Suffice it to say, these are strange times in lubricant manufacturing, when supply crises create pressure that threatens to blow by the time it reaches the customer service phase.
“We’re not living in a typical supply chain world for our industry,” said Patrick Murray, director of supply chain and logistics at Lube-Tech, “be it forced to deal with a weather-related material shortage due to a hurricane or other regional issues. These typically amount to a handful of annual supply or logistics issues. But today, some sort of crisis is literally happening every hour on the hour, every day, so we have to be as resourceful and nimble as possible.”
In this pandemic environment, companies already stocked with strong safety valves in the form of effective internal communications and solid external relationships find themselves equipped to adapt and continue delivering customer satisfaction. “If you have good relationships with your suppliers, if you have good relationships with your carriers, if you have good relationships with your customers, there’s no browbeating,” said Eric Stephens, customer service, Interlube Corp. “Everybody understands each other, and that does make everything a lot smoother.”
Amid material shortages and logistics tie-ups of 2021 and 2022, Zack Kachkouche, vice president of supply chain, Whitmore Manufacturing LLC, is focusing on procuring raw materials and securing reliable delivery dates. Continuous follow-up and communications with suppliers and freight forwarders enables successful management of these key business priorities. Products are added to the manufacturing schedule once inputs are “physically confirmed via a team member placing their hands on the raw materials.” “You’re not going to have good customer service if you don’t have products for your customers,” he said. “Where a lot of companies fail, they only focus on their capacity and translate that to shipping dates that they can’t meet, because the chain gets broken before they even get the raw materials.”
In an atmosphere of fluid lead times, team members in procurement and planning are constantly updating their enterprise risk-management system. From there, customer service has the accurate, timely information needed to advise customers and establish realistic expectations. The transparent process gives customers the ability to plan around their options. “It is all about visibility,” Kachkouche said. “The key to success is to have excellent visibility beginning with supply side and through the fulfillment side. If you can connect those dots, with visibility and transparency via strong customer service, you’ll have success.”
Disruptions and extended lead times “have been a challenge for the entire industry,” said Eric Wittine, vice president of sales, Latin America, key account and marketing communications manager, the Elco Corp. “Direct, continuous and consistent communication has been the key to keeping our customers informed. We continue to manage scarcity of raw materials. We review formulations in an effort to make product substitutions and/or qualified raw material changes to provide the product required without sacrificing performance.”
With too few tanker trucks or people to drive them,Stephens has been managing a sharp rise in lost and damaged shipments. Just like delayed shipments, those waylaid supplies can short-circuit scheduling. That’s when Stephens relies on longstanding relationships with his freight-line counterparts. “I know who to go to and the questions to ask,” he said.
On the customer side, similar relationships create a foundation for open, upfront conversations when something goes wrong. In one case, Stephens and his team delivered a product by finding grease tubes from an alternate supplier. “We try not to hide anything or sugarcoat it,” Stephens said.
“When we talk to customers, we find out what their actual need is that they can’t live without, and we will try to move heaven and earth to get things done. Our customers know that. They know that anything within our wheelhouse that we can do, we’ll do it.”
In uncertain times, communicating with customers can provide assurance, but it doesn’t mean shoveling emails out the door. Strategy is demanded.
At Lube-Tech, the supply chain team develops possible solutions and has options on the table for customers prior to contacting them. “I’ve been on a number of calls with our key customers, going through our own supply chain with them so they can feel comfortable that we have a primary plan in play, as well as secondary and tertiary plans in place to service them at a high level,” Murray said. “Even if it meant it was going to be a delayed plan, they still appreciated having that knowledge so they could communicate internally with their own teams or their distributor networks, allowing them to implement their own contingency plans. We’ve found that good communication is key to maintaining our partner relationships through these challenging times.”
Engaging with customers to make the best decisions possible under difficult circumstances creates fertile ground for ideas that generated new business or plans for strategic, mutually beneficial long-term growth.
Internal communications procedures among all divisions build an unbreakable chain whose last link is a consistent, accurate message delivered to customers. At Wittine’s Elco Corp., planning, supply and customer service teams hold twice-weekly conference calls to review the importance of inbound and outbound materials. Forecasts made through material requirements planning systems are scrutinized and mapped to production schedules. “The relationships we’ve built over the years have enabled us to establish trust and confidence,” Wittine said. “Communications are typically led by sales but percolate throughout the organization as we convey our message to our customers.”
Plus, he added, the daily mantra to assure clear and crisp communications is, “If you are unsure, pick up the phone and call.”
In pandemic conditions, lubricant manufacturers have been judicious with price increases. At Interlube Corp., those alternate grease tubes were costlier than tubes provided by the regular supplier, but the company absorbed the additional cost — something it will do when a purchase is meant as a temporary patch, said Stephens.
When price increases are necessary, customers understand by now because they face the same pressures. Once again, existing relationships keep the distress to a minimum. “They understand that we treat them fairly and honestly, and we don’t have continuous price increases,” said Stephens.
“We’ve been pretty lucky with customers understanding the situation of the global market and moving on until we can improve things in the future.”
Lube-Tech was no exception and experienced multiple supplier pricing changes that impacted its business and how it served its customers. That said, when price increases were necessary, they were delivered with the justification and rationale required under the conditions of service contracts, and always in “an intelligent way in collaboration with the customer.”
“We didn’t just send out a blanket letter,” said Murray. “It was dozens of personal conversations that were based on the how and the why, or the what and the why of the price change.”
Consistent communications, delivered as far in advance as possible, allow customers to adjust to price increases, said Wittine. “Our biggest concern was maintaining availability of product, and we are proud to say that we were able to avoid sending out any force majeure letters,” he said. “It was and is our goal to find a way to support our customers without fail”
Lubricants manufacturers agree: Longevity and an “all for one” culture already in place helped sustain customer service personnel during this extended crisis.
“When you have people in the same positions in the same company for a long time, we understand what’s going on within the company, and what’s required,” said Stephens. “We all know what each one of us needs to do, and what each one of us needs to do to help their colleagues.”
At Lube-Tech, daily operational meetings were augmented with a collaborative meeting structure focused on distinct challenges. In those meetings, elements of the organization impacted by urgent supply-chain challenges could “see the pain points” and know that the issue was being addressed, Murray said. The technology team often joined the conversations, suggesting acceptable alternate formulations using materials at hand or easily available. Likewise, there has been significant input from Lube-Tech’s sales and operations teams to help find viable solutions to better serve its customers.
“These are hyper-focused meetings that allow everybody to have a voice,” he said. “The daily meetings are a good way to address the issues in the supply chain that require more than just the supply chain group to solve the problem and maintain service levels to our customers.”
The team, Murray added, “has done a great job at getting resourceful and pulling information together in a short period of time. It’s not like staying in your lane. It’s about helping for the greater good.”
Morale has been a priority for Whitmore, especially in customer service, “because that’s your front line,” said Kachkouche. “These are the people managing customer messaging and day-to-day relationships.”
But with the right tools and the right team, “you’re going to be successful. People come to work, they know what’s expected of them, they execute and they communicate.”
With the pandemic-inspired global pilot test in remote work, Kachkouche’s Whitmore adopted a permanent remote work policy for the customer service team. “We realize it works,” he said, especially in retaining talent increasingly demanding jobs that offer work-life balance. “Giving people that flexibility allowed us to keep the talent that we have and keep morale high. As challenging as things have been, we’ve maintained our entire customer service team.”
Avoiding personnel burnout during a crisis while maintaining excellence in customer service is a matter of “maintaining a sense of humor and having a solid belief that you will get through, whatever it is,” said Wittine. “Plans and protocols provide the structure, but common sense, flexibility and humor help build successful outcomes.”
When the pandemic first hit and personnel scattered for remote work, Wittine and his team initiated a unique 30-minute call every Friday with one rule of engagement — no business talk. “It encouraged folks to share personal topics of interest at the time, which usually led to moments of jocularity and genuine concern for others,” Wittine said.
“At first blush, this may seem sophomoric, but I was aware of individuals who were suffering from isolation anxiety and needed the reassurance that their work-friends are still there for them.”
Even in extraordinary times, “typical” crises of the past still loom. Wittine has endured a “perfect storm” of security challenges, political unrest, earthquakes, potentially damaging legal and financial challenges in managing capital equipment warranties, and FDA recalls at an international scale.
As always, relationships come to the rescue. “The successful outcome of those challenges is based on having protocols in place before the crises hit,” Wittine said. “Just as it is critical to do root-cause analysis, so, too, is it important to listen to the customer and seek their thoughts, guidance and recommendations. Time and time again, this has proven to provide a more creative and effective solution.”
No matter the crisis, after-action review makes a company stronger for the next round of challenges, whether predictable, such as a hurricane, or unprecedented, like a pandemic. “Our team executes a robust look-back process to ask, ‘What did we learn?’” said Kachkouche. “How can we handle this differently going forward? Our team is solution-oriented, focusing on scenario analysis to ensure we can answer the question,
‘How do we ensure this doesn’t happen again?’” All agree that customer service in lubricants manufacturing has taken on new dimensions in the pandemic — dimensions that will drive customer collaborations to new heights of excellence. “It comes down to trust,” said Murray. “We continue to embed ourselves into our customers’ businesses and try to be the go-to company, so when they get into a jam, they can feel comfortable that we’re going to help them come up with solutions.
It’s certainly not easy in every situation. We’ve had to make some tough calls, but through continuous process improvement, investing in our company and investing in our people and technology, we’ve become much more nimble, much more resourceful and better able to handle things that come our way.”
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