Customer Service for the Ages

Two stories of long-term customer support

How well and how long do you support your customers? Maybe a few years for a given version of your product, perhaps 5+ years for products with long-term support?

What about industries that need support for longer? For example, it’s easy to buy parts for our cars at the 10+ year stage. But what about decades?

Or a century? There are indeed industries where this matters, where 100+ year-old systems and machinery are used every day, e.g. last I knew, the Crane Paper Company makes the paper used for U.S. currency on 100-year old paper making machines, old-style.

I have two stories of great long-term customer services.

The first involved a factory machine, a needle loom, made about 1967, using a very old-fashioned eddy-current clutch drive system. Along about 1992, I was re-engineering and updating this machine’s controls, and needed some information about the controller’s wiring and operational modes.

So I somehow called the original drive system manufacturer, who had long since been bought by another larger firm. But I found a number and after a couple transfers, connected to a guy who could help me.

He asked me the model and serial numbers, and answered a couple of basic questions, and then said, “I have the original system & engineering manual, would you like me to send you one ?”.

Of course, I would, and a few days later, a large manila envelope arrived for me. With the original manual, diagrams, and other info I needed. For a 25-year-old year old system that was nearly obsolete the day it was built.

Who keeps original manuals on decades-old systems? This company does, because customers like me need these things, on machines built before we were born.

The second story is even better and while I was not personally involved, members of my team were, in another nearby factory.

Seems an old and large machine’s main motor controller, an Allen-Bradley size 5–6 starter, failed. The coil burned out in this nearly refrigerator-sized unit. It was built in the 1930s or ’40s if I remember correctly — probably 50+ years old.

In a perfect world, they would just buy a new one for many thousands of dollars and replace it. But newer units would not fit in the rather custom mounting arrangement required by this machine, and re-engineering it was too time-consuming, as this part of the factory was down until this important machine could be fixed.

So a call was placed to Allen-Bradley, in business since 1903, to discuss options.

And they said, “We don’t stock replacement units that old and large, but we can make you a new coil from the original drawings and winder settings, which we keep for exactly this purpose. It’ll take a few days.”

Next Monday and a few thousand dollars later, a new coil arrived, which fit in, wired up, and worked like a charm, right out of the box. On a 50+ year-old absurdly-obsolete product built before WWII. I was astounded.

This is real customer service, providing parts and manuals for decades into the future, for customers who pay premium prices in part for exactly this type of service long after the purchasing engineers have retired.

Think about how you can provide service levels worthy of customers for a half-century or more.

CEO of ChinaNetCloud & — Global Entrepreneur in Shanghai & Silicon Valley