Is it time for your marine business to organize all of its efforts with the help of computerization?
That’s a question owners and managers of such operations have been asking (and some have been answering) for years.
The marine-industry-dedicated software available today comes in all shapes and sizes. The top-end software can do everything but kill your food and cook it over an open fire. It can track sales, monitor inventory, handle payroll, look up parts, log warrantee claims, facilitate financing, track electricity usage — and we’ve only scratched the surface.
But some business operators don’t need or want to pay for the mega system that costs upwards of $20,000. They may need something that handles finance or insurance, or computer software to track work orders and other service items in the shop.
Either way, it can be a significant investment. The most basic software alone starts around $1,000 and quickly escalates from there — before there’s any investment in the actual computers and other hardware a business will need to make it all work.
So how do you make sure the computer software you’re buying is the right stuff for you?
Where To Start
Start by examining your needs.
We interviewed makers of small and large (read: inexpensive to downright luxurious) software systems, and makers of systems aiming at dealerships while others aimed at marinas.
They all agreed that a thorough, realistic assessment of needs was the first place to start.
David Bledsoe of Washington-based Paulson Computer Systems stressed that a computer system will do very little for a dealership if the dealership isn’t set up to work with that system.
“There are many dealerships that are still operating in the pencil and paper era — they sell millions of dollars in inventory every year but still write everything down on a pad,” he said.
“The first thing they have to do is to get themselves organized. They have to set up their business properly and get their inventory organized, or [the management system] isn’t going to work,” Bledsoe continued.
Beyond that, not surprisingly, the opinions varied.
For Laurn Rice at the Utah-based ProQuest’s Lightspeed Marine group, the key is getting one software setup that will serve all of your needs rather than getting one system for the shop, a separate system for the retail floor and a third for the business office.
“Prioritize your needs, and then find one package that fits all of those needs and not a combination of three or four systems that people claim will work together,” Rice said. “There are a lot that say they do [work together], but many of them don’t.”
Lightspeed, of course, sells the big systems.
Joe DeMarco of Georgia-based RCS Computers said dealers should look for software that is made for the marine industry — instead of buying a huge software system built for the automotive industry, for example.
RCS made its entry into the market by serving smaller dealers who needed computerization in their business but who couldn’t afford to spend $20,000 on the project.
“We started on the extremely low end [of price] for smaller repair shops, yet these were viable businesses that needed some help,” DeMarco said.
RCS has since evolved with the times and offers much more comprehensive systems while still appealing to the entry-level customer.
Software and hardware is also evolving to meet the changing needs of its dealer and marine clients.
A couple of software companies are integrating the use of handheld computer (commonly called PDAs or referred to by the brand name Palm Pilot) to increase mobility and efficiency.
We caught up with Loni Uhry of California-based Computer Consultants as she was on the road setting up a system for a high-end marina. She said trends in software and hardware often follow trends in the boating market.
“There are trends within trends — for instance, marinas are changing and some of them are needing new tools to help them handle the megayachts,” Uhry said. “They need ways to easily bill [customers] and ways to make it easy to do meter readings. People have questions of remote staffing and on-line banking. There are customers set up for automatic debiting and other things.”
Paulson Computers, meanwhile, is making a bold step forward with its expanded use of handheld computers for dealerships. It started with inventory control systems but now spreads throughout the business.
“It’s rapidly evolved from simply taking inventory into the sales field to looking up inventory while they’re at a boat show,” Bledsoe said. “Then the service department wants it so they can write up work orders while sitting on a guy’s boat instead of writing everything down on a piece of paper and entering it in a computer later.
“The bottom line is it’s about saving man hours and it’s about cost efficiency.”
Focus Is On Software, Not Hardware
Most of our marine industry experts agreed that the era of dealer software companies selling hardware and software together as a package is grinding to a halt.
With the stabilization of the Windows format and the proliferation of ways to buy computers cheap — from big national sellers like Gateway, Dell and CompUSA to local computer stores — dealers rarely want to get the one big package they used to buy five years ago.
Beyond that, many software companies don’t want to deal with the headaches associated with the computer. If a dealer’s printer goes down or a marina operator downloads a virus from the Internet, the folks at the dealer software company often don’t have the ability (or the desire) to deal with those problems. And if they didn’t sell the user the computer, they usually don’t have to.
Bledsoe would be the exception. He said many of Paulson’s customers still get their hardware from the company because, then if there is a problem with either the software or the hardware, the answer is one call away.
When’s The Right Time?
The good news is that technology is evolving so fast with dealer management systems that they can do almost anything a dealer would like them to do, and there will be systems that will do even more than that available tomorrow.
The bad news is that some dealers feel this means their systems are dated a year after they buy them.
The hardest part for some dealers is determining the return on their investment, because things like efficiencies are hard to directly monitor.
But with more computer savvy people moving into management positions at more boating businesses, many are realizing that good dealer management systems are something they can’t do without.
“As a new generation takes over the businesses they are realizing this is the direction they have to go,” one of our sources said. “Even the [engine building] OEMs are pushing their dealers to become computerized so [the OEM] has the ability to become more efficient at meeting their needs.”
The Dealer System is the complete and proven marketing system for marine dealers. Developed by FishingWorld.com, it provides on-line showroom, credit application, e-mail center, customer contact management and sales management oversight. FishingWorld.com, Inc., Box 1989, Lindale, TX 75771; 903-882-8877; www.fishingworld.com.
Paulson claims to have “The marine industry’s most powerful and complete dealership management system.” Key features include wireless integration, finance and insurance service, point of sale, inventory control (including bar-coding), purchase orders, special orders, customer data, accounting, tracking of major unit sales and work order management. Paulson Computer Systems, 7501 Bridgeport Way West, Lakewood, WA 98499; 253/581-3150; www.PaulsonSoft.com.
Integrated Dealer Systems (IDS)
Dock Slips from IDS is a progressive management system. Windows 98/NT/2000-based, it allows control over the monitoring and managing of booking, billing and planning. Chart the perfect course with IDS, with over 15 years of experience providing industry-leading management solutions. Integrated Dealer Systems, 5275 Capital Blvd., Raleigh, NC 27616; 800/769-7425; www.ids-astra.com.
The Marina Program management software offered by Computer Consultants is well adapted for marinas with seasonal or permanent boats. The software includes full accounts receivable and data management features. There is a unique marina Harbor Graphic: a click on a slip brings up the occupant’s record or a vacant record ready for entry. The POS/Guest Management module incorporates strong reservation features and handles store item sales along with checking guests in and out, calculating and charging daily rentals and taking payments. Call 800/435-9585 or visit www.ccmarina.com.
Marinalife Marine Peservation System
Marinalife offers the first Web-based marine reservation system that manages marine inventory, customers, reservations and also powers a centralized reservation service for boaters. Unique features include the capability to centralize operations including reporting/tracking of reservation/inventory activity and handling of on-line reservations for slips, mega yachts, houseboats and small watercraft. Visit www.marinalife.com or call 800/736-8275.
DockMaster is a complete management information solution for marinas, boatyards, boat dealers, boat builders and marine retailers/distributors. It consists of a series of on-line integrated software modules that address specific functions within the marine business. Dockmaster 6.0, the company’s latest release, features a Windows graphical user interface. Modules include: VisualMarina, Work Order Processing (Service), Point-of-Sale, Storage & Billing, Inventory Control, Boat Sales, Transient Reservations, Special Orders, Order Entry, LaunchMaster, FicheMaster and Accounting. Integrations include: Microsoft Office, Microsoft Project and Marinalife.com. Exuma Technologies Inc., 3900 Woodlake Blvd. Suite 200, Lake Worth, FL 33463; 561/969-2882; www.dockmaster.com
Lightspeed MARINE is Windows-based dealer management system that integrates and manages parts, service, sales, accounting and rental departments. The fully integrated software interfaces with several OEM electronic ordering systems and includes electronic parts catalog and electronic price book information. More than 2,200 successful dealers trust Lightspeed to help them effectively manage their businesses. ProQuest Lightspeed Marine, 5184 Wiley Post Way, Salt Lake City, UT 84116; 800/521-0309; www.lightspeedmarine.com.