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Watchmaking’s after-sales headache

Watchmaking’s after-sales headache

Friday, 19 September 2008
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Christophe Roulet
Editor-in-chief, HH Journal

“The desire to learn is the key to understanding.”

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5 min read

It’s a simple piece of arithmetic. Take a company that produces 10,000 watches a year. If success is on the cards, after twenty years it will have sold 200,000 watches to customers at the four corners of the globe (Fine Watchmaking being an international market). Of these, the company can expect an annual return rate of around 10%, ranging from vintage pieces to watches suffering from stopped mechanisms, manufacturing defects, misuse or simply in need of a service. Add two and two together and some 20,000 watches will be making their way to the company’s after-sales service door: twice annual production.

Let’s say our imaginary company is particularly on the ball and that first-class quality controls keep return rates at 5% or less. This still means as many watches requiring service or repair as leave its workshops each year. No matter how you tackle the equation, adjusting factors to account for the number of years the company has been in business, production volume, the number of watches in circulation, the result will still be a matter of considerable concern for after-sales service, “the cancer of any brand” according to François-Paul Journe who takes this mathematical growth of after-sales service needs very seriously indeed. For him, an after-sales service (ASS) department must be “viewed as a company in its own right and managed as such.”

Increasingly complex mechanisms

The burning issue for companies, on a par with that of production capacity, is finding qualified staff. We’re not talking here about those tried-and-tested automatic movements, the ETA heavyweights and the like whose potential defects were largely identified and corrected in the early years following their launch. Should they fail to deliver, the best solution is often simply to replace them with a new one. However, this isn’t an option with the majority of calibres now being proposed by manufacturers in search of micromechanical perfection. In this light, the shortage of watchmakers – a topic of discussion over recent months – takes on a new dimension inasmuch as after-sales service centres, which are often spread around the globe (see Focus 2), are considered an essential link in the customer relations chain. How can a brand justify keeping a customer waiting months for a basic repair because it doesn’t have the qualified staff for the job or, on a more down-to-earth note, because they are all based in Switzerland?

Each customer is also offered a courtesy watch, the unique Ishango model, to wear while service or repairs are completed on their own watch.

Badollet, a newcomer to the Fine Watch segment, has put this seemingly inextricable problem at the heart of its communication strategy. As Aldo Magada, CEO of the brand, recently observed in Haute Horlogerie Journal, “the concept of luxury is incomplete without personalised service at every level.” The result is Ishango Lodge, Badollet’s after-sales service which takes its name from the Congo village where one of the first-ever gnomons was found. Every Badollet watch comes with a membership card and a USB stick that give its owner access to a personalised web page with full information from service updates to contact with the artisan-watchmakers who made the watch, together with general information about watchmaking. Each customer is also offered a courtesy watch, the unique Ishango model, to wear while service or repairs are completed on their own watch which, like every Badollet model, benefits from a five-year warranty.

A strategic department

Hardly surprising then that after-sales service has been placed high on the list of priorities by the majority of self-respecting watchmaking firms. One aspect of this is training, and not just in Switzerland (see Focus 2), as at Breitling and Patek Philippe. Another is to constitute sufficient stocks to repair any one of a brand’s models, regardless of when it was made, as at Zenith or Jaeger-LeCoultre, or constant attention to quality control right from the drawing-board stage, as at Roger Dubuis and Jean Dunand. And yet despite these efforts, some brands will inevitably fail the after-sales challenge, starting with newcomers to the segment… the very ones who are currently riding high in the fast-growing emerging markets where the quality of after-sales service is less of an immediate concern. Except that when a customer is willing to pay tens if not hundreds of thousands for a watch, it goes without saying that they will expect impeccable after-sales service too. De Witt didn’t hesitate to fly one of its specialist watchmakers to Latin America at a moment’s notice to come to the aid of a very good customer who had given his watch something of a hard time.

Should after-sales service be found wanting, then the whole Swiss watch pyramid could be left shaking on its foundations, in which case brands will need to look beyond their own backyard. Granted, an efficient and well-organised after-sales service constitutes a significant competitive advantage in an increasingly coveted marketplace. Should, however, the problem take on vaster proportions and spread throughout the profession, companies could well find themselves paying for the past five years of extravagant growth.

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