Service as an Attitude

A sign in the boss’ office reads “Customer Service Is An Attitude, Not a Department”. The boss is the new head of Customer Service at IWC in Schaffhausen, Christoph Bippus. He’s a watchmaker by training who has been with IWC since 1998, worked in the complications atelier and has spent five years at the Richemont service facility in the United States. Christoph continues filling the big shoes of his predecessor Andres Volk.

As the former head of service, Andreas greatly enhanced IWC service during his tenure. A watch guy himself, he was a good friend of many IWC collectors and made it a point to attend collectors’ meetings, especially those held during SIHH. Andreas cared what people thought and he wanted to convey his knowledge to others. He took over a service “department” and thoroughly reviewed procedures, quality control and organization. Service is critically important to IWC, and Andreas did an outstanding job, so much so that he was recently promoted to Chief Operating Officer at IWC, when the prior COO, Karl-Heinz Baumann, was promoted to a position at Richemont.

—Christoph Bippus, Head of Customer Service at IWC Schaffhausen

IWC clearly has the right person in Christoph Bippus as the current head of service. Being in charge of any watch company’s service “attitude” is no easy role. Service usually occurs when customers have problems. Few people are happy when their treasured watch doesn’t work right. Moreover, not all problems are easily solvable or, in fact, should be solved. Customer service can be a thankless task and a recipe for dissatisfaction.

The person in charge of all this must approach his job with a truly caring attitude and, above all else, a sympathetic understanding of the customers. This far transcends watchmaking skills and even corporate organizational skills. This is why Christoph believes in what the sign in his office conveys: Service is an Attitude.

Customer Service is an Attitude, not a Department

He also realizes that not all customer needs can be met, and part of the solution is to appropriately educate customers. Some purchasers of IWC watches, as the customer base expands worldwide, are new to mechanical watches and may not realize that their watch requires expert care, and not merely changing a battery like with a quartz watch. Some customers expect tolerances that no manufacturer achieves. Christoph tells about the one customer who thought that his minute repeater wasn’t loud enough, not realizing that repeaters are only so loud. 

The solution sometimes is education and better communication with customers. Sometimes, the problem is logistical, such as bringing in more watchmakers. As one example, turn-around was too slow in some Asian markets, so the number of IWC watchmakers in Beijing and Shanghai has significantly increased and they now have state-of-art equipment and facilities. 

Only a fraction of repairs end up back in Schaffhausen, perhaps 15% of all watches needing service. Due primarily to import and export rules, almost all arrive from one of Richemonts worldwide service platforms. A few arrive directly from the Boutique in Schaffhausen and Zurich. When each watch arrives back at headquarters, an entire protocol is implemented. 

The shipping department receives the parcel and logs it in. Then, service enters the watch in a registry and, usually less than 20 minutes later, the watch is examined and given a preliminary diagnosis. Watches are then sorted. Warranty repairs get especially fast service. Vintage watches, defined by service as those older than 25 years, go to a different area. Likewise, specialized watches, with more than typical complications, go to a specialized area.

 

For modern watches there is a simple type of diagnoses. First there is a visual check opening the case back and looking at the movement and at the dial. Water damage and dirt can usually be detected easily this way. Even age, including the need for oiling, can be determined visually as can wear on the wheels. Amplitude –the swing of the balance wheel—can be tested. A low amplitude is usually the result of a dirty escapement or dried lubricants. 

For about 95% of the watches sent in to service at Schaffhausen, a quote for the estimated repair cost is generated within three days. It is then approved by administration and sent to the IWC local office in or near the owner’s country. Three days for a quote appears to be remarkably quick, especially for the collector who has waited for what seems like ages for the good –or occasionally bad– news. 

 Delay here usually occurs outside of IWC’s hands, with the complicated time and logistics of international shipment and customs clearance. The goal, except for specialized pieces like very old or especially complicated watches like repeaters, is to perform the work within four weeks after receiving authorization from the owner as to the estimate.

 

For the vintage collector, his watch receives different treatment. Repairing such watches requires special care and cannot be done entirely free of risk. For example, removing the hands can result in flakes coming off and even getting between the dial and movement. Replacing the hands may be a necessary consequence, but many collectors value the authenticity of their piece and would not want new hands contrasting starkly with a naturally aged older dial. There is a restoration team of several watchmakers. 

Some repairs are simple, and in many instances a complete overhaul will solve current problems. Overhaul involves disassembly, cleaning, reassembly and oiling of the movement, together with replacement of worn parts. We should keep in mind that this process involves more than twice the work of assembling a watch when new. It involves both disassembly plus assembly. Moreover, sometimes parts change through use, and they now might not fit together as nicely as those that are brand new.

In many respects, a good repair effort involves art as much as science taken with the undeniable skill of the individual watchmaker. Still, IWC has been investing in state-of-the-art equipment and analyzes how it can constantly improve. Its watches are exposed to a multitude of tests, and there are continuous redesign efforts for even the smallest parts, such as gaskets. Tolerances are always tighter. The net result is an extremely low repair ratio for IWC’s products, compared to industry averages and similar companies at least to the extent data is available. 

Schaffhausen is, in many ways, the tip of the iceberg, with slightly less than 25% of all IWC service personnel located there. Of those, several people are involved in administrative and supply functions, and most of the others are not only watchmakers but also polishers and goldsmiths. 

 

Repairs, then, are an expensive proposition for any high-end watch company like IWC which values and in fact requires high-end service. Service here requires not only highly trained and skilled watchmakers, doing at least double the work of one producing a new watch, but also ancillary personnel. It requires an extensive inventory stock. It needs the best and newest machines and tools, as well as facilities.

Occasionally, a watch owner is surprised that repairs are costly. To some extent, that is because the owner is relatively new to higher-end mechanical watches. For a few brands, it is even rumored that time and money is saved simply by tossing out the old movement and replacing it entirely. For a high-end watchmaker like IWC, different practices and procedures necessarily are involved. More skill, more effort, more inventory, more equipment, to say nothing about more staff are needed.

IWC tries very hard to be efficient in this entire process and in actuality the service department is not a profit-center. While costs and pricing must be carefully reviewed, not even the direct costs of expended labor are ever fully recouped.

 

This is as it is intended: maintenance of a fine watch, and especially an IWC watch, is extraordinarily important to both the customer and the company. Of course, IWC charges for its service, but in many ways service is just that, a service. It reflects an attitude above all.

 

When a customer sends a watch in for service, it’s with the expectation that the watch will be returned perfectly. Because of the complexities of all mechanical watches, that sometimes –although rarely—does not occur. IWC incessantly strives to achieve a goal of perfection here and the company has found the right steward in Christoph Bippus. He’s the right person for the right job. After all, customer service is an attitude, not a department.

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