Dean Smith, Chief Commercial Officer of Greece-headquartered marina group, D-Marin, explains how digitisation is enabling and driving customer service in his company
What attracted you to working in the marine industry?
I started sailing from an early age when I became aware of Rother Valley Country Park in South Yorkshire, a redevelopment of an open cast coal mine. I would ride there on my bicycle and see this little sailing club emerging there. As a kid I found things that I could help with and eventually someone asked if I would like a go – that’s how I started.
Windsurfing followed in my teenage years; we also used to sail on a boat owned by a friend of my father. Then life took over and I focused on my career which commenced within UK tourism. Later the opportunity came to transfer what I’d learned into the marine industry by joining MDL Marinas.
Although it was more than two decades ago, we were creating innovative solutions for marinas, such as the historic dockyard at Chatham on the UK’s River Medway. We installed the first floating toilet and shower block, connecting it to black water pipes and the gas supply. Our efforts at Chatham Maritime Marina were nominated for a Honda Environmental Award for the sensitivity of the work we had done.
After 18 years at MDL, I moved to British Marine as its Commercial Director and then returned to the world of marinas by taking up the role of Chief Commercial Officer of D-Marin in 2020.
Addressing the question of why I am so attracted to working in the industry – it is the opportunities that are available. I have a fantastic occupation within outdoor leisure dealing with discerning clients who want to have a great time. The sector itself is very traditional in many ways, but it's also a very dynamic and innovative environment too. Sailing boats can be classical with wooden hulls and cloth sails, or boats can be super-fast foilers, multi-fuelled, built of advanced composites and so on. This sector has absolutely everything anybody could offer in terms of innovation and pioneering new technologies with the ability to offer amazing levels of service and experience real team spirit.
Tell us about your business?
D-Marin is a well-known group of marinas originally centred in the Eastern Mediterranean but with locations now further west in Italy and east in the UAE; some were acquired, and some built. Our objective is select premium marinas that can create a tangible network, something that customers can interact with across multiple regions, creating real choice for our clients. If they want to be slightly adventurous and sail in different areas they can with the security, knowledge, understanding and trust in a dependable marina partner.
We pride ourselves on being a premium offering and have a very clear focus on NPS (Net Promoter Score – an objective service level measurement) within our company. Customer satisfaction is super high on our agenda. We don’t just say we are five star. Everybody from the chief executive down to the newest starters in our marinas has a bonus opportunity based on their abilities to improve the NPS score.
Customer service is engineered into the day-to-day operation of our business and NPS is targeted, monitored, and actioned through a continual process of improvement. Our NPS score is fantastic, on average 42 across the group. We challenge every single process to give customers an effortless experience so that they will recommend you to their friends, which is the biggest accreditation that you can ask for.
Underpinning this we have introduced a common Microsoft Dynamics-based platform across our marinas with transparency across all regions and in all currencies. This includes a Customer Voice module enabling us to continually feed into our service level data. As an example, if a prospective customer makes a berth enquiry, they can request this directly online. The system provides it, creates the contact record and an invoice. It also then triggers Customer Voice to send a questionnaire asking how we did, which feeds into the NPS.
This systematic and predictable approach to measuring NPS is just one example of the many innovations that are core to our efforts here.
What interesting trends are you seeing in the industry?
Most obviously, our sector is enjoying popularity that we've not seen since the mid-2000s. Marinas are seeing high demand from a lot of new clients, with the pandemic making many aware of the benefits of wellness that boating can provide.
As a business, the strongest trend we are seeing is that customers are responding quickly to the technology we are introducing. We’ve introduced a system directly accessible from our website that is like a fully functioning hotel reservation tool – not just a contact form. This system is fed with data that tells it when berths are available and for how long. That means it can show customers a map with the available berths and purchase their choice. Payment is taken online, an invoice is issued and a package of information arrives containing all the things you need to know – arrival protocol, useful locations such as the whereabouts of bathrooms, what time the restaurants are open, a map, codes and WiFi. The system tells the marina team about fully paid impending arrivals and we have full real-time visibility of occupancy and other business data.
We introduced the booking system into Greece early last year before rolling it out in Croatia and then Turkey. It was a soft launch that was only promoted towards the end of the year. Nearly one third of 30 of our reservations for 2022 were made through the system just by placing a button on the website.
We’ve learned that we have one group of customers within our network that love to self-serve in this way, making their choices and doing everything online without talking to anyone. There is a different group that want to interact with someone who is proactive, pleasant, and efficient – someone who hasn’t got to apologise for a slow running computer or poor system. We must make sure that we can serve everybody's wants, needs, wishes, and demands of how they like to interact.
Behind all of that is our move to digitisation. We believe that way we have embraced new technologies has resulted in the improvement of our retention rate, despite recent inflationary pressures.
At D-Marin we’re taking that push to managing everything about your boat at your fingertips to next levels. In September last year we acquired Sense4Boat, an Internet of Things company offering remote sensing and control of the boat’s status. Customers on an annual contract get a pack of monitoring sensors for free. In February of this year, we launched our own smart power pedestal system to enable remote control of a boat’s shorepower connection for berthholders in any of our marinas. Due to the variety of equipment involved, our only pathway for this was to custom develop a solution.
Digitisation contributes to our aim of ensuring customers enjoy the easiest, most effortless experience. It makes our staff look like superheroes and enables our customers to understand that we've anticipated every challenge and problem that they might be concerned about.
In terms of other common marina industry talking points, we’ve yet to see demand for serving electrically propelled boats that we cannot meet with our own existing supply system. The emergence of many different low volume production electric boats and connection methods makes it sensible to wait until demand and requirement is clear.
We are however more mindful of the increasing number of severe weather events and potential damage that can be inflicted as a result on marinas and boats, even in historically benign locations. The robustness and quality of infrastructure is an important consideration in our procurement decisions.
What is the importance of METSTRADE to your business?
METSTRADE is one of the ultimate networking moments in the year, particularly thanks to all the satellite events that take place such as The Superyacht Forum, ICOMIA and TYHA meetings. The timing is great – summer is over, we've done our budgets and can meet in Amsterdam to start talking about our plans for next year. It also allows us to network with suppliers and brief them about our requirements for up to five years ahead, so that they can start to plan for what they might need to do. As a catalyst for business acceleration that is invaluable.
How do you plan a typical METSTRADE visit?
It’s very helpful that the dates are so predictable, and the location is easily accessed. I start by contacting my collaborators – anyone I need to catch up with because I can rely on the fact that they will be visiting on at least one of the days. Then I look at which events I want to attend – that way I can make the most of my visit. If I have any gaps, I look for opportunities to speak to somebody who can help me develop my thoughts about our business.
Which METSTRADE areas and activities do you most look forward to?
We are looking for ways to innovate, whether that’s a new pontoon system an electricity bollard or an LED lighting system. These are the things we most look forward to finding. That’s why I use the term ‘collaborators’ for the companies we work with because they are the means of making our customers’ experience better and they help us deliver new solutions in the face of environmental challenges.
I want to share my problem solving. Each season we all come across problems we thought we had anticipated, but they caught us by surprise. METSTRADE offers a great gathering of the problem-solving community – we want to learn more about that innovative thinking to solve problems that we haven't seen before.
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