Dead Bucks

April 25, 2003
Flying to fix problems at customer sites is an expensive waste of time...unless golf is involved

Snow! Just when we thought is was safe to get the golf clubs out...wham. Living in Canada has its ups and downs, and April snow is one of the big downs.

Why can't I get a call from an industrial machine builder to go to North Carolina to help with a control system startup, or to fix some esoteric problem they have? Hmmm... Technical consulting roadtrip to a warm climate during winter. Golf. Isn't that what every technical magazine columnist dreams about?

Well, maybe not, but it isn't all that far from the truth. I actually did get that phone call. The industrial OEM was based in Seattle--all in all, not a bad place to go in the throes of a winter that won't quit. He needed some help, but the biggest problem for him was that his problem was here.... Here, as in Canada. My golf dreams were dashed.

As we talked about the problem and its issues, he brought up dead dollars. Those non-productive dollars that are spent to get people from point A to point B to solve problems, do startups, and provide customer service.

Heck, the project I'm involved with here in the Great White North, has brought the industrial OEM here for meetings and tasks more than six times in two months.

Given those short-notice airline fares, the profit margin sure can take playing at Pebble Beach out of the equation.

Dead dollars, I thought. Money spent for no worthwhile reason, while providing no redeeming value. Flying Seattle-Toronto would cost about US$1,500. Lost productive time is a good 6-8 hours. What's that worth? What other lost opportunities exist?

When the OEM representative gets here, he's crossed three time zones, and since airplane time is never kind, fatigue might delay actual arrival at the site until the next day.

Once the problem is fixed or addressed, they have to get back home. Another eight hours of dead dollar time, and all that goes with it.

I'm not bemoaning the airlines; and I do think video conferencing, as indicated by videophone use overseas, can sometimes be a viable alternative to on-site support by industrial OEMs.

But think of those dead dollars. And more importantly, OEMs just can't have an arsenal of technical people hanging out and waiting for a call.

This brings me to the reason this chap called me. They couldn't spring anyone free from Seattle to help. They found me on the web as a qualified PLC guy, and they called me. I do love that Internet sometimes.

I couldn't help with this problem, but I found someone who could. Problem solved as such, without any dead dollars being ratholed. The OEM was able to stay home and keep a Monday morning appointment with a brand new customer. He would have had to cancel it, had the problem not been resolved this way.

How are you dealing with the challenge of providing local service for your customers? If you sell through third parties, does your rep arrangement cover you? Do you have a "certified representative" of your company--like a qualified distributor of sorts to aid in the problem solving?

I'd like to hear from those of you who don't do it this way.

The Control System Integrators Assn. (CSIA), as one example, could fill this role. Or are you finding people and/or companies with the appropriate domain expertise to help in these matters?

I know a company in Atlanta that provides call-center support for industrial customers. Would this level of service help your business?

There are times where you can dial in or use a VPN to connect to a network to fix database problems or to download additional screen to an HMI.

Machine troubleshooting can also be done, but the eyes and ears of the machine may not be at the level you need, which requires a trip to the site. Speed is clearly an issue. Debugging a code problem over a modem is downright painful.

One of my first projects involved a Weingarten high-pressure die-casting machine. What did I know about high-pressure casting back then? Nothing, but I learned. How good would Weingarten have looked if the local representative (me) had been more immediately knowledgeable?

Logistics may not always be the issue, but it makes sense to gather a stable of competent help to reduce the supply of dead bucks in circulation.

 Jeremy can be contacted through his web site:

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