How to Evaluate a Vendor’s Post-Sale Service BEFORE You Buy
You’ve spent many months evaluating equipment suppliers for your new product’s manufacturing line. Although your team has painstakingly developed your requirements, evaluated proposals, vetted backgrounds and talked to everyone they can think of about each company’s reputation, you still may be uncomfortable about going with a new vendor that you haven’t worked with before.
Even if the design looks right for your needs, the price is in the ballpark, and the company promises to meet your delivery time frame, how can you be sure this company will stand behind its equipment after you sign the purchase order?
When it comes to making a large capital investment like manufacturing process equipment, evaluating post-sale service is just as important as evaluating the product itself. But how can you get trustworthy information?
Use this guide to help you get a realistic picture of a potential supplier’s service and support operation.
HOW’S THEIR PRE-SALE SUPPORT?
Chances are, the way a company approaches design and development is an accurate predictor of the service and support you can expect after you purchase. Think about your experience so far with the following:
Quality and depth of design documentation. Has the vendor demonstrated thoughtful and careful preparation of proposals and technical documentation? Have they taken the time to provide the quality information and level of detail you need to make an informed decision?
For example, does the proposal spell out the size of the system and provide rationale for the proposed equipment design and process recommendations? It should also include connected load requirements for all utilities so you can estimate the installation cost, and provide estimated consumption requirements so you can figure out the running cost. When a company shows you that they have thought through all aspects of the proposed design and how it will work on your manufacturing line, you can be confident that they are prepared to support this product for the long term.
Validation testing. How thoroughly has the vendor validated the equipment design and process recommendations? Have they provided concrete test results that prove the design will work as expected? If you can see that the vendor has tested the process not once, but multiple times under varying conditions, you can be sure that the design is optimal for your needs and your process.
This information shows you that the vendor is concerned with ongoing support as well. Especially if the vendor is not located near your plant, dealing with emergency service calls can be costly for both of you. Thorough validation of the design and process greatly reduces the chance that support issues will arise after installation.
Problem-solving and process expertise. Have you had the opportunity to use the company’s pilot line to test your process and requirements? If you did, you got a first-hand look at their operation and their staff. Did you meet any of the engineers that handle service and support? Did they demonstrate expertise with the equipment technology and the type of process you are implementing? How did they overcome any issues that arose during testing? Think about the problem-solving skills you observed during your visit, and if you would be comfortable trusting these engineers with your own equipment.
Can you think of an example of a problem solved during pilot line testing that could give people a comfort level about how your engineers can solve problems post-installation?
Flexibility and responsiveness to your needs. Choosing an equipment vendor is a major commitment. You’ll be working with them for years to come. Have they demonstrated the same commitment to helping you meet your business goals? Have they been willing to accommodate design changes without major delays? Are they able to move up a delivery date to meet a critical need? A supplier that values customer relationships does what it takes to meet your needs, even when it’s inconvenient and even costly for them. This is the kind of company you can count on to do the same after you’ve signed the purchase order.
INVESTIGATE THE SUPPORT TEAM
At this point in the process, you’ve thoroughly evaluated the product offering. Now it’s time to do your due diligence about the support team. Here’s what you need to know:
Size of the service team. In this situation, it’s important to consider the size of the organization, but bigger is not always better. A small company can often be more responsive to your needs, as long as they have enough people who can travel onsite to fix a problem. If there is only one service technician and two customers with equipment down, will you be the priority? How long will it take them to get to you?
Depth of knowledge and experience. Find out as much as you can about the people providing on-site support. Are they actually engineers? In an ideal world, the engineers who designed and built your dryer would be the ones fixing it if there’s a problem. Some companies can actually do that. How experienced are they? It’s a great sign when the firm has a group of skilled engineers who have been with the company for a number of years.
Point of contact. Who do you call if you have a problem? Ask if that attentive person who has worked closely with you throughout the design phase will continue to be involved post-sale on installation and ongoing support. Get in touch with the support contact in advance and ask lots of questions to find out how long it takes to get a response.
AVAILABILITY OF SUPPORT OFFERINGS
You probably aren’t even considering vendors who can’t offer onsite support with an acceptable response time guarantee. But customer service and support should include much more than on-site calls to fix problems with the equipment. Ask the potential supplier if they offer the following services:
Factory Acceptance Testing. (Need to know more about this… at what point does it take place? Who is involved and what kind of tests are done? Why would a vendor NOT offer this? ) Factory Acceptance Testing (FAT) takes place near or at the end of final assembly. The customer will come to our facility to see their oven operating. There are some times FAT may be done at the customer site. The customer defines what they want for FAT. This typically includes ensuring full operation of the oven both electrical and mechanical. In addition they may define a “test run” with sample material. FAT is a customer’s choice. FAT depends on the criticality, functionality and complexity of a project. Even if the customer does not request FAT, RES performs functional testing on all projects before leaving our facility. Keep in mind … I would assume that all vendors test their equipment.
Implementation support. (Need to know more about what should be done, and what to ask about … what does Radiant do that others may not?) This may really mean installation support. Unless a customer specifically wants us to install their oven at their site, the installation is done by the customer or others. On larger complex problems we typically include a few days of installation support whereby one of our technical people will be onsite at the custom’s facility to supervise and offer advice during installation. I am not sure how others handle this.
Training. The need for training operators, engineers and maintenance staff on a new piece of equipment will vary depending on your application and your company’s resources. Make sure that the company you’re buying from is willing and able to spend the time to come out to you and bring your staff up to speed on the new dryer. Or if it works better for you, ask if the company will provide documentation and training to one or your engineers who can train your staff.
What does Radiant do that may be more than what competitors typically provide for training?
Remote support. This is especially important if the vendor is not located near your factory. In many cases, issues can be resolved remotely by dialing into the system. Does the vendor have this capability? Also, are they willing to troubleshoot an issue over the phone with one of your own engineers? These services can be a lifesaver when your manufacturing line is down, and can also save money on unnecessary service calls.
A quick example of solving a problem remotely would be great here
Parts availability. If a part fails, it doesn’t help much if the vendor promises to be there in 24 hours, but it takes 3 days to get the part. Make sure parts are available within the agree-upon time frame for fixing a problem with your dryer.
Refurbishment. Given the amount of time and money you are investing in a piece of process heating equipment, you shouldn’t be forced to replace it if just one component or part of a bank goes down. Make sure you’re doing business with a company that builds the equipment they sell, and has the expertise to refurbish parts of the dryer as needed.
Seek out the right references
Every company can provide references that say glowing things about the product. What you need is a reference that can tell you about how the company handles problems.
Ask to speak to a long-term customer. If the company has worked with an OEM or integrator for a long time, that’s the reference you want. For starters, companies who are building equipment for an outside customer tend to have very strict service standards, since their own reputation is on the line.
If a vendor has been working with an OEM for years on different types of projects, it’s highly unlikely that everything has always gone perfectly. Ask about the times when issues arose with the equipment. What went wrong? How fast did the vendor respond? How did they handle the problem and what was the result?
You can also benefit from visiting a vendor’s customer in your industry or with a similar process. Even if there have been no issues with the equipment, use this opportunity to ask about implementation details and training.
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