marine dealer approaches business in a different way. A combination of employees, products, location and customer service that fuels a booming business in one location surely would fail in another location.
Learning what works in one’s market is part of the fun of running a dealership, and that’s where industry best practices are born. As certification specialists from Five Star Solutions LLC are visiting stores as part of the dealer certification initiative, they have run across numerous examples of what they consider best practices.
“It doesn’t take a lot of time in dealerships to recognize that there’s a lot of innovation out there,” says Jim Edwards, a trainer and certification specialist at Five Star Solutions, based in the Detroit area. “In the course of the certification process, we often run across practices that make us say, ‘Hey, wow, here’s something that really can benefit the marine industry.’”
Boating Industry editors have pored over the best practices compiled from the 68 dealerships that had received certification through early July, picking some of the best ideas to feature on the following pages.
Edwards notes that marine dealers are particularly eager to learn. “It’s refreshing working in this industry,” Edwards says. “Dealers are like sponges in their desire to learn, and they’ve received us with open arms. They realize that the certification process is a great mechanism to see their business in a different light.”
Running a successful business involves the continual search for a better way to display merchandise, treat employees and work together to delight customers each and every time. Here are a few tactics that you might not have thought about — yet.
Optical illusion
People who have never set foot inside the Galey’s Marine store in Bakersfield, Calif., would have no trouble telling a stranger where the store is.
Its prime location next to the huge auto mall on Highway 99, the main highway through Bakersfield that runs from Canada to Mexico, might be enough of a tip. But, if not, the 21-foot Bayliner that appears to be half outside, half inside the store should jog the memory of most people.
“We get a lot of people who walk through the door and then turn around to see the other half of the boat,” which isn’t there, says Don Galey, president of the business his father started in 1938. “But it really identifies our store and blends in quite well.”
Galey says he got the idea while on a trip to Seattle several years ago. As he was driving around town, he came across an auto parts and service store that had half of a Corvette sticking out of a wall. He also has a friend who rejuvenates race cars for wealthy clients who then mount the car on a wall in their home, so Galey was familiar with the concept.
When Galey’s Marine opened its new store six years ago, Galey knew exactly how he wanted to decorate the façade of the 6-acre site. Since the store has been a Bayliner dealer for more than three decades, Galey asked the manufacturer for two boats: a 17-foot cuddy cabin that Galey’s outfitted as a playroom and a 21-foot model for the outside.
The larger boat was cut in half, reinforced at key points and mounted to the outside in a way so water would not gather in the boat. The smaller version escaped the saw, although the seats and upholstery were removed and a pilot seat and ship wheel were added. Kids love it.
“When the parents are ready to go,” Galey said, “the kids often aren’t, and there have been some real wars.”
Early morning awareness
Every other Tuesday morning at Spicer’s Boat City, the service technicians clock in early to discuss the latest service bulletins and share their own best practices at the Team Tip Meeting.
Phillip Spicer, president and owner of the dealership in Houghton Lake, Mich., credits service manager Bill Kerns for the bi-weekly meeting, which started earlier this year. “We certainly have seen more bulletin awareness” as a result of the meetings, says Kerns, who has been with the company for nine years. “We had issues in the past with people not seeing them.”
Bulletins are passed on to the service techs as soon as they are issued, but those bulletins are reviewed in-depth at the meetings, which generally start at 7:30 or 8 a.m., before the store opens at 9. One of the service advisers also attends on a rotating basis to keep up to date on service issues that might affect customers.
During the Team Tip Meetings, service techs also discuss what repairs they are working on and share tips for completing repairs more quickly. If a technician has attended a training course, he will discuss what he learned with the others. “We’ve come a long way with the meetings,” Kerns says. “They serve as a great refresher for everyone.”
Spicer pays the techs for their attendance, billing their time as an administrative expense. “It’s another training issue that you have to invest in,” Spicer says, “but it obviously benefits the customer because we’re all on the same page.”
Putting it in writing
Atwood Lake Boats has offered services related to pontoon boat service and storage for years, but business soared after the company put together a rate sheet that has become part of the sales process.
“We make it as easy as possible for people to own a boat,” says Brian Valot, owner and president at Mineral City, Ohio-based Atwood Lake Boats, which has two full-service locations and two concessionaire locations. The company is the largest pontoon boat dealer in Ohio and handles about 800 launch and haul-out orders a year. The company had been offering a number of winterizing and storage services on an a la carte basis, but Valot hit upon the package idea about two years ago “because we wanted to convince our customers to do more with us.”
The pontoon service package includes taking the boat out of the water, acid washing the pontoons, winterizing the motor, shrink wrapping the boat, servicing the pontoon the following spring and free hauling to the company’s lake cottage. The more expensive storage package includes all of the above, replacing hauling to the lake cottage with outside storage.
In the first year, 11 customers chose the service package, and 136 opted for the storage package. Last year, 65 took the service package and 249 chose the storage package. Owners of nearly half the boats Atwood handles choose one of the packages, which saves customers about 10 percent over the per-piece rates.
Selling the packages starts during the boat-selling process. A rate sheet is included in the documentation that goes to each new boat owner. They are also mentioned during the boat’s on-the-water demonstration.
“We sincerely feel that the easier we can make the boating experience, the greater the comfort level the customer will have. It’s a no-brainer,” Valot says of the rate sheet. “Our people spend more money with us now because they don’t have to worry about taking care of their boat. They just love it.”
Picture perfect
When a customer at Hardin Marine Arrowhead has a concern with his boat, employees first ask the customer to take a picture of the problem area and e-mail it in.
“It’s not rocket science,” Barry Lieberman says, “especially since nearly everyone has a camera phone. Most are thrilled to do it.”
Manufacturers often ask the dealership to submit photos of problem areas on their boats, and Hardin Marine Arrowhead has been e-mailing customers photos of boats in storage when something is amiss, so it was a natural extension to ask customers to send photos to them, says Lieberman, president of the four-store dealership with locations in and around the San Bernardino mountains.
“Most boat owners don’t know the bow from the stern, so snapping a picture and sending it to us gives us a jump start to figure what is wrong and how to fix it,” Lieberman says. “When folks in my area buy boats, most don’t have a clue what goes into it. All they know is they have a boat.”
In one instance, what a customer described as an upholstery problem actually was scratches on the boat’s side panel, and having the picture beforehand negated a call to the upholstery repair person.
Oftentimes, the e-mailed picture allows a remote diagnosis of the problem so parts can be ordered ahead of time, which allows the service technician to make the repair in the field in just one trip. “We can take the right stuff so we can get it right the first time,” Lieberman says.
Making this practice work in a dealership involves a slight cultural shift among front-line employees to train them to ask the right questions, request an e-mail image and possibly do a little hand-holding with technology neophytes.
“People see the benefit, so we don’t get any push back,” Lieberman says. “They feel you are really trying to help them out – and that’s the truth.”
Give definition
When McMachen Marine was a Sea Ray dealer several years ago, it developed an employee handbook as part of the manufacturer certification process.
The dealership has undergone numerous, often painful changes over the past three years, shrinking from three locations to one and 75 employees to 18 as the Harrison Township, Mich.-based dealership’s fortunes rise and fall with those of the U.S. automotive industry in this Detroit suburb.
Despite the drastic downsizing, McMachen Marine believes in the power of the employee handbook to bring clarity to workers, says Mark McMachen, general manager. “It puts everything in black and white so there’s no grey area,” McMachen says. “Job descriptions are clear, and employees know what’s expected of them.”
The dealership used a template developed by Sea Ray to write its handbook, adapting the manual to meet its needs. Managers go through the document in the off season, making adjustments as necessary to keep the handbook current.
McMachen Marine also created a quality control form for use in the service department for customer follow-up about a week after the service is completed. The form, which has been in use for many years, “helps get to the bottom line of things and gauge customer feelings,” McMachen says. “Calling them goes a long way.”
The form isn’t a script that’s followed to the letter but rather an informal survey of how the repair went and whether there were any complaints that require follow-up questions. “We try to keep it simple and respect our customers’ time,” McMachen says.
The general manager skims through the completed forms weekly, taking remedial action as required. “It’s hard to be perfect, but we try,” McMachen says.
Another seemingly simple practice McMachen Marine follows is keeping extra shirts on hand for everyone who interacts with the boats. Clean and shiny boats don’t mix well with the grease and grime that often accompany boat repairs.
Rewarding excellence
South Austin Marine believes in sharing the CSI wealth with the service manager and service writer when scores are high enough to trigger awards.
Kenneth Black, sales manager at the two-store Austin dealership, says that while all of the manufacturers it represents have some sort of CSI program, only Formula Boats Inc. rewards the dealership for its CSI performance, with awards given for a score above 95.
“We get rewarded (for CSI), so we reward our employees, too,” says Black, who notes the program has been in place for about a year. “It’s helped us tremendously.” The dealership’s CSI score with Formula used to hover around 92 but now is higher than 98. The dealership services boats at its main location, but the company recently opened South Austin Marine Lakeside, located at Lake Travis.
Although the service manager and service writer are the only employees who benefit directly, splitting whatever award is paid by the manufacturer, mechanics also benefit through higher service labor rates that superior CSI scores can bring. Since mechanics are paid a percentage of the labor rate that can be charged, a higher rate puts more money in their pockets, Black says.
South Austin Marine has initiated a number of new systems to follow up with customers in addition to any surveys its boat makers might send out, which resulted from going through the certification process.
“We’ve found out that by offering a little incentive, goals to be met, that employees work a little bit harder,” Black says. “It sure has taken a load off me, not having to talk to customers who would complain about things not getting done on time.”
Family style
The 15 employees at Crews N II Outboard’s locations in Jacksonville and Yulee, Fla., are like family, says Bill Allen, general manager. And when good fortune strikes, such as when the company receives bonus money for a good CSI score from Grady-White Boats, the company believes in sharing the bounty equally among its “family.”
“It’s kinda a no-brainer,” Allen says. “They’re rewarding the company; they’re not rewarding you.”
The company was founded in the 1940s as Outboard Inc. and was purchased by Jim Crews in 1998, who renamed the company after one of his boats. Allen, formerly a mortgage broker, is Crews’ son-in-law and has been with the company for seven years. Many employees have been with the company for decades. The service manager’s dad used to hold that position, and he still works at the company part time in the parts department.
“We spend more time here than at home,” Allen explains. “Most of these people talk among themselves more than to their spouses. We have different temperaments and know how to treat each other and our customers.”
Allen, ever the numbers guy, says Crews N II could have recorded the CSI windfall as miscellaneous revenue but firmly believes spreading the wealth makes a much greater impact to the company’s bottom line. “It’s not a lot of money, but it’s a pat on the back,” Allen says. The company hands out the reward in cash, and Allen says it definitely impacts morale. “Everyone will come up and thank us, from the guy who washes the boats to the service manager.”
In the past three years, the dealership’s CSI score with Grady-White has been around 9.8, but Allen says the company is firmly focused on scoring that elusive 10. “When we talk about CSI, it’s a group effort,” Allen says. “We want to make people feel that they’re a responsible part of the team.”
Self actualization
What do a package delivery company and a 20th century psychologist have to do with selling and servicing boats?
Ask Bill Fraine, general manager of Legendary Marine, the five-store dealer headquartered in Destin, Fla., with locations in the Florida Panhandle and Gulf Shores, Ala. During a long career at FedEx, Fraine developed a benchmarking philosophy for employees that carried over to Legendary Marine, where he started the practice in January.
“I learned in my years of leadership that 99 percent of the employees came to work every day to excel at what they did,” Fraine says. “The reason many fell short of the mark was because they did not know where the goal line was.” That’s why Fraine developed benchmarks for minimum expectations. Once employees know what’s expected of them, most tend to overachieve, he notes.
To benchmark Legendary Marine, Fraine sat down with department leaders to create and review satisfactory specs for each job description. The general categories include quality, productivity, job knowledge, reliability, attendance, independence, creativity, initiative, adherence to policy, interpersonal relationships and judgment.
When asked whether the system has improved employee productivity and morale, Fraine points to Abraham Maslow, a psychologist who developed the “Hierarchy of Human Needs.” The hierarchy is a pyramid divided into deficiency needs and growth needs. Deficiency needs at the pyramid’s base include such things as food, clothing, shelter, safety, a sense of belonging and esteem. Further up the pyramid one finds growth needs, which are fulfilled after deficiency needs are met and include a need to know and understand, aesthetic needs, self-actualization and transcendence.
“An employee cannot realize ‘self-actualization’ (or other needs) if they do not know where they stand in their work life,” Fraine says. “Many of us derive who we are from what we do. Understanding clearly how well I am performing allows for confidence and growth. Taking the time to ensure each employee knows his job expectations and understands his performance level is the key to success with employees.”
Raising the bar (code)
Phil Kniskern, co-owner and president of KMC Marine in Lighthouse Point, Fla., says he can’t understand how marine dealers ever managed without a bar code system.
From the time he and brothers Tom and Rob founded the company 19 years ago, they have relied on technology to keep track of inventory, parts by SKU number, accounts receivable, accounts payable and other business metrics. “We founded the company right out of college, and we knew that if we didn’t keep up with technology, we’d get run over with it,” Kniskern says.
KMC’s first system, from Freeman Software, could track up to 10,000 items arranged in nine departments with 999 SKUs each, and generate a unique bar code for each item. As the company grew, the system adapted to fit KMC Marine’s changing needs.
Recently, KMC upgraded to Total Control Software that’s “designed by people in the marine industry who understand the industry and what’s needed,” Kniskern says. Although no system is perfect, Kniskern says it fits well with what KMC is trying to do. Every inventory item has a bar code, which helps KMC carry a minimal inventory. Purchase orders can be produced quickly to replenish stock, and a bar code scanner eliminates human error during data entry.
The most attractive part of the system, however, is the improved, real-time communications that occur between customers and employees. KMC Marine is in two buildings 10 blocks apart, with new and used boat sales in one facility and parts, service, customer service and office functions in the other.
Like most marine dealers, the company receives most of its boats that require service early in the week, and customers want them back by the next weekend. As parts needed for a repair are identified, they are scanned into the electronic work order, which can be accessed by any employee.
“The system streamlines communications,” Kniskern says. “Anybody, on any computer screen, can call up the work order and give an update to the customer.”
Empower employees
What does it cost to resolve a customer concern? Somewhere between $100 and $150, says Kris Gustafson, president of VS Marine in Atascadero, Calif. And he speaks from experience.
Gustafson has empowered his employees to spend up to $500 to resolve a customer complaint without involving him. “I started doing this three or four years ago because I didn’t necessarily want employees to come to me to resolve an issue,” Gustafson says. “I didn’t want to be the middleman. Employees can make these decisions because they are on the front line.”
The payment can come in the form of cash, merchandise or time the employee spends traveling to a customer’s boat for a firsthand look. Gustafson says an employee will spend company money 10-to-20 times a year, mostly in the service or sales departments because of the close customer contact. Although the dealership has authorized up to $500, he says most complaints are resolved with no more than $150.
Each time money is expended, the dealership requires the employee to write a report on how much money was spent, why and what the outcome was. Gustafson reviews the report with the employee to make sure the money was spent correctly. In only a few instances has money been misspent, and Gustafson says those instances occurred in the program’s infancy. He attributes the missteps to a lack of information flowing from management to employees about the program.
Gustafson believes any dealer would benefit from a similar program, especially as manufacturer warranties increasingly don’t cover everything that a customer believes they should, which leaves the dealership in the middle to handle concerns.
“We know we have enough margin to take care of our customers,” says Gustafson, pointing to the high CSI marks the dealership receives. “This is one of the tools employees have to get the job done.
“This is a great way to make customers instantly happy instead of letting them stew until I can get to it,” Gustafson says.

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