From Words to Action

The 2009 Marine Dealer Conference & Expo may have been a success by all measurable indicators – number of attendees, size of expo floor and quality of conference content – but the true test of its effectiveness is its ability to drive improvement in participants’ businesses. Here are three of the best stories dealers told about how they’ve used the ideas and practices they picked up during the event to better their businesses.

Mount Dora Boating Center
For Joe Lewis, general manager of Mount Dora Boating Center, the “Busted: Ignoring Sales Opportunities!” seminar had the most immediate impact on how he runs his business.

As part of speaker Bob McCann’s preparation for the seminar, Channel Blade/ARI had people secretly shop the Web sites of all the dealerships with employees registered for the conference, then recorded the results and gave awards to those who performed best.

“When I first heard about the contest, I had thought we would do well because our concept was to respond to each lead individually, answer each question and get back to them on a timely basis,” explained Lewis.

But the Mount Dora, Fla.-based dealership was “busted,” he said. Their response time was 18 hours, compared to the two hours or less that McCann says consumers now expect. Lewis says he was floored to discover consumers expected such a fast response.

“The way I grew up, I would pick up the phone and make a call if I wanted a response that fast,” he said. “I was putting more weight on personalizing the message and answering the questions as well as I could, even if it took a few more hours.”

But clearly, if speed is what consumers expect, that’s what Mount Dora must deliver, so the company has begun looking into options to reduce its response time. Lewis’ partner, Jason Short, has a smart phone, and they may look into forwarding leads to it, according to Lewis. The dealership is also considering using an automated response.

“I don’t like the impersonal touch,” said Lewis, “but maybe that’s the best way to say ‘Thanks for the contact,’ and ‘We’ll be in touch.’”

Port Harbor Marine
In the case of Portland, Maine-based Port Harbor Marine, President Rob Soucy, his father and his two brothers split up to attend the conference’s sales and service tracks. He said they picked up lots of little things that will make a difference at his dealership. For example, Port Harbor has taken McCann’s suggestion that when dealerships send an e-mail, they should move the company’s logo from the bottom to the top. In addition, when they reply to an e-mail, they also are now carefully considering the subject line they use, rather than simply clicking the “reply” button.

During the “Dealership of Tomorrow” presentation, Noel Osborne advised dealers to increase employees’ involvement in company decisions. As a result, Soucy is now considering forming employee focus groups.

Pat Kennedy’s seminar on “The Art & Science of Inventory Management” made Soucy consider how his dealership could better manage its parts inventory. Since the conference, he has produced reams of paper on inventory turns across its different product lines, and “now I have a project for my parts guy during shutdown.”

Soucy also took notes during Jan Kelly’s “The Six Cs of Lending.” She made the point that dealerships should invite their lenders to their events and attend the events offered by the bank or credit union.

“I had just received an invitation to a local bank we’re starting a relationship with,” said Soucy. “Now, I’m thinking I’d better go to it.”

Clearly, however, the seminar that had the most impact on Soucy was the keynote presentation, “Leading Through Turbulent Times,” by the Disney Institute’s Rob Morton. Coming from a self-professed “Disney freak,” that’s no surprise. Port Harbor has actually been inspired by several Disney initiatives over the years. For example, it refers to its staff as “crew members,” similar to Disney’s policy of calling its employees “cast members.”

The part of Morton’s presentation that most resonated with the Port Harbor team was the emphasis on branding, generating loyalty, and driving repeat business.

“We have been working so hard on developing the Port Harbor brand,” said Soucy. “When the speaker talked about what they do at Disney, their brand identity and their brand promise, I thought, ‘That’s one of the things I’m going to do when I get back.’”

When Port Harbor comes back to work in January for its strategic planning meeting, the company will spend some time on defining its brand promise, “what our brand really means,” Soucy explained.

Finally, Morton suggested that if you believe in your brand and your promise, the story you tell consumers doesn’t change because of the turbulent times. That stuck with Soucy. Port Harbor has recently been choosing a theme for each calendar year. For 2010, that theme is putting the past behind them to get back to the future, back to the best customer experience, according to Soucy.

Hutchinson’s Boat Works
The day Wendy LaLonde returned home from Orlando to Hutchinson’s Boat Works in Alexandria Bay, N.Y., she RSVP’d to the annual holiday party put on by the bank that holds the dealership’s mortgage.

“Before Jan Kelly’s presentation, I didn’t realize how important it is to get to know your bankers on a personal basis,” LaLonde said.

When she and her husband showed up at the party, at least eight bank executives commented on their presence at the event. As a bonus, several of Hutchinson’s customers were in attendance. The entire experience was “eye-opening,” LaLonde said.

That was just the beginning of the initiatives Hutchinson’s has begun or plans to begin in the weeks and months ahead as a result of the owners’ experience at the MDCE. Here are some others:

Their first weekend back at work after the conference, Mark LaLonde called the sales team together to teach a class based on the notes and materials they collected from Don Cooper’s presentation on “The Future of Selling.”

As a result of John Spader’s presentation on the link between efficiency and profitability, Wendy LaLonde has ordered Spader’s flat rate manual and plans to introduce menu pricing later this year.

In response to Noel Osborne’s “Marketing Your Service Department” seminar, business cards have been ordered for all employees, including Hutchinson’s technicians.

Hutchinson’s has been looking to introduce additional preventative maintenance offerings for customers, and the two-year program shared by Colorado Boat Center during the “Secrets to Service Success” panel inspired LaLonde to make a change this year. While Hutchinson’s currently offers all the individual services of the program – winterization, summerization, 20- and 100-hour checks and more – the program allows you to sell something “right up front to guarantee that boat buyers are going to be coming back to you.” Hutchinson’s aims to begin offering the program later this year.

Throughout the conference, speakers mentioned the opportunities available through use of social media. “The importance of the social media was really brought home to us,” Wendy LaLonde said. “Having a teenage daughter, we’re well aware of it. But we didn’t realize its growing popularity among adults.” Hutchinson’s typically holds a customer appreciation cocktail party in January that attracts about 200 people. As of December, the dealership expected to have launched its Facebook page and be ready to market it in time for that party.

The Disney Institute keynote presentation inspired Hutchinson’s owners to make “a newfound focus on customer service” the theme of 2010. “We need to retain every single customer we can, especially in this economy,” said Wendy LaLonde. “No one is expecting sales to increase in 2010. We’re thinking about what new activities and services we can offer. What can we start with that doesn’t cost a lot but means a lot? Sometimes it’s the small touches that make people feel good about a business.”

Finally, she said the best piece of information Hutchinson’s picked up during the conference was the CUDL lending network of credit unions mentioned during Jan Kelly’s “Six Cs of Lending” presentation. She has already contacted the company’s Northeast representative. “They pay a reserve, and they do business in New York. That is probably going to be our biggest find of the decade.”

This was the second year Hutchinson’s attended the MDCE, and the best so far.

“We definitely got more out of it,” Wendy LaLonde said. “Everyone knows it’s a down year, but the conference gave you hope. When John Spader said he’s been presenting at other powersports conferences, and things aren’t as bleak in the marine industry, things just felt better. What a culture difference between last year and this year.”

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