Shop owners share their secrets for selling, upselling, expanding, and finding and retaining customers.
By Shelby Gonzalez
Collapsing financial system got you worried? Now is the time to focus on making your marine fabrication business strong. Thriving shop owners from around the country share insights and tips for selling, upselling, expanding, retaining customers and getting new ones, even in a tough economy.
Give your customers “comfort food”
At Signature CanvasMakers in Hampton, Va., co-owner Chandler Clark says that he is seeing two types of customers: those that have been considerably impacted by the economy and those that were better positioned to ride it out.
“Those that have felt the economic strain the most are opting for repairs vs. replacements,” Clark says. “The customers that haven’t felt the strain as strongly have been more willing to purchase new canvas. The common denominator is their passion for boating and their boats. Just as people will do what is necessary to keep their houses maintained and visually appealing, so too will passionate boaters with their boats.”
The economic downturn seems to have caused an upward spike in business at Alameda Canvas and Coverings in Alameda, Calif. The company’s workload has more than doubled in recent months.
“We have many loyal customers with big boats, and many suddenly want to start new projects,” co-owner Jeff Viehmeyer says. “They want full enclosures so they can entertain on flybridges and dodgers so guests are comfortable sailing on a windy day. The reasoning seems to be that they already have the boat, might as well use it. So they will forgo expensive vacations or other toys and make the boat the centerpiece of fun with family and friends.”
People are anxious about the economy, but they are still willing to spend money on their boats if they decide it’s worth it. They want work done quickly. They want it done “their way” by someone they can trust.
“A nice boat project suddenly becomes ‘comfort food’,” Viehmeyer says, “and they really enjoy the process if we make it fun. Interestingly, there is not much price resistance, even on expensive jobs, if they feel the project is worth it.”
The lesson? Make value and customer service your top priorities. Make the project process fun. You will see repeat business and referrals go up accordingly—lousy economy or not.
“One person told me he had lost 50 percent of his investments on paper,” Viehmeyer says, “but a boat was something he could see and enjoy. Plus, this was the time of life he had planned to invest in his dream boat, and he wasn’t going to wait 10 more years for the market to come back.
“That’s a good attitude for a shop to have,” he adds. “You’re helping people with their dreams.”
When you’re worried about selling, thinking about upselling may seem like pie-in-the-sky fantasy.
Clark has a different view. “Upselling is definitely still possible in this market. It’s about identifying the customer’s needs and priorities and positioning the benefits of higher-quality products.”
Viehmeyer echoes the sentiment. “Every project is important in these challenging times, both for you and your customers,” he says. “Responsible upselling will educate your customers and offer them options they were not aware of, solutions that will give them a better outcome and will be more profitable for you. It’s all about adding extra value to your projects.”
Upselling starts with engaging the customer to gauge their level of commitment. Is this a short-term fix or a longer-term solution?
“If they are interested in a long-term solution, then an upsell is certainly a possibility,” Clark says. “Find out what they like and dislike about their current canvas. For instance, if the owner of a sport fisher is concerned about distortion in their glass, then they just baited your hook for a composite glass product like Makrolon or EZ2CY. So reel ‘em in.”
Get your name out there
In a troubled economy, marketing is more important than ever. Fortunately, marketing doesn’t have to be expensive, especially if you can team up with complementary local businesses like marinas and boat dealers.
Clark shared some grassroots marketing strategies that have been effective for Signature CanvasMakers. Though the company has been in business since 2005, it has been under that name in the Hampton area for less than a year.
“As a relatively small canvas shop, we’ve had to look for the most efficient, cost-effective ways to build name recognition and attract new clients,” Clark says. “When the customer decides to look for canvas, we want our name to be the first one they see.”
One good example of how small efforts can pay off big: In January 2009, Signature CanvasMakers created a simple in-house promotional flier offering a 10-percent preseason discount. Total printing cost was about $100. They approached several local marinas and asked them to insert the flier in their next mailer.
The result? Thousands of dollars in revenue—a return on investment of 5,000 percent.
Signature CanvasMakers executed other ongoing promotional efforts that included:
- Conducting educational seminars for local sailing clubs on canvas maintenance
- Providing promotional products to the city marina to put in new-resident welcome packets
- Sponsoring local events
- Attending community networking opportunities
Another thing you might want to try is expanding your mental definition of “marketing.” Remember, whenever you take extra time to answer a customer’s question or help somebody out—customer or not—you are planting a seed that can blossom into a long-term relationship.
Viehmeyer attributes some of his shop’s success to cultivating relationships one person at a time. Alameda Canvas and Coverings has a reputation, he says, as “a fun place to drop in” and as “the go-to shop for the best product advice and friendly, honest service.
“We help people out with small things when we can,” Viehmeyer says. “It comes back to us in goodwill from unexpected places. For instance, we did some favors for the owners of some large local boat dealerships, and they are suddenly selling boats and we’re getting all their canvas work. Three large projects in a week.”
Never forget, of course, that it is much easier to retain a current or already-interested customer than to entice a new one. When business slowed last fall, Chris Ritsema and Cindy Boersema at The Nautical Needle in Holland, Mich., made it a habit to follow up every quote and invoice with a phone call.
“We ask people with finished projects if they’re happy, if there’s anything we can improve,” Ritsema says. “The shops that last the longest are the ones that keep their word—people talk on the docks. I’m guessing that 65 percent of our advertising is word of mouth.”
The follow-up calls were effective. Last spring was the busiest spring The Nautical Needle has ever had.
Think outside your box
Albert Einstein defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. If your business is struggling, take a hard look at how you’re operating now. What could you change in order to improve customer service, expand or add value to your range of services, extend your geographic reach, or become more visible in the community?
“We really try to look for unique ways to make an impact with our guests,” Clark says. “Things like providing images of their boat with its new canvas on a magnet in a frame (an idea from another MFA member) or showcasing their boat in our shop and on our website helps set up apart and make us memorable.”
When asked what Custom Covers in Salt Lake City, Utah, has changed about its business practices to adjust to the difficult economy, owner Justin Jones replies, “Quite a bit.”
The biggest change the company has made is creating a mobile canvas shop.
“We’ve started traveling longer distances to do canvas,” Jones says. “We targeted a specific area, Lake Powell, that didn’t have any canvas shops or canvas people. There is one canvas shop that’s affiliated with the concessionaire, but they can’t do private jobs.”
So Custom Covers got the necessary permit and started making the five-hour drive once a month.
“That has proved to be quite successful for us,” Jones says. In the short term, the change is keeping Custom Covers busy despite slumping sales from boat dealers. In the long term, the mobile canvas shop will expand the company’s sales and overall profitability.
“We’ve gained the new sales in other areas and kept our sales volume steady, so that when the new boat sales rebound, we’ll be able to add that to the other stuff we’ve gained,” Jones says.
Maybe a mobile canvas shop isn’t for you. But the success of Custom Covers’s mobile expansion should still prompt you to consider that most crucial of factors: location, location, location. How’s your presence in cyberspace, for example? Do you have a website? If so, do you use it to showcase your customers’ boat projects?
“We have good visibility from our website and it gets a lot of hits,” Viehmeyer says.
Also consider your physical location. Alameda Canvas and Coverings recently moved to a different location in a busy marina with a boatyard. Now that the shop is more visible, more colleagues in the marine business are sending customers its way for canvas.
Finally, how’s your reachability?
“I find that people really like a live person on the phone that can answer questions and help them,” Viehmeyer observes. “I switched to a phone setup that lets me answer as many calls as possible directly, even if I’m out on a job. I decided it was better to be interrupted than to have lots of messages to return. People often make plans to meet me right on the first call, without doing comparison shopping. People today don’t like to wait once they decide to move.”
To help your business thrive, make it easy for customers to find you.
Try to keep your cool despite the financial doom-and-gloom on the evening news. People are always going to have boats, and as long as people have boats, they are going to need maintenance and upgrades. With that said, marine shops can’t afford to be complacent. If there’s one lesson to be learned from the current economic challenges, it is that businesses must constantly adapt and take action in order to be successful.
“Never quit changing your process,” Ritsema advises. “Never think you’ve got it down to an art. Always continue to improve your standards.
Jones reminds shop owners to remember the basics.
“Don’t forget the customer service and don’t lower prices,” advises Jones. “You’re always going to be able to find somebody who’s willing to pay for quality.”