Anticipating Customer Needs

Nov. 10, 2011
Climax Portable Machine Tools aims not just to satisfy customers but to 'wow' them.

"All good businesses are personal," communications and sports mogul Mark Cuban once said. "The best businesses are very personal." Climax Portable Machine Tools takes pains to keep the personal touch with its customers, even though they include industrial giants such as General Electric, Siemens Power Generation, Bechtel, Caterpillar and Northrop Grumman. The manufacturer, based in Newberg, Ore., and Dren, Germany, also realizes that simply staying on top of customers' issues is not enough to keep up with today's business pace. Climax works intimately with its customers in an effort to anticipate their future needs as well.

Geoff Gilmore, Climax's president and CEO, recently shared with IndustryWeek some of his strategies for achieving high-performance customer service.

IW: What standard do you hold yourself accountable for in terms of customer service?

At Climax Portable Machine Tools, every one of us, including especially our management team, is on a mission to create an extraordinary company that not just satisfies our customers, but "wows" them and builds strong and lasting, deep and intimate partnerships. To do that, our customer focus goes well beyond our 24/7 support -- it not only permeates every interaction between our employees and our customers, but how we operate internally as well. For example, whenever a customer or potential customer comes into our offices, the entire management team greets them in the lobby to express our appreciation for their business. We involve customers deeply during the early stages of new product development to ensure we're not just meeting but actually exceeding their needs.

IW: How is the machine tool market changing and how is that affecting your view of customer service?

As industries worldwide come to recognize the inherent benefits of machining in place to repair and maintain critical pieces of equipment, there has been an increasing demand for powerful precision portable machine tools to do this work. As customers focus on improving equipment uptime and lifetime extension, time is becoming a critical driver in customer service. How fast can I get my portable machine tool (because I am down now)? How fast can my portable machine tool complete my repair (because I am down now)? How much longer can I use my current equipment by repairing it onsite (because buying new equipment is so expensive, time consuming and complicated)?

Since time is becoming such an important part of improving our customers equipment uptime and life extensions, we are seeing an uptick in the demand for renting machines to supplement our customer's existing tools, to take on new projects or respond quickly to emergency situations.

We also know that there's a worldwide shortage of skilled machinists to do the work, and there's a growing imperative for training programs to teach younger workers how to safely operate the equipment.

Climax's competitive edge is that we work closely with customers within the industries we serve -- including power generation, shipbuilding, heavy construction and mining, engineering and service companies -- to anticipate their problems and proactively have their solutions already waiting for them when they occur in their business.

For example, we've embarked on a 5-year growth plan which includes:

  • Opening new rentals depots and distributorships worldwide,
  • Expanding the range of our standard product lines,
  • Expanding our capabilities to build customize machines for highly complex machining and welding problems and
  • Developing a range of machinist training programs and other services to help customers be more productive which we can deliver literally around the world at our facilities, at our customer facilities or out in the field

We're also always on the lookout for new market opportunities. For instance, we see a growing need among manufacturers of heavy equipment to use our portable machines right on the assembly line to machine out-of-spec components in place and to speed up production. We've seen this work extremely well for wind tower manufacturers; in fact, our portable circular milling machines have become the de facto machine for machining flanges that connect tower sections that become warped during the welding process. The machine's portability makes it ideal for use both in the plant and at wind farms.

Even in this worldwide economic downturn, our company has grown and we're seeing great results around the world.

IW: How do you drive the need for a focus on customer service throughout your company?

We intentionally check, reflect and work on improving our relationships, both with our customers and our employees. How we treat each other is a key to how we will treat our customers. We brainstorm ideas on an ongoing basis to determine how best to serve our customers, whether it's through our engineering collaboration to develop custom machines or by adding new services that they will need now and in the future. We also are very vigilant both in our hiring practices and when partnering with new distributors worldwide to ensure each employee understands our vision and goals about creating an extraordinary company.

As a prime example, we helped several of our employees recently become ASQ-certified. These employees will use the knowledge they've acquired to analyze current procedures within the organization and to help develop new protocols where needed to ensure that each step in the company's manufacturing process meets our highest standards for excellence. They also will work with Climax's suppliers to ensure their products meet these standards. Ultimately, our customers are assured they are getting the best machines and services available so they can do their jobs more efficiently and cost-effectively which creates a frictionless, seamless and enjoyable intimate relationship with our customers.

IW: How important is speed and reaction time in your business? It appears as if there is more pressure for quick delivery.

As I mentioned earlier speed and reaction time are highly important because if a critical piece of equipment causes an unplanned shutdown at a plant, for example, it could cost $1 million a day in lost revenue for our ultimate customer. Besides the direct costs to our customers there are also indirect costs to society. For example if a cargo ship's circulating pumps need emergency repairs, the longer it takes to fix not only does the shipping company incur more costs but also our society incurs the costs of goods being delayed getting to market which could mean spoilage or lost opportunity costs to businesses and ultimately consumers.

It's imperative for many industries to partner with a supplier that they can count on 24/7. At Climax, we've focused our energy on helping companies eliminate and/or minimize the potential for catastrophic equipment failure. Because equipment often needs to be repaired in the evening or on weekends, our team is available day or night to speak with customers about their challenging machining and welding projects. We also have fully stocked rental depots strategically located worldwide so customers can get the tools they need, often within 24 hours.

IW:Speed was an issue in a project you were involved in -- the refurbishing of lock doors at the Markland Dam. What was going on there?

Like many of the dams along our nation's waterways, the Markland Dam and Locks was nearing the end of its 50-year life cycle, and its gates were showing signs of corrosion and stress and needed to be replaced. One of the key elements of the project was the milling of the quoins. The quoins are 3-1/2 inches deep, 10 inches wide and run the length of the 65-foot wall, keeping water from leaking into the lock when the gates close. In the past, quoin refurbishment and serviceability -- not a permanent long-term repair -- would involve a near-term fix of placing epoxy at the quoins which only lasts 10 years. Or it would have taken 45 to 60 days with cutting out the concrete with a diamond saw and replacing the quoins, although this method is seldom attempted.

The Army Corps of Engineers sought a better solution to refurbishing the quoins and conceptualized the idea of using a portable milling machine to remove the corrosion on the quoins and to drill holes so that the new gates could be hung. Climax designed and developed the innovative portable milling machine that the Corps used to do the work. The milling machine consists of six 13-foot rail beds that were mounted to the lock walls. The beds each had a linear rail for machine guidance and a rack gear to drive the machine up and down the wall. The final bed contained the milling machine with a 5-inch diameter cutter that removed the corrosion to a tolerance of +/- 0.024 inches. Once that was done, the machine's drilling unit drilled and threaded 54 holes on each wall quoin so that 7-foot long replacement quoin blocks could be installed and bolted to the holes.

By refurbishing the quoins in this manner, the machining project was completed in 14 days providing the Corps with their long term solution without the prior 45-60 days. We encourage you to check out the Climax blog for a day-to-day diary and photos of the quoin project as it took place.

IW: Can you provide more information on how you solicit customer feedback? Is there any particular program or technique you find particularly effective?

Climax doesn't want to rely on a special program or event. Embedded inside our intimate customer relationship approach is ongoing dialogue about our working relationship that covers both our current performance as well as our future performance. For example our sales force regularly calls and meets with our customers to solicit feedback about how our machines operate and what improvements could be made to the Climax machines they used. Based on this feedback, our engineers embarked on a plan to upgrade our portable milling machine line. In addition to the brainstorming that took place among our internal teams, we asked several of our key customers to further participate in a focus group about the performance of our portable milling machines. We also sought their advice on what they'd like to see in the next generation of these tools. Their feedback was invaluable in helping us to take the traditional concepts of power, flexibility, modular design and ruggedness to a whole new and innovative flexible and modular level. One of our customers also agreed to beta test the first prototype machine. We are now introducing a revolutionary new portable milling line of machines.

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