Mathew Rice was frustrated last year when he couldn’t find anyone near his Fremont, Ohio, home who could make an enclosure for his Maxum 2800 Sport Cruiser without at least a three-month wait. So Rice decided to purchase the necessary equipment, get some training and do the job himself. “I told my wife, ‘I’m going to try this, I think I can do it,’” Rice says.
When he was finished, Rice showed off the work at his local marina. “Everybody wondered who had done the enclosure,” he says. “They all thought it looked really nice. When I told them I had done it, people started asking, ‘Can you fix a zipper for me?’ ‘Do you think you can put a door extension on my enclosure?’
“I did a couple of jobs, people liked what I was doing and they told other people,” Rice says.
And thus MR Canvas and Upholstery was born.
While Rice is now a full-time marine fabricator, he readily admits he still has a lot to learn. Even so, he has clearly picked up what so many veteran fabricators know to be critical to their business—word-of-mouth marketing.
Old-fashioned but effective
There’s no doubt that the internet, and particularly social media, continues to cause seismic shifts in the way all kinds of products and services are marketed. But in the world of marine fabrication, even those who embrace the online universe believe that old-fashioned word of mouth—direct from customer to potential customer, no keyboard involved—remains critical to their success.
The rub, of course, is that word of mouth is a double-edged sword. If your work and your customer service falls short, word of mouth is not going to do you much good. In fact, it might just put you out of business.
“I know that customers who are happy talk to four or five other people,” Rice notes. “But customers who are upset will talk to 10 or 20.”
Good word of mouth grows first from quality work, according to many fabricators.
“It’s our reputation for doing quality work that means the most to our customers,” explains Mark Hood, owner of Hood Canvas LLC in Merrimac, Mass. “Delivering an absolute top-notch product is the most important thing in keeping customers happy and getting them to pass the word.”
“Customers tell me that it is harder and harder to find good people they trust to do good work,” adds Kathy Day, who runs Short Corner Tackle, a marine upholstery business in Surfside Beach, Texas. “If customers trust you and your work, they’ll stick with you, and they’ll tell others.”
Even when a company emphasizes quality work, customers can end up unhappy, for numerous reasons. What’s important, fabricators say, is figuring out what it takes to make things right.
Jumping on complaints
“If we have the slightest complaint, we jump on it immediately,” says Katie Bradford, MFC, IFM, who has owned Custom Marine Canvas in Noank, Conn., for 32 years. “We look at the job through the customer’s eyes. If there is anything we missed, or didn’t take care of, we handle it right away and make it right.”
For example, Bradford says, “We had a customer who brought in a panel for repair. The panel broke when he was putting it on his boat. It didn’t break while it was at our shop, but he thought the clear vinyl should have been replaced. So we replaced it and didn’t charge him for our labor.”
“That’s the right thing to do,” Bradford says, “but we also know that means a lot to the customer, and we hope they will talk to others about it.”
Such practices can generate more than positive word of mouth. The week after Bradford replaced the customer’s panel, he came back into Bradford’s shop with more work for her.
“When it comes to customer service, we try to live by the golden rule—we treat our customers the way we want to be treated,” says Justin Jones, who operates Sewlong Custom Covers in Salt Lake City, Utah.
“If someone comes in for a repair and the canvas has our logo on it, it doesn’t matter if it is something we did inadequately or their kids ripped it, we never charge them for it,” Jones says. “We don’t nickel and dime them.”
“That solidifies the relationship for later on down the road,” Jones says. “And those are the people who tell their friends what happened.”
“I like to make sure customers are pleased with me when I do something,” explains Liz Diaz, who has operated North Beach Marine Canvas in San Francisco, Calif., since 1986. “And if they are, they will share what I’ve done with their friends at the yacht clubs and their neighbors.”
The role of social media
Because many fabricators work in a defined geographic area—such as a marina or yacht club—word of mouth can be easy and informal. In addition, says Diaz, “Boat shows are also an excellent place to have a booth so customers can come by and introduce their fellow boaters.”
To reach out beyond those immediate audiences, however, takes other tools. It used to be the Yellow Pages. These days, increasingly, it’s social media.
But not all fabricators put the same emphasis on social media.
Diaz, for example, believes that social media is not the best way to interact with her customers. Part of the reason, she says, is that people looking for information online are often shopping for price. “The first question on social media often is, ‘How much does it cost?’ I really don’t have a ‘thing’ with a price tag on it. I build things, so it doesn’t work for me.”
“Anything our industry is selling is pretty much an investment,” she adds. “We’re not a quantitative business, like vitamin drinks or something like that, where you are trying to sell as many of them as possible. That seems more appropriate to the social media world than what we do.”
While Sewlong’s Jones agrees that social media may not serve all fabricators well as a direct sales tool, he believes social media outlets such as Facebook do have a purpose.
“I don’t really like to see people advertise to me on Facebook, so I don’t like to do it, either,” he says. “Facebook is supposed to be fun and
entertaining, so our Facebook page is more about families, our niche in the market. I want it to show something fun and interesting, not ‘buy my product.’”
In Hood’s experience, Facebook can offer more information than a website, a place for people to see “more photos, more recent things and the interaction you’ve had with customers. I think it keeps us on people’s minds.”
Custom Marine Canvas doesn’t use Facebook, but Bradford says the company has found Instagram to be a valuable tool for showcasing photos of its recent work.
Work can come quickly
Fabricators who do the right things when it comes to quality work, customer service and taking advantage of word of mouth may find themselves with more business than they can handle. Even as a newly minted fabricator, MR Canvas’s Rice says he already has a backlog of three months of work.
Wait a second, though. Isn’t Rice the guy who started his business because he didn’t want to wait three months for his enclosure?
Yup, Rice admits, the irony is not lost on him.
Before he jumped into canvas work with both feet, Rice says, “I just couldn’t bring anyone else on board to help, because I couldn’t be there to train them. But now that I am working at it full time, I put an ad on my website for a sewist. Reducing my turnaround time is definitely important to me. I don’t want unhappy customers.”
Yes, he has learned a thing or two about the business.
Jeff Moravec is a freelance writer from Minneapolis, Minn.