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Opinion: When do we change because it’s the right thing to do?

Opinion: When do we change because it’s the right thing to do?

By Brian Wilkins
Immediate Past Chairman, RV Dealers Association

My time as your chairman of the board is winding down, but before I pass the gavel, I want to leave you with some thoughts regarding the state of the RV industry.

I can certainly say that the last year, as your RVDA chairman has been an amazing experience in which I’ve learned a lot. The greatest benefit that comes from this type of experience are the people you meet and the friendships you develop.

It’s been an outstanding year for many of us. By and large, business is good and the long-term prospects for our industry seem to be very promising. Interest rates remain favorable, the economy has been consistent and the election is FINALLY over! RV popularity is as high as it’s ever been.

As an industry, we have done an amazing job bringing innovative products to market that appeal to new buyers, and are more appealing to past buyers. But where we have excelled at bringing more innovation, more design and an enhanced look to products, we have failed at developing the back end systems necessary to support our customers and their products.

For those of you who attended the convention last year, you may recall a story I told as I accepted the gavel from past chairman John McCluskey. I shared a story about some customers of ours. They had recently purchased a new fifth wheel.

They had previously owned four fifth wheels – two of which they had to trade in because they had slideout issues that never got resolved. For a time, decided to quit RVing.

After deciding to “give this another try,” they were all set to come pickup their new fifth wheel. Unfortunately, during their pre delivery inspection, we had encountered a slideout issue which made them very hesitant to continue with the purchase of the RV.

Well, there’s an ending to this story, and unfortunately, it wasn’t a happy ending. After eight months of ownership  and after numerous trips to the service center in which each one ended in frustration over one issue or another, our customer’s approached me in August and asked if we would place their vehicle on consignment and help them get rid of it.

In late September, we sold the vehicle for them, and they have decided to exit the RV industry.

Now this may be just one story, but too often, these failures are negatively affecting the experiences of our customers. Too often, these failures are causing our customers to LEAVE the lifestyle we are trying to market.

If we truly want to grow this industry to a 500,000-600,000 unit industry, we will need to change the way we do business. Supporting our products needs to become just as important as building and selling our products.

Next month RVDA will publish the full aggregate results of the Dealer Satisfaction Index in RV Executive Today, but I want to share with you some overall DSI results in this area to illustrate the point.

Unfortunately, after several years of improvement, both overall towable manufacturer ratings and aggregate dealer scores for parts and warranty support plateaued and are now going in the wrong direction. The trend is the same for motorhome manufacturers.

Now aggregate scores don’t tell the whole story, because individual manufacturers can outperform the average. But, I think we can agree it’s not a good trend. So what can we do?

Thankfully, our industry partners seem willing to work together to improve the situation. This year, RVDA and RVDA of Canada dealer leaders have met with manufacturers, suppliers, and RV Industry Association staff to begin the discussion on these complex supply chain issues that impact parts availability and interfere with our customers’ satisfaction with the overall RV experience.

We need to work on clear action items and provide guidance on ways to improve the parts supply and service process.

Let me provide a quick example. Jim Collins, author of “Good to Great,” would refer to this as a big hairy audacious goal (BHAG), or a longer term vision that we should be seeing for our industry.

Imagine a day when all manufacturers provide a web portal for dealer only access. Our parts personnel would access that portal and enter the VIN number of the vehicle you are servicing. Parts personnel are then taken to a web-page that provides all types of details for that vehicle: specifications, options, original manufacturer’s suggested retail price, any recall information, and a bill of materials.

Parts personnel scroll the bill of materials searching for the part they need. Once found, they click on the part to access it. Parts personnel are taken to a page for that part, containing pictures and information regarding price and availability. Parts person verifies it is the correct part, and drops it into their shopping cart to complete the order.

Is this a better way to service our customers? Is it doable?

It may not be easy, but it is — and it’s the type of vision that I feel we as an industry need to be aiming for.

Yesterday, our keynote speaker, Ryan Estes, used the acronym DYOB — disrupt your own business. He talked about how big changes need to be made during good times. As I mentioned above, as an industry we HAVE been talking about the issues. But is that enough? Are we truly doing enough to disrupt our business?

I don’t think we are, and I know many of you agree. I had someone ask me the other day, why, when dealers are selling more than they’ve ever sold, manufacturers are building more than they’ve ever built and suppliers are at capacity, what’s the incentive to change?

My answer at what point do we change simply because it’s the right thing to do?

We are in this business because we love the memories and the experiences that our customers gain from the products we sell. None of us want to sell RVs simply to have our customers come back eight months later asking us to help them sell their vehicles. That’s not enjoyable for any of us, and it’s not good for the industry.

Many of you have been around long enough to know that previous efforts in this area have not had the desired impact, despite the best intentions of all involved. But there seems to be a growing recognition that this post-sale service failure in our industry creates a risk to all of us because others would be more than happy to take our customers’ discretionary dollars.

In addition to the damage we are doing to our industry’s reputation, what about the money and precious time we are all wasting through an inefficient process? Just as many of us have invested in training and better dealer management systems for our employees, there is a business case to be made for improving the supply chain process.

We are selling wonderful products that help so many families build memories and experiences that are irreplaceable. The opportunity we have before us is WAY too great for us to waste.

I just hope as an industry that we agree — and that we can continue to come together  — to work toward a future that allows us to achieve our fullest potential!

Brian Wilkins is the immediate past chairman of the RV Dealers Association. He is also the president of Wilkins RV in Bath, N.Y.

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About Greg Gerber

Greg Gerber is a freelance writer and podcaster who has been writing about the RV industry since 2000. He is the former editor of RV Daily Report.


  1. Great op/ed piece and it’s great that someone at least “near the top” is calling out the industry. As one said above, more dealers and company CEOs need to ramp up their Testicular Fortitude and step up and do something about it. I’ve said on more than one public forum that if the manufacturers would slow down their lines by just a few units a day, their quality would likely go up more than enough (and warranty claims down) to offset any “lost opportunities” of not having more units to sell. Also, if supply goes down for a certain model, there is less incentive for a dealer to discount that model, so profits go up; basic Econ 101. The fact that the RV industry as a whole is simply a mish-mosh of dealers, with zero cohesiveness or cooperation between them, is part and parcel of the way they are treated by the various manufacturers. If even ONE major manufacturer would adopt an automotive-style sales/service model, sharing inventories and servicing ANY unit of any brand they sell, whether or not they sold it, and in a TIMELY MANNER, I think it would shake the industry as a whole. The manufacturer would also have to be behind their dealers 100% with timely and fair payments for warranty work and actually APPROVE valid warranty claims instead of passing them on to LCI or Norcold or Dometic, etc. It still boggles me to think that if the auto industry were run the same way, we’d have to go to Delco for an alternator instead of driving to any GM dealer, anywhere in the U.S. to have one swapped under warranty.

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