While he may be considered a mere newcomer to the crane industry, Ralf Vieten is a long-time veteran in the realm of product support.
“In 2002, Schiller Service Corp., which was Liebherr Ehingen's dealer here in the USA, was looking for someone to head up their service division and, with my background and Liebherr being a German company and with a German product, that was appealing to both parties,” says Vieten.
Since that time Vieten has become an expert on crane operation and he has put together a product support team that he believes is expert, professional and offers the best service a customer could expect to receive. His team handles product support for the entire US, with the scope of activity covering service, parts sales, warehousing, repair and training.
I had the opportunity to sit down with Vieten and talk about product support philosophies and the challenges of providing quality product support in such a busy market.
What is the biggest challenge in product support in today's market for cranes?
I would say it is parts and service availability. Since we are doing this nationwide and we do not have traditional dealers, we at Liebherr Cranes have to make sure we are available everywhere to every customer when we are needed.
Since Liebherr Ehingen does not use a traditional dealer distribution network, how do you describe the Liebherr service model in North America?
I describe it in one word: “challenging.” But it is a challenge that we are able to meet. Wehelp our customers with their cranes fromthe beginning of the shipping process from Germany, to the port the cranes are brought into; we provide assistance at the port and getting the crane to their facilities. We do the commissioning of the crane and the training required of our customers' staff. We have even delivered cranes directly to the jobsite, which, as you know, is the worst training environment, but in today's market that is sometimes what we have to do. We must do what it takes to offer the response time required. Paying attention to the needs of the customer is crucial and essential at all times.
We cover all 50 states and with the country over 3,000 miles east to west and over 1,600 miles north to south, that's why our work is challenging, and that's why it's the most fitting word to describe our product support.
Liebherr Cranes has two facilities in the US. What is the main focus and type of work you do at the Newport News facility? What about the Houston facility?
In Newport News is the headquarters of LCI where we have sales, finance, parts sales, warehousing of parts, and the nationwide service coordination administration. There we do the main ordering and main warehousing, invoicing, returns, billing, warranty claims and service scheduling. There are others in the Liebherr group in Newport News also.
Our Houston facility is a customer support satellite. We opened it in December of 2004. In Houston we have the repair center nationwide and the training center nationwide.
The new Houston facility has been open for a couple of years now. Has it met expectations in terms of supporting the US customer base?
Since its opening, we have repaired and serviced more cranes than we anticipated in the beginning. There are a lot of crane companies in the 300 mile circle of Houston so it's easier to ask them to bring their cranes to us. Beyond 300 miles becomes an issue due to a number of reasons, state transport laws, and it costs a lot of money to transport a crane over a long distance. In that case we go to the crane, unless it is damaged due to an accident, then we may repair it at the Houston facility, because we are fully equipped to do so.
For those within a 300-mile radius, we offer preventive maintenance to our local crane companies. This could be oil changes, boom alignments, special training and others.
To the training: They can bring their cranes to our yard and we can provide the training there. We can do almost anything in our yard there; we can do full-scale training sessions or special sections of technologies. We have simulators there and we advertise training on several different subjects. We are always designing training classes for our customer base. Customer training is a very important part of product support. If a customer has a need, we are listening to those needs and we will design a curriculum for them if we determine a need.
The Houston facility has been a very good element of our product support and service effort in the US. By the end of this year, we will be assembling in Houston the LTF 1045, the first Liebherr truck mounted crane in the US. This is another milestone for LCI. I want to increase the units assembled each year, because I believe that the LTF is a great crane for the US market.
Since you deal directly with the customer, how is your service team organized to respond to your customers when they need a service technician on the job?
Our service group is prepared to respond to the customer quickly. The service technicians live on the East Coast, the West Coast and in the Central US. Where they live doesn't matter. They all travel nationwide.
We have a telephone service that allows our customers to call us 24/7 and ask us questions about a crane and to troubleshoot problems in set up, operation, functions and other issues. Many times we can answer these questions over the phone and they are back up and running in just a little while. We are training the staff of our customers so that when it comes to troubleshooting they can solve a problem to a point where we can communicate over the phone how to handle these things. When we are able to do this, that is a good measuring tool for us of how well we are training them and providing the service they need. Not every problem requires that we send someone on site, especially if the staff of the customer is trained to deal with a problem. Our coordinators are well trained in handling these phone calls. All my technicians are good on the phone to have customers call them to fix a problem or answer questions.
Maybe it's something they need to do to keep the crane running, a quick fix, until a part comes in or maybe it's a permanent fix. We want our customers' cranes to be up and running so they can do their jobs and earn money.
Sometimes a phone call can fix a situation that will later become an emergency. We encourage our customers to look at preventive maintenance as a way to stay up and running. This can be done at the jobsite if necessary. Preventive maintenance can prevent a lot of service interventions.
It is our responsibility to stay ahead of the curve. I am very pleased to say that our service team, our parts, our repair and training team, they are the best. I cannot give them enough praise. They make it happen for Liebherr Cranes Inc.
Do you local source any parts and components or does everything come from Germany? How does Liebherr deal with critical availability issues?
We only use original parts from the manufacturer, from Liebherr for the most part. There are some exceptions with consumable items. Parts availability is crucial for us. We have invested $1.6 million in parts in our warehouses as of now. When we started LCI we started with an inventory of $800,000 in parts. We have doubled that in three years.
We try to anticipate and analyze what customers are ordering and analyze what we need in terms of warranty items to minimize the need for shipping from Germany. To make things easier, we also have complete LCI engines and engine parts stored in Toronto, Canada. Liebherr has an engine facility in Canada and so we can take responsibility on this continent. That shortens the time if a customer needs an engine. It could take three weeks to get a new engine from Germany. And because of what happened with security at ports after 9/11, it's not that easy to bring an engine into a port and into the US. With our Canada engine facility we can truck an engine to our customer base in four to five days.
In addition to our parts availability here, we can look into Germany's database and see if the factory has them in stock. We can often drop ship directly to our customers with Federal Express and have a part there within 48 hours.
We have a success rate of 95% with these drop ship parts. Mainly it's a time issue due to the six hour time difference in Germany. If we get the request before 11 a.m. German time, which is 5 a.m. here, we can even see next day delivery.
Because of the strong demand for cranes, keeping existing fleets up and running and working and functional is critical to the end user. How does a manufacturer deal with this challenge?
We have a database that tells us the location of all Liebherr cranes in the US. We have approximately 1,100 cranes in the US at this time. We keep up with each and every one of these machines. We know the serial numbers and we can tell you about that crane. If it's not in our database we can find it in the Liebherr Ehingen's database. We can tell you when the crane was sold, who purchased it and the history on that crane.
The bridge disaster in Minneapolis has really underscored the crane shortage in the US. Has Liebherr been contacted about supplying cranes to the region?
Since we don't deal with dealers we haven't been able to respond like others might have responded. But I can tell you, we at Liebherr Cranes Inc., right now have nothing available and or in stock.
Must the executive vice president of product support be on call 24/7?
It sometimes feels that way. Every other month I go to Houston. Three or four times a year I travel to Germany. We have over 150 customers and I want to visit as many as possible per year. We want to stay ahead and to do so we have to be available. I am very proud of the Liebherr service package in the US. I am very proud to hear that the industry is buying more and more of our cranes, because the cranes are excellent and our product support is excellent. It's a package we are selling. Our company is on call to our customers 24/7.
When you are not working, what do you enjoy doing most?
I do love to play golf. But before I love to play golf I do love to be with my family, my wife and our nine year-old daughter. If time allows me I like to put in 18 holes of golf. But first I try to spend time with my two girls.