Our survey of the overall quality of customer service offered by the main Swiss brands in China revealed some serious problems. The tidal wave of sales over the last few years has literally submerged the repair workshops and inundated customer service departments. With a certain tardiness, the major watchmaking groups are now reacting, having realised that an efficient customer service is a strategic advantage.
Since 2008, Vacheron Constantin has had a Swiss master watchmaker to repair its grand complication pieces in China. Europa Star met him at the “Twin Villa” in Shanghai, where we discovered the after-sales service of the venerable Geneva brand.
“JiangSheDanDun” ( Vacheron Constantin) has been in China for 207 years and saw the problem coming as early as 2008, when the brand dispatched a master watchmaker to China to work on grand complications and raise the standard of the customer service there. We met him, but in the interests of the brand, he will remain anonymous.
Europa Star: From the bustle of the Huaihai Road we enter a courtyard where the silence is almost deafening. And we find an unlikely house with extraordinary décor. Where are we?
Head of customer service (CS): We are in “Vacheron’s Swiss Embassy”, as we like to call it here, but it’s actually the “Twin Villa”, because it looks like a semi-detached house. Welcome to Vacheron Constantin in China, which comprises the brand’s first own-name store, on the ground floor, and customer service on the first floor. Among our competitors spread out along the street, it immerses customers in a different universe.
It’s certainly an idyllic spot, but does the Chinese customer have to come here to have his or her watch repaired?
CS: He or she simply has to go to their nearest retailer, who will send the watch to the customer service. For the north of China, it will be sent to the Richemont Group’s customer service centre in Beijing and for the south it will arrive here in Shanghai. The Twin Villa houses two European watchmakers, both trained in Geneva to repair complications (chronographs, perpetual calendars, tourbillons). For each watch we receive, we assess the problem to determine whether the watch will be repaired here or whether we pass it on to one of our Chinese watchmakers.
Can the stores do small repairs themselves?
CS: No, because they do not have watchmakers. They can change a classic strap with spring bars, of course, but not a screw-in strap, which requires specific skills and tools. Training is one of the cornerstones of the history of Vacheron Constantin, which continues to invest a lot in the training of its employees. But I keep telling my team: “If you don’t know how to repair something, don’t even try. Because that is when mistakes happen.” Other aspects also come into play, such as how to welcome and understand the customer. Efficient customer service will be the key to success in the China of tomorrow.
Chinese customers like complications, but they don’t treat them with the necessary care. I recall the boss of Sea-Gull saying, “You can play tennis wearing our tourbillon.”
CS: (Laughs) This negligence doesn’t just apply to watchmaking, it’s common practice in China, where they think that the more they spend, the more robust – or even unbreakable – something is. In reality, the opposite is true! Unfortunately, some advertisements encourage this attitude, like the Rolex campaign with a golfer hitting the ball. I feel for the watch in this case, because it is totally unsuitable for such an activity, the impact of the club being transferred to the watch on the wrist, creating harmful vibrations in the movement. But we have to soak this up, we cannot say to the customer: “Do not wear your watch to play golf!” But during the sale, we take the time to explain to the customer the care that a mechanical watch needs, with regular maintenance every three to five years. To make things easier to understand, we draw parallels with the maintenance of a car.
Except that in Europe, buyers and sellers of watches and cars have owned watches and cars themselves for generations. From experience, they know what they are talking about. But in China, buyers and sellers have almost no experience. The salespeople often cannot afford the very products that they are selling…
CS: This is true, but when we sell a grand complication timepiece, we talk to the customer directly to show them how to set the perpetual calendar, or to explain what a tourbillon is. Then, we teach them how to take care of the watch. The more a customer respects his watch, the more his watch will respect him.
You are practically educating your customers. Do they accept this easily?
CS: Since it’s coming from a Swiss watchmaker, they are trusting and attentive, because they think “these are the people who made my watch”. They take the time to listen to the advice on setting the perpetual calendar because they know very well that if they don’t, they will have to come back to the store because the date will not work or the watch will stop working altogether.
“Whether the watch was purchased in Geneva or Paris, we have to repair it here because it is very difficult to re-export a watch.”
Most brands are waking up to the importance of customer service. But they are doing so very late…
CS: Because in the meantime sales in China have exploded, without considering the 75 million Chinese tourists who travelled abroad in 2012 alone, doing so almost exclusively to go shopping, returning with arms full of luxury goods, and watches in particular! And it is, of course, in China that these consumers seek out the customer service. Once the watch is in China, we need to act in China. Whether the watch was purchased in Geneva or Paris, we have to repair it here because it is very difficult to re-export a watch. Vacheron was the pioneer among Swiss brands in setting up a workshop that was able to repair grand complications. My mission five years ago was to implement the brand’s standards in terms of quality and lead time and today we offer our customers a service that is carried out entirely in China and with short repair times.
What are the repair times, specifically?
CS: In the past they were quite long, but we have reduced them across the board. Before I arrived, it could take between four and six months to repair a tourbillon because the watch had to be returned to Switzerland. We didn’t even give the customer a return date, because the Chinese customs could refuse to allow the watch back into the country. We can now repair a watch in a turnaround time of two months, which is why the repair has to be done here in China.
“We can now repair a watch in a turnaround time of two months, which is why the repair has to be done here in China.”
Are there nevertheless some cases when the watch needs to be sent back to Geneva?
CS: Hardly ever, since the collection is quite recent and we are talking about modern watches. But the trend to buy older pieces at auction is on the up in China as well. And if the watch is damaged or rusty because of water penetration and the movement is affected, we cannot repair it here and have to send it back to Geneva. This is not something for our customer service.
Can Vacheron Constantin repair any watch the brand has ever produced, like its famous rival?
CS: In Geneva, Vacheron Constantin’s “Vintage” department can repair everything, from 1755 to the present day…
Isn’t the main problem finding good watchmakers in China?
CS: It’s a global problem. While there are a lot of watchmakers worldwide, very few of them are qualified. Even in Switzerland there is a shortage because there are more watchmakers entering retirement than there are graduating from the schools… But Richemont has opened a school that trains watchmakers at different levels for different brands within the group. We will need them in the future. The fact remains that highly-qualified watchmakers are rare because you need ten years of experience before a young watchmaker fresh out of school is able to repair a watch!
Coming back to the Twin-Villa in Shanghai, do you have a large stock of spare parts in order to ensure quick repairs?
CS: Richemont handles the logistics for spare parts. We only have the most common parts in stock here…
Richemont has a big customer service centre in Hong Kong. Do you have close links with it?
CS: Absolutely, we work together with this platform.
Between “duty-free” Hong Kong and China, which imposes a high tax on luxury products, the border is said to be quite porous…
CS: The utmost caution is required when importing watches or spare parts. If you carry them in your pocket and the customs find out that you are importing them illegally then the consequences can be severe. Richemont and Vacheron scrupulously respect the rule down to the last detail, including the type of material and its weight. And you have to pay the import duties, of course.
Let’s say that there is a downturn in the market and that in 10 years the situation is the opposite and customer service is too big for the market.
CS: The market has been extremely good over the past five years and we have rode this wave. For Vacheron Constantin, the upward trend continues.
Source: Europa Star August - September 2013 Magazine Issue