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Tuesday, March 1, 2005

Editor's Notebook

Matt Thurber, Editor


Welcome to the Aftermarket

New manufacturers that are coming close to entering the marketplace are going to face some unique problems when it comes to aftermarket service for their customers. Eclipse Aviation, Adam Aircraft, and possibly others are going to find that the hard part is not over once their new very light jets reach certification.

The old-line manufacturers like Cessna, Gulfstream, Bombardier, Raytheon, and Dassault Falcon know that your product lives and dies in the aftermarket. Former Learjet and Bombardier Business Aviation head honcho Jim Ziegler knew this; his big push was the product lifecycle, taking care of the customer after the purchase so they would buy another Bombardier product in the future. (Ziegler is no longer with Bombardier.)

The people running Eclipse are well aware of the need to provide service after the sale and are working diligently on some innovative ideas for product support. I haven't met the Adam team yet, but I have to assume that product support is paramount there, too. After all, Adam is proposing to flood the market with lowcost, high-frequency charter airplanes.

As much as these companies are undoubtedly trying to figure out how to do the right thing in product support, there is something more important that they should be doing: figuring out how not to repeat the mistakes that have already been made by other manufacturers.

There is a wealth of good information in the field, if you ask the right questions. But asking potential very light jet operators what they think of your product support scheme might not give these manufacturers the information they need.

What Adam and Eclipse ought to be asking their future customers is: what bugs you about product support that you've received from other manufacturers? This question would open the floodgates and show these new manufacturers exactly what not to do and help them figure out even better how to deliver good service.

One of the biggest pieces of useful information they might find by asking that question is that once airplanes reach a certain age, some manufacturers start to-how can I put this politely?-pay less attention. One operator complained to me recently that his manufacturer pays plenty of attention to its current-production models but when it comes to generating service bulletins to fix recurring problems, the out-of-production, not-so-old airplane gets the cold shoulder. The only alternative is to seek outside resources to assist with fixes and modifications, which gets to be very expensive.

This operator has been vocal with his manufacturer, making sure the company's tech reps and management are well aware of the problems he has encountered. Unfortunately, the response has been limited and for the most part unsatisfactory.

Guess what? This operator is looking at different airplanes for an upcoming purchase. No surprise there.

I'm not mentioning this to beat up on this particular manufacturer, although I'd be willing to bet that someone in upper management there would love to know which company this is. (Give me a call: 301-354-1831.) I mention this because this is a great time for the Eclipse Aviations and Adam Aircrafts to plan for how to deal with these problems well before the first airplane enters service.

If Eclipse and Adam indeed succeed in delivering thousands of very light jets, then they absolutely will need to solve potential product support headaches like this when it's easier to come up with a solution. This will be much better than waiting for the problem to develop then trying to solve it.

The bottom line, though, is that Eclipse, Adam and, we hope, other manufacturers need to figure out now how to handle serving their customers once they start reaching the five- and ten-year ownership marks. If they leave customers high and dry at that point, they're going to find that a lot of goodwill has flown out the window and that they're going to have to work extra hard to win it back. Better to keep that goodwill intact with consistent, reasonably-priced, long-term excellent support so customers will return for more of the products that these companies develop.

The key to making sure customers are happy is less about the technology or the hardware or even the aircraft itself. What is important is learning how to communicate effectively. Lack of clear two-way communication is a sure way to quell the market for a good product. With today's communication technology, a manufacturer might assume that they are communicating effectively with their operators, but nothing beats calling someone up and asking, "How's your airplane doing?" Savvy manufacturers know this, and their customers are the ones who will return for future purchases.

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