Pam Records takes a look at supporting differentiation with technology and a commitment to value-added services

Standing apart from the competition is more difficult than ever before – yet essential. Manufacturers must turn to value-add programs to create a distinctive impression and build loyalty among customers. Enhancing the customer experience, from order entry to after-market service, is one of the most effective ways to build relationships that are resilient to aggressive competitors.

Even in business-to-business (B2B) industries, customers have high expectations and demand timely, responsive service. Consumers expect websites which recommend purchases and suggest related products. Customers expect the same type of omniscient ability to sense and advise to carry over to the business world. Fast turn-around times, personalized products, attentive sales people, excellent credit terms, error-free deliveries, and responsive customer service and field service are other mandatory table-stakes.

With so much at stake, a manufacturer must strive to enhance service offerings and go above and beyond the standard selections. Technology often provides the distinctive edge that will make all the difference. Here are several examples of solutions which will help you create customer intimacy and enhanced field service.

Internet of Things
Smart sensors can be embedded in products sold and used to help monitor the performance of the product. The sensors can track physical conditions, such as temperature and vibration, looking for early warning signs that service or maintenance is needed. The product can even automatically email the owner or service provider of needs, such as filter that needs to be replaces or a belt that starts to show signs of wear. Automated responses can be triggered, such as dispatching a technician or reserving a replacement part in inventory. The sensor-generated data can also be used to track the lifespan of the product, determine when calibration or preventive maintenance is required.

Customer alignment
Having an advanced CRM solution is important today for managing accounts, promotions, expected purchases, as-serviced history, and the account’s purchasing and billing details. A modern solution helps you anticipate needs and be proactive in building relationships. A CRM solution along with predictive analytics will also help you anticipate next likely purchases and make suggestions for upsell and cross-sell purchases.

At your service
Advanced service solutions contain functionality to help manage the service desk. This is important for timely, accurate response to customer questions. Connectivity across the organization makes it easier for customer service representatives to answer questions and access real-time status of parts inventory, technician schedules, warranty and service agreements, as well as dispatch of service crews. With convenient access to data, the customer service team can quickly and accurately answer questions for customers about orders, billing, and service requests. Visibility is the key.

Scheduled to please
No one wants to wait for the service technician to arrive. Getting the right technician to the right place at the right time, with the right parts and tools is essential. With advanced dispatch tools, the process can be simplified, increasing productivity of service fleets and ensuring faster response to customer.

After the sale is done
Warranties and service agreements are important service offering for customers. In order to manage the program, you need advanced service solutions which can help you track extended and multi-tier warranties, ensuring proper billing. Service agreements can also be a major form of revenue, as long as they are well managed, highly productive and efficiently leverage parts and labor. Service-centric functionality will help you schedule preventive maintenance calls that are part of the service agreement.

Predicting needs
Visibility into customer purchase history, including details of models and any special configurations, will help the service operation predict parts, revenue, and staffing requirements, by region. This forecasting will help manufacturers by ready with resources – from spare parts to technicians, even when spikes in demand occur. Visibility into the supply chain readiness will also help manufacturers understand the necessary back-up stock requirements and minimize inventory of costly parts.

3D printing of parts
If rare parts aren’t available, the manufacturer may be able to employ 3D printing to create the part in a timelier and more cost-effective way than a special order from a supplier that is continents away or no longer in business. 3D printing has evolved to become an effective way to manage inventory and keep service on-schedule.

On the road
Sensors embedded on service vans will help dispatchers track location of vans so they can route or reroute technicians as needed to answer emergency service calls. Tracking van location also helps monitor technician productivity and accurate billing of customers.

By the rules
There are times when product operation needs to be monitored to ensure safety and environmental regulations are being met. Or, improper practices, like dismantling safety warnings, may void the manufacturer’s warranty. Sensors can help technicians monitor that the machinery is being operated within recommendations.

From anywhere
Field technicians need remote access to data, such as inventory of parts and status of warranties. Mobile solutions give technicians the data they need to make well-informed decisions in the field, including the ability to sell replacements units or upgrades.

Virtual Reality (VR)
Virtual environments are being used today to help train the next generation of service technicians. As senior professionals are retiring, tribal knowledge is very valuable and must be passed to new trainees. VR can be used 11help train technicians on complex machinery, especially when the machinery is remote or in a dangerous location.

Wearables and video
Video-enabled connectivity can help the field technician communicate and share video with a senior technician or design engineer at headquarters to obtain guidance. Wearables can also give technicians hands-free access to the system. Drones, robotics, and AI-enabled assistants are other ways the digital service operation may use technology to enhance service.

Where to start
The most critical advice is take action now. Delaying investment in the service operation will make you vulnerable to aggressive competition. Start by reviewing your existing IT solutions and considering how digital technologies can help you align with the customer base, speed service resolution rates and build a competitive edge. A well-run service operation can generate added revenue – as well as build relationships with customers. Start-ups will find it difficult to compete with the full array of service offerings, from warranties to maintenance plans. Technology can help you increase your operational abilities, while adding the advanced value-add features customers expect. Service is a critical component of next generation manufacturing. Get ready now.

Pam Records is manager, product marketing at Infor. Infor builds business software for specific industries in the cloud. With 16,500 employees and over 90,000 customers in over 170 countries, Infor software is designed for progress.