It’s been a fairly heavy news year this year both inside and outside the UK window and door industry. Brexit, the FIT Show, various company mergers, acquisitions, buyouts and bankruptcies. There has been plenty to talk about.
For me though, one of the biggest and most troubling themes of this year has been the inability of the industry to get to grips with the very important issues of product quality and customer service. With my ear to the ground and conversations with various people and companies, it is obvious to me that this has been one of the biggest problem areas we have had to deal with as a sector.
Will it get better next year?
A symptom of diversification
At no point in my 12 years in this industry have I remembered the state of product quality and customer service so poor as it is right now. I have easily had by far the most conversations with industry friends and colleagues about the bad state of customer service and product quality this year when compared to other years.
During these conversations, and through my own observations, I believe that the rapid pace of diversification is one of the major causes, if not the single main cause.
As an industry we have had to diversify. Since the Great Recession a decade ago, we have seen major change in all areas of the window and door industry in this country, and for good reason. Our product offering as a sector ten years ago could have been described as drab. Not now. We are spoiled for choice as are home owners.
Problem is, much of the industry downsized at a staffing level in order to survive the Great Recession. Some companies went to the wall. Those that were left were much smaller than before on the personnel side of things. So, as we all moved to diversify and create and sell brand new products, we began asking the fewer people we had in our companies to suddenly start doing a lot more.
This was manageable as business slowly recovered in the years following the Great Recession. But in the last few years growth has accelerated at a faster pace, but from what I can see and have been told, the pace of hiring has been glacial.
There comes a pinch point then. There is only so much a certain number of people can do. Right now, we’re asking what I believed to be a vastly understaffed industry to do far more than they are physically capable of. A decade ago we had more companies and more staff doing less products. Granted that is oversupply of people in ratio to demand. But at least there were enough hands on deck to get things done. As far as I see it we have the exact opposite problem right now.
As you would expect, this starts to have an impact on key criteria such as product quality and customer service. This is of particular seriousness for installers as they are at the “sharp” end, dealing with home owners. When problems reach this part of the supply chain, it really does create a swathe of problems.
Cut back, refine processes or hire more?
The way I see it, there are three main ways to tackle the quality and service problems many have suffered this year. We could all choose to cut back on the amount and variety of products we all produce and sell. By refocusing on core products and growing markets and cutting out very small niche products which sell only occasionally, it would give the people in key positions more time to focus their energies on what sells and improve things there.
A second option would be to tough it out and refine existing processes at all levels of the supply chain. If companies aren’t keen to hire, then areas like training, improved manufacturing processes, better delivery schedules, better QC are all areas to look at if product quality and service are to improve.
Third is perhaps the most immediate option and that is to hire more staff. In reality most companies in the window and door industry will be reluctant to start dropping lesser selling products. Most companies in our industry want to be able to offer absolutely everything possible. So, if that is the case, then we should all be hiring more people, be it in offices, factory floors, in transports, wherever it needs to be to free up the bottle necks and pressure points which is resulting in poor product quality and customer service.
One thing we have to remember is that poor customer service and product quality at all levels of the supply chain in the window industry costs us all money. It costs us in lost time and poor productivity. It costs us in remake products. It costs us in unpaid or discounted contracts. Moving forward into next year, this is an issue that we all have to get to grips with in a big way if we are to start to raise the bar again on service and quality.