Jet boats owner: Customer service is key

By Charles Kocher, Pilot staff writer February 10, 2010 09:42 am

The crowd might not have been loaded in two of his boats, but Jerry’s Rogue Jet Boats owner Bill McNair used all of the same bluster, banter and jokes with them during the recent Business Outlook Conference to get across his message.

After 37 years and some 750,000 passengers, it was clear to the audience that he knew both how to run a business and entertain a crowd.

“But you have to be very careful with your cynicism,” he warned after sidetracking to his thoughts about taxes and government regulation. “Don’t be cynical. Be nice to people and good things will happen.”

So, McNair said, he sees everyone as a potential customer and he makes customer service his primary goal.

“Running your own business is an adventure sport,” he said during the Industry Showcase presentation of the conference.  “Every day I feel like my business is a gamble. We are pushing our own money out onto the table, investing in our own business. Business is a risky adventure.”

Fresh out of college, McNair and Bo Shindler bought the business from Warren “Jerry” Boice in 1972. The next generation of the business – his sons Scott and Nic – were on stage with Bill at the conference.

“Jerry wanted  out,” he recalled. “We literally signed the contract the next day.

The business was a small ticket office, two boats at a dock in the Port of Gold Beach, and a Selectric typewriter, he recalled. When the typewriter was stolen out of his wife’s car, he was convinced to buy an IBM computer.

Despite all the information tools that have have come since, McNair said he still loads boats with a clipboard and depends on word-of-mouth recommendations from happy customers to bring new business.

“I demand perfection in customer service,” he said. “When someone is trying to give you money, never make it difficult.”

He gives his crew the authority to make that happen, rather than make them seek a manager’s decision for any odd situation. With that comes a responsibility to be “always on, always perfect” when dealing with customers.

McNair took the audience through the history of boating on the Rogue River, from the first recorded floats downriver in the 1870s, to early upriver tour boats in the 1930s, through the post-war periods when “tour boats really took off.”

The channels used for navigating the Rogue were all blasted out over the years, McNair said. “Most of the people don’t realize the Rogue River was created,” he explained. “Over the years, people have designed a channel system that we still use today.”

It was Boice and his brother who heard about jet boats and built the first ones for the Rogue, McNair said. It was in the 1960s when they put a speaker system on the boats and started to entertain passengers.

“By the ’70s when I came along, this was a crowd to entertain,” McNair said, launching into a monologue of his boat-driver stories.

“Technically,” he said when he quit joking, “in order to hear the rest you have to buy a ticket.”

Based on his experience, McNair questioned the nature-based tourism efforts that are based solely on interpretation.

“One of the things we do as a boat pilot – we have to decide how far we can take it,” he said of both the stories and the action of the ride itself.

“People want about 30 percent interpretation and the history,” he said. “What they really want is to laugh and scream. They want to scream and they want to laugh and they want a little education with it.”