Airbus Helicopters Inc. based in Grand Prairie, Texas, is the U.S. division of a global company that has adopted an effective way to ride out the current downturn in helicopter sales: Revamp everything to put customers first.
In doing so, Airbus Helicopters Inc. is aiming to be the rotorcraft company that customers think of first, because they like the way their needs are courteously and quickly addressed by Airbus Helicopters Inc.: Every. Single.Time.
Putting Airbus Helicopters Inc. first in customers’ minds is a smart strategy, given how competitive the last few years have been for new helicopter sales. Slumping oil prices and other economic factors have substantially reduced the demand for new helicopter purchases. Meanwhile, the contraction of the oil & gas sector has resulted in affordable used helicopters flooding the market.
Future prospects for new helicopter sales are not encouraging, according to Honeywell. In its 19th annual "Turbine-Powered Civil Helicopter Purchase Outlook" that was released in March 2017, Honeywell predicted that 3,900 to 4,400 civilian-use helicopters will be delivered from 2017 to 2021—roughly 400 helicopters lower than in its 2016 5-year forecast.
The current slump is just the latest dip in the boom-and-bust cycle that has always affected helicopter sales. But this slump is severe enough to cause helicopter manufacturers to fundamentally reevaluate their positions in the global marketplace, not just in terms of preserving market share, but rethinking what make their products and their companies stand out against the competition.
"One of the benefits of having a slowdown for new helicopter deliveries is that it gives you breathing room to look closely at how your company has been doing business, and allows you to consult closely with clients as to how you can do things better," said Chris Emerson; president of Airbus Helicopters Inc. and head of Airbus Helicopters’ North American Region. "That’s very difficult to do when new helicopter sales are growing annually by double digits and your focus is on production."
In the case of Airbus Helicopters Inc., Emerson and his top managers know that their aircraft are already well-respected by operators worldwide. So, the logical way to motivate people to buy new Airbus helicopters is to improve the customer service that backs its cutting-edge machines.
This is why Airbus Helicopters Inc. is focused on improving service end-to-end; from the initial point of customer contact for purchasing; through acquisition, production, completion, and delivery; and then after-sales service and support for the aircraft’s lifetime.
"We’ve spent the last few years figuring out how our customers depend on us and what they need from us, by talking to them directly and getting their feedback from customer focus groups," Emerson said. "What we’ve found, and what is guiding us now, is that top-quality customer service is absolutely vital, as far as helicopter owners and operators are concerned."
"Today, whatever our specific jobs are at Airbus Helicopters Inc., we are all customer service people," said Anthony Baker, the company’s vice president of customer support. (To reinforce the importance of customer service, Airbus Helicopters Inc. is one of a few major companies in the world to raise customer service/support supervision to a vice presidential level.) "This is why we have transformed the culture within Airbus Helicopters Inc. to put customer service first in everything we do; not just sales and service, but staff training and day-to-day operations."
Here is what Airbus Helicopters Inc. is doing to make its customer service commitment tangible, in very specific ways...
THE HUMAN FACTOR
The core of any good customer service organization is the people who operate it. Mindful of this, Airbus Helicopters Inc. enhanced the ‘human face’ it presents to clients, by fielding well-trained customer service managers (CSMs) and customer support representatives (CSRs) at its Grand Prairie headquarters. The CSMs are responsible for customer relationships, while the CSRs manage customer transactions.
Assigned to specific regions, the company’s seven CSMs are the people who bridge the gap between customers and Airbus Helicopters Inc. "Your personal CSM is the go-between who helps you make your order, tracks its progress, and attends to any concerns you may have during the process," said Baker. "They are here to optimize each customer’s experience in dealing with Airbus Helicopters Inc., whether in buying a new helicopter, finding parts for an existing model, or having one maintained or repaired at one of our service centers. In short, the CSM is here to make your life easier."
The 12 CSRs play a different role, although they too act on the customer’s behalf. Working inside the partially glass-walled Customer Support Center with its 8-foot video projection screen and computer work stations, the CSRs monitor and expedite all customer-based transactions. This includes tracking the location of AOG (aircraft on ground) customer helicopters in real-time, on a computer map projected onto the 8-foot screen. Thanks to the CSRs’ close working relationship with Airbus Helicopter Inc.’s AOG Support Team, the people, tools and parts needed to get customer helicopters aloft again are quickly dispatched through the Customer Support Center on a 24/7 support basis.
More enhancements: The combined CSM/CSR operation uses Airbus’ Customer Relationship Management (CRM) software system to efficiently record, track, and resolve customer issues. The Customer Service (CS) team is collectively aided by the company’s Repairables Group, which coordinates all work between the shops with an eye to efficiency and fast-turnarounds. Finally, to ensure that Airbus’ customer service continues to improve, everything the CSMs/CSRs do is tracked by the company’s Business Intelligence & Gathering Group. "Our goal is to verify what we did right, and improve from what we did wrong and do better every single time," said Baker.
By the way, every new Airbus helicopter comes with a 3-year or 2,000-flight-hour warranty for all the company’s new civil helicopters. Warranty-related labor costs are also covered during the first year of aircraft ownership, following delivery. "Our new warranty shows that we are serious about putting customers first," said Emerson.
SUPERIOR ONLINE SERVICE
These days, nearly everyone is accustomed to buying items online, but there is a difference for consumers struggling to purchase something from a poorly-designed mom-and-pop e-commerce site, and breezing through their order on Amazon.com.
When it comes to ease of service, Airbus Helicopters has definitely positioned itself in Amazon’s class – and even improved upon that online experience with Airbus’ Keycopter online e-commerce support portal.
"Keycopter is the online location where customers can search for, purchase, and track the delivery of all the parts they need to keep their Airbus helicopters flying," said Baker. "Keycopter is more than just an online parts store. It is a complete ‘one-stop shop’ for assistance in managing your fleet, getting quotes on parts, seeing what is in stock, reviewing your invoices, and even accessing technical publications online in real-time 24/7, every day of the year."
A case in point: The Keycopter e-commerce site’s ‘eRequests’ let customers get immediate online answers to pressing technical questions. The answers about any support or service issue come directly from Airbus Helicopters Inc. technical experts; all live and accessible from customers’ computers.
Meanwhile, warranty claims can be sent through Keycopter to relevant Airbus departments. Once their claims have been submitted, customers can log in to track their claims’ progress and find out where they stand at any given moment.
"Our eTechpub digital library allows pilots and technicians to access the documents they need electronically on their tablets, rather than having to carry around heavy paper manuals," Baker noted. "You can view these documents as PDFs or through our new interactive online viewer. The viewer provides search functions, and lets you make and save comments on personal document copies."
Through its WebHUMS feature, the Keycopter portal can receive, track, and display rotorcraft health and usage profiles for those Airbus Helicopters equipped with onboard health and usage monitoring systems (HUMS). This data is available anywhere in the world to authorized users in real-time; providing an immediate analytical tool for operators and their engineer during AOG situations.
HELICOPTER ‘HOME DEPOT’
No matter how good Airbus Helicopter Inc.’s customer service and maintenance departments may be, the system lives or dies by how well the company’s warehouse is stocked. Will there be parts there when customers need them; either through direct orders or indirectly through the service centers who support their helicopters?
During the last helicopter sales boom, necessary parts could be very hard to find from any helicopter manufacturer. This left many rotorcraft grounded when they should have been earning their keep in the air.
Airbus Helicopters Inc. took note of what happened during the last boom, and took steps to ensure it doesn’t happen during the next one; as well as today. "This is why we have invested $170 million in our warehouse, to increase the range and number of new and repaired parts on hand," said Baker. Located at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, the warehouse is staffed from 0600-2200 hours with two shifts and extra crew always on hand to provide 24/7 service. "We have also increased inventories at our seven U.S. independent strategic service centers," Baker added. "We have done this to stage our parts much closer to customers."
In line with its customer-first service focus, Airbus Helicopters Inc. is continually improving its turnaround times for fulfilling OTL (operating time limit) parts orders for customers. "Our fulfilment success for orders with 15 days or less lead time has reached 96.6 percent on average," said Emerson. "In instances where the customer gives us more than 15 days lead time, we are fulfilling their orders as requested 98.5 percent of the time." Again, these are current achievements; Airbus is always aiming for 100 percent.
BEST CARE WITH HCARE
In a perfect world, helicopter operators would never have to service their rotorcraft or deal with unexpected repairs and AOG situations. Yet, maintenance issues occur in real life and operators must pay for them. That’s why Airbus Helicopters is offering HCare.
"HCare is our fixed-cost maintenance and repair solution for helicopter owners/operators that allows them to enjoy predictable costs," said Baker. "It provides 24/7 support to HCare subscribers through email, telephone, or the Keycopter portal."
HCare offers customers fixed-cost solutions for helicopter MRO services and upgrades; fleet management and optimization through connected services; training and flight operations, technical support and expert advice, and parts management/supply through HCare’s three material management options.
HCare’s material management offering comes in three levels, scaled for all kinds of budgets: HCare EASY is a secure catalogue service that supports fast and easy parts ordering, exchange, rental, and supply. HCare SMART is a paid-by-the-hour suite that provides financial predictability for repairs-by-the-hour, parts-by-the-hour, exchanges-by-the-hour, and full-service (all in) by-the-hour. Finally, HCare INFINITE provides helicopter owners/operators with full parts and service for their fleets, resulting in maximum rotorcraft availability.
The best news? “We have recently lowered our HCare prices," said Baker. "Now it’s even more affordable to Airbus helicopter owners; from single aircraft owners to the largest fleet operators."
PROOF’S IN THE NUMBERS
Judging by Airbus’ market share, the company’s customer-first focus is resonating with rotorcraft buyers; aided by the Airbus reputation for building top-quality aircraft.
The proof: In 2016, Airbus Helicopters Inc. and Airbus Helicopters Canada Ltd. collectively delivered 60 new helicopters to North American civil and parapublic clients, which the company says accounted for half of all new helicopter deliveries on the continent last year.
"As well, our two companies booked a total of 64 orders combined for new aircraft, which was an estimated 73 percent of all new helicopter bookings in North America," said Emerson. "So despite operating in a very depressed North American helicopter market, our companies increased their share of new helicopter deliveries and orders."
Clearly, helicopter customers want to do business with companies who truly care about them. That’s a lesson that Airbus Helicopters Inc. has taken to heart. It is applying this truth to improve the ways in which it does business, and how the company interacts with customers who buy its products and services.
"When Airbus Helicopters Inc. says we’re here to do the best for our customers, we truly mean it," said Emerson. "The fact that we have increased our share of North American helicopter deliveries and orders proves that our customers care about being taken care of properly. The next challenge Airbus faces is to maintain our customer-first focus when the helicopter market hits its next upswing, and sales volumes go up. That’s a problem we’re more than willing to deal with."