Same as probably most of our readers, I’ve been cooped up in my home for the past few months. But I’ve been fortunate enough to have interesting conversations with industry experts. I recently had the privilege of discussing the effects of the current pandemic with Gianfranco Piroli, EMEA Aftermarket Service Director at MSA Safety—a global leader in the development, manufacture, and supply of safety products that protect people and facility infrastructures, established in 1914. 

Author Adrian Cirlig | Copperberg

COVID-19 is obviously still the topic of the day, do you see any long-term impact on service operations?

GP: I think that COVID-19, apart from the obvious short-term challenges associated so many companies are facing, could result in some long-lasting changes. Nothing completely new; more like an acceleration in the adoption of some technologies like Digitalization, for instance. The value associated with having the ability to monitor devices from a distance and to provide preventive or predictive maintenance support will probably be more appreciated now, since we all have experienced the advantages of “remote” technologies. This will have a knock-on impact on many parts of our businesses and jobs.

I also envision an impact on face-to-face training, where we move more rapidly toward AR – augmented reality – and other online solutions. In general, travel will change, and working remotely will become a “new normal,” actively promoted by most businesses.

The need for social isolation forces most operations to slow down at the moment, but does this push faster development in other areas?

GP: The slow-down in some industries (e.g. air travel and tourism in general) is and will be more impactful than in others (e.g. pharma, technology). In general, the aftermarket business is quite resilient to crises and can even emerge stronger having gone through a crisis. Companies tend to focus more than ever on making sure that their operations are up and running, relying on top-quality service and parts.

As I mentioned, some areas of digitalization will see an acceleration, across many industries.  Also, remote working and “virtual” interactions will increase.  The COVID-19 pandemic has clearly shown that many enterprises can continue to operate “as normal,” even if that means not being physically in the same place or in an office. 

What has been impacted the most in your operations?

GP: Confinements and restricted movement has naturally limited our ability to reach some customers’ sites.  So the opportunity to conduct face to face training classes has been reduced of course.  But we are finding ways to adjust.  Ultimately, as the Safety Company, our number one priority is to make sure that employees’ health, and that of our customers, comes first. Service centers operations are not being impacted.

In general, as we are an essential business (safety), we do have the honor and responsibility to serve a lot of other essential businesses (pharmaceutical companies, first responders, food and beverages businesses, just to mention a few).  For that reason, we continue to support our customers’s safety needs to make sure they can keep our infrastructure operational.  But we do that with a health and safety mindset. 

Did you manage to find any workarounds for the aforementioned processes?

GP: I am convinced that human beings have an incredible ability to quickly adjust to changing environments. For instance, we managed to adjust to remote working immediately.  I am referring to our customer service and administration teams in particular who, despite many changes to their work days, have continued to provide a seamless customer experience.  In some cases, we managed to keep supporting customers with online sessions and replacing parts swiftly.  So teamwork with our IT group has been essential, as well as close communication and coordination with our supply chain and customer service groups.

All this reminds me of another important outcome of the current situation: teamwork and cooperation across functions lead to enhanced results.  In addition, Communication, internal and external, are equally critical. For instance, daily online huddles with my direct reports across EMEA have become part of our routine, they may remain in place for a long time. Customers want to be reassured you are there for them, especially now. They will remember that. 

Travel restrictions are usually among the first measures in the event of an outbreak. How has MSA Safety adapted to these restrictions? 

GP: Well, like everyone else, we have severely curtailed company travel, and have made sure we are aligned with any restrictions imposed by the different countries. Once again, we have adjusted to the new situation quickly: if you know your customers’ needs well, you realize how much you can still do anyway (webinars, online sessions, virtual led training sessions, besides the use of videoconferencing tools).

In terms of aftermarket support, I would continue to say the overall impact of COVID has been and continues to be limited, as our work has continued given MSA’s connection to so many essential businesses.  The impact we have seen basically applies to cases where an overnight stay was needed and hotel accommodation was not available, due to the lockdown measures being taken in several countries. With regard to that, every country’s government across EMEA has approached this topic in a slightly different way: we make sure that local regulations are always followed. As we begin moving into PHASE 2 in most EMEA countries, accommodations are becoming more available with may new protocols in place.  Nonetheless, our field operations are up and running. The new situation definitely requires even more work and focus for our managers and schedulers, in order to optimize “trips” and ensure that our customers get the support they need, on time, with the right people and parts. Productivity and utilization remain the key aspects of service operations.

Do you think the current pandemic will have any long-lasting effects on business travel? 

GP: This is a big topic right now, across many industries and businesses.

First of all, we need to wait and see how PHASE 2 will evolve and, after that, when this virus will be completely defeated. Until then, surely the business travel – as leisure travel – will be kept to a minimum “essential” travel where we balance customer needs with local regulations. 

I will always maintain that face to face communication is key to building meaningful, valuable, and long-lasting relationships, especially at the beginning of the “customer journey.” I am convinced that this will not change.

But, once this pandemic is over, I do think that businesses will re-evaluate how travel can be managed differently, based on what we have learned from this situation.  This includes making more and better use of online technologies. Travel is a significant element of many business P&Ls.  I do believe the pandemic will lead many organizations to take an even closer look at those expenses and see what can be replaced by other ways of interaction. Also, attendance at major trade industry events and gatherings may be looked at as well.

Are there any particular areas that haven’t been impacted as much by the current pandemic, or at least not negatively affected?

GP: Again, aftermarket service in general has seen a limited impact. And with the start of PHASE 2 in the different countries, we already see an immediate, further increase in activities. All our factories throughout the world are open and running. Despite the distance, our people are staying connected with each other and with our customers. Generally speaking, every function has managed to keep providing value to the business and to our customers.

Specifically, the service center keeps operating as normal and offer important support to the whole business. Customer service teams are as close to Customers as they ever been.

It seems that during these times, safety is even more critical…

GP: Absolutely, and thank you for highlighting this point.  We are fortunate that our mission to help protect people in the workplace has gone unchanged for 106 years.  Safety is even in our name.  I believe that in the medium and long term, more businesses and governments will focus on safety more than ever.  This period is showing us the importance and criticality of safety in any enterprise, and in so many other aspects of our lives. 

We see and hear this every day from our customers: being able to play such a big role in today’s environment and helping people to stay safe is a responsibility of which we are most proud.  But with that, a big responsibility comes as well. The aftermarket service teams feel that too and they can play a big role.

Let’s try to end on an optimistic note. Are there any positives we can look forward to after we start regaining some normalcy in our day-to-day?

GP: Absolutely, I see a lot of opportunities in front of us, also in the aftermarket arena. In general, during a crisis, aftermarket shows a natural resilience. To summarize everything said above, I maintain that some very positive changes will emerge from this pandemic, and we will see an acceleration in Digitalization (especially IIoT or Industrial Internet of Things, Predictive Maintenance, Virtual and Augmented Reality), an increased focus on Safety of employees (and people in general), and also on Strategic Partnerships. It is clear how important it is to build strong relationships with partners: nobody goes through such a crisis on their own. We all rely on trusted partners to accomplish our mission and achieve our goals. This crisis presents us all with an opportunity to reflect on this point and help us forge new, meaningful, and stronger relationships. 

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