Avionics System Design: Customer Service: It’s Cool

By Walter Shawlee 2 | February 1, 2001
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Certainly, nobody requests bad service. But it is not surprising these days to get it. Between voice mail connected to deep space, the helpful suggestion to go back and "read the manual," and the denials that the horrifying event you are experiencing isn’t really possible, service has hit a low point. The repeated recorded message "your call is important to us" loses its punch after an hour on hold.

The avionics industry has played its own part in this unhappy saga. The reality for many manufacturers is that service does not fit into their corporate structure. It is seen as a drain on resources, a reducer of profits, and only defuses annoying customer contact. Effort is made to deflect contact, and move the responsibility to others, such as dealers, distributors, installers, a help line, a Web page, the documentation, etc.

Making customer contact when problems arise was well understood by IBM in Thomas Watson’s day (but not so well understood now). To him it was a fortuitous opportunity to correct whatever was wrong before the customer abandoned IBM.

Customer contact to resolve problems shows how good, and capable, a company really is. It can transform a potential problem into a positive experience for the customer, and this may pay huge dividends in referral business and recommendations. Also, effective product support can create a critical early warning system; problems with products can be brought quickly to the manufacturing and engineering departments’ attention. Assembly problems, testing issues, questionable parts choices or design flaws may be identified. Customer contact closes the design feedback loop, an essential part of sound design and manufacturing strategies.

As a collateral issue, it is an interesting phenomena in North America that sales people will not relay customer concerns back to their company. Too often this is seen as a blame-displacement exercise and rationalization for poor sales performance. Customers may think they are getting their messages to the product manufacturer, but in reality, they may as well be speaking Swahili or miming for all the good it does.

Giving good service is quite easy and requires two things: a genuine understanding of the product or service offered, which may seem obvious, until you experience "support" from the someone who is unskilled and uninformed; and unequivocal recognition that the customer is important.

People providing support should have the right temperament and experience. Not everybody has the communications skills to be in the support area. "Techies" traditionally have weak interpersonal skills (sometimes nonexistent is the correct word).

Patience is essential. People calling with problems are already in a bad state of mind and may be under extraordinary pressure to deliver, say, that $5-million dollar aircraft, if only your annoying $3,000 radio would just work right.

Regarding experience, people providing avionics customer support should have both bench and installation experience with the systems they support. Their abilities should cover operation, installation and repair of the product, as well as good diagnostic abilities.

The service department should use an alternate method to conduct the final test on a product, rather than adopting the production department’s usual automatic test equipment (ATE) method. The results can be compared to factory testing, providing a check on ATE methodology. This will quickly pinpoint flaws in either testing technique, affirming that the quality assurance process can, indeed, unearth problems.

Here’s an actual example of this situation: A customer bought an expensive broadband remote radio system that had to be quickly installed in a medevac aircraft, along with a big audio system we designed. When the installation was done, it was discovered at check-out that the radio worked only in the "normal mode." It did not work when the audio system was switched to the "emergency mode," which routed the microphone directly to the radio.

My phone rang, and the caller was clearly stressed. After careful digging (and analyzing other systems in the aircraft), I discovered that the radio was not generating DC mic bias voltage to excite the microphone, though it still worked fine when the audio system sent audio voltage to the radio for transmission. The radio had to go back to the factory for repair, and a loaner was obtained from the vendor.

The hidden problem: The ATE procedure to test the radio used a generator to create the mic signal, and thus it didn’t catch a failure in the mic bias circuit–a problem found immediately by an ordinary non-automated human who tested the radio with a microphone.

Over the last 20 years, I’ve taken a wide range of service calls from all kinds of customers, and they often were surprised when the president of the company took the service call. They usually were pleased, too, to know that the person who either designed or built the system would be happy to discuss the problem with them.

It’s one thing to tell the customer how cool you and your product are, but it’s a lot better to show them you’re cool when a problem crops up. And it makes good business sense.

People seeking detailed corporate information of how service, design and other factors work together can download information from our document server at

Walter Shawlee 2 welcomes reader comments and can be reached via e-mail at [email protected] .

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