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Report Card

Lead Line — October 2001
By Richard Thiel

Report Card
Builders should have a zero-tolerance policy.

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• J.D. Power & Associates

Regular readers of this column know that I occasionally use it to rail about the state of customer service in the boating business. Well, actually I don’t rail–I’m merely the messenger. Almost every month PMY hears from readers describing everything from minor service gripes to flat-out horror stories. More disturbing is that over the past few years, their frequency has increased, leading me to suspect that the general level of service throughout the boating business is decreasing.

Nearly every time I write about service I get a return salvo from dealers and industry representatives decrying my negativity and assuring me that there is no problem–but if there is, it’s getting better. We all just need to be a little more patient. Well, patience is fine until you’re the one who’s sitting on the dock some Friday afternoon with family, friends, and an engine that won’t start, and you’ve been told no one can get to you for a week.

Clearly my opinion on this subject is based mainly on anecdotes, and just as clearly, someone who is the victim of poor service is more likely to write than someone who enjoys prompt, affordable service. But even if that’s true, builders who are selling to people paying a quarter-million dollars and up–PMY’s core audience–should have nothing short of a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to service problems.

There is also evidence from another source that perhaps things are not all they should be in the boat-service world. In July J.D. Power & Associates, best known for its customer-satisfaction rankings of automobiles, released its first-ever rankings for boats. The results have limited applicability to PMY readers, since they cover brands between 16 and 26 feet (the median boat length for PMY readers’ primary boat is about 34 feet), but they nevertheless should concern you.

The study found a direct correlation between complaints and boat cost: The higher the price, the fewer the reported problems. Contrast that with Power’s 2000 study on initial quality in the automotive industry. In eight of the 14 segments surveyed, Toyota products ranked first. These did include pricey Lexus models, but also earning top honors were the low-priced Corolla and midpriced Sienna. Apparently the automotive industry has found a way to make quality a philosophical rather than an economic proposition.

Frank Forkin, who oversees Power’s surveys for boats, also told Soundings Trade Only that a third of all reported problems were engine-related, specifically hard starting, rough idle, stalling, and lack of power. That latter complaint was supposedly related to buyers selecting less-powerful engines to save money, but I wondered about the others, so I called a few service people from some of the major builders and dealers. Most claimed that such engine-related complaints account for about half of all consumer complaints and pointed out that in terms of severity, they presented a far greater challenge for obvious reasons. Many also took the opportunity to complain that in many cases, it was the engine companies’ (or more accurately their distributors’) lack of timely response to these problems that led to dissatisfied customers. True or not, dealerships are by no means blameless. Indeed, Forkin cites dealer service as a prime problem area among boaters, which again contrasts with the automotive arena where although Lexus again ranks first, Saturn comes in second, and Daewoo is fourth.

I don’t mean to imply that bad service is epidemic. The vast majority of our readers seem satisfied with how they’re being treated. But there does seem to be a small and apparently growing minority who are not. The fact that this trend runs counter to that of the automotive industry, where both initial quality and service have been steadily improving over the last decade, should concern anyone who owns or plans to buy a boat.

This article originally appeared in the January 2003 issue of Power & Motoryacht magazine.

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