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Manufacturing During COVID-19: How VFE Has Helped Keep Our Customers' Operations Running

08 February 2021 /

An interview with Louise Hall, Head of Field Service at Vacuum Furnace Engineering (VFE)

“Like so many UK industries, manufacturing has been heavily affected by the global pandemic. When the outbreak first hit, we adapted quickly to meet the changing needs of our customers and deliver a seamless service experience, regardless of the disruption they were going through. In my role as Head of Field Service, that’s important to me”, Louise explains. 

VFE is a market-leading specialist in the provision of repair, overhaul and maintenance services to the heat treatment and composite manufacturing and research sectors. Many of the businesses we support are classed as essential industries, so even back in March we were able to continue servicing them when our customers needed us on-site. Others were required, or made the decision, to shut in order to protect their staff. Now, most manufacturers have put in place the processes they need to keep their doors open, but meeting the latest, often fluid government guidance places added pressures on them and their service providers in order to remain compliant and keep running.

“I handle all aspects of the service desk, from breakdowns and the scheduling of maintenance visits to contract renewals and quotations. In short, I look after our customers”, explains Louise. “That’s my favourite part of the job, and over the last 11 years I’ve built up some really strong relationships with a lot of our valued customers. I’m confident our customers would say that we were there for them when the pandemic hit and that we’re still there for them now, tailoring our service to meet their requirements during these difficult times.”

What impact has COVID-19 had on the heat treatment and composite manufacturing spaces, and how has VFE adapted its service to support its customers along the way?

COVID-19 impacts the manufacturing industry

At certain times, particularly when the first national lockdown was instigated, service queries did slow down, Louise reports, as the industry reeled from the new restrictions. But even then, routine support requests were still coming in from our customers. 

“There were more concerns about what we were going to do when we attended a site, and whether or not we would be able to tailor our service to meet their requirements. When breakdown enquiries came in, sometimes there was less urgency around them, so there was a period of time when the industry appeared to stall, but it quickly picked back up in terms of the breakdowns and the levels of support we were delivering.”

Within VFE itself, there was minimal disruption when the pandemic first hit. 

“Of course, there was an initial learning curve when we made the move to working remotely full time, but we adapted quickly and I think that shows”, Louise reveals. “I don't think our customers felt any disruption to the level of service they were getting from us. In fact, I'd like to think they saw us offer a greater level of adaptability and flexibility as we switched up how we work in order to accommodate the specific needs of our individual customers.”

Read about VFE’s secret to achieving perfect production

Adapting service levels to meet our customers’ needs

Communication was key to achieving this and adapting to customer queries. This meant asking our customers what their concerns were but also if they had any particular requests. Some of the requests we fulfilled included:

  • Matching their shift patterns to avoid crossing over into two shifts
  • Where it was a two-engineer job, they requested one engineer, so there was not as much footfall on-site
  • Customers requesting to reschedule their visits to more appropriate times 
  • Customers reducing the scope of work so we’re on site for a shorter period of time

This flexibility was vital to Louise and her teams delivering the service her customers needed, when and how they needed it. 

“We also took extra pains to make sure that if our customers wanted us to, we could arrange for our own on-site wash facilities, reducing our contact with their workers. It’s all about what steps we can take to carry out our work in a way that they’re safe and comfortable with.”

Related read: VFE’s CEO David Byrne on the Importance of Service Excellence in Manufacturing. 

Coming together to serve the customer

Louise’s duties put her in contact with VFE’s customers on a regular basis. As a result, she gets feedback from them all the time in terms of VFE’s service standards and the experience they are receiving.

“I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again — communication is so important. To help them maintain their operations and keep their businesses running, we've been in more contact with our customers regarding their output and what their changing requirements are for the next six to nine months”, Louise explains. “I always pride myself on the service levels we offer. If they have concerns, it's a question of what can we do to address them so that our customers — and our engineers — are happy and able to attend sites safely?”

To help, Louise attends multiple management meetings every week, giving her and the rest of the senior team the opportunity to discuss any concerns, from the engineers’ safety and new customers requirements to discussions around the latest government advice.

“It's a continual process. What steps can we take to keep our engineers and our customers safe while following the guidelines issued by the government?”

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Keep our customers’ businesses running 

The industry is adapting, driven inexorably forward on wheels that will not be stopped. Key to keeping those wheels turning is the efforts of service providers like VFE to adapt their offerings and take each individual customer’s requirements into consideration. As a result, Louise reports that she received no cancellations after the government declared the second national lockdown earlier this year.

“In March, the national lockdown and its restrictions were new to everybody. No one had done it before. People have treated this second lockdown very differently. They are learning how to adapt, helped along the way by the provision of vital services such as those delivered by VFE to the heat treatment and composite manufacturing space.”

Louise makes sure to call out the hard work and dedication of VFE’s engineers, whom she cites as being a credit to the company. 

“They're the guys out there, day after day, putting themselves at risk to see the job done. They have gone above and beyond to deliver what our customers need. Without them, we would have had a really difficult job. It's been a hard year for everyone but there's light at the end of the tunnel. We were very fortunate that we had the IT infrastructure in place and we all seamlessly went to work at home. Our customers, I don't think they've noticed that much of a difference, and that can only be a good thing.”

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