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Editorial - (Not quite) at your service

Editorial (Not quite) at your service

Customer service in the watch industry, a source of quiet discontent, is a victim of both a brand’s carelessness and its power of communication, with the customer held prisoner between the two.


True story: a chronograph from a well-known brand starts to show signs of wear and tear. The pushers are stiff, it’s increasingly difficult to wind and the power reserve is dropping. It’s time for a service. The quote starts with an entire page of needless services that were not requested, at a cost of €900. Not a good start. The second page deals with the service that was actually requested. €450. After the requisite interval the watch comes back beautiful, shiny and looking like new, a real treat. A month later the bezel falls off. Yes, falls. I had never seen anything like it in my life, even though watch journalists hear the worst possible customer service stories. Internet forums are full of them. There are complaints about the cost, the time taken, repairs that don’t actually repair the problem, staff who seem to find it difficult to be nice and are sometimes downright accusatory. Watch fans, take your forks and your picks and rise up against bad customer service!  

But hold on a second. Many of these complaints are a result of poor information, lack of knowledge, or even a trap. After spending over a century convincing people that the Swiss mechanical watch was a model of reliability, quality and precision, fans have started believing it. But a watch is fallible, fragile, just like a car. Would you ever consider not having your car serviced? Would you do without oil changes and checking fluids before a long summer journey? The Swiss watch is a victim of its own success. 

The industry has made some small efforts to meet the requirements it has created. Ten years ago watches were guaranteed for two years. Then some brands gradually started to increase this to three, then four and now half a dozen of them offer five-year warranties, including Rolex, Richard Mille, Omega and Ulysse Nardin. Jaeger-LeCoultre has just raised the stakes by moving up to eight years. But in all other cases, two years is still the norm and the legal minimum under European Union rules for any durable goods.

Later on in a watch’s life you have to have it serviced. Brands talk of service intervals of around five years, or eight to ten for the most advanced. OK, that’s fine. But the problem is the cost. In a laudable attempt at transparency, it is displayed on the websites of some brands. It can be anything from 10% to 30% of the retail price. If you take a Mercedes E-Class diesel with standard equipment, that would equate to a service bill of… €5,000 to €15,000.  

If you had to pay €10,000 to have your car serviced, wait three months to get it back, without a courtesy car, without even being certain that any problems would be solved and with pressure to change the back seats, you would be red, green, violet and… right. And the manufacturer would instantly find themselves the target of a social media campaign and would have to make amends in order to avoid being torn to pieces in broad daylight.

Another problem is that the luxury goods industry is neither intellectually nor culturally capable of accepting its own limits. Visiting the customer service department in a watch brand’s own store involves a risk of sideways glances. The inference, which is sometimes even asked explicitly, is “what on earth did you do?”. You are offended at the suggestion, or accusation, of carelessness because you probably are not the savage and brutal imbecile who the receptionist in the basement of the beautiful marble-clad store with its beige carpet thinks has butchered their beloved watch. In fact, many of the problems that occur are nothing to do with the wearer. The screw fixing the winding rotor has come loose? A pusher has fallen off? A bezel comes loose? You would have to be a professional lumberjack to inflict such damage. But that’s just the way it is. The warranty has expired and you have no choice, apart from hope for some leeway from the brand, that last line of hope before you collapse from a heart-attack after exceeding 120 decibels as you vent your frustration.

Because the heart of the problem is business. Customer service is a cost centre for brands. The best ones may – just – break even with it. But it’s their own fault. There are hardly any brands left who haven’t brought their entire customer service in-house. They used to deliver components to third-party repairers on request. Then they decided to stop doing this so that they could control prices and this side of the business on the pretext that they alone are capable of guaranteeing the superior quality and a service worthy of the prestige of the brand, not to mention other vanities that, upon closer inspection, just don’t add up. Of course, the level of service was not the same. But the right answer would have been to set up a system of certification and training to ensure the quality of repairs, not to create a huge planetary bottleneck.

Another consequence of the brands having their own customer service departments is that it is the brand’s own staff that manage them. They have had the brand’s messages drilled into them. They have been told that the brand is perfect, superior, magical. How could it possibly be deficient? How could it be responsible over the long term for what happens to its products? Such cognitive dissonance is inconceivable for inexperienced sales staff faced with outraged customers. So they don’t treat the customer right and he or she is put off the brand, which in turn loses its reputation. 

Yes, watch brands made a rod for their own back. By increasing their production tenfold in twenty years. By removing an alternative source of repairers who could maintain a healthy competitive environment, in terms of prices and turnaround times. And by shifting investment from customer service to production. And above all by not placing their product at the same level as the expectations that they have spent years creating. 

What is the solution? Some say you should only buy the most reputable brands. But, apart from two or three exceptions, all brands, even the most well-established and the most ancient, suffer from customer service problems. So, no, brands are not quite at your service. And there is little sign of that changing. 

Lecture 6 Comment(s)

14 May 2019
Paul Linel
et oui... Ils veulent le monopole en ne distribuant pas les pièces aux horlogers indépendants comme moi et du coup un elles ont un QUASI monopole sur le Sav, pas de concurrence et de fait des prix qu'elles Imposent et donc... Très ÉLÈVES sans que le client ai le choix ni d'alternative, il est obligé d'aller la... C'est illégal et pourtant ça continue... Le truc c'est que de plus on voit des clients excédés des tarifs et ne réparent plus leurs montres de valeur, Rolex, Omega Breitling etc etc et... Achètent un festina a 100€. des révisions a plus 800€ a un moment raz le bol. Mais ça les marques l'ont pas encore compris, elles tuent le marché avec. De telles pratiques. Bravo
14 May 2019
Well said. The Bubble created by this greed will eventually burst. The luxury industry creates hype and reiterates it enough to eventually regard it as gospel. Most other industries rely on widespread proficiency to enhance brand reputation. When the bubble bursts only a few will survive. We'll see then how quickly the brands will recognise the product makes the reputation, not the marketing department and the perception of exclusivity.
14 May 2019
Emilie Ciais
bONjour, Je suis horlogère INDÉPENDANTE et c'est pour ces raisons que j'ai choisis la voix de l'artisanat. trop de plainte et de client MÉCONTENT du travail d'un sav de marque; c'est exactement ce que je DÉFEND. effectivement la montre reviens apres 3 mois à l' ETAT de neuf mais comment explique-t-on a un client que sa montre bien qu'etant neuve perd sa valeur dans le marché de l' occasion ? (histoire vrai) article très pertinent ! bravo !
14 May 2019
keyser santos
Bravo, that is exactly the current situation of the swiss watch industry,greed with no regards to the end customer. the solution is like what is proposed,give the spare parts and the accreditations to third partie watchmakers. again as you rightly pointed out 10 to 30% for some bs servicing is outrageous.
13 May 2019
R. David
Bravo!!!!! QUELQU'Un qui a eu le courage de dire la verite sans peur de represailles, meme si beaucoup reste encore D'Etre REVELE et que les pigons des CLIENTs N'IMAGINEnt meme pas...qui sait un jour...
13 May 2019
25 ans de sav pour une grande marque Horloger sav
Bonjour, après lecture je ne peux malheureusement constater que le sav horlogerie n'a jamais et ne sera jamais compris par d'autres personnes qui ne pratique pas ce merveilleux métier. J'avoue comparer très souvent l'entretien d'une montre à celle d'une voiture, tout comme vous. Cependant je peux vous certifier que si le garage demontait totalement la voiture, contrôlait chaque pièces à la loupe, remontait,lubrifiant,changeait tous les joints et pièces usées eT refaisait la peinture totalement......la révision coûterait encore bien plus que 10 ou même 30%.