Group of young people with raised hands enjoying in a speedboat ride.
By Adam Quandt
Boating is in, in a big way this year. With articles in national and international publication such as the New York Times, Fox Business and the Associated Press, it’s clear that boating is the activity of choice in lieu of family vacations and other activities cancelled by the COVID-19 pandemic.
One writer in a recent article in Fortune said, “The Jersey Shore’s empty boatyards bear witness that locked-down leisure-seekers are making outings on our canals, creeks, and rivers the new jaunts to Disney World or Paris.”
Not only are dealers selling boats and personal watercraft like hotcakes, but the buyers range from seasoned boaters upgrading their current vessel, to lapsed boaters re-entering the activity, to the first-time buyer that the industry has been after for years.
Dealers and now data are showing the latter are coming in ever-increasing numbers this season. Info-Link data indicates about one-third of buyers right now are first-time boat purchasers, at roughly 34% of all new and pre-owned boats purchased year-to-date in 2020.
While both a busy selling season and an increasing amount of first-time boat buyers is a welcome outcome to dealers — many of which were immediately worried of boating’s fate when the pandemic began to sweep across the U.S. — a new issue is becoming the focus of dealers.
“Dealers are selling boats like crazy, but we’re also getting calls from dealers with concerns of cranking boats out so fast, they’re worried they’re no longer providing the level of customer service they would like,” Marine Retailers Association of America’s (MRAA) certification manager Liz Keener told Boating Industry.
“Customer service is number one for us, it’s part of our DNA,” Gordy’s Lakefront Marine co-owner Steele Whowell said. “But I’ll be the first to admit, it’s been challenging going into a real busy mode. We’re not perfect, but it’s all about how we communicate if and when we drop the ball.”
As sales continue to push forward and new boaters enter ownership at an increasing rate, keeping customers around for years to come is going to be key to the industry’s success moving forward.
Info-Link data reports that the recreational boating industry is losing 42% of first-time boat buyers within five years of the purchase.
“That’s why we all need to be focused on the customer experience, as we have been with Operation: Keep Your Customers Boating. This isn’t a new problem — it’s something NMMA, Discover Boating, MRAA, Info-Link and others — have been discussing for at least the past few years, but it’s an issue that has really been brought to the forefront by the number of sales that have occurred in 2020,” Keener wrote in a blog for MRAA.
Recent data from Customer Service Intelligence, Inc. — which tracks customer satisfaction indices on sales and service — reported that its group of 30 to 50 dealers has seen CSI scores decline by more than six percentage points since April. While a slight dip is normal during peak season, the intelligence company said it typically doesn’t drop more than one full point.
“Customer experience is so critical at this point with all of these new customers, as well as returning business,” Keener said. “We have to foster these customers as an industry. We have to help them with everything, train them on their new boats and make sure they’re comfortable. We need happy boaters.”
With a lack of inventory in the market to sell, dealers now find themselves with time they were once lacking to follow up with customers, both new and old.
“We’re getting ready for all of the new models, we’ve just gone through one of the busiest selling periods I’ve ever seen, we all need to make sure we’re still providing our customers with the best experience possible,” Miami’s Fisherman’s Boat Group operations manager Richard Mena said. “Just because customers are coming in and buying, doesn’t mean we’re always firing on all cylinders. It’s time to take a step back, reset, and make sure we as an industry maintain customer satisfaction to keep our industry moving forward and our customers happy.”
“Don’t just sell them and leave them,” MRAA’s lead MICD program consultant Bob McCann added. “Make sure that after the sale you reach out and have a conversation with customers.”
McCann said that keeping an open line of communication with customers will help you, help them remain comfortable with their purchase and keep them excited about boating.
“Think about all of the customers who came in to buy their first boat and didn’t buy the perfect boat right now, they bought it because it was there,” McCann said. “Well now if you’ve stayed in contact with them and made the experience enjoyable, they come back, they now love boating, but they’re ready to upgrade.”
The good news is that with today’s technology, reaching customers can be as simple as an email or text, if you’re unable to call.
“Follow-up has to be the theme throughout everything right now,” Keener said. “Check in with your customers, your staff, everyone.”
Keener said that starting with your team members is a great place to begin. “Asking your team what’s going on in terms of the customer experience can give you a sense of how things are going dealership-wide,” Keener added.
Organizations like Grow Boating, MRAA, NMMA and more are working hard to provide a variety of resources to make sure dealers are able to provide an exceptional customer experience to all customers, regardless of how busy a dealership is.
Grow Boating specifically has an entire study available on the first-time boat buyer, broken into eight separate chapters, along with a variety of other research and education.
MRAA’s “Keep Customers Boating” campaign features a content-rich resource center for dealers to use to make sure they’re hitting all the marks on customer service to ensure customers remain happy boaters. In addition to blogs and other resources, the association is also offering a virtual business development center, which offers the ability to contact customers on behalf of dealers.
Regardless of the tactics a dealership takes, the important thing is that dealers take action now to ensure boaters, both new and old are happy on the water.
“Let’s not just sit there and let things pass by,” McCann said. “It’d be a shame to let the first-time buyers we’ve been after for years, just pass through for a short time.”