On the Waterfront
DSN&A authors an internationally syndicated column entitled NATCHEZ ON THE WATERFRONT regarding marinas and recreational boating.
Natchez on the Waterfront
What Do Your Customers Think are the most Important Reasons for Being at Your Facility?
Do you really know your customers? Most marina owners and managers would say yes. In part they may be right. But really getting to understand what your customers are thinking and why customers come to your facility as opposed to others takes some effort, and it’s not always an effort that gets the full attention it deserves.
There are, of course, many reasons why customers choose to come to your facility, or, conversely, choose not to, or to leave for another facility. There may be many similarities as well as numerous differences. The key is really to understand all of them and decide which ones are important and how to better achieve them (for the positives), or avoid them (for the negatives). Equally important is to consider them in relation to your vision for the marina and business model.
The effort starts with taking time to really talk with your customers, and mostly just letting the conversation flow. You might be surprised as to what you learn, not only by what they say, but how they say it – as well as what they don’t say!
I make it a point when visiting clients’ facilities (and sometimes non-client facilities) to walk the docks in boating attire and talk to the customers. Most are willing to talk about the facility – what they like, dislike, would do differently, etc. While some folks may be a little shy at the beginning, most are willing to share with a little prodding. And while the ranking order often varies, I have found a fair number of similarities, whether talking with customers at facilities close to home or in some of the most far flung marinas in the boating world.
Location, location, location is most always at or near the top of the list. Is it convenient to get to? Is it in a safe area? Does one feel comfortable getting to and being there? Does it give me access to the boating waters where I want to be?
Once at the facility – is it a safe harbor and protected from the elements? Are there adequate water depths at all tidal or water elevations? Is there meaningful security? Are the utilities adequate?
Is the facility attractive? What are the restrooms like?
Boat maintenance and repair services. Is there someone available to fix the engine, take care of damage, and handle the ever occurring issues? Do they know what they are doing?
Does the facility have internet/WiFi – is it good or sporadic – is there a charge for it?
Is the staff friendly, encouraging, knowledgeable?
And related to the preceding, and perhaps one of the most important issues (though rarely vocalized – unless to report an offense or complaint), is whether the staff caters to me, the customer?
How much is keeping my boat here going to cost? Though it should be noted that while most customers look at cost, and maybe their first question, it is rarely the most important factor. In fact, if that is the most important thing for that customer, perhaps your facility is the wrong fit unless the business model is to be simply a basic facility competing on price.
On the complaint front, you may recall the family-owned facility I’ve mentioned before where the marina owner/manager put a large sign on the wall behind the reception desk that read something like, “If you have a problem – call me! Your friends can’t do something about it – but I can!” and he put his cell phone number on it. He told me that he actually gets relatively few calls with complaints, which he takes seriously and gets resolved if at all possible. Those customers he helps often become his best advertisers. He also noted that he actually gets more calls from folks who have questions, suggestions or just want to keep in touch. He tells me it has opened up a line of communication that has proved to be very helpful – he gets to know what’s on his customers’ minds.
In fact, trying to better understand what customers are thinking is something most hospitality and customer service oriented businesses are very much working on. Many are using surveys at the point of contact – whether it is online, on the phone, or at the facility itself. Some are doing it in-house and others are using outside organizations for the ‘anonymous’ approach … which many times turns out to be not so anonymous. These days there are also abundant choices for doing it yourself with some online assistance. SurveyMonkey is among the most well-known apps, but there are any number of services out there that can make customer surveying a fairly simple task – and one that really can be worthwhile, assuming you also do some follow-up with the results, and that you don’t overdo it by going to the well too often. And while surveys are a tool that can be very helpful, where possible the most meaningful approach are the one on one dialogues. Regardless of the approach taken – taking constructive action to improve issues and getting back to those who provided feedback is important – directly to the individuals if possible or more generally is through ones website, newsletter or emails to your customers.
How many times have you called or been online and are asked to provide feedback on the service you have received? Many times I wonder if anyone looks at the surveys that one fills out. Most of the time there is zero feedback – which can get annoying. However, the other day a relatively new branch of a computer chain store that had opened up sent a follow-up email survey for a purchase I had made. The experience at the store was anything but desirable and in a constructive manner I gave them feedback. Two days later the head of customer service called me to apologize and go over my comments. He told me that he was implementing some of my suggestions, gave me his direct number and email, and told me that he hoped I would give them another try, and if there was any problem to contact him immediately. I was impressed.
The Ports of Jersey (as in the original English Channel island of Jersey), also impressed me. They conducted an extensive customer survey in 2019 relating to the three marinas they operate on the island, and the entire report can be found on their website, with detail showing the good, the bad and the ugly. To be fair there was not a whole lot of bad or ugly – primarily related to parking and WiFi. But they put it out there, along with the promise to get to work on addressing the negatives.
As in any business there are times that things do not go as planned – could be caused by someone at the facility and other times caused by external forces. The issue is how the problem is handled and communicated to the customer. Communicating with the customer as soon as it is discovered with proactive approaches to try to mitigate the problem goes a long way to ease the pain and let the customer know that you are trying to fix the problem and, most importantly, that you care.
Always keep in mind that the boating community is a relatively close-knit circle. Many times customers are much more open talking to each other (especially over cocktails!) than to those at the facility. If something is not right or there are problems word spreads easily. Likewise, when things go well, customers are quick to brag about it.
And in this era of instant gratification demanded by customers, there is constant pressure to update and improve a facility. But that costs money, and especially when times are leaner many perceive it difficult to make the improvements. The industry, rationally, is very timid about raising prices for fear of losing customers, but without the income facilities have to minimize or postpone desired upgrades. Meanwhile, many boaters are actually paying higher and higher prices for their boats. As you have no doubt heard me say before, chances are most customers can afford a somewhat higher tariff provided that they perceive value in what they are paying for. This cycle can be channeled to higher pricing if it is communicated to customers in a way that they understand what is and will be happening at the facility, and are desirous of the changes. Knowing what your customers want and are thinking is key!
Similarly, facilities that really cater to their clients can command higher prices, which in turn increases the cash flow, which in turn allows for upgrading. Again this is a balancing between your vision and the customers’ perceptions. And keep in mind that upgrading and improvements aren’t necessarily limited to the physical plant – as hiring additional staff and/or providing improved employee training, retention, etc. are also ways you may be able to cater to your customers.
At the end of the day I would suggest that the most important reason that a customer comes and stays at your facility is how they perceive they are being treated and how you make them feel.
Love to hear from you with your approaches, experiences, comment and suggestions. In the interim, time to get onto the water and enjoy boating!
Natchez on the Waterfront
The Give & Take of the Marina Design/Retrofitting Process
The phrase “give & take” has a couple of possible meanings. One would center on the exchange of ideas or being open minded. The other would be most synonymous with the word compromise (whether positive or negative). Both make a lot of sense with respect to the marina design or retrofitting process.
As you no doubt have heard me say before, whenever embarking on a new project, whether for a new facility or for the renovation, repair or expansion of an existing facility, I find it’s best to think out one's vision and desires. Part of that means taking a hard look as to what has been happening in the industry and/or your region and facility over the last few years, including how the boats have changed, how boaters have changed, and what boats you or the region have not been able to attract or keep? Add to that what types of things have others done that you feel were meaningful? What did not work out well? What have you learned from talking to potential customers? What is it that you can offer that is missing from the area or is attractively different? Thinking through on these and other issues helps hone one’s vision into a more meaningful and targeted approach for implementation.
One also has to carefully think through a timeline for implementation and, importantly, build in extra time for things that might not go as smoothly as planned, including such things as permitting and government requirements, contractor and supply delays.
And once you’ve defined your vision there are several ways to consider such projects – adhere to the vision no matter the cost, budget driven, or some combination of the two. As you likely know, most projects end up in the latter category, which is where a lot of the give and take comes into play.
While many projects start with a vision of the best of everything, budget considerations have a way of creeping in during the project which, unless planned for, can significantly compromise attaining the essence of one’s vision. We have seen too many projects radically compromised as financial resources become of concern in the middle of a project.
Those that are strictly budget driven can have the same effect. There are numerous examples where a well-meaning but construction-knowledge-lacking financial controller gets involved and thinks money can be saved by utilizing a less expensive product or contractor, etc., only to find that the result is a lesser quality and causes other compromises down the line, delivering a result far from what was the motivating vision.
One of the most notorious examples that we ran into is where a project was creating and expanding upland through the use of dredged sandy materials – a process called reclamation. The design called for the use of the dredge material that was a relatively long way off from the to-be-expanded upland area. The project was then given to a financially oriented manager who believed that he could save over 60% of the reclamation cost by taking the material from just in front of the upland expansion portion of the project. Unfortunately, the area’s geology was not considered and the sediment composition of that material was far different from that which had been targeted. The result was that when structures were put on the new land both the land and the new structures started sinking, and the cost overruns to solve these problems were far in excess of the initial budget cost.
Carefully planning and thinking through the vision with a realistic budget is critically important in achieving the desired result. It is normal to want the best of everything. But there are realistic economic scenarios to consider in terms of resources as well as payback and rates of returns. One also needs to consider the various cause and effects of budget driven decisions.
And when looking at cost one should definitely be looking beyond the initial price tag and look at the costs of implementation as well as maintenance. All too often we see decisions made on the upfront cost only. There are differences in the quality that different contractors can deliver as well as products in terms of what the cost of implementing as well as maintaining them will be vs. their initial purchase costs.
In working with a facility owner and manager on their desired project to totally change their pontoon system, which was well beyond its useful life, a program was agreed upon. First a set of specifications was carefully created and then numerous products were reviewed and compared. The latter included not only the initial cost but also looking well beyond, including such issues as the cost and ease of implementation, their longevity, what happens over time in their appearance and structural integrity, history of failures, and costs of repairs as well as future retrofitting. The result ended up with a clear preference that was quite different when compared to their initial thoughts.
Of course when planning a redesign of slip layouts one should not only be thinking about the existing fleet, but also in terms of the trends, future flexibility and the ability to accommodate boats that cannot fit into the existing layout. Marinas have a finite footprint of available space. Examining the various approaches to maximize the use of the space is mandatory. Larger boats need deeper water and a wider turning radius than smaller boats. The more large boats the fewer total boats one can place in the same area. But the larger boats can command higher pricing, so one has to examine the net rate of return for various options. Taking advantage of wider navigation channels for turning areas is just one approach to maximizing the efficient use of the in-water area. Many times the use of at least one long dock may be a good answer to accommodating varying sized boats, particularly for a transient market, accepting the trade-off of fewer finger or pier slips. Looking at various mixes of layouts and size accommodations is a very worthwhile exercise, which more often than not results in a much more desirable, cost-effective and encompassing design that offers more flexibility than originally contemplated.
Another project which we know of needed to create a new bulkhead. The proper engineering studies were undertaken with specified steel sheets and lengths. To save money the facility decided to go with a lesser quality sheet with a thinner thickness and a shorter length. While the shoreline now has a bulkhead and, to most, bulkheads look the same, the longevity as well as structural stability of this bulkhead has been dramatically compromised, as has the ability to use the immediately adjacent upland area for things like car parking or boat storage. Was the change worth it? Probably not. I do understand that there certainly are times when hard choices have to be made, but too often those choices are made without better understanding the consequences.
As one plans for undertaking most any project a major factor to be considered is the functionality of the design and its components. A simple example is docking facility safety ladders. The function is to have someone who has fallen into the water be able to safely and quickly access a ladder to get out of the water. There are numerous choices and, like most every project or approach, each has its own advantages and disadvantages. Some are fixed and have the steps in the water all the time; some have clips or latches to release the steps to slide into the water; some have steps on top of the dock that swing down into the water; and some have floatation attached to the bottom step that keeps the steps out of the water when not in use but allows the steps to sink into the water by simply pulling down. The goals are common, but their approaches and functionality differ greatly. For us the compelling issue is ease and safe use in times of emergency when one is distressed or panicking. Those steps that are in the water all the time, while easy enough to access, will typically have fouling organisms such as seaweeds and barnacles attached to the steps making them slippery and/or potentially cut-producing when used. I know I’ve sliced a toe or two open on one of these barnacle encrusted ladders. Was it the end of the world? No, but it wasn’t exactly fun either! Those where you have to release a pin or latch assume clear thinking and take time to engage, again compromising the functionality in times of emergency. And then there are the ladders that have the floatation attached to the bottom step that can be pulled down with one finger, or perhaps even an unscathed toe. As you may have guessed, the latter float ladder is the one we believe is the most functional, especially in times of emergencies. Of course it also is typically about the most expensive. Is it worth it? Well, yes. And it’s not just because it inherently functions better, but by incorporating such a ladder it sends a message to your customers that is worth more than the incremental cost.
There’s an old Kenny Rogers song that goes something like this, “You've got to know when to hold 'em / Know when to fold 'em / … the secret to survivin' / Is knowin' what to throw away / And knowin' what to keep.” I know it’s not always easy finding that balance, but I also know it’s always worth engaging in a bit of give and take to help get you there!
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THE WORLD OF YACHTS & BOATS and
Venezuela - CAZAYPESCA NAUTICA INTERNATIONAL.
Worldwide - FORE & AFT
2016 - 2017
September- Just Old Fashioned Service
October- Trends - Meeting Tomorrow's Challenges
November- Clean and Green
January- Glitz Sells - Substance Sustain
February- The Changing use of Boats
March- Marinas / Boaters / Online
May- In the Spotlight with Regulatory Views
July- Chains vs. Independents - the Yin-Yang
2020 - 2021
September- The Not Quite Post Pandemic Era – What to Do to Jump Start
October- When is a Trend a Trend?
November- You want to Build a Marina during the Pandemic! Examining and Overcoming the Various Challenges
January- The Give & Take of the Marina Design/Retrofitting Process
April- Pontoons Boats - No Longer Just a Floating Raft
May- What Do Your Customers Think are the Most important Reasons for Being at Your Facility
2019 - 2020
September- The Politics of Boating
October- Sea Level Rise/Climate Change - Dealing with Rising Waters
November- Wave Protection – Thinking Outside the Box and Making it Work for You
January- The Yin and Yang of Providing Maintenance/Repair/Refitting Services
February- Selling and Buying Facilities – Some Do’s and Don’ts
March- Retrofitting for the Future
May- Marinas and Aquaculture
2018 - 2019
September- What Customers Want Most
October- Pollution, Red Tide & Fish Kills - What Does It Mean to Marinas
November- Stimulating Traffic to Marinas?
January- Combining Maintenance, Operational and Capital Planning
February- Regulatory 101 - The Do’s and Don’ts of the Regulatory Process
March- Profit Making Ideas
May- Know Your Market
2017 - 2018
September- ADA Making It Work For You
October- Trends - Road Map For Recreational Boating - Let's Not Miss The Boat
November- All Mixed Up - Marinas Within Mixed Used Developments
January- Dry Stack V's In-Water
February- Managing Stormwater In a Meaningful Manner
March- Dredging & Relocation Of Dredge Materials
May- If You Had Three Wishes