Going above and beyond protects customers’ investment
At first glance, marine fabricators may not seem to have much in common with L.L. Bean, the maker of outdoor clothing and gear. Bean became an icon in the business world through its legendary customer service, and that lesson is not lost on fabricators.
Fabricators may never get asked, as Bean famously was, to replace an ancient “defective” sleeping bag that had rotted for decades in the back of an abandoned car. Yet the principle in play—keeping the customer happy by standing behind products and services—is one that many successful businesses of all sizes follow.
Many fabricators have great reputations for always standing behind their marine work. Their loyal customers give them repeat business and refer new work their way, and a formal warranty policy does not seem necessary.
Some fabricators, however, find that offering a warranty on the quality of their work is a reassurance that customers appreciate. That warranty at times will involve the warranty offered by the manufacturers of fabrics and other components. In such cases the fabricator works with the fabric or component maker on behalf of the customer when an issue occurs.
Not big, but important
Fabricators say that warranty work is not a big part of their overall operations, but it is an important one, both at the point of sale and after.
“Offering a warranty and standing behind it is just a basic way of taking care of the customer,” says Kyle VanDamme, who operates Marine Tops Unlimited in Omro, Wis., with his father, Carl VanDamme.
As the third generation of his family to oversee the 34-year-old business, the younger VanDamme says the assurance of a warranty “builds trust and serves as the basis for building a relationship with our customers.” It’s one reason, he says, that much of his business is from repeat customers.
Marine Tops provides a five-year warranty on its work, matching the warranty provided by the manufacturers of the fabrics it uses, a fact that VanDamme says is prominently advertised on signage in its showroom and at boat shows.
“Our signs tell people to ask about our warranty, because I really do think it’s a good sales tool,” VanDamme says. He also encourages customers and prospective buyers to visit Marine Tops’ website, which features detailed information about all of its fabric manufacturers, the terms of their warranties, and care and maintenance instructions.
VanDamme says the majority of Marine Tops’ warranty work is not complicated—most often the repair of a snap that has pulled out of a cover, a stitch that has unraveled, or on occasion a mend in fabric when something has poked through a cover where a reinforcement point perhaps should have been placed but wasn’t.
Building customer loyalty
Beyond taking care of such issues, VanDamme says, the best way to build customer loyalty is by not just honoring the terms of a warranty, but going above and beyond it.
If a customer shows up at Marine Tops with a cover that is a year or two out of warranty and needs minor repair work, VanDamme says, “We’ll generally take care of the problem and won’t charge the customer. That’s just good business.”
At the same time, he notes, there are limits. “We are working with a product that has a limited life. No boat cover is going to last forever,” VanDamme says. “If someone comes in with a cover that is 10 or 12 years old, we’re past the stage where we would do warranty work. But customers usually understand that.”
Gerry Richards, owner of Northwoods Marine Canvas Inc. in Minong, Wis., since 1989, also recognizes the importance of offering a warranty—but his approach is to try to do fabrication in a way that warranty work is rarely necessary.
“We’re very precise in what we do, so the material that comes back in need of warranty work is minimal,” according to Richards, who is part of a family that has been in business in the city for 120 years.
In fact, he says, most repairs that get done under the umbrella of warranty work are not related to the quality of the work or the fabric, but rather the way a product is used.
Just fix it
“We run into issues with the snaps on a pontoon cover, for example, where a boater has jerked on it and pulled the snap out, or tried to pop three or four at the same time,” Richards says. “We don’t quibble if that is covered under the warranty. We just fix it and won’t charge for something like that.”
However, Richards agrees with VanDamme that there are limits. If a product is no longer under warranty and will take a few hours to repair, the customer is usually asked to pay for the work, he says.
Mark Peterson, manager of marine products at Sugar House Awning in Salt Lake City, Utah, honors the length of each fabric manufacturer’s warranty, but offers a shorter warranty than some fabricators do on the quality of its work and fabrics that don’t offer a manufacturer’s warranty. But according to Peterson, that doesn’t mean Sugar House is any less convinced of the importance of standing behind what they sell than those who offer longer assurances.
“Our warranty is for two years,” Peterson says, “but if a cover is three years old and something goes wrong that the customer believes should have been covered under a warranty, we’ll do whatever it takes to make sure they’re happy—even if we end up taking care of some things that probably were due to neglect or misuse.”
Besides the warranty, Sugar House offers a $100 coupon to customers that they can use toward any non-warranty repairs during the first two years. “It adds value to the purchase,” Peterson says. “It’s part of our marketing.” Still, he adds, “our exposure on that is very small. Less than 5 percent of coupons ever need to be used.”
Importance of fabric quality
Peterson also says he minimizes the need to do warranty work by paying careful attention to the quality of the fabrics used by Sugar House.
“We try to steer away from anything that might not meet its factory warranty,” Peterson explains. “I don’t feel I’m truly taking care of the customer if I don’t help them pick out the right material. I’ve been in this business for 28 years, so I have a good idea of the track record of materials used in each particular application in this climate. A bad product with a long warranty doesn’t do anybody any good.”
Peterson adds.“Customer satisfaction is our top priority. We want our customers to feel that they are being treated fairly, whether it’s part of the terms of a warranty or beyond that.”
In return, Peterson says, “Our customers treat us fairly too. If we’re good and reasonable with our customers, we find that they are good and reasonable with us.” They’re not the kind of customers, he has found, who would try to return a tattered sleeping bag.
Jeff Moravec is a freelance writer from Minneapolis, Minn.
While warranty work may not take up much time for most marine fabricators, any kind of repair work is something business owners and customers prefer to avoid. Repair work takes time out of everyone’s busy day and keeps customers off the water.
While warranty repairs can’t be eliminated, they can be minimized. How? The better a fabric is maintained and cared for, the fewer issues it will have.
“We have a care and cleaning pamphlet we hand out with all of our covers, but we also go through it with the customer,” says Mark Peterson, manager of marine products at Sugar House Awning in Salt Lake City, Utah. Sugar House, like many fabricators, also devotes space on its website to care and cleaning instructions.
Particularly important, Peterson says, is making sure the customer understands the need to keep fabrics clean and dry when a boat is stored. “Customers understand how something sharp can put a hole in a cover, but they often don’t think about how a dirty or wet cover can quickly get mold problems.”
Here’s more advice for customers from Kyle VanDamme of Marine Tops Unlimited in Omro, Wis.:
- “Keep your new upholstery clean, conditioned, and protected. Clean regularly, with the correct conditioner for the fabrics to make them last longer. Use a protectant product to keep fabric shielded from harmful UV rays. Cover with a boat cover or if the upholstery is in a cockpit with an enclosure, use cheap bed sheets to drape over the top to keep the sun off.
- “Keep canvas and isinglass clean and free of dirt and debris. When you wash your boat or use any other chemicals around it, make sure to thoroughly rinse any isinglass that may have gotten overspray from anything like boat wash soap. These soap suds can dry and bake into isinglass and cause yellowing. Follow the proper maintenance guidelines set by the manufacturer.”