The magazine of Friedhelm Loh Group

The magazine of Friedhelm Loh Group

Cover story

What counts for customers right now

It always takes two to make a relationship work. What is easy and enjoyable to start with can, over time, take a lot of effort, especially in the case of business relationships. Customers are making ever greater demands on their suppliers. Expectations are growing, in particular when the going gets tough in a crisis. However, relationships also offer opportunities. To discover the true potential of customer relationships and find out what counts more than ever right now, we spoke with Thomas Basler (right), Managing Director of Alexander Bürkle panel solutions, and Ulrich Engenhardt, Chief Business Units Officer at Rittal.

Text Hans Robert Koch ––– Photography

Let’s talk about customers. What kind of customers are you interested in and what makes a good customer?

Thomas Basler: A good customer sees us not just as a supplier, but as an equal partner, and is interested in a long-term relationship. We are especially interested in customers who tell us they have an idea and require a service that extends from designing and planning all the way through to the finished product – and aren’t just looking to get a single enclosure manufactured. As a plant engineering company, it’s important for us to cover the entire electrical engineering value chain and get the most out of it.

Is that more wishful thinking than reality?

Thomas Basler: Our customers in the mechanical and plant engineering and building technology sectors do often still give us plans in PDF format, with a structure that isn’t quite right and components that don’t fit. That means we can’t implement our digital-twin-based automation process in our own plant engineering systems in the way we would actually like to. In my experience, lots of companies have yet to make much progress with automation. Many of them have a long way to go before they’ll be able to work out the routing, labelling and end preparation of wires from a digital twin.

Focusing on the customer has always been a determining factor in market success. However, the idea that “the customer is always right” no longer applies. What has replaced this?

Ulrich Engenhardt: Interestingly, the Rittal company principles don’t say the customer is always right, but that we view our customers as partners. We operate in a highly dynamic and highly complex environment, so partnership is the right approach. Nowadays, no-one on their own can still keep a complete track of all the market and sector requirements while  also maintaining an overview of all the technical possibilities. We have one perspective and our partner has another. Only if we combine the two will we succeed in achieving long-term market success – for both companies.

Crisis situations also have an impact on customer relationships. How are things for our customers?

Ulrich Engenhardt: When I talk to customers, I get the impression they are very optimistic and very much looking for opportunities. The all-electric society – moving away from petrol, oil and gas towards electricity – is generating a great deal of momentum. At the same time, however, the current economic conditions – in Central Europe and also in parts of China – are definitely creating a lot of uncertainty, because it still isn’t clear how well the various sectors will fare. Then there’s the skills shortage, regulatory requirements relating to things such as coolants, and the emergence of protectionism. The whole situation has become very opaque for many companies. Volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity – VUCA for short – persist. Upheavals are shorter in duration but more intense, both in the global economy and closer to home. Whereas we used to operate in a relatively stable environment, a lot can now happen in a very short space of time.

Thomas Basler: Our customers and we ourselves now need to demonstrate a greater degree of flexibility. The supply chain crisis affected the availability of components, for example. Along with the skills shortage, the problem of delivery reliability remains one of the very biggest challenges, as demonstrated by the latest incident in the Suez Canal. The fact that ships are taking two weeks longer to reach their destination means specific components are once again in short supply. The problem is definitely back. Although things aren’t as dramatic on the whole, the situation is certainly very difficult for certain components. However, our commercial operations at Alexander Bürkle have enabled us to compensate effectively. Our very broad-based set-up meant we maintained our delivery capability for a very long time during the crisis.

Is it true to say that relationships, too, are put to the test when the going gets tough?

Ulrich Engenhardt: In times of crisis, we see whether people keep their word. The fact that Rittal proved its delivery reliability, even at the peak of the supply crisis, built a huge amount of trust. People realised we really care about our customers. We have nowhere near recouped ourhuge financial outlay, nor did we want to pass this on to our customers. Generally speaking, two things happen during a crisis – customers grow cautious and make decisions on a more short-term basis, and they also ask themselves how they can improve. During a crisis, their thoughts repeatedly turn to efficiency and they are more open to potential answers, too. A crisis thus also represents a huge opportunity for companies. At such times, it’s not about what an enclosure costs, but about how to better manage the value creation process.

Thomas Basler: I would say the crisis forged a stronger bond between us and our customers. We communicated a lot more and were in touch on an almost daily basis: “Take note, there’s a new delivery date. What can we do? What can we use instead?” That meant we also got to see a completely different side to our customers. Of course, there was also some friction if deliveries failed to arrive on time, the enclosure wasn’t fitted out fully and proper testing was impossible. There were faults from time to time, too. We then sought to speak with the relevant customer in person, inviting them to drop by so we could put our heads together and discuss the issue. That was our way of dealing with the problems. What started out as a complaint very often had a positive outcome.

back Part 2: Continue Interview  

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