Since December 2019, Alexander Lehner has been responsible for Plasser & Theurer‘s newly created division „Global Customer Services“. We sat down with him to learn more about his vision for service and customer orientation.
Thank you for your time. Since late 2019, you have been in charge of “Global Customer Services” at Plasser & Theurer. Before diving into your vision and goals, we would like to hear about your career so far.
Basically, I followed your typical engineer’s career path. After graduating in mechanical engineering, I completed a graduate engineer’s degree in electrical and electronics engineering and an MBA. I started my career as a project manager, moved on to international sales with various postings abroad, and then I became the director of Corporate Business Development at a medium-sized company. I have been working in corporate environments for the past 10 years. After creating a technology centre for digitalisation, I started focussing on developing a global customer services organisation. My entire career has been shaped by customer contact. This is why I put so much emphasis not only on employee orientation, but also on customer orientation.
That sounds very impressive. Where is your new position within the Plasser & Theurer hierarchy?
I am responsible for Global Customer Services, which concerns our head office and partner companies in equal measure. I report directly to Chief Sales Officer Thomas Schöpf, our strategic head of global sales.
Isn’t it unusual to define customer service as part of sales?
In my opinion, it‘s a good fit. Integrated customer service has a lot to do with sales. For me, sales means supporting customers every step of the way: from their first enquiry to the end of the machine’s service life. This entails providing customers with the best advice possible so they reach their goals efficiently while using their resources optimally. In this respect, we have taken the first steps already. Customer Services now is an integral part of the sales process. This allows us to shape the sales process from the beginning.
You seem very dynamic and driven! How would you describe your other strengths?
In my professional life, I have always dealt with change, which is why I have a lot of experience with it. As a manager, my clear focus is on my employees and on supporting them and their individual development. Our customers will also benefit greatly if we succeed in furthering our employees’ knowledge, development, motivation, and experience.
You argue that a machine manufacturer like Plasser & Theurer will need to organise its customer services efficiently to maintain a sustainably strong market position. What does this mean exactly?
For me, there is no doubt that customer service is going to be our decisive USP. Of course, Plasser & Theurer is a technological leader and has great innovative power. But we cannot underestimate the fact that there are imitators from other places who offer products that seem quite appealing to some customers. This brings me back to what I said before: customer service starts when we get in touch with a customer for the very first time. This is when we already have to be present. Together with the customer, we have to analyse their needs and offer them solutions based on our many years of experience and our technical knowhow, thinking beyond nominally lower prime costs. Keeping the machine’s entire service life in mind is key. Certain cost factors are added to the prime costs later on, e.g. the fast provision of spare parts, high availability of the machine, proactive maintenance and, later on, modernisations, such as retrofits.
Hasn’t service of this kind always been one of Plasser & Theurer’s and its partner companies’ strengths?
Absolutely. Our company, but also the partner companies, have worked on this successfully for many years. Now we can build upon this solid base, further develop our customer services and ultimately integrate it worldwide. In this context, I like to use the expression “integrated customer services”.
What do you mean by that, exactly? What does sustainable and successful customer service mean to you?
Until now, customer service at Plasser & Theurer and its partner companies has entailed many independent efforts. Obviously, they have always cooperated whenever it was necessary. But there was no official joint planning or general coordination. Before my position was created, there was no single point of contact to provide that. Now, this has changed.
I think it’s important to think about the big picture, to use the resources we have as efficiently as possible – regardless of which company is in charge of them. This will help us deploy our maintenance technicians in a more flexible manner. The aim is to balance workloads in different markets and take advantage of skills available in companies in other countries. All partner companies will be able to draw on a larger skill set which will allow them to better address customer requirements.
In addition, we will carry out an in-depth analysis of our logistics movements and warehouse systems. I envision one or two central storage locations which provide all partner companies and also our customers with spare parts.
“Spare parts” is a keyword that brings me to my next question: until now, emphasis was put on spare parts and direct machine services. Which services will be added in the future?
Spare parts will continue to play a key role. Customer Services is putting all its effort into ensuring spare parts are readily available, so companies operating machines have the highest possible availability for their machines. We want to create added value for our clients and to act proactively. Intensifying predictive maintenance and expanding digitalisation and connectivity is what I have in mind here. In other words: the more data we are able to obtain and analyse about the machines in operation, the better we can develop prediction models for machine availability. We are definitely moving in the direction of fleet management and want to offer optimal customer support in this aspect as well. No one knows the machines better than we do. By collecting and analysing actual operating data, we will be able to inform our customers about maintenance services that will become necessary, and we will be able to develop suitable solutions with them. By doing so, machine availability will be even greater.
But there‘s more: I can see us auditing our customers’ warehouses to prepare recommendations for optimisation. We are also contemplating new machine operation concepts such as “pay per use” and the role of used machines. For example, I like the idea of providing customers with a used machine to work with while their own machine is being serviced.
For Deutsche Plasser, retrofitting is a very hot topic. It has been successfully implemented in several projects. Other customers have shown great interest in this form of modernisation. What part does retrofitting play in your vision?
Definitely a major and very important one. Retrofitting is particularly effective and advisable when performed by the original manufacturer. It has access to the design plans – no one knows more about the design of the machine. The lifespan of a successfully employed machine can be extended significantly and also its efficiency can be improved by modernising the machine.
We will consider this option more often when advising customers in the future. In some cases, it might make more sense to use retrofitting to add value to an existing machine instead of buying a new one. We want to assess our customers‘ individual situations with them to help them make the right decision.
That’s an interesting approach. How will customers benefit from this?
The most important factor is availability. All efforts aim at providing even higher availability. But we are not only thinking about the machine itself. We strive for the best possible availability of spare parts, service technicians, and maintenance workshops. When our proactive analyses show that maintenance work will be needed soon, we have to ensure the necessary resources will then be available.
To use a catchy turn of phrase, I’d say I want to give our customers “peace of mind.” I want them to be able to fully rely on the service provided by Plasser & Theurer without having to give this topic any more thought. Instead, they can focus entirely on their construction and maintenance projects. We take care of the highest possible machine availability.
You described your vision of “integrated customer services” very impressively. What role do service providers like Deutsche Plasser play in it?
A major one. They are already immersed in the topic – often times even more so than Plasser & Theurer itself. We appreciate the many years of experience, the close ties to our customers and the wealth of technical knowledge. But we strive to apply all this in an even better and more flexible way. Doing so gives Deutsche Plasser new possibilities and fields of application. This also applies to customers who weren’t able to draw on these skills in the past. This wealth of knowledge will become usable for other countries and customers.
I see a lot of potential for Deutsche Plasser, especially in the fields of work unit overhaul and retrofitting. The quality of the work units doesn’t need explaining. The outcome speaks for itself. In terms of retrofitting, especially during the past year, Deutsche Plasser has completed several very impressive projects which show that this form of modernisation is in excellent hands.
Thank you very much for your time!