In 2012, Patek Philippe launched a vast marketing campaign based not on any single new product, but rather on the notion of service itself. For the occasion, the brand established a website dedicated to this theme, one that provides a wealth of explanations, videos, and practical information (http://patek-institutional.com).
Why did the venerable Geneva-based brand decide to undertake such a project? To learn more, Europa Star talked with Laurent Cantin, head of Customer Service at the family manufacture. A qualified watchmaker by training, Laurent Cantin “has worked in after-sales service for 23 years,” as he says, but did not come onboard at Patek Philippe until 2006.
Europa Star: Your first action, completely emblematic, was to rename “Customer Service”, that which was previously called, as it is nearly everywhere, “After-Sales Service”. What does this semantic difference signify?
Laurent Cantin: It seems to me that it is important to differentiate the current notion of “repairer” during the watch’s guarantee period from the much broader dimension that we give to the notion of service: a dimension that is truly patrimonial. I believe that we are the only one to offer the possibility of repairing or restoring absolutely all of the watches produced by Patek Philippe during its 174 years of existence. For us, Service is a strategic element of development. It goes far beyond a simple message. It is a real willingness, a philosophy of action, which aims to solidify what we unceasingly repeat: a Patek Philippe timepiece is a value that is transmitted from generation to generation.
ES: You are not content then to merely wait until the watches are sent to you for repairs…
LC: No, our service is involved upstream in all phases of the development and production of a watch. We intervene right from the beginning, collaborating with the developers, the methods unit, and the technical bureau. A representative of Customer Service is present in all the development teams. Because of our position, we receive a lot of comments from people’s experience and are thus very active in terms of quality feedback that comes directly from the field. In addition, in the downstream direction, we conduct major activities aimed at our clients. Today, an important and daily problem is that of educating the client. Aside from informed aficionados, who possess a real culture of watchmaking, many clients do not have a clear understanding of their watch or of the quality mechanical movements that we produce. Often, it happens that we are asked to simply replace a watch, which at first glance seems to no longer be working. Sometimes, it happens that the owner wears his automatic watch to bed and then does not understand why it has stopped working… (laughs)
ES: The education of the client is thus primordial...
LC: I often use the comparison of the automobile. Everyone fully understands that a car needs a complete service every 15,000 kilometres, or on average once a year. These same people, however, often do not understand that a watch, whose “engine” runs 24 hours a day, also requires regular servicing, once every three to five years, and also that it needs lubrication, for example. It is really as simple as that. But to make them understand and accept this basic notion is already a considerable task. Approximately one client in three still does not understand the necessity for servicing.
ES: On the other hand, we often hear complaints about the costs and the long wait times for watchmaking after-sales service, in general…
LC: The particularity of Patek Philippe is that Customer Service is not at all considered as a “profit centre”. Moreover, today, in fact, we lose money, but the notion of service surpasses everything, whatever the price. The service and repair time for a simple mechanical movement at Patek Philippe is at least five to six hours of pure watchmaking time, for a cost of about CHF 660. In this total amount we do not charge for polishing, cleaning, assembly, checks, administration, logistics, etc. As for the long wait times, you have to count from four weeks, for the watches still under guarantee, to eight weeks. This is long, you may say, but you must also realise that all the repaired pieces are subjected to the same quality control process as the pieces in production, and this takes fifteen days.
ES: In this regard, what is the rate of return for watches under guarantee?
LC: Very low, on average from 2.7 to 2.8 per cent. This also includes all the watches that were mishandled. The job of the head of Customer Service would lend itself perfectly to that of a novelist. Some of the stories that we hear are really far-fetched.
ES: In specific terms, how is the Customer Service department organised, here in Geneva and in the various markets?
LC: To give you some numbers, we have 58 certified centres in 36 countries on all the continents. This involves 250 people, including the 97 who work in Geneva and represents absolutely all the watch métiers. In 2012, we made 63,000 repairs and services, an increase of 7 to 8 per cent per year. Given this, we do not want to expand our network too much because we must control it very strictly. The competencies and services must be absolutely the same everywhere. And, you are aware of the difficulties in finding really qualified watchmakers in some parts of the world. In parenthesis, we are opening a new training centre in China.
ES: How does a centre become certified? What are the criteria?
LC: If an independent watch centre wishes to be certified by us, it must meet very precise criteria, not only in terms of watchmaking competency, but also in terms of the work environment (lighting, colours, no carpeting on the floor), technical equipment, human resources, and logistics. It must also purchase a minimum stock of component parts. This process also has several steps involved in validation. We conduct an audit, and then write a report containing certain recommendations. Finally a training phase is carried out in Geneva, lasting a minimum of four weeks that we pay for completely. During the entire process, this relationship can be cancelled at any time since the basic idea is to be able to establish a veritable partnership.
ES: Who are generally the candidates for this partnership?
LC: They are either subsidiaries, or official distributors, or qualified retailers who want to offer good service and think of this as an investment in their clientele rather than a source of additional profit. Moreover, they might also include independent multi-brand service centres, which will benefit from the image of our brand. But they must carry out a minimum of 50 to 60 repairs per year in order to break even.
ES: Would they all practice the same price structure, such as you explained earlier?
LC: As you know, we do not have the right, legally, to impose prices. We have a policy of recommending prices that are valid everywhere, prices that are not tied to the cost of living since they would be very different from one country to another for the same service. In case of abusive prices, however, we would point this out and intervene.
ES: But, I imagine that all these centres would not be capable of working on all the pieces in your collection, especially the grand complications…
LC: We work on products according to different levels. If it involves changing a bracelet, setting the time, or even replacing a battery in our quartz movements, the sales points can take care of these activities. On the next level up are the basic mechanical movements, while on level 3 are the annual calendars, moon phases, etc… Finally on level 4, we find the chronographs right up to the perpetual calendars. All of the haute horlogerie pieces are handled exclusively in Geneva. To be able to handle the higher levels requires an investment and a great deal of experience as well as regular practice. In addition, the new products are also systematically dealt with in Geneva. The first year, all the watches are sent back to the production service. The second year, they are handled by Customer Service in Geneva. The third year, the pieces can be repaired by authorised outside repair centres. This means all the so-called contemporary watches, from 1973 to today. All the timepieces made before this date are sent to Geneva to our restoration centre. And there, we are able to repair, to restore, and to remake all the component parts that are no longer in existence even in our historic stock of movements blanks. On an international level, we intend to gradually establish centres of competence devoted to different types of specific products, serving a group of countries.
ES: Switzerland has been attacked by the European Union regarding the universal supply of component parts. What is happening in this area?
LC: Indeed, heavy pressures are being exerted following complaints from various watchmakers targeting the large brands and groups in order to have access to all their supplies. This is a problem, which does not affect us exclusively, and which is not settled. The problem is a complex one because we have already met watchmakers who either do not have the required competence or who carry out unsuitable repairs. One day, when opening up a watch, we found a component part that had been replaced by a paper clip! There are some clients who think they can save money in this way. Clearly, it is a false economy.
[Editor’s note: Europa Star will devote a specific report to Patek Philippe’s restoration centre, a veritable living conservatory featuring all the traditional professions and know-how in the realm of watchmaking.]
Source: Europa Star February - March 2013 Magazine Issue