Are you filling the need?

By Buck Buchanan

It is a travel day and you are going through airport security.  You are hungry; you need to eat.  You see a famous hotdog stand.  You have never had one of their famous hotdogs, but you have seen countless advertisements saying they are the best.   Your expectations are high.  You know you are going to pay a premium.  But you are hungry, and these hotdogs are supposed to be great.  You order the hotdog.  As you get ready to eat it, you start to notice things – the bun is stale, and the hotdog has less condiments than depicted on the menu.  When you bite into it, the flavor is not as good as you had anticipated.  You eat it anyway. Why?  You already paid for it.  However, you will never pay top dollar for that experience again.  One disappointment was enough.  You are going to vote with your pocketbook and order something else next time. 

What I have just described is the current status of the modern dive shop. 

While there are a limited number of dive shops in any given area, your main competition is not other dive shops.  The dive industry’s national marketing makes nearly every dive shop appealing enough to walk into.  Unfortunately, successful marketing may be exceeding your ability to deliver.  After one disappointing experience, your customers may turn away from diving completely.  You are competing against every other entertainment opportunity out there. 

Are you the Pied Piper of fun? 

Potential divers seek out scuba because they desire an underwater adventure.  They show up excited about what you have to offer.  Often, you fail to meet their expectations.  Like our hotdog, we promise one thing and deliver another.  Instead of giving them fun, you bore them to tears.  Rather than spending time underwater, you talk them to death on the surface. In place of a challenge, you run them through checklists.  Still seeking an adventure but no longer from you, they take their time and money elsewhere.  Many never bother to claim their Open Water certification cards. Has this ever happened to you?  It doesn’t have to be this way.

I want to share with you a few Buckisms I have used over the last 25 years to produce underwater adventures that successfully meet the needs of entry-level divers.  Satisfied entry-level divers become repeat customers – the foundation of the business of scuba.

1.Work in the short water, play in the tall water

Do not short-change confined water training. Examine how you structure the class to get more time underwater and on task.  For example, I introduce hand signals during equipment set up.  It not only enables more effective underwater communications from the beginning, but it also makes more effective use of both surface and underwater time. 

Challenge your students to achieve true mastery of skills.  As an SDI instructor, you are fortunate.  SDI uniquely allows the flexibility to design a challenge for every skill.  It may take a little more time, but the amount of fun it adds will increase both skill level and enthusiasm.  We perceive our students as pressed for time.  The truth is that people make time for what they want to do.  Challenges make training exciting and fun, which is exactly what your students are looking for.  Challenges also lead to a feeling of accomplishment that energizes them about the sport. Start giving students what they seek.

2.Skills should be taught, practiced, and evaluated using all three phases of buoyancy.

Challenges go above and beyond mimicking movements.  They begin to build a thinking diver who has the comfort and confidence to stay safe while enjoying the underwater environment.  One of the most popular challenges I use is the mask clearing challenge.  Once my students have demonstrated that they can successfully clear a mask on one breath, I challenge them to clear it three times.  Most students find that they are able to clear their mask five times on one breath.  Some make it to seven and a rare few accomplish ten.  Students are eager to compete with each other during this challenge.  My students are no longer unsettled by having to clear their masks… It becomes something they are proud of.

3.Impress the students with what they learn, not with what you know.

End the confined water training with a comprehensive challenge.  One approach is to set up a circuit with stations for each skill. Watch as your students swim up to each station, perform the skill, and move on to the next.  Upon completion of the circuit, provide feedback on their performance.  Ask your students if they are ready for open water or if they need additional confined water training. Let them tell you that they have mastered the skills.

4.Good enough is not good enough.

Too many instructors are training to the bare minimum as expressed by bullets on a slate, rather than ensuring each individual has mastered, not just mimicked, every fundamental skill.  The students know whether or not they can perform the skills.  No amount of false praise will overcome their discomfort if they cannot equalize on descent, clear masks when flooded, or control buoyancy in the water column.  This type of experience is not challenging, it is intimidating.  Students may gut their way through it because they have already sunk cost in the course, but they will not return to invest in the sport. When a student starts to feel like an accomplished diver, they will keep coming back. 

5.Stop talking and start diving.

Do not rush through Open Water sessions.  They should be fun.  Your students want to dive and go to great lengths for the opportunity to do so.  Many students spend three or four times as much time driving to dive sites as they spend in the water.  Road trips were not the adventure they were seeking, but they embark on them to get to the underwater fun that they believe awaits them.  Once at the site, however, instructors dip their students into the water just long enough mechanistically go through the checklists on the slates.  Worse still, most are still training rather than evaluating, because they cut the confined water dives short.  I have lost count of the number of ‘tea bag’ Open Water training sessions I have seen.  Dive sites remain unexplored as tours are abbreviated in the haste to survive rather than master skills.  The instructor’s focus is on getting to the next dive and going through the next slate.  This rush does more than take the fun out of the underwater experience, it also undermines water comfort and diver confidence.  Time on task is crucial for developing muscle memory. We disappoint our students and undercut our industry when we fail to spend training time underwater.

6.Become the Pied Piper of fun and adventure

Your new divers want to dive.  Plan dive adventures for them.  As your divers progress through your courses, instill challenge at every turn.  Offer the underwater experiences your divers are seeking. They chose to train with you.  They will keep diving with you if they are being challenged and having fun.   Just as our traveler has a frequent need to eat, our divers have a recurring need for adventure.  We must provide opportunities for diving outside of training.  If you want customers to come back, fill their need.

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