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, Malone discusses a customer education effort underway at the Sail & Ski Center dealerships in Texas.

BI – Can you describe what the “Guide To Hassle Free Boating” is?

All right, well first of all, let me give you the genesis of it. We’ve been in business for quite some time. We’re a 30-plus-year-old company, we’ve been selling boats for some time. Our customer base keeps growing, but our service capacity isn’t growing at the same rate, and so we’re in the perennial problem now that boat dealers have where you don’t have time to take care of your customers in the summertime and you’re standing around in the wintertime wondering what you are going to do next.

[The Guide] does two things. It allows us to have greater customer satisfaction, because we can take care of people’s boats when they’re not hyper to use them. We get people to do [maintenance] routinely, so their experience is likely to be better, because they’re doing their routine maintenance. Secondly, if they have a problem in season or an emergency, we have more capacity to take care of it sooner.

We we’re trying to get out of the situation that we find ourselves in in the summertime, where somebody comes in with a problem and we tell them it will be three weeks. Likely, it will be two weeks before we can even look at it and one week before we can, hopefully, fix it. And then you get into a situation where you have some bad news, you have parts issues, and they blame us.

So what we set out to do, we said, “What we can we do to educate the customer, to get him to do his routine maintenance.”

And the side benefit of this is that we developed a goal that we wanted to move at least 10 percent of what we call “low-hanging-fruit work,” people that were going to do their oil change with us every year, were going to do business with us regardless, but they always came in in June or July. So we wanted to take as many of these people – 10 percent of our business – and move it to the offseason. So that gives us 10 percent more revenue in the wintertime, but it also gives us 10 percent more service capacity in season, and that’s a win/win. It’s a win/win from a revenue standpoint. It’s a win/win as far as responsiveness to customers in season and it gives us offseason work. So that was what was going through our minds.

And so we then developed this brochure, and it’s kind of nice little piece, it’s really a tri-fold brochure that is about an 8 ½ by 17, folded three times, but it comes as a 5 x 7-looking brochure. It’s a service brochure.

The other thing we did here that is kind of a paradigm shift here was that we decided that we are going to actually market service. We sell boats everyday. We’re a sales-driven company but we’ve always been reactive from a service standpoint. We decided that we were going to be proactive. So we hired two additional service writers and their jobs were to do nothing but sell service and do service follow-ups. So their job was really selling service and service customer satisfaction.

That also had a secondary benefit, it gave us depth in the service department, on the administrative side, so the people that were there, in season, weren’t just exhausted.

These things were designed to explain to the customer, essentially, his responsibility. We wanted them to understand if they did these things routinely, if they followed these guidelines, they’re going to have a much better boating experience. They’re not likely to have any hassles. And if they do have a hassle during the summertime, if they help us help them, we’ll be able to respond to them quicker in the summertime.

BI – What are your service infograms?

We started this in 2002, We sent it, and it was just a memo-style letter that said, “We need your help.” What the message was that we were telling them was, “Please help us help you. And you can help us by bringing your boat in for those sorts of things in the offseason. That will then allow us to help you with problems that you might have in season.”

What we’re trying to do is make them aware that, if they’re proactive, they’ll likely have a better boating experience. That’s the whole purpose here.

For our new boat customers, it’s part of our sales process. The sales consultant goes through this with them, so they get the message there. Then in the business office, they’re actually given the message again, and they’re physically given this “Your Guide to Hassle-Free Boating” pamphlet in their closing documents. So it’s provided to them then, and we attempt to schedule first-time maintenance with them. We’re not always successful. And then next year we try to get them in the routine of doing it annually.

We’ve done this now, this will be our third season. So we have a substantial core of our customer base that’s on the program with us.

BI – You talked about the 10 percent goal, and you say you’ve exceeded that. Is that both in terms of revenue and capacity?

Yes. That’s correct. What we did, was after the first season we began to see some possibilities and we actually hired some additional mechanics. We hired one mechanic and an apprentice in both of our locations. So in essence we put on four people. We wouldn’t have done that in our old paradigm, because we would have said, “What are we going to do with those people this winter,” although we needed them desperately in the summertime.

We’re an employee friendly company and we don’t like to hire seasonally. We don’t think that’s efficient. We don’t think that’s employee friendly. And so we struggled. We try to tell people up front, “This is a real hard job in the summertime, you’ve got to work your ass off.” But as we built customer base we could keep a pretty good-sized staff going in the wintertime, but still never have enough capacity in the summertime. So we decided that we would take the risk and hire more people so we would have additional capacity in the summertime, and then, with this program, we would shift work, so we could support more people in the wintertime. And, so far, it’s working.

So you keep people year-round now, basically. Yes, we’ve never been a seasonal hiring company.

BI – Would you say that your investment in being proactive has paid for itself, are you seeing the return?

Sure. It’s physically paying for itself in the increased service revenue. And the soft costs are how do you put a value on customer satisfaction. And you can’t. But it’s extremely valuable. Our sales our improved, and I think our reputation has improved because of this program. That certainly has value.

BI – Anything else that you’re doing service-wise that you think is important or that people should know about?

I think we’ve changed our focus to the boating experience. We’re not thinking so much about fixing things as we are making sure that people have a positive boating experience. That’ a culture that we’re trying to create in the company, that everybody has an effect on a customer’s boating experience. And so, everything you do has an effect. We have customer satisfaction program internally, where if we achieve good customer satisfaction scores, everybody gets a bonus out of it. We have an ongoing awareness. We’re trying to create an awareness and a culture where everybody understands that what they do is important to a customer’s satisfaction.

BI – Do you see similar focus, in talking to other dealers, on their part in making sure the customer is happy? Do think that’s an industry-wide thing that is going on?

Unfortunately, I don’t think it is. I think there’s more awareness and conversation about it, and some companies are driving it and emphasizing it. But it’s hard work, and it’s a difficult industry because of its peaks and valleys in the seasonality. It’s a very difficult industry to pull it off in. I think there’s a certain amount of momentum to get that way. People certainly understand that they need to have better customer experiences, but I don’t know if they know how to get their arms around it.

BI – Do you think that will come over time and with experience?

I think it will come or the industry will suffer dramatically.

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