A ways to go

With all the talk of industry improvement being driven by the Grow Boating Initiative, it’s easy to get excited about the future.

But it’s far too soon to celebrate.

Just take a look at the results of this year’s J.D. Power and Associates 2006 Boat Competitive Information Study. They reveal that an increase in consumer expectations and in the number of reported problems per boat has created the first drop in product satisfaction in five years.

Five of the seven boat segments tracked by the study saw a decline in overall customer satisfaction. This was impacted, in particular, by “a substantial decline in quality in the pontoon and bass boat segments,” according to Eric Sorensen, director of marine practice. The only two segments that saw improvement were large runabouts and express cruisers.

The most frequent problems overall were an engine transmission that felt or sounded rough when shifting, an engine that was hard to start, an engine that stalled and a peeling of the boat’s emblem or pinstriping. But the problems most likely to impact boat satisfaction were choke, boat ride, poor acceleration and seats that don’t fold properly.

We always hear customer expectations are rising, but J.D. Power actually put a number on it. The average satisfaction level of a boat owner who reported zero problems with their vessel has dropped steadily from 9.16 out of 10 in 2002 to 8.95 out of 10 today.

A customer’s overall boat satisfaction ties directly into their likelihood to recommend and repurchase a boat brand (see “CSI or Die,” page 36). For example, 59 percent of owners who rate their boat a 9 in overall satisfaction said they will definitely repurchase another boat of the same brand, while only 31 percent of owners who rate their boat an 8 will do so. This year’s average overall boat satisfaction score was 8.16.

The good news is that customers continue to report improvements in dealers’ performance. But the bad news is that there is still a lot of room for improvement as consumers continue to rate their satisfaction with boat sales and service significantly lower than with motorcycles and cars.

Some of the things that have a major impact on the customer’s satisfaction with a dealership are whether a test drive was offered, whether the salesperson followed up with the customer and whether service was completed right the first time.

Given the decline in boat owners’ satisfaction, it’s no surprise that the percentage of first-time boat buyers is dropping, from 28 percent of all respondents in the 2005 study to 26 percent this year.

One important thing to keep in mind — the J.D. Power study tracks history. The 2006 study is based on 57,203 responses from consumers who purchased new boats between June 2004 and May 2005.

We can only hope that all the talk of improvement this past year has translated into results — results that will give the industry a reason to celebrate next year.

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