You don't have to make cutting-edge products to deliver cutting-edge customer service. Consider the case of Hartness International. Its founder is 79 years old. Its headquarters, in bucolic Greenville, South Carolina, is worlds away from the bustle of Silicon Valley or Austin, Texas. And its products aren't very glamorous: Hartness makes case packers - the high-speed machines that load bottles of soda, syrup, or ketchup into cartons before they get shipped to stores.
But what Hartness lacks in sex appeal it makes up for with an appealing commitment to great service. This company is obsessed with customers - in particular, with solving their problems as soon as they happen. That's because for Hartness's customers, time really is money. Problems with case-packing machines can bring an entire bottling line to a halt, costing a customer as much as $150 per minute. Even if a technician arrives 24 hours later, that's still a loss of 1,440 minutes, or $216,000. (Once a technician does arrive, Hartness reports, repairs can take as little as 10 minutes.)
Back in 1974, when Tom Hartness started the company with his sons, Pat and Bob, he vowed to hire only service technicians who were also licensed pilots. That way, whenever Hartness had to fix a machine, technicians wouldn't be held hostage to airline schedules - they could fly one of the company's four planes. Today Hartness has 5,000 customers in 90 countries.
"We've always been renegades in customer service," says general manager and CEO Bern McPheely, 46, a 20-year company veteran. "We're always asking, How can we get to customers the moment they need us? Airplanes simply aren't fast enough anymore."
What is fast enough? Videoconferencing. In 1995, McPheely began discussions with PictureTel Corp., the videoconferencing pioneer, about new ways to diagnose problems remotely. His question was basic: "What if we could see the machines?" His colleagues said the technology didn't exist. He said, "Let's create it."
Three years later, the Video Response System (VRS), developed through the company's Hartness Technologies subsidiary, is up and running at more than 50 installations in six countries, serving such customers as Coca-Cola, Anheuser-Busch, and Unilever. The VRS consists of a wireless camera, hardware that includes PictureTel components, a keyboard-sized remote control, a wireless antenna, and a high-resolution monitor with a second camera on top.
Forget same-day service. How about minutes-later service? With VRS, Hartness engineers can conduct live, interactive repairs immediately after a malfunction occurs. And the company estimates that it could handle up to 80% of its service calls with a short video exchange. Indeed, VRS has proven so compelling that Hartness Technologies has sold the system to companies that don't even buy Hartness case-packing equipment - including Chrysler, Hewlett-Packard, and Tyson Foods.
"People are telling us we've created the next fax machine," marvels Bern McPheely. "We developed VRS for our specific needs but wound up creating a new technology for the whole world."
But VRS doesn't just help Hartness watch its machines from afar. It also helps the company focus on the future of customer service. Hartness has learned that there's something more valuable than solving customers' problems - namely, helping customers solve their own problems. Every VRS interaction is like an impromptu coaching session. Hartness technicians don't just visit a plant and fix a glitch; they work with the customer's technicians to fix the glitch - which means that the customer learns more about the equipment. The system can also store a video record of the session, so that if the problem recurs, the customer can solve it without Hartness's help. "That's the ultimate form of customer service," McPheely says.
Hartness has learned a second important lesson: There's a fine line between service and sales. The company created VRS to help fix its machines; recently, though, VRS has become a critical tool for selling them. Last year, Hartness demonstrated one of its latest products, the OctoPack, for employees at a Heineken brewery in Holland and at a large Canadian brewery. The brewers wound up buying four machines each - creating $2.4 million in new business.
A third important lesson is closely related to the second: No matter how good you are at working with customers, you can never predict exactly how they're going to use what you sell them. A Unilever lab in Owings Mills, Maryland uses VRS to solicit feedback on bottle designs from factories around the world. Cryovac, a global manufacturer of packing materials and equipment, uses the system at trade shows to demonstrate its machines.
Ultimately, Bern McPheely argues, VRS isn't a tool to service customers - it's a way to see the future. "As the world becomes more interrelated, you can't afford to live within your own walls," he says. "Every company in every industry faces the same problem at some point. Someone says, 'If only we could see it, we could fix it.' VRS puts you in the position to see what you need to see - immediately."
Chuck Salter firstname.lastname@example.org is a writer based in Baltimore. For more information about Hartness, call 847-297-1200 or visit the Web (www.hartness.com).
A version of this article appeared in the February/March 1998 issue of Fast Company magazine.