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Underappreciated Competitive Factor: After sales service for pumps, valves and controls

| By Chemical Engineering

  • After sales services create opportunities for users and manufacturers alike
  • Trend towards full-service support which can even include process optimization
  • Better products based on experience from actual application

No more “service wasteland”. The expression coined nearly 20 years ago by German economist Hermann Simon no longer applies across the board, and Germany is no exception. In today’s world, service providers and other businesses make a big effort to keep their customers happy. The list of extras includes free coffee at the hair stylist salon, reminders sent out by the dentist and water dispensers in the pharmacy. However the derogatory term mentioned above seems to stubbornly persist in the world of industry despite the fact that cleverly designed services create a win-win situation for suppliers and customers. Pumps, valves and controls are a good example.

Every car owner probably receives mail at least once a year from the car dealership offering a summer check-up, snow tire service or a reminder for a major inspection or annual routine maintenance. The customer may see this primarily as a helpful service, but it has huge economic significance for the providers. Satisfied service customers are four times as likely to buy the same brand again as unsatisfied customers. Moreover, the service business is highly lucrative for manufacturers and dealers. Spare parts for example generate only 10% of turnover for car makers but they rake in 50% of profits. Automotive service centers generate 60% of earnings with spare parts.

This consumer products model is readily transferrable to the capital goods industry. Despite the fact that an increasing number of machinery and equipment suppliers are aware of this, little effort has been made so far to exploit the existing potential. Many systems component suppliers take a rather complacent approach to after sales service. According to VDMA estimates, German machinery manufacturers only generate 15% of turnover with the after sales and service business. Given an estimated total worldwide turnover of 2.25 trillion euros (2012) in the machinery and equipment manufacturing industry and a German share of 212 billion euros, there is clearly huge potential out there, but small and mid-tier suppliers in particular tend to underestimate the opportunities. VDMA studies reveal that companies which operate after sales services as an independent business have an average contribution margin of 47%. On average, large suppliers with annual turnover in excess of a billion euros generate a quarter of turnover with services, but smaller suppliers lag well behind.

The consequences of substandard after sales service are even more detrimental. If the services are limited to the bothersome task of handling warranty claims and are given low priority, the product supplier runs the risk of tarnishing its image, and the customer may place its next order with a competitor.

Enhancing customer loyalty, benefiting from field experience

The provision of services following the sale of a product makes good business sense for a number of reasons. It gives pump, valve and controls suppliers a good sales argument for new products, and the services enhance customer loyalty. Information feedback from the service organization to the development team also helps companies improve their products.

In addition, the margins in the service business are generally much higher compared to the product business. Not only that, the after sales and service business helps companies ride out economic cycles, particularly when new product sales suffer during slowdowns.

The delivery of after sales services as a separate business is a very successful business strategy, but that approach faces a major hurdle. In a recent survey of several hundred machinery and equipment suppliers, management consultants McKinsey together with VDMA investigated the reasons behind the reluctance on the part of manufacturers to set up an independent service business. Besides the effort involved in setting up the new organization, the respondents cited customer unwillingness to pay extra for services which they expect to receive free of charge as part of the new product business. Virtually every manufacturer can point to an instance where a customer expected an old pump, valve or fitting to be repaired on a goodwill basis even if the item was ten or twenty years old.

Chemical industry expects 24/7 service

Then there is another challenge. Users in and around the chemical industry expect full service coverage on a 24/7 basis anywhere in the world, something which small and mid-tier companies may find very difficult to provide.

However pump, valve and controls manufacturer KSB shows how it can be done. KSB set up its own service company and is now one of the leaders in the European rotating equipment service market. Services currently generate around a quarter of KSB’s corporate earnings. The company plans to significantly expand the business over the next few years in the Asian and US markets. “We have identified significant demand for pump spare parts in the mining industry in Asia and America,” reported Bernd Garbe who is the CEO of the KSB service company.

At KSB, repair is not the first phase of the after sales service business. “Commissioning services are included in our new pump quotations,” said Garbe. The KSB repair and maintenance service portfolio is no longer limited to the company’s own products. Repair and retrofit of pumps, valves and controls made by competitors are also now included. The work is carried out at repair centers or by mobile units.

Increasing the flexibility of fixed maintenance costs

These after sales services are highly welcome in the chemical industry. Chemical markets have become much more volatile in the wake of the financial and economic crisis which struck in 2008 and 2009. Companies want to have greater flexibility as they manage the fixed costs of their in-house maintenance teams. To accomplish that, they are outsourcing repair and maintenance work to an increasing extent.

The Frankfurt-based pharmaceutical company Sanofi-Aventis uses an approach which is common in the industry. It leases the pumps that are used in production from a pool provided by a system supplier which takes responsibility for repair and maintenance at a fixed price. The user can budget the costs years in advance even if it does not have its own in-house maintenance personnel. The customer and the supplier split any savings if the actual costs are less than the fixed price, so they have a common interest in minimizing the repair effort. In this way, the pharmaceutical company has been able to reduce its maintenance costs while at the same time increasing pump service life.

Samson is a Frankfurt-based manufacturer of valves and controls. At this company, after sales service begins back in the commissioning phase. Samson continues to gradually expand its worldwide network of service centers. The subsidiary in Dubai is assisting with the commissioning of 1,000 positioners and butterfly valves at the new Ruwais petrochemical complex. In addition to supporting the start-up of new plants, lines and equipment, Samson provides reconditioning support services. Turnaround of the BASF steam cracker in Antwerp in the spring of 2013 is one example. To handle the task of overhauling or adding roughly 150 positioners and measurement points within the space of five weeks, Samson formed a 27-member internal team of valve specialists from 11 different countries at its service base in Antwerp.

Besides carrying out repairs, the team also analyzed failure modes and process conditions. Based on the results, they made recommendations for increasing product life and extending product service intervals.

Repair service enters the realm of process optimization

This example is representative of a current trend which is evident in the process industry. Users increasingly expect component suppliers to make process optimization recommendations. Manufacturers which are willing to engage with customers by offering this type of service have the opportunity to accumulate applications experience which can then help them position themselves as indispensable strategic partners over the long term.

The Austrian compressor supplier Hoerbiger has decided to take this approach. The worldwide reciprocating compressor service business is highly competitive. The company’s strategy is to offer an expanded range of services which can, for example, significantly increase the service life of reciprocating compressors. The services include detailed reliability, efficiency and environmental soundness (REE) audits on compressors for the purpose of achieving sustained process improvement. The audit team carries out an evaluation on site to determine the cost and effort needed to optimize a compressor. It then makes specific recommendations and implements them if requested. “Process conditions are changing at a faster rate than ever before, but compressor systems are often designed to run for 20 or 30 years. We help users to continually improve the machines in order to remain competitive,” explained Nikolaus Lubega, Business Development Manager and REE Auditor at Hoerbiger. In a highly competitive market environment, expertise-intensive service can help companies differentiate themselves from the competition.

Avoiding the pitfalls

The sales team sells the first machine, after sales service sells the second. The capital goods industry is no exception to this rule. However, success based on service delivery is not automatic. Manufacturers must come up with answers to the following key questions:

  • How can we efficiently build and expand a sales and service network which meets the needs of our customers?
  • What service portfolio is actually needed to generate real value-add for the supplier and the customer?
  • What is the requirements profile for spare parts logistics and how do we fulfill those requirements?
  • What qualifications do the members of our service team need?

The final point refers not only to technical qualifications but also to personal and sales skills. The service team has a major impact on the company and brand image and it holds the key to customer loyalty. A strong service team with applications experience is a valuable asset for product development and a useful resource for the sales organization.

Summary: These examples show that after sales services create added value for system component manufacturers and process operators alike. They give users greater flexibility to manage maintenance costs and they help improve system availability. On the supplier side, the services can improve the bottom line and also enhance customer loyalty.