Effective service starts and ends with communication.
Conveyor servicing is an oft-ignored pocket of business in the material handling industry. When the concept of material handling service is first broached, most people don’t think conveyor, they immediately think of forklift technicians and the maintenance departments operated by industrial truck distributors. But service and maintenance are just as critical for end-users and distributors of conveyor systems.
The first step to creating a service culture around your engineered systems distributorship is to get the client on the same page. Our job as integrators is to make sure we have upfront discussions with whomever we’re working with and understand exactly what our client’s needs are. Ask your client questions like: What are your expectations if the system goes down? How long can you live without it? What do you want us to do? What do you expect us to do? These types of questions can get you on a level playing field with the customer before the project moves forward to avoid any confusion later.
Once you’ve asked the questions, be honest about your capabilities. Be precise about what level of commitment you are able to provide in various scenarios. Have open dialogue with the customer to define both sides’ expectations. That way, the customer won’t assume you can work miracles, and you won’t assume the client has on-staff technicians to handle a breakdown.
Of course, even after you have such a discussion with a client and tell them exactly what you are able to do and not able to do, they still need guidance. Do not be surprised to get a phone call from the customer saying, “I know we talked about this, but I need help and I need help now.” There’s always some heartburn associated with a system failure.
The Industrial Truck Model
Most of our customers have a relationship with an industrial truck distributor, who is set up with their own service technicians and provides on-call services. All the more reason for us to have the upfront discussion to further define the differences between our two companies. We need to educate the customer that the engineered systems side isn’t necessarily equipped to provide the same service level as the industrial truck supplier.
Because of the customers’ familiarity with their truck mechanics, they may be inclined to call on their forklift service techs for assistance to fix their conveyors. Not to take anything away from my compatriots on the forklift side, but this is not always a good idea! Surely there are some who can do it, but a fork truck technician who specializes in repairing and servicing industrial trucks may not be trained to service and repair conveyors, sortation equipment, and packaging and sealing equipment. Technicians working on this type of equipment need to know how to track a belt, change out a reducer, analyze system speeds and feeds, have diagnostic skills for PC programming and PLCs, or any number of other things specific to a conveyor and high-speed sortation. Even then, the ability to diagnose a problem does not mean they have a resource or a business partner to call on to get that part. In the same vein, it wouldn’t be smart for one of our conveyor technicians to try to work on a forklift, because that is outside our core competencies.
This does not mean the customer cannot use their industrial truck provider’s service technician. If they choose to pursue this course, we recommend our common customer ask relevant questions about the technician’s experience. We’re not trying to fault the industrial truck company; we just want our customer to get the best care possible for their equipment. We want to be proactive in making sure we’ve asked the right questions and positioned the industrial truck company to be able to truly come in and do the work they’ve promised.
A Practical Example
Conveyor service becomes increasingly important when dealing with companies with high seasonal volume. For instance, we work with several third-party fulfillment companies, companies that perform deliveries for other e-commerce sites. Fulfillment for one of the world’s largest retailers, for example, is done by a third-party company that is a client of ours. This retailer does 70 percent of its annual business during the six-week period from November 1 through December 20. During that period of time, that customer cannot afford to have its equipment down for any period of time.
We offer such companies a different service opportunity. We’ll submit to them the financials associated with providing one of our technicians to report to their location every day during that busy six-week period. For a fixed fee, that technician will report whether there is work to do or not. Nobody has the crystal ball to tell them if the tech will be needed or not. It’s an investment by the customer, surely, but it may save them money when compared to having to bring a full-time employee on board and pay an annual salary.
Usually, during the first year of an installation, the customer will elect not to take us up on our offer. We’ll hear something like, “That seems like an awful lot of money.” Well, it is—especially if the technician’s services are never needed. But often, the customer will quickly find that the cost of being out of operation for even a few hours is far greater than what they would have paid to have a technician on site. So customers are finding this option to be more attractive as the years go on.
At some point, based on the amount of automation and other equipment procured and implemented within our customer’s distribution center, it makes financial sense to hire a full-timer to handle these requests. Based on this, the demand for these types of services comes and goes. It all comes down to communication and making sure that we work collectively to provide a cost-justified solution and keep the operation running at peak performance.
Many of our customers have technicians on staff and have a hard time justifying payment for one of our technicians to come and help out. To assist in offsetting this expense, we offer classroom training at our headquarters in a facility called “The Lodge.” Customers are invited to our facility for training sessions on conveyor safety, proper lock-out procedures and risk mitigation, along with a number of other topics related to engineered systems equipment.
We also provide personalized training sessions with individual customers answering questions and assisting in solving any and all issues related to their equipment. We’re very focused on helping them however we can.
On larger installations, particularly for a company that does not have a lot of maintenance experience, we want to work and train them from the ground up. After all, they’re now going to have a state-of-the-art automated system, so they need to learn how to use it and how to fix it. Quite often, it’s a culture change for them to do so.
Our advice to these customers is to quickly hire a few of the maintenance technicians they feel they’ll need and encourage them to work with our techs during the implementation process, gaining hands-on experience on how the pieces and parts go together. They need to understand why it goes together that way and what to do if it breaks down.
While we make the strong recommendation, our customer often pushes back with, “It does not make sense bringing a service person on our payroll for six months when there’s no service for them to do.” As a business owner, I understand their desire to defer paying a salary as long as they can, but the reality is, it is not an expense—it is a six-month investment in training. It supports the old saying, “Pay me now or pay me later.” However, the later in this case is normally far more expensive than the now.
These are a few of the primary considerations regarding service of conveyor equipment. It should be clear that, regardless of the conveyor application, the key for both you and your customers is open, honest and timely communication.
|Meet the Author
Chuck Frank is 2008 MHEDA vice president and president of AHS, Inc., located in Cincinnati, Ohio, and on the Web at www.ahs1.com.