Customers for life

Turn every customer into a long-term relationship

Long-term relationships are tricky. Bliss at the inception lasts until reality sets in. Without effort, constant attention and honest feedback, things may quickly go astray. Cultivating lifelong customers takes a similar set of skills: persistence, empathy, understanding, integrity and occasionally going above and beyond.

In the marine business, loyal customers are a gold mine. Without requiring an expensive ad campaign to lure them in, these are the customers who stick with you through the ages, remain repeat customers as their lifestyle evolves, trust your service department and walk into your doors automatically feeling like a valued guest. Things probably haven’t always gone swimmingly — perhaps a backordered part or a delay on a work order — but overall the relationship is strong and they’ll stay committed as long as they keep feeling the love.

The best business models play both sides of the fence, seducing new customers while simultaneously doing the grunt work to maintain existing relationships. Boating Industry spoke with three diverse industry players for their takes on how to create happy, repeat customers who sing your praises behind your back.

Laying the foundation

Building strong relationships with your clientele should be easy, and not necessarily expensive. Successful dealers embody four basic values: strong communication, reliability, consistency and punctuality, said Bob McCann, director of education at ARI Network Services, which is a provider of products aimed at building consumer relationships.

“If you only do one thing, your plan should include staying in contact with existing and past customers; if you remember them, they will remember you,” he said. “Building lifelong customers hinges on good customer relationships, and a relationship without contact isn’t a relationship at all.”

Setting up calendar reminders to periodically email or call past customers isn’t new advice, but that doesn’t mean it’s always followed. One example is a salesperson that doesn’t want to follow up with customers, not because he or she is lazy, but because they want to avoid getting yelled at by customers for something that may have happened in another end of the dealership — a bad sign for your customer service.

“They’re fearful of calling customers because the support at their dealership is so poor,” McCann said.

Harold “Bubba” Perrilloux, president of the dealership Boat City USA in Hammond, La., feels the tactics that create happy first-time customers are the same ones that keep past customers on cloud nine. None, he said, are difficult to achieve.

“We start with the basics of being polite, courteous, professional and helpful,” he said. “Nobody wants to walk in and not be recognized or have to wait for somebody to ask them what they can be helped with.”

He added that a big part of his own enjoyment since becoming a marine dealer in 1999 has been learning how to do his job better, and creating happier customers.

“I’d hear stories about these bad experiences that friends or family had, and that happened to me a handful of times, and I made up my mind that I wasn’t going to do that, we were either going to get business taken care of and treat people right here, or I was going to go do something else,” he said. “When I run into people, I want to hear compliments, I don’t want to hear complaints.”

Make it easy

David Ciapponi

David Ciapponi, owner of Gold Key Storage & Marine Service Center in El Dorado Hills, Calif., is building a storage, dealership and service empire based around a comprehensive customer service philosophy that was his motivation to get into the marine industry: “We take the hassle out of boating.”

This newly trademarked phrase encapsulates his previous experiences as a boat owner, starting with the first boat he bought at 19. When something as simple as a light bulb in the dash goes out, a boat owner is faced with the decision of pulling the boat out of the water, driving it across town (at best) and being charged $150 an hour to replace a simple bulb — so they oftentimes let it go. And then, for example, a CD gets stuck in the player and now there are two outstanding, albeit minor, issues.

“These things grow lives of their own,” he said. “I love to put my hands on mechanical things, so I’ll tear a dash apart to fix a $12 light bulb if I have to, but at the end of the day [being] in my 40s … I don’t have time to do any of that anymore.”

Ciapponi’s business caters to white-collar boat owners of a similar mindset: remove every single hassle from the boating process, of which there are many, and roll it into a customer’s service plan that can cover storage, winterization, pre-season prep, cleaning and service, including mobile technicians that come to the boat, removing a significant barrier that can prevent customers from maintaining their boats.

Similar to how BMW’s Ultimate Service Warranty provides free maintenance for the first four years or 50,000 miles for its automobiles, Ciapponi’s Gold Key Marine pays for everything but damage during the warranty period for any new boat he sells.

“That creates a tremendous amount of loyalty, because you deliver a product that simplifies boat ownership, which is, I think, the largest barrier for most people that end up buying boats,” he said.

Riding rough waters

Just like boat ownership, problems will sporadically arise when running a marine dealership. Instead of shading the truth, not being clear about timeframes or hiding from customers, ARI’s McCann recommends dealers and service professionals be as forthright as possible to avoid further troubles.

Bob McCann

“Just tell people the truth, apologize profusely and tell them what you’re going to do to fix it,” he said. “You have to say, ‘hey, we screwed up, it’s not our style, sorry about that, we want to make it right for you’ — opening the checkbook might be a part of it, but obviously getting to the root of the problem is even more important.”

McCann emphasized that there are too many people in the industry afraid to tell the whole story, and gave the example of a customer bringing in a boat for work when the service yard can’t begin working on it for weeks. While the dealer wants the business, the customer may have chosen another option had they known there would be such a delay.

“Now you’ve got a customer all upset, you’ll never get them back,” he said. “It’s easier to talk about it, but it’s harder to do — I think the more you’re up front with people, tell them what the real story is behind the scenes, that people understand better and will roll with you.”

Perrilloux echoed a similar mindset, where honesty needs to be a vital part of the equation. He recalled past situations in his service department where staff members weren’t completely forthright with customers, which eventually snowballed out of control.

“The little bitty lies turn into regular-size lies, and then they turn into great big lies and, before you know it, you’ve got a big old mess on your hands, and it tends to happen predominantly at the service department level.”

Citing personal experience, Ciapponi said being indisputably clear with customers avoids situations where a customer may doubt that the prescribed work is actually needed, is being done completely or within a reasonable timeframe.

“The biggest fraud in the boat service is businesses that they sell you things that you either don’t need, or they upsell you on something that only takes two hours and they bill you for four,” he said.

Ciapponi’s message is to truly act in the customer’s best interest, and reap the goodwill rewards that naturally follow.

“Tell them what you think is in their best interest and don’t oversell,” he said. “But also don’t undersell, because if you undersell you end up having problems — [and the customer asks] why didn’t you tell me this could be a problem?”

Greater expectations

Walk into any major bank or national retailer, and an employee will often immediately greet you by asking how you are and what they can do to help. As more businesses improve their customer service game, overall customer expectations have risen in lockstep.

To meet these more demanding standards, many dealerships have improved employee training and created customer appreciation picnics, on-the-water fun runs or exclusive sales events to cater to their best customers. Such events are designed as a targeted selling opportunity, but are also a way to reward customers and provide face time with dealer staff members.

According to ARI’s research, it’s five to seven times more expensive to find new customers compared with keeping repeat customers. McCann recommends taking those savings to reward your loyal customers through customer appreciation events or promotions.

Building customer loyalty prompted a robust discussion on the Boating Industry LinkedIn group. Visit LinkedIn to check out the full conversation or to join the Boating Industry group.

“Every one of those [events] is going to create excitement and enthusiasm about the product, the brand and the dealer’s brand as well,” McCann said. “If you have a big customer base then you can go out and have a customer appreciation party, bring in a couple of new boats and at the end of the day you had a great party [and] you would’ve spent as much as you would have if you promoted on the radio, TV or print, and you [may sell] a couple of new boats because as soon as you get a boater around another boat that’s a little bigger, a little newer and has more features, before you know it they’re trading up to the new boat.”

He added that there is a fine line between effective customer service and taking it too far, losing sincerity. “I can tell when somebody is being phony or sales training is coming through,” he said. “That person isn’t coming through, the training’s coming through and I can just feel it — it’s icky and it doesn’t work well.”

To improve its own customer outreach, Boat City USA has added a full-time e-business manager in the last year who’s focus is on social media outreach and handling leads generated by its website. After focusing on growing the business and its infrastructure through its first 13 years, adding such a position is a big step forward for improving customer satisfaction.

“I may be missing the boat on some of those other [events],” Perrilloux said. “But I feel like if a guy can leave here tickled … over the way he was treated at the sales level or … at the parts counter or the service department, and the way his boat was returned to him and the quality of repairs that were done, I feel like if all those things are better than my competitors, then that customer’s going to stay with me.”


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