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CS3 - Raising the Bar on Customer Support:
How Airbus Does It!
Article, Photos & Video by Lyn Burks


No one likes a helicopter that is a “hangar pig”—a helicopter that seemingly sits in the hangar broken more often than flying.  As a person who has owned several helicopters as a part of my business, I can testify that downtime equals lost dollars.

Oh sure, there are times when we expect the helicopter to be out-of-service, such as scheduled maintenance.  There are also unscheduled repair events, when parts of the helicopter decide on their own to quit playing with the rest of the helicopter, or when we pilots unintentionally break something.

I think I speak for most helicopter owners and operators when I say that we are able to take it on the chin and tolerate these instances when the helicopter is in the hangar being repaired.  We know it comes with the territory when operating a helicopter for business.



However, I will tell you a sure-fire way to make a helicopter operator mad enough to spit rivets—keep his helicopter from turning rotors for extended time because of unavailable parts and poor customer service.  Not only will owners be mad, but they will also tell everyone they know just how mad they are.  Additionally, they will fastidiously tick the days off their calendar until some industry organization runs the next OEM customer support survey, where they will gleefully give their OEM poor marks.

Some might say (probably not a sales guy) that it’s easy to sell someone a helicopter. However, what occurs after the ink dries on the contract is where the hard work comes in.  Today, approximately 600 U.S. operators fly more than 1,800 Airbus Helicopters aircraft.  These operators are corporate and business customers, hospitals and emergency medical services, tourism operators, law enforcement agencies (including the FBI), the Army, the Coast Guard, and the Bureau of Customs and Border Protection.  With a growing fleet across so many industry sectors, Airbus has leveraged people and technology to create world-class customer support (CS) to meet the needs of its growing and demanding client base.

THE PAST

Over the years as Airbus' U.S. fleet grew, so did the company’s CS division.  The word “division” well describes how CS expanded.  As each area of support grew, it maintained its own talent pool and knowledge base.  For the most part these support divisions remained separate from one another, creating fragmentation within CS.

How did this decentralization impact clients?  For an example, take a fleet customer who operates several helicopters.  This type operator invariably has several helicopters in various states of maintenance.  On any given day they may have parts on order, blades in the repair shop, and a gearbox in for overhaul.  Under the old system, the operator would often have to deal separately with each individual division to monitor the status of the work being done.

Under that prior system, there were still experts available in each division.  There was still quality work being done.  Solid relationships were built between the customer and each division.  Still, there were potential downsides, such as inefficiency for the customer and inconsistent customer experiences.  Some divisions provided a higher quality CS experience than others.

THE PRESENT

Several years ago, Airbus reassessed its CS process.  As a result, the company turned the old system on its head and built a new system.  Not just a more responsive system, but also a proactive system.  Brian Reid, Airbus' director of support and service sales, describes this system. “Looking from a high level, there are basically two sides to the Airbus CS process.  There is the relationship side, and the transactional side.”  Breaking the system down into these two main categories defines how it interacts with customers, as well as how it prioritizes areas of the CS system needing refocusing.

RELATIONSHIPS

Anyone ever needing support for anything complicated (not just for helicopters) will tell you that what he or she longs for is to be in touch with a person.  We all know how frustrating it is to be put into a blind system, in which we leave a message or submit an online support request in the hopes that someone—anyone!—will get it.  We’re relieved when we get a service representative who is competent and takes ownership of our situation.

When most people contact CS, they do not expect an instant answer on first contact.  However, they do expect assurance that someone is working on their request.  Providing that responsiveness is one of the most important steps in improving how customers perceive CS.

PEOPLE COME FIRST

There is no doubt that under the old CS system, customers flying Airbus products were receiving support from the OEM.  The question was: were they being supported in the most responsive, consistent, and efficient manner that best matched their needs?  Personal contact is the most important factor on the relationship side of CS.  This meant that the company had to restructure how it communicated with customers.

In order to better control the responsiveness and consistency of CS, Airbus created two basic layers of human interaction.  First is the Customer Support Manager (CSM).  There are five CSMs in the US, each covering a geographic region.  The CSMs are the primary relationship touchpoint between the OEM and operators. They are responsible for managing customers’ overall experiences as well as answering questions and creating solutions that keep customers’ aircrafts flying.  They are also tasked with keeping customers informed of changes that might impact their operations.  Their aim is to help customers get the most from their CS experience.

Here’s an example of creating solutions.  Geisinger Medical Center (GMC) has been a fleet operator of Airbus products since 1981.  GMC Director of Maintenance Jeff Gazey recounts how CS proactively worked with GMC in the lead up to some major scheduled inspections.  “We knew we had some upcoming large scale inspections and TBO retirements.  One was a three-year main rotor head inspection in which we needed to replace the M/R TT straps that were due for retirement.  CS helped us pre-plan and pre-order months in advance all of the parts and tooling needed to complete the work.  The work was done in an efficient and timely manner because all the parts and rental tooling were on hand, and no parts or rental tooling needed to be ordered AOG (aircraft on ground), which saved us in shipping and AOG costs.”

Looking a little further into the CS system, we find a glass room inside the Airbus Grand Prairie, Texas headquarters called the CS3 Customer Support Center.  CS3 stands for Customer Support, Service & Satisfaction.  With partial glass walls, a giant 8’ computer projection screen, and a dozen or so customer support reps (CSRs), this room looks like some sort of emergency command center.  Although still very relationship oriented, CS3 is where the CS system crosses the threshold from the relationship side of the system to the transactional side.

The CS3 center is staffed daily from 0700 – 1800 by CSRs who handle all incoming phone calls from customers. CS3 Manager Tracy Atterbury says that CSRs are trained to be multi-faceted subject matter experts who can handle a wide range of support calls.  Call topics range from invoicing to warranty work, from parts inventory to technical publications.

Also integrated into CS3 is the very important AOG Support Team.  AOG means that a problem is critical enough to prevent an aircraft from flying.  How serious does Airbus Helicopters take AOG?  Well not only does it provide AOG support 24/7/365, but that large 8’ screen I mentioned displays every customer in the U.S. who has an aircraft that is AOG.  The screen is a constant, looming reminder of anyone and everyone who is AOG.  Customers on the big screen are given priority in the CS workflow.

In addition to the CS3 center, there are four other components that round out the CS system.  First is the Keycopter online e-commerce customer support portal.  Next is the Repairables Group that processes all work with the various shops. Then there is the Customer Relationship Management (CRM) tool.  Finally, there is the Business Intelligence & Gathering Group, which monitors the performance of the CS processes, looking for areas to improve.

TECHNOLOGY IMPROVES THE TRANSACTIONAL SIDE

Airbus recognizes that technology enhancements, properly executed, can improve CS in a big way.  These enhancements are game changers for both the OEM and its customers.  Integration is the word when it comes to how Airbus Helicopters treats technology.  Business applications such as the Keycopter Customer Portal, SAP, and StreamFlex merge many transactions performed by both company and customer.  This allows the company to monitor real-time performance in areas like accounting, work orders, CS, and inventory.

Technology is also used to enhance customers’ experiences by giving them more access and control within the CS system.  For example, the Keycopter Customer Portal allows customers to have control over routine interactions they have with the company, like ordering parts, paying invoices, tracking orders, checking inventories, and accessing E-pubs related to their aircraft.

The net result of using technology to give the customer control of certain transactions reduces the hours that OEM staff must spend on those tasks. This improves efficiency and allows them to refocus on areas that really improve customer experiences.

PARTS FLY OUT THE DOOR TO CUSTOMERS


Somewhat separate from the CS process, but vital to the success of supporting its customers, is the FTZ Warehouse.  A few miles down the road from company headquarters, this 85,000 square foot facility is the “Home Depot” of Airbus helicopter parts.

It is staffed by two shifts of personnel who keep the facility operating at capacity from 0600 – 2200 daily, with a contingent that supports AOG clients 24/7/365.  According to FTZ Warehouse Manager Ronnie Villaire, “At any given moment the facility keeps over 60,000 parts in inventory, having a value of approximately $89 million.”  Again, technology integration is key to improving efficiencies, reducing errors, and increasing output.  Villaire says that software applications and the scan gun have revolutionized their ability to meet rigorous internal goals set by the company.  Personnel pulling inventory are told what, where, and when to pull a part that’s related to a customer order.  This process is called the “Pick, Pack, Ship” sequence, with the scan gun firing through the workflow.  Because of technology, the warehouse is able to handle and process an average of 600 parts per day, with an average processing time of four hours from the time the sales order is processed until a shipping number is created.

Jeff Gazey (the GMC director of maintenance) illustrates the effectiveness of AOG parts shipping support. “Just recently over the holidays we were doing an inspection on the M/R blades of one of our EC-145s.  We found damage to a blade and needed a replacement.  AEC had a replacement M/R blade to us late the next day.  The blade was moved by courier direct from Texas to Pennsylvania.”

HELICOPTERS ARE NOT SITTING ON SHELVES

When I interviewed Senior Director of Supply Services Jane Tischler, she did not stop with her high-level overview and synopsis of the CS system.  Rather, she mentioned an area that CS is pro-actively working to enhance—education.  “Helicopters are obviously not on shelves,” said Jane. “From the time the customer buys a helicopter, whether it’s a green- or a completed helicopter, there is a period of time between purchase and actual delivery.  That time period is the best time to educate the client on all the customer services that Airbus Helicopters has to offer, as opposed to waiting until the client has an actual need and then attempting to explain the system when they are in a panic.  We would rather they be prepared and understand the system prior to taking delivery.”

As a long-time helicopter pilot and helicopter owner, I can assure you that at no time does panic mix well with helicopters!  It’s good to know that Airbus Helicopters agrees, and is constantly working to keep customer service smooth.
 

Posted in: Company Profiles

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