For those of you that know me, you will know that before starting cruising full time five years ago I owned and ran an alternative energy distribution business that had a minor focus on supplying components to marine electrical shops across the US and Canada. Unlike our industrial application and home solar installers, I was shocked at how so many marine electrical shops took advantage of their customers.
One evening at an industry conference, I was sitting with a few of my customers enjoying a few beers. When one of my industrial installers asked a large marine customer of ours, “How do you quote an install on a boat? I’m guessing all boats are very different, and the scope of work varies a great deal.” “In industrial applications it’s easy we can put the same core system into just about every job we get, so quoting is easy.” he went onto say.
My jaw dropped when I heard the response, which was something along the lines of ‘It’s all based on the ability to pay. I take a look at what the job entails, then I take a look at the boat itself. I have a look in the galley, do I see marine chandlery bought plates and cleaning products? I always try to get the owner to meet me at the boat. I look at how well he or she is dressed, and how particular they are about their boat. Even better, I get to see what car they drive. All of this builds a picture of what kind of quote I’ll give’.
‘A small sailing boat with lots of DIY work around the boat, I’ll know to quote at the low side of the scale. A nice new Hallberg-Rassy with every known marine gadget and product, with a guy who climbs out of his Porsche and shows up in designer jeans, my quote tends to go on the high end of the scale. Then for a guy who is pedantic about his boat, I’ll have him expand the scope of work by putting fear in his mind. I’ll point out every minor issue in the electrical system, even if they are not really real issues, just less than perfect. Fear and doubt sell, I’ll get him to the point he is asking me to take care of these issues as well’.
One after the other some other marine shop owners started to chime in. None as bad as the first or in as great detail. One guy said he loved being called to install washing machines on boats as he could turn a washing machine install on a new boat owner’s boat into a new high capacity inverter install, a new AC panel install, with rewiring of the AC electrical system. Then if he was lucky, just as the job was winding down, he could swing the owner into another big upgrade such as solar or a new chart plotter.
Another key takeaway was that if a customer came to the first guy’s shop as a referral from one of his high-end quote clients, he would know his high-end quote didn’t really hurt as much as he first thought, for the guy to refer a fellow boat owner or friend. This would give him a license to give the guy who came via referral an equally high quote and the opportunity to go looking for more add-on work.
Those of us not in the marine business listened in horror. For our industrial business-to-business companies, customer acquisition involved giving a competitive quote and then hoping we were chosen based on our business reputation and fair quote as our industrial clients would all ask for multiple quotes often in blind tender format. We had no opportunity for more work or quote padding.
How to Protect Yourself From Being Ripped Off By Marine Electrical Shops
Get Multiple Quotes
There is far less chance of quote padding if you tell the person quoting that you have or will be seeking multiple quotes. Make the shop write on their quote that they won’t go over hours or wiring/ consumables by more than 10-20%. This will prevent underquoting and then padding of hours and consumables.
If a friend tells you how happy they are with a certain shop. Don’t have them refer you. Make certain not to name drop during the quote process.
You Decide on the Brand of Major Components
Many marine electrical shops will almost exclusively install products that give them the greatest amount of markup potential. If you like the idea of a certain brand of Chartplotter, inverter, or electronics suite and are talked into a competing system ask the owner when last they installed your first choice system. If it’s more than a month or two ago, chances are high that the shop has a financial incentive to push one brand over another. Ask for a very good reason why they favor one brand over the other.
Marine electrical shops are rewarded for being loyal to one brand of electronics, inverters, batteries, sat TV systems, etc. The higher their purchase volumes, the higher the discount band the dealer moves into. The difference between the shop installing the inverter that gives them the greatest discount and your choice of inverter may be as high as 50% off of MSRP.
If you are being pushed to choose a brand of components that are not your first choice. Make it clear that you only want brand X. Check to make sure the quote isn’t inflated in other areas by switching brands.
Hold Their Feet to The Fire
Make sure they quote properly for the scope of work, insist on a maximum number of our hours over quotation percentage. Often shops will grossly underquote and then once your boat is torn apart, come back to you with a massively inflated quote to finish the job. Make the shop quote correctly the first time around and if they are wrong, have them eat the excess for hours and wiring/ components.
Watch Out For Progressive Payments
For many large jobs, shops will ask for a 20% deposit and then progressive payments. This is normal and totally acceptable, however, make certain that the last payment doesn’t happen until you are presented with a fully closed-up boat with a working system. Often when less scrupulous shops receive their money, they lose motivation to make finishing your boat a priority and will push new jobs that are yet to pay ahead of yours.
Be on Guard For ‘More Work’
When you get shown ‘issues’ with your boat system, ask for either an ABYC reference or some other well-documented reason the system has an issue that needs fixing.
Be Very Wary of Free or Cheap Electrical System Audits
These audits often given away at boat shows are often nothing more than an excuse to get onto your boat and start hunting for faults. Quite often, these faults are real DIY jobs that need to be reinstalled correctly, unfortunately, these audits also allow the shop to grossly exaggerate deficiencies. I’ve frequently seen owners of factory new boats end up with a $10,000 bill after an electrical audit to make changes to systems that were nothing more than suggested improvements to a perfectly working electrical system.
Make Sure They Are Experts
Just because a shop is accredited as ABYC it doesn’t mean they are experts in the work you are about to have them perform. This is especially true of Lithium battery conversions. Get references from previous customers. Even that may not be enough to find out how many systems they have installed. Were they all the same brand and overall similar system architecture? Research the shop and the components the shop plans on installing in your boat.
How to Find A ‘Good’ Shop
Stick to your guns during quoting. Do your research on the job and install you are about to undertake, understand what the various components do and which brands that make these components have the best reputations. Get multiple quotes and references. Follow your gut if it looks as if you are about to be taken advantage of move on to the next shop.