Brad and Joan Brewster were as giddy as a married couple could get the day they took delivery of their first boat — a new 23-foot pontoon, which their dealer brought to the dock of their lakefront home.
The joy was short-lived, however, because the Brewsters soon discovered the boat was listing from a slow leak in the starboard log. They called the dealer, and he agreed to fix it under warranty, but he said the Brewsters would have to bring the boat back to the dealership. That was not an easy task, since the store was 65 miles away and the couple did not own a suitable tow vehicle.
So the new boating couple talked to a local dealership, which explained that it could make a service call on the lake and even haul the boat to the shop, but would have to charge them full rate, because the local dealer was not an authorized warranty center for that particular boat brand.
Within just a few days of signing on the dotted line, the Brewsters were caught between a leaky boat and the sinking feeling that they had selected the wrong dealership. To get their new boat repaired, they would need to spend more money for a tow vehicle, hire a boat hauler, or fork over cash to the local dealer.
The frustration experienced by the Brewsters (not their real name) is not entirely uncommon. You might someday face the same scenario if you fail to focus on the importance of the dealer in the buying equation. Your relationship with the dealer — be it good or bad — may endure for years after your purchase, or at least as long as the warranty period.
That said, it’s not always practical to shop for a boat based on the store and its service. Boat brands award dealerships based on geography, among other criteria. So there might be only one dealer in your area that carries the model of boat you really want. Unless you want to think about a different boat brand, you’re stuck.
However, if you’re torn between two or three models from different brands, the quality of the dealership and its staff may well sway your decision. Use the score sheet after we offer 12 ways to rate a dealer: Red flags are for negative traits and gold propellers are for positive qualities. Do this ahead of time, because once you’ve made the purchase, it’s too late.
Does the store staff seem happy to see you?
I like to walk onto boat dealership lots or into showrooms to look around. I do this all around the United States, and I am continually amazed at how infrequently anyone comes to greet me.
Red Flag: If no one comes out to say hello and ask if he or she can help within the first five minutes, don't count on service getting any better in the future. Big red flag. If you eventually have to ask for help and are met with confused or annoyed looks by staff, that's also a bad sign — and another red flag. These two scenarios occur often enough that I am pleasantly surprised when greeted by friendly and enthusiastic staff.
Gold Prop: If you find people in the store are attentive, engaging and genuinely happy to see you, give that dealership high marks; it bodes well for the future.
Check it out on the Internet.
Use a Web search engine such as Google to look for mentions or reports of the dealer on the Internet. Or log on to related forums such as the general discussion board on boatingmag.com to ask if others have experience with the dealership.
Red Flag: Take Web reports with a grain of salt. One or two negative comments should not overly influence any decision, but if you read about a rash of bad experiences, poorly handled warranty work or long delays on service or repairs, it's definitely cause for concern and a red flag.
Gold Prop: Similarly, one or two glowing Web reports are not the basis for judging a dealership, but if positive reports far outweigh critical posts, give the store a shiny gold prop.
Are the yard and showroom clean and organized?
While an unkempt facility might not seem so bad, consider this: If this is how they treat their own property, how are they going to treat your boat when it's in for service or repairs?
Red Flag: If you find that inventory boats in the yard are dirty and dusty, the yard's forklift is rusty and leaking oil, no one cleans up after the guard dog, or the property is cluttered with discarded parts, you might want to look for another dealership.
Gold Prop: An immaculate showroom, an organized yard, and boats that are washed daily earn the store a gold prop. Add in a well-stocked parts department, and it gets another prop.
Is the staff prompt in returning phone calls and emails?
You can understand that staff might not always be able to pick up the phone when you call. After all, if it's a good dealership, they're liable to be busy. Still, you'd think any salesperson would be highly motivated to return phone calls and emails, but it isn't always so.
Red Flag: Lack of prompt response is a big red flag, indicating that customer service after the sale will only get worse. Another red flag is a salesperson's reluctance to work with you by phone or email. In this busy world, it's not always possible to visit the store to ask questions or negotiate the deal.
Gold Prop: A salesperson's willingness to work with you by phone or email is a great time-saver and a positive sign for the future. Make sure to ask for an email confirmation of any deals that you negotiate by phone.
Talk to the service manager.
Before you close the deal, ask to talk with the dealership service manager or, even better, one or two of the mechanics. This will give you a chance to see inside the shop and get a feel for the culture.
Red Flag: If the shop is messy, greasy, dirty and disorganized, it shows a lack of pride in the work — a negative that reflects on the management as well as the service staff.
Gold Prop: However, if you witness a clean shop with state-of-the-art diagnostics and tools, as well as a knowledgeable staff that displays high spirits and dedication to doing good work, give them a gold prop.
Ask to talk with existing customers.
When you interview for a job, you might be asked to provide references. Why not ask the same thing of the dealer? Request a few names and emails of existing customers.
Red Flag: It's understandable that a salesperson might be reluctant to give out names and emails of customers for fear of violating the privacy of others, but if he flatly refuses or becomes indignant, it's a sign there's something to hide. Defensiveness indicates guilt and a possible red flag.
Gold Prop: If the salesman asks if he can get back to you after he checks with the customers and then sends you the names and emails, it means he's proud of the dealership's reputation, as well as mindful of customer privacy. You would expect glowing reports from the salesperson's references, but check them out anyway. You never know. A bad report could cancel out this gold prop.
Does the dealership staff keep you waiting?
I'm used to sitting in the lobby, waiting to see a doctor or dentist, even though I was on time for the appointment. But if you made an appointment with a boat salesperson, you should not have to wait.
Red Flag: If the salesman keeps you waiting more than a minute or two, it might mean that disregard for others' time pervades the dealership's culture. If you're kept waiting more than once, or the salesperson interrupts your meeting to take a phone call, the store gets two red flags, or what some mariners call Maggie's Drawers.
Gold Prop: If, on the other hand, you're greeted promptly by a congenial staff and offered coffee or a refreshment before you get started, the dealership is golden. If you get a follow-up call after the meeting, give them twin props and seriously consider moving full speed ahead.
Does the service department hold manufacturer certifications?
Engine manufacturers such as Yamaha Outboards offer certification programs for dealer-service staff. These are ongoing programs designed to keep mechanics up to date on the latest engine technology and product developments.
Red Flag: Request documentation of the most recent manufacturer certification for the service department. If the dealership can't produce it, or the certificates are more than five years old, they may have just earned a red flag or two.
Gold Prop: The more manufacturer certificates the service department can produce, the better. That means gold props now and in the future.
Do you like the dealership staff?
This might sound like an irrelevant question, but it's always nice to work with people you like — and once you buy the boat, you'll be returning to the dealership time and again for motor service and possibly warranty work.
Red Flag: If you find yourself with a grin-and-bear-it attitude as you try to negotiate a deal, it might mean you really don't care for or trust the salesperson. Check out the rest of the staff to see if they strike you the same way. If so, slap the store with a red flag.
Gold Prop: When you look forward to talking with salespeople and staff, it means you like them (and they probably like you), and that earns the store a gold prop.
Is the dealership among the Top 100?
Each year, Boating Industry (boatingindustry.com) magazine painstakingly reviews in-depth applications from dealers across the country, each retailer vying to become a member of the Boating Industry Top 100. Given that there are about 3,000 boat dealers in the United States, earning a spot on this list is a real achievement.
Red Flag: Ask if the dealership is or has in the past placed in the Top 100. If the dealership responds "top 100 what?" you'll know that the management does not strive for constant improvement.
Gold Prop: If, on the other hand, the dealership has, at the very least, filled out the lengthy application to compete in the Top 100 program, give it a gold prop. If the retailer is actually on the Top 100 list, give it three props.
Does the dealership hold marine industry certifications?
The Chicago-based National Marine Manufacturers Association (NMMA) and its Discover Boating program (discoverboating.com) offer the Marine Five Star Dealer Certification (MFSDC) program, which is designed to improve the sales and service experience for customers. The NMMA's research indicates that dealers who invest in this program (which is time-consuming and expensive for the dealer) tend to deliver a higher level of service than noncertified stores.
Red Flag: Ask the dealership if it has earned the MFSDC, has considered pursuing it or has even heard about it. If the answer to all three is no, fly the red flag.
Gold Prop: The majority of dealers in the United States have not invested in the MFSDC program, according to the Marine Retailers Association of America, so don't expect every dealer to have earned this certification. But if it considers the program a good thing and it would someday like to pursue it, give the store a gold prop just for knowing about it.
Is the dealer conveniently located?
Choosing a dealer far from the location where you plan to keep your boat is a huge disadvantage. Even if you can tow the boat, who wants a 130-mile round trip each time you visit the dealer for service or repairs?
Red Flag: If the dealer is more than 25 miles away, every trip will be a hate mission. Remember that you can rarely get a boat serviced or repaired while you wait, so you have to make two round trips for each service visit. A geographically undesirable dealer is a big red flag — not against the dealer, but against your choice.
Gold Prop: A dealership that's close by — whether by water or land — is a godsend. One that will come to your marina or dock to service and repair the boat in the water is better yet. Give that dealer a major gold prop