By Dan Hebert, PE
What does it take to get a 5 in our Readers Choice customer service ratings? Being the kind of vendor that steps up to the plate when an end users needs help. Sounds obvious, but it’s a basic skill some companies never seem to master.
Some vendors spend megabucks on sales and marketing and forget that few things are more frustrating to an end user than wasting time dealing with poor customer service. They also may forget that it only takes one negative experience to sour an end user on a company for life.
When a vendor has you locked in because it is the only company that makes a particular product or because the cost of switching is prohibitive, customer service or lack of it may cause headaches and be frustrating, but you may not have any real choice. However, when you have options because a product has been commoditized by open standards, customer service can be the main factor in vendor selection.
While the automation marketplace is nowhere near as open as we would like, the situation is better than it was in the last century, when the big DCS vendors tended to own their customers and often treated them with disdain. Nowadays, customers often have the upper hand and can force vendors to provide superior service or lose their business.
“Customer service is a large part of the equation in an automation buying decision,” says David DeBari, a senior process engineer with ExxonMobil Chemical, Houston. “Functionality, ease of use and value get you to a short list of vendors. The next cut is made on technology, experience and customer service.”
“Customer service is absolutely essential, and we view it as a key feature, just like the physical functionality attributes of a product,” says Wright Sullivan, president and founder of system integrator A&E Engineering, Greenville, S.C. (www.aeengr.com). “If the hardware and software meet the goals of the project, then customer service is everything. We will buy from people who we know will support us in achieving our objectives.
“Our clients value customer service very highly when they choose integrators, and we expect our suppliers to operate at the same level of responsiveness that we provide to our clients. We have to move at the lightning speed of customers expectations, and we expect our suppliers to support us and deliver to those same expectations,” concludes Sullivan.
Customer service is often a direct determinant of project success or failure. “Customer service is a very high priority for us and for our clients, and it is a significant part of the buying decision,” says Bob Rutemiller, president of system integrator Automation Consulting & Education (ACE) in Tampa, Fla.
“If you are in the middle of a project and have a question, the ability to get knowledgeable and competent help on the phone or by email quickly has a direct effect on the project outcome. Good support can minimize on-site time and cutover time and can ultimately affect the profitability of the project and satisfaction of the end user,” adds Rutemiller.
One of the key factors currently elevating the importance of customer service is the lack of automation staff at process plants. As staff dwindles, each employee is asked to do more with less and has less time to do it. “With the worldwide trend of leaner staffing, vendors have to provide great support to compensate for lower levels of internal resources,” observes DeBari.
Read on to find out what end users in the process industries are demanding from their suppliers when it comes to customer service.
Driving Customers Away
Follow along as the largest process company in the world is put through customer service hell. “We were trying to understand how to configure communications with a feeder system, and the documentation was difficult to follow and seemingly incomplete,” relates DeBari. “I called the vendor and was talked through a few settings. I was then told the feeder system should be working, but it was not.”
“I spent several hours reading the manuals, double checking the settings, and performing the troubleshooting steps. I called the vendor back and talked to another support engineer who led me through the same steps as the first support person and gave the same diagnosis: It should be working,” continues DeBari.
“By the next day I was staring at a fix-or-replace decision. I called the vendor and talked to a third support person. This time, I was told that the documentation was incomplete and incorrect in places. Turns out the issue I was having was common, and this third person helped me corrected the problem within an hour. But the damage was done after three support calls and almost two days of lost time. I decided that I would try hard to prevent my company from purchasing future equipment from this vendor,” concludes DeBari.
When it comes to poor customer service, major end users are not the only victims. Bob Swarner, a systems engineer with systems integrator AAA Absolute Automation and Electrical Services in Covington, Ga. (www.AAAelectricalservices.com), relates his travails.
“We needed a replacement 150HP drive for an agitator motor in a chemical reactor,” he says. “The drive went out during the middle of a production run at a customer’s facility, so time was of the essence to avoid losing the batch. We contacted our salesman from the drive supplier, and he said he would check availability and be right back with us. After three hours, we had still not heard anything, so we contacted the supplier’s branch manager, who quickly told us a replacement was available in a nearby location. Precious hours were wasted waiting for the salesman’s promised call.”