In all the automation user groups for the past few years, the talk always revolves around services. 'We want to be your trusted partner,' said Steve Sonnenberg, business leader of Emerson Process Management. So does every other vendor in the space. There are some reasons for this effort on the part of the major automation companies. It is certainly a way to bind a customer to a single vendor and to make sure that the vendor gets the majority of the automation spend. But from the point of view of the customer, there are also some strong reasons to recommend the 'partner' movement. The customer, if he commits to a partnership program with a single vendor, guarantees better customer service than if he calls in off the street. If you have a multimillion-dollar partnership, and you call for help, you can and should expect that help will be nearly instantly forthcoming. And, at least at renewal time, the customer has some serious leverage on the vendor for better terms—not just for money, but service as well. Lubrizol Corporation, for example, has presented repeatedly at Emerson Exchange about the benefits it receives from its bi-directional partnership with Emerson Process Management.
The grizzly bear in the corner of the room, however, is that customer service is not the basis of service at all. The basis of service is money, income, profit. This is certainly not bad. But where things go in a southward direction here is when customer service decisions are based strictly on economics.
I have been having difficulty with Adobe Systems for three weeks, trying to get the product for which I have paid them almost $500. I have spent hours on the phone with the India-based service department, none of whom speak English well enough to understand what my problem actually is, and who all read off their script doggedly as if repeating the wackily awry instructions will somehow make the problem work, or at least make me give up and walk away. At this writing there is no resolution.
The idea of customer service must pervade the entire customer-facing organization, or serving the customer takes a backseat to what people are actually encouraged to do. In the case of the call center, people are judged by how many calls per hour they can field, not by what the outcomes are. In the case of an automation vendor, where service is a profit center (and it is, always), the service people are rewarded the most by how much profit they can deliver, not by the outcomes they deliver.
Sometimes the concept of customer service, or lack of it, is entirely cultural. I just got back from two weeks in central Europe. My experience was one of a cultural lack of customer service skills, especially in Germany. If a request was special, it couldn't be done. If it was special, it was somehow beneath them, and I was somehow unworthy. This was especially clear because I am, at the moment, handicapped by a knee injury and walking with a cane. Services for disabled people in Germany range from bad to nonexistent. It is simply taken for granted that you will shift for yourself the best you can.
These lapses in customer service, whether profit-motivated or cultural, are why end-user companies are usually willing to discuss changing main automation suppliers; they can see that as the association develops longevity, very often the actual delivery of service to them is seen as secondary.
In the January 2013 issue, we present our annual Readers' Choice Awards. I am convinced that the companies that do well consistently in these awards are those that have cultivated the culture of customer service in their staffs. They present the customer with increased value-add because in addition to dependable products, they provide dependable service and support. All of the companies listed in our cover story are winners, and so are their customers.