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Customer communication

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Market conditions have been tough the past few years, prompting boat owners to search for the best value for their money. “The consumer today is not just picking up the phone and calling one person, they’re going to call three,” says Peter Douglas, sales manager, Recasens USA. Douglas advises fabricators to distinguish themselves from their competition.

The best way to do that? “Uncover your customer’s end-use and expectations,” says Tom Koster, marine products manager for Tri Vantage. “What do they want out of a finished product? That will pretty much tell you which fabric you ought to be using.”

Chris Ritsema, owner of Canvas Innovations in Holland, Mich., uses active listening to decipher his customers’ needs. “When I meet with a customer, I’m going to listen to find out what they’re after,” he says.

What questions does the fabricator need to ask in order to find the optimal fabric choice for a particular project?

How long do you plan to keep the boat? The answer speaks to durability and the fabric’s warranty. If the plan is to keep it only for a short time, the owner may prefer a lower-cost fabric. If the plan is to keep it for the long term, the owner will need a high-performance fabric. Adding performance characteristics typically translates into higher costs.

Where is the boat when not in use? Is it in a slip, on a trailer, covered, uncovered? Humidity will be an issue for any boat that’s on the water. If the boat is stored on a trailer, is it in an uncovered area like a parking lot? Is it under trees where it will collect leaves, nuts, fruit or animal droppings? Is it downwind from any source of airborne contaminants, such as crop-dusting or industrial emissions?

What’s the local climate? If the temperature varies significantly during the year, then laminates and vinyls may not be best. If it’s hot and humid, then use a breathable fabric. If there is a lot of rain and snow, use a fabric that’s waterproof or water repellent. If it’s generally hot, then a light color cover may be more comfortable than a dark one.

How often is the boat used and to what purpose? Frequent, heavy recreational use will call for a durable, easy-to-clean, stain-resistant fabric. If the project is a cover that will be taken off each time the boat is used, then the fabric shouldn’t be difficult to handle or store. If the boat will be towed to the water with the cover in place, then an abrasion-resistant fabric with high tensile and tear strength will be appropriate.

Will the cover be stored on the boat or in a dock-box? Look for fabrics that aren’t easily creased and are mildew resistant.

What if the customer has a specific fabric in mind? Talk with them about why they requested it. They may have used it before or heard about it from a friend. Through careful questioning, the customer will identify certain performance characteristics they are looking for: the fabric lasted a long time, there were no mold or mildew issues, the color didn’t fade. Then, talk about how the customer will use the boat to see if that fabric will be the best choice. Although they requested a specific fabric, the fabricator can steer them to the best value selection for their boat.

How often does the boat owner clean the covers? Darker colors don’t show dirt as quickly as lighter colors. Smooth textures are easier to clean.

“Bear in mind that the more you clean your canvas, the more you’re going to have maintenance issues,” Ritsema says. Will the boat owner reapply treatments to restore water repellency, UV resistance and other attributes?

Mary Jo Morris previously owned and operated Berkeley Marine Canvas in Berkeley, Calif. She and her husband, Jim, live in Point Richmond, Calif., and sail on San Francisco Bay.

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