Independent watch companies certainly don’t have it easy, struggling to find distribution and customers around the world. Customer service, however, is something by which smaller companies can distinguish themselves. Where the big companies and groups struggle to maintain contact with their customers, independents have the opportunity to manage this side of their business better and more personally. I talked to four independents, all on the luxury side of the business, and here’s what I found out.
Urwerk’s co-founder Felix Baumgartner began his watchmaking career working in after-sales service, and as a result, he is really sensitive to service. For example, he developed the “oil change” indicator, a reminder to make sure the watches were sent back for service every three to five years.
One benefit for an independent luxury watchmaker is that rarely is the watch their customers buy their first complicated watch purchase, so they have an understanding of the needs of complicated, mechanical watches.
“Our customers are aware of the relative fragility of mechanical watches and do take care of their pieces,” explains Baumgartner. “Of course, there are still accidents that happen. The complications we are proposing at Urwerk are genuine, which means excitement but also risks, controlled risks as we really make sure that Urwerk watches are user friendly.
“Good customer service is really important,” he continues. “The story does not end when the watch is sold, it’s actually the opposite, the Urwerk experience starts when one has the watch on the wrist. This is one of the reasons why we’ve created an Owners’ Club. Subscribers receive a personalised service. They can ask questions, receive feedback from myself or Martin Frei, and have more details on how the watch was made, its source of inspiration. In other words, they feel closer to us.”
Today, the danger that the Internet (forums, blogs, etc.) poses is that one bad customer service experience can become widespread knowledge almost immediately. “Nowadays, no independent can afford to offer bad customer service,” Baumgartner says. “The word is spread instantaneously and can ruin a reputation at the speed of light.”
Urwerk doesn’t look at customer service as a profit centre. “We do not overcharge for our service,” Baumgartner says. “Our customers pay only for the work done and materials used, like for a new sapphire crystal. Furthermore, the whole testing process after each after-sales service is free of charge.”
Because of the complexity of Urwerk’s timepieces, they request that all their watches are returned to them for service. ”We are developing our very own horological complications, so we definitely need to be the ones to handle them,” Baumgartner says. “For example, we received an old UR-103 from Asia that was handled by a watchmaker in that part of the world. To our surprise, 20 per cent of the mechanism was missing. He/she threw away all the pieces that did not look familiar! So we had to replace the whole mechanism, in effect, we had to make a brand new watch.”
Although Urwerk’s customers are very knowledgeable about their watches, it’s important for the brand to service watches as quickly as possible. The average is three months. “We really try to work as fast as possible but each watch has to go through the same testing before being sent back,” Baumgartner details. “There is no way we can reduce this amount of time. People do understand this as it is a way to guarantee the best service possible. The difference between buying a big brand and buying from an independent is also in the relationship created with our clients. We know our clients, we have met some of them and some have even made the trip to meet us in person.”
The “oil change” indicator mentioned above is one way to reinforce with the client the eventual need for service. “The need for service is really part of the watch itself,” Baumgartner adds. “Clients know about this specific indication and it is a way to create a real connection between the owner and his watch. He knows exactly how much time he had his Urwerk on the wrist.
“After-sales service is demanding,” he adds. “The more watches you sell over the years, the more you will see watches coming back for service or repair. We at Urwerk, try to manage it so that the person who has assembled the watch is in charge of it all the way. We hope we’ll be able to keep things this way as long as possible.”
De Bethune takes a long-term view of customer service. “Our watches are timeless so we are organised to serve them and are dedicated to them ad vitam aeternam,“ says Denis Flageollet, co-founder of De Bethune. “The customers who choose De Bethune are people that understand artistic products, and therefore they are naturally respectful of our service. At the same time, good service to the customer is not just important, it is essential.”
Flageollet understands the negative impact even one bad customer experience can have on a small brand. “A young brand such as De Bethune cannot have a bad image, so it is all about the relationship with the customer,” he says. “A good experience sends a message of competence to the client. For us, after-sales service is not a profit centre but an investment for the reputation of the brand.”
90 per cent of all after-sales service is done at the factory, with only a few simple repairs done at approved service centres. Sending the watch back to Switzerland results in a longer time out of the hands of the client, but De Bethune does its best to communicate to the end consumer. “A simple explanation can avoid frustration: one week to send the watch here to Switzerland, one week for analysis and quotation, two to three weeks for the service, one week of control, then one week to return the watch to the customer,” Flageollet adds.
This communication occurs at the point of sale, to avoid any unpleasant surprises. “We ask all our retailers to regularly supervise our watches according to a specific check list,” Flageollet explains. “We also offer a free service for the watches they have had in stock for more than one year. We also ensure regular training of our retailers in order that the final customer is fully informed about the use and characteristics of our products.”
Guillaume Tetu, the brand’s co-founder, strongly focuses on after-sales service, working to build a good relationship with Hautlence owners. “Customer service is the most important relationship you can build in your company, so as a result, Hautlence takes care of the watches in our workshops in Switzerland for regular service and in case of any problems any time with our watches,” he explains. “We try to explain the need for service to our customers. When you have a car you do a service every 15,000 or 30,000 km, and it is the same for mechanical watches — you have to take care of it every three to five years.”
Tetu sees serving the end customer as an opportunity to grow his brand. “The most important is if you have any problem, you fix it, and fix it as quickly as possible,” he says. “One bad experience can be communicated to 100 friends. We have had the chance to have some success stories, and the good news has been talked about and explained on blogs and forums, and this is certainly positive for our image.”
Tetu has worked hard to develop an Owners’ Club for Hautlence, so he can communicate directly with the owners of Hautlence timepieces. Hautlence sees many repeat buyers, collectors who buy each piece the brand introduces, but with its new ranges of more accessibly-priced timepieces, the HLRS and HLRQ, Tetu expects the ranks of the Owners’ Club to grow quickly.
Tetu sees storm clouds on the horizon for brands who are not prepared to service all the watches they sell. “We know that sometimes a customer sends his watch to a company and he waits six to eight months for a quotation and another six to eight months for a simple service,” he says, astounded. “Many companies can’t do the service, because they have not focused on it, and as a result, service becomes a nightmare for managing the business and for customer relationships. Some companies also charge incredibly high prices to service the watches and customers are not able to afford it, and as a result they are really disappointed in the brand, and the brand loses customers. This is not the way to do it properly. Service should not be looked at as a problem, but as a priority.”
Christophe Claret specialised in repair of vintage, complicated watches before founding his own manufacture, now known for its high complications, including tourbillons and minute repeaters.
“Within my company, we place a very high level of importance on after-sales service,” Claret says. “We have a specific workshop that handles the after-sales services for the watches, whether for third-party manufactured products or watches under the Christophe Claret brand.
“In general, collectors are understanding, especially if the problem is due to their mishandling, a violent shock or after the watch has been dropped,” Claret continues. “But in case of a technical problem or that the watch does not operate, they will be much more critical. This is why we attach a great deal of importance to the fine-tuning and homologation of each of our watches. Moreover, for each watch, we perform a ‘Test Homologation Fiabilité’, which is a pre-honing for the timepiece where it undergoes numerous shocks and functions that simulate the wear of the watch in an accelerated way, corresponding to a 6 month wear period.” When a watch out of warranty arrives at Claret for service, an estimate is prepared upon receipt of the timepiece. “On the estimate, we will establish what issue the watch is having, the components needed to be replaced, the estimated work-time needed (minimum and maximum) for the repair and the time to return the watch to the customer,” Claret explains. “In the unfortunate and unlikely event that there is an issue that occurs while a timepiece is under warranty, we will strive to answer very quickly to our customer and will not hesitate, if necessary, to travel and pick up the customer’s timepiece ourselves at the client’s location and to return it back to him/her in the shortest time-period possible.
“I have the strong conviction that we should not neglect the impact of bad after sales experience for the client,” he continues. “This is why we initiate everything within our power to never let this happen. Good customer service sends the message of our respect and consideration for the client and our shared passion for our products. For us, the after-sales service department is in no way a profit centre, but a service that we provide to our customers.”
Claret requires that all maintenance services or reconditioning of their timepieces must be made at the manufacture in Le Locle. The average length of time to complete a full maintenance varies due to the complexity of the movement being serviced and the time since its last service. It can take as short as one month for a simple mechanism regularly maintained and as long as three to five months for a more complex mechanism that has not been serviced for an extended period of time. The suggested frequency of servicing a Claret watch is every four years. “In general, customers understand that due to the strong innovation and high complications of our timepieces that it may take time to have their watch serviced,” Claret details. “Furthermore, almost all of the collectors at this level have more than one watch and, even if ours is their favourite, they typically cope by using one of their other watches for a short period of time.
“Within our Manufacture, we maintain a stock of all the after-sales service components from our first calibre to the most recent ones,” he continues. “This stock includes over 20,900 references of parts and over 3,000,000 components for each of the more than 70 calibres we have created. Therefore, we are able to repair and replace the components on all of our calibres, from the first one made more than 20 years ago to the current calibres.”
For niche brands, customer service is even more important than for the bigger brands. Customers of the big brands often suffer the disservice they receive silently, but customers of these small brands are incredibly passionate about watches and deserve a high level of service. Luckily, brands like Urwerk, Hautlence, De Bethune and Christophe Claret give it to them.
Source: Europa Star April - May 2013 magazine issue