Winning customer experiences across the machine lifecycle

How tactical investment in custom software can help manufacturers build better digital products and improve the customer experience

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The ownership experience and beyond

By investing in the customer experience, equipment manufacturers can create additional value after the sale. That value comes from two sources: strategic insight and repeat business. Both are interconnected, and both can be strengthened through digitized touchpoints.

These touchpoints could be software applications that span the entire customer experience, from the machine interface to service and support. They could even provide data-enabled insight that helps the customer optimize their yield, uptime, and so on. The reality is, making great hardware is not enough. A customer can quickly become a detractor of a brand if they feel like their needs are not being met by support, service, or the software that controls the equipment.

The big challenge here is that B2B customer journeys are often complex and vary drastically within the same customer base. For example, say you are the manufacturer of six-axis milling machines. One of your customers, a leading manufacturer of computer hardware, purchases and installs a connected fleet of these machines. That customer’s factory floor manager will want to be able to monitor and optimize the yield of the fleet as well as contact with you for support and maintenance. Another of your customers, a small startup business, only purchases one or two milling machines but their service and support needs are much more aligned with self-service. They want access to manuals, self-help tutorials, live video chat support, and so on. Both customers are important, yet their journeys after the sale are drastically different. 

“Companies that excel in delivering journeys tend to win in the market. In both the insurance and TV industries, for example, better performance on journeys correlates strongly with faster revenue growth; in fact, in measurements of customer satisfaction with the firms’ most important journeys, a one-point improvement on a ten-point scale corresponds to at least a three-percentage-point increase in the revenue-growth rate”


– Creating value through transforming customer journeys, McKinsey & Company

So, which after-the-sale journeys should you focus on to maximize return on investment, improve throughput, accelerate responsiveness, and more? In this section, we’ve identified three:

  • Experience of using the machine

  • Service and support during unexpected events

  • Maximizing yield and enabling future sales

The experience of using the machine

Most machines today are a combination of hardware and software interfaces. Consequently, the customer experience is influenced by both ergonomics and the UX (user experience of the digital interface). Recently, UX technology has also seen the emergence of AI that augments the customer’s decision-making with just-in-time information that results in higher yield and better safety. 

While a discussion of ergonomics is outside the scope of this white paper, it is safe to assume that most, if not all, machinery manufacturers leverage feedback loops from their customers to optimize the physical controls on their equipment. More importantly, hardware is becoming a tier in which very little competitive advantage can be developed. 

Take a leading Japan-based machine manufacturer, for instance. It has been losing market share to South Korean competitors who have closely replicated all the functional hardware elements of its machines. Thus, the battlefield for competitive advantage has shifted away from hardware design toward the digitally-augmented customer experience. Application interfaces are now the final frontier.

Because software is such a foreign landscape to many manufacturers, they tend to lean towards buying off-the-shelf applications rather than building their own. In doing so, they often leave themselves at a disadvantage.  To be successful today, machine manufacturers can no longer limit their thinking to R&D, supply chain, and material procurement.  They must consider investing in in-house software development or partnering with organizations that can augment them in building world-class software experiences across a variety of devices.

Another McKinsey study on consumer preferences underscores this reality. It showed that year over year, there was an 85 percent increase in the number of automobile consumers who were willing to switch brands as long as their infotainment (automation and connectivity) needs were met.

In short, the narrative is no longer about whether to make a delightful UX experience part of your customer’s journey—it’s how to survive if you don’t.

Service and support during unexpected events

Unexpected maintenance events tax a customer’s affinity for a manufacturer’s brand. How a manufacturer responds to these events will determine the net sum of the customer experience. That sum is affected by variables that include speed, effectiveness, and communication among others. Research suggests that even when delays are unavoidable, systems that communicate expected completion in a transparent manner receive additional tolerance from users. However, a great customer service experience demands more than simply fixing the problem.

Case study: Power generator manufacturer

Devbridge recently worked with a leading manufacturer of generators to improve their customer response after the sale. This manufacturer uses a network of 15,000 dealer technicians to install, maintain, and service their products. 

Their customer service processes used to be paper-based. Work orders were routed to the dealer, printed out, and a field service technician drove to the location of the job. Once a service job was completed, the technician collected customer payment information on the invoice, captured a signature and returned to the office. From there the paperwork was handed off to a customer success team. 

Case study: Challenges that negatively affected the customer experience 

  • The customer was not aware of work order progress or technician location

  • The customer had no way to communicate with the technician before arrival

  • Technicians were required to plan their driving routes, work order sequence, and needed parts well in advance – once on-site, there was no way to order additional parts

  • Technicians had to locate printed manuals before leaving the office so the service and warranty information they needed would be on hand while servicing the generator

  • There were significant delays in the work order-to-revenue timelines due to the paper trail and customers challenging invoices because it took so long to receive them.

The solution to all this was a mobile tablet application. Through the app, the manufacturer was able to provide the extended dealer network with detailed product information, warranty history, service history, and relevant customer information so it could service customers better and sell more generators. The tablets were equipped with barcode scanners as well as connectivity to the ERP so technicians could immediately activate generators after installation. 

This bundled solution was a win-win-win for all parties involved: the manufacturer, the customer, and the dealer network. Customers experienced faster, more accurate support and were able to view their warranty information. For the manufacturer and dealer network, wrench time was improved and there was a marked increase in sales and revenue.

Maximizing yield and enabling future sales

Most equipment today can be classified as an Internet of Things (IoT) device. Tractors, smart pumps, generators, robots—nearly all current machines come with embedded sensors and internet connectivity. Due to privacy concerns and sensitivity to hacking, most manufacturers are still operating in a collection mode versus tapping into the advantages that bidirectional interfaces can provide. For the purposes of this white paper, we will focus on two specific areas where IoT capabilities are worthy of investment: the pursuit of maximum yield and predictable future sales. 

The definition of “yield” varies based on industry. In agriculture, it can mean both machine uptime as well as the return from available soil surface area. In automated manufacturing it often refers to minimizing idle time for assembly robots through smart job planning, and so forth. 

An example of the latter would be a leading manufacturer of six-axis milling robots that uses an open-standard MTConnect to expose data from over 120 sensors in each machine. Once implemented at a customer site, data from hundreds of machines flows into a centralized reporting dashboard that helps the customer plan production, identify bottlenecks in assembly, and react to alerts or notifications from the machines. In the aerospace industry, a major turbine manufacturer connects data from their turbines to a predictive-maintenance platform. With it, operators have been able to increase uptime, lower operating costs, and prolong the life of the turbine.

For machine manufacturers, intelligence built around data collected from their products can present opportunities to sell more. A leading manufacturer of combines collects usage data from machines in the field. Since its customers’ journeys vary (e.g. multi-tenant farm vs. individual farmer), matching products are available. With collected data, the manufacturer is able to make advanced recommendations to each customer as their equipment ages through its lifecycle. For example, a farmer that is not using the full capacity of a large combine will receive the recommendation to switch to a smaller, more cost-efficient model. This spurs a sales conversation as well as introduces a proactive way to elevate the customer experience.

Conclusion

For today’s machinery manufacturers, delivering a truly competitive customer experience requires an omnichannel strategy that encompasses how products are designed, configured, sold, serviced, and maintained. Hardware design and physical ergonomics are still important but, as we’ve shown, emerging global competitors with lower operating costs can easily achieve parity in both. 

The most significant opportunities for competitive advantage lie almost exclusively in a manufacturer’s ability to leverage digital technologies that speed up the rate of innovation and delight the customer at every phase of the purchasing journey.