Boating Industry magazine conducted interviews with several dealers around the country for an article in the July issue that examines some of the best practices marine dealers use in their service departments.

In this edited transcript, Plapp discusses a boat loaner program used by Kentucky dealer Plapp’s Pro Outdoors, based in Florence.

BI – Could you explain how your boat loaner program works?

What we do is, anybody who has purchased a boat from us or an engine unit, if they’ve got a problem with their boat and they bring it in to us and it’s something that we’ve need to order parts for, or that we can’t get fixed in time for a tournament or a vacation or something like that, we take used boats that we’ve taken on trades – some of them are a year or two old – we make sure they are ready, and we loan them for customers to take on their trip or use in their fishing tournament.

It’s been pretty successful for us. One of the things it helps us with is the customer relations. It shows the customer that we are willing to support them, because without them there is no us.

It’s one of the most popular things that we’ve done. It’s really come in handy and helped us when Mercury or Yamaha or Johnson-Envinrude has a national backorder on a particular part and you can’t get a gearcase back together or get the engine running, it really helps us out in a pinch.

BI – How many boats do you have for the program or that you can loan out at one time?

I’ve had up to four or five of them out at a time. And actually what I’ve also done too is when someone orders a boat from me, being that the season is such a hard start, with so many boats going out in such a short amount of time, [is loan boats] if we can’t get a boat ready for a customer. I just had two customers who had the boats done and they brought them back because they had tournaments that we’re going on before their boats were going to be ready, so we let them use loaner boats.

BI – What kind of boats do you loan?

It’s mostly bass boats. Seldom have I had to loan out a pleasure boat to a customer. Most of the time it’s the bass tournament fisherman that have a fishing trip planned, or a four-day trip where they’ve got a two-day tournament and they are going down two days early to fish. That’s primarily who we focus on, when it comes to that kind of crunch.

BI – How many years have you been doing this, and how did it start?

When we bought into the old dealership it was something where we were trying to come up with something that no one else did. And we got the idea from a car dealership that we do business with. One of our trucks had a problem and they loaned us a car. And we said, “I wonder if that could work with a boat.” And everybody said, “No it can’t work, because of this or because of that.”

And what we did was we just told the customer, “Look, we’re loaning you a boat,” and they’re responsible for the insurance. We have an insurance form that they have to provide for us. And if they’ve got a boat, then they’ve got an insurance policy where they can add a boat to it. If they don’t, we’ve investigated other ways of getting it done. That way they are covered in using a boat.

BI – When some of the people were saying it wouldn’t work, what was it they were saying?

Insurance was the primary one, because you don’t want to take on the liability for somebody else taking a boat out there and then if they hurt somebody… You’re not in the boat with them, so you don’t know what kind of elements they are encountering. So by them providing the insurance, No. 1 that gives them more responsibility because you know how some people are with a rental car, they think they can take it out and beat it up. But if they’re using their insurance and they have to pay the deductible for something they’ve damaged, then they are a little more cautious.

But bass fisherman are pretty straightforward anyway. They know if they damage anything they aren’t going to get the chance to use it again.

BI – You really haven’t had any problems with loaning boats?

No. I haven’t had any problems at all. Actually, what it helps me do is keep my used boats running. Because if the boats are ready to go all the time then they are not sitting there with stale gas in them. They’re not having to keep being cleaned out, the fuel system doesn’t have to keep being pulled apart and gone through again and that kind of stuff. That’s really helped us out to, because our used boats are being kept in better condition. We’re cleaning them out when they come back in, the customer wipes down the inside and we clean the outside, something like that.

BI – So it really doesn’t take that much of an investment on your part to set the whole program up?

You know, my dad, my brother and I, we run the dealership and we’re very aggressive when it comes to trades. Trades don’t scare us, we know we can sell them. And one of the things that’s helped us out with that is that this allows people to see our trades on the water too. We try and inspect the boats when they come in so they don’t have hidden damage, or damage that someone is trying to pawn off on someone else. People are seeing that our boats our being used out there. They’ll say, “Hey, where did you get that boat?” “Well, my boat’s being fixed and they’re loaning me this one.” It’s good word of mouth. “Wow, that’s a nice looking used boat,” that kind of thing.

BI – Do you think that the program has actually helped with sales then?

Oh yeah, I think it helps a lot. Everybody’s been there. Everybody’s been getting ready for a tournament and has taken it out of the dealership to make sure everything’s ready to go, and something goes wrong. That’s a big selling point for a tournament fisherman that we talk to them and we tell them straight up, “This is how we do it,” and then they are like, “Wow, OK.” And that word of mouth travels. Nine times out of 10 it’s not something that they bring up. They just know it’s there, but then when someone does have to use it, it’s the talk of the town, or talk of the tournament.

BI – Why don’t you think other dealerships have done something like this before?

I don’t think other dealers do it because they are scared of it. I think they’re just scared of somebody taking one of their boats out, and a lot of people don’t have a lot of used boats. I have probably 35 or 40 used boats out here. And a lot of people don’t take trades, and if you don’t take a trade you don’t have any used boats to give anybody. We don’t make a practice of giving out our demos, just because if you get a brand-new boat you’re going to turn around and sell it as a brand-new boat.

So we reserve the demo boats for, like Joe Thomas has borrowed one of our boats because his was having a problem, so I’ve been known to help out some top pros use some boats. But most of the time it’s the used boats that we loan out, just for the fact that they are brand new trade-ins. One gentleman is waiting on his boat, he bought a 2005 and we loaned him a 2004 trade-in. So you still get a fairly decent boat.

BI – Can people use them for as long as they want, or …?

We usually try and see how long it’s going to take for them to get their boat back. Nine times out of 10 they’ll take it for that weekend and bring it right back. A lot of people don’t want to hang onto a boat any longer than they have to anyway.
I think the longest time I had a loaner boat out was a week-and-a-half, where I had a guy go down to Louisiana and fish a qualifier for B.A.S.S. in his boat. He was buying one of the brand-new Verados, and the Verado hadn’t come in yet. We we’re trying to help him out with his tournament.

BI – So people can take [the loaners] pretty much wherever they want?

As long as they’ve got insurance. That’s what I want. I decal all my boats up. I put “Plapp’s Pro Outdoors” on the side of them and have them professionally decaled. They’re the ones that people see. I’ve been at tournaments and someone will say they saw a boat in Florida or they saw a boat in South Carolina. And I’ve had guys come and buy boats because they saw us there.

Another thing that we also do is we have two [Hummer] H2s that we use for the business. They’re bright yellow, they’re completely decaled up with our logos, our Web site, all the boats and brands we carry, everything. And my team guys that fish for us, when they go to tournaments they can take the truck with them. They leave me a truck to drive, and they hook the other one up to their boat and take it to tournaments.

And that’s really been a big promotion for us also, not being afraid to stand out. Right now we’ve got a 32-foot bright yellow tackle trailer with a weigh-stage on it that we take to all the local tournaments. It’s a full, rolling tackle store. We’re in the process right now of getting a 48-foot fifth-wheel tackle trailer detailed for the same purpose. And that’s going to go to all the tournaments and all the shows. It’s been to Florida, it’s been to Tennessee and we just set it up and they can use it as their weigh-in stage, and it’s just a big billboard. It’s a rolling billboard all by itself.

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