Interview with Dometic Vice President Lou Siegel

As part of our monthly “What You Can Learn From,” series, Boating Industry examined the Onboard Program from Dometic, an initiative by the company to train boat dealers in troubleshooting techniques and basic repairs for the air conditioning and refrigeration technology it manufactures.

Here is the transcript of a discussion about the program with Lou Siegel, senior vice president of marketing and strategic business development for Dometic, and Jim Rhodes of Rhodes Communications.

Boating Industry – Can you describe what Dometic’s Onboard Program is and how it works?

Siegel – There’s two pieces of it, one is our 24/7 service hotline, and that’s aimed really at the boat owner, and the other is this Onboard Program, which is aimed at the OEM dealer.

The nature of our product is that we have a system of independent dealers out there, who we spend a considerable amount of time training. They come to our location or we go remotely and train them on these products, and they are refrigerant circuits and electrical circuits. The refrigerant circuits have certain federal guidelines associated with them such that you’ve got to have a license to be able to enter these refrigerant circuits. You have to know what you are doing.

The electrical side of it is fairly complex at this point, because we use a lot of microprocessors and software programs. And what we realized is an OEM boat dealer just doesn’t have enough of that kind of business to have somebody trained to do that kind of work. They often have very skilled general mechanics that can work on outdrives, inboards, outboards and lots of other general mechanical kinds of systems, but when it comes to troubleshooting an air conditioning refrigerant circuit or some of these other complex electrical components, there is just not enough of that particular kind of business within a dealership that they have anybody trained.

And we also realized that these dealers of ours frequently aren’t working all weekend. So what happens is a boat dealer, whose bread and butter is people having fun on weekends, will often hear about a problem before we do. And the 80/20 rule probably applies, 80 percent of the weekending problems can probably be solved very rapidly with 20 percent of the fixes. And they are usually pretty simple. What the Onboard Program does is we take the OEM dealer and we train them in the kind of weekend ending things that are just kind of very disappointing.

For instance it could just be something so simple as a valve wasn’t open or there is a lot of trash in the strainer, or maybe he’s got some crustaceans growing in the pipes. Or it could be that a lightning strike disabled the electrical system and he needs to do something as simple as turning the electrical circuit off and back on. Or, in the case of air flow, maybe someone has crushed a duct with a pillow, or stuffed some toys in there or something you weren’t aware of, and airflow went downhill.

So everything I’ve described is absolutely not rocket science, it’s simple kinds of things, but often it’s the source of the ills. Often a boat dealer who knows these kinds of things can solve the problems. We’re willing to train them more in depth if they wish to be trained, but the idea is that we have this program going, we get this basic training to them, we make sure that they are tied to a competent dealer in their area. They may already be, but what we’re trying to do is take it one step further at the OEM level.

Boating Industry – Is this program getting underway, or is it already underway?

Siegel – It’s been in the planning stages for about nine months. The 24/7 program is up and running and it’s been pretty successful. [The Onboard Program] is underway now. We’re in the front-end process of beginning to train dealers. This we’re going to do with a combination of printed and material on CDs and videos.

Rhodes – It’s going to be mostly soft training. I think the point here is that the dealer is going to be in the position to give first-line service support to his boating customers.

Siegel – And those dealers are open on the weekend. Take somebody like MarineMax, they have a hotline available all weekend long.

Rhodes – What we realized on this thing is that the boat buyer, when he buys a boat, he’s going to look for that dealer to be his first-line service support, especially if he has any kind of warranty stuff. He wants to be able to take it back to the dealer and say, “Fix it. It isn’t working.” And he doesn’t want to hear the dealer say, “No, I can’t do that, you’re going to have to find a Cruiseair or Marine Air dealer somewhere to come do your system. The whole idea is that the boat builder and the boat dealer have a happy customer. And happy customers are repeat customers.

Siegel – As simple as it seems, as frequently as somebody has a strainer full of seaweed or something else growing in there, it seems like they would be able to look at that and say, “Well that’s a problem.” But they don’t. If water flow is attenuated or non-existent, the system just doesn’t work.

Boating Industry – So this will be a series of CDs?

Siegel – One CD should cover the whole thing.

Boating Industry – Is there any sort of cost involved to the dealer, or is this something that you are just shipping out to them?

Siegel – Basically, it’s a service we are going to provide. If they need parts, they will have to pay for the parts, but by and large there is no cost to them.

Rhodes – We will probably make available to the dealer a sort of ideal parts kit he may want to stock. We would probably give him a list of the basic tools and parts that you may want to keep in stock for these kinds of service calls. But there is not going to be a requirement for them to take inventory.

Siegel – We can get things to them pretty rapidly. But for a large group, they may want something like [the kit], somebody with a dealership that’s got two or three locations.

Rhodes – Quite often the boat dealer might have enough tools and enough knowledge now, once he’s completed his training, to at least troubleshoot the system. And once he’s done that he may say, “Well this is bigger than I can handle.” And the he calls in the local Cruiseair or Marine Air air conditioning service dealer who has all the advanced tools and the EPA certifications and the like, to come in and actually do the more complicated work. And they would probably either go directly to the boat, or come and do the service in the boat dealer’s service bay.

Boating Industry – Has this program been a significant investment on the part of the company?

Siegel – Well, we’ve got the information, we didn’t have to generate the information, we just had to pull it together from several different sources, and then it’s got to go on CD or DVD. It’s an investment primarily in time. Because pulling together that piece of it, mechanically, is not very expensive. It’s the time and making the contact with the OEM and the OEM dealer that’s the expensive part. So it’s the people time to make this thing happen, that’s the investment.

Boating Industry – How much time would you say has been spent doing that?

Siegel – We’ve probably got a minimum of 400 hours in it so far. There’s 2,000 hours in a work year, if you work 8-5. So we’ve probably got at least a quarter year in this thing, because we’ve got some other kinds of collateral material going out with it.

Rhodes – It’s all a part of servicing an OEM market. Dometic’s business, the Marine Air and Cruiseair brands between them have a very large market share of the OEM-installed air conditioning. And this is really just a part of servicing those OEMs by supporting their dealers.

Boating Industry – Any sort of other programs like this that you have in the works?

Siegel – Well, we have this service hotline that took some time to get up, and then there is this. So at this point we have these two, and it’s taking a considerable amount of time to get things going. You have to talk to the dealers, because some of them don’t understand what you are trying to do. So you have to talk to these guys and explain to them that we aren’t going to charge them anything, we just want to increase their awareness.

Rhodes – They’re going to sell more boats if they have happy customers.

Siegel – Exactly.

Boating Industry – Have the dealers been receptive?

Siegel – Yeah, absolutely.

Rhodes – I’ve never heard about anything like this in the boat business from a major accessories OEM provider coming up with this sort of boat dealer support program, and I think it is unique.

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