Lift truck makers to customers: Ask, and (maybe) ye shall receive
Have a suggestion for improving the lift trucks you operate? Then speak up! You just might get what you asked for.
By Toby Gooley
Forget the old adage "silence is golden." If you want something changed, you need to speak up.
No doubt you've heard that sterling advice from parents, teachers, managers, and mentors. Now, you can add lift truck makers to that list. The designers and manufacturers of forklifts, reach trucks, and similar equipment genuinely want to hear your thoughts on how they could improve their products.
This is not just another feel-good "we listen to our customers" marketing tactic. They're soliciting feedback with some very specific goals in mind. For one thing, they're looking for information that will help them design products that are safer and more efficient. They're also hoping, of course, to boost sales.
Here's a look at how truck manufacturers collect information from users, what they do with it, and how they translate it into new and better equipment.
Inside the customer's mind
Lift truck makers employ a number of techniques to find out what their customers think of their products. Although each manufacturer's combination of methods is unique, they typically rely on the following four approaches to solicit feedback: br>
- Customer surveys. All of the manufacturers we talked to use surveys to collect routine information. In some instances, it's a multistep process. That's the case at Cat Lift Trucks, which is part of Mitsubishi Caterpillar Forklift America Inc. Shortly after a truck is delivered, the manufacturer and dealer check in with the customer to ask about the delivery experience and the truck's condition upon arrival. Several months later, they conduct a follow-up survey, this time asking about the truck's performance.
- "Voice of the Customer" research. A common tool is the Voice of the Customer (VOC), a complex research methodology that, in very simplified terms, involves cross-functional interview teams asking customers about their experiences and their needs. The method also prescribes ways to analyze and make use of the detailed information that is gathered. "Voice of the Customer doesn't always lead to a particular [equipment] feature," notes Fred Mallett, director of new product programs at Cat Lift Trucks. "Rather, it identifies a need the customer has that requires a solution."
- On-site research. Lift truck makers consider field observation to be indispensable. For example, NACCO Materials Handling Group Inc., maker of the Yale and Hyster brand lift trucks, collects nearly all of its customer feedback via on-site visits or face-to-face meetings. Since last year, in fact, NACCO has employed full-time field product managers whose sole mission is to "capture the Voice of the Customer information and future product possibilities," says Jonathan Dawley, vice president, marketing. br>
Crown Equipment Corp. takes it a step further, sending specialists out to the customer's site for extended observation. "We do a lot of ethnographic research, which is also called 'ethnographic shadowing,'" says Mike Gallagher, vice president, design. "It's not doing surveys or focus groups; it's actually living with the user of the product. Designers and engineers work for a week or two in their operations to really understand their operational culture and how they actually work."
Toyota Material Handling U.S.A. (TMHU) also relies heavily on field research to obtain customer feedback. A year or so after a new model launch, product managers and engineers visit customers to get their assessment of the new model's performance. Then, prior to launching the next new product, TMHU visits again to confirm that the previous survey's findings are still valid and to identify any new issues that may have arisen. In the final step, selected customers test prototype forklifts that were hand-built in Japan. "We let them use the truck, and we gather their feedback. It's a last effort to weed out any potential issues before the truck rolls down the production line," says Martin Boyd, vice president of product planning and marketing.
- Collateral research. Sometimes getting user feedback requires looking outside the immediate circle of customers and employees. The Raymond Corp., for example, also polls material handling consultants and suppliers of batteries and other collateral equipment, and sends its researchers to industry conferences to learn what buyers are interested in, says Susan Comfort, product manager, marketing, narrow-aisle products. They don't just talk to existing customers, either. "We look at sales [to try to identify] trends in configurations as well as lost orders. Why did someone choose a different path? We try to get to the root of the situation and learn from it," she says.
You asked for it, you got it!
What kinds of questions do lift truck manufacturers ask users? A few examples include: What do you like and not like about this truck? When using the truck, are there any activities you find to be uncomfortable, unnecessarily complicated, or overly time consuming? What trends do you see in your business that might require you to handle goods in a different way in the future, and that this truck might not accommodate? If you could redesign this lift truck, what would you change?
The answers to these and other questions often lead to design changes and even totally new products that improve efficiency, safety, accuracy, and driver comfort. For instance, narrow-aisle reach truck operators told Cat Lift Trucks that they couldn't always tell whether the fork tips high above their heads were level, which was hampering their operations. Cat responded by adding a sensor that determines when the forks are level and switches on a red light mounted on the head guard. Operators can easily see the light when they look up at the forks.
In another case, workers in cold storage facilities complained to the Raymond Corp. that they were losing productivity because of a pallet truck's safety feature. The trucks have an emergency reversing button that shuts the vehicle down when it hits something—including the strip curtains used in refrigerated facilities. After hearing their concerns, Raymond modified the truck to allow operators to temporarily disengage the button by activating the horn when driving through strip curtains.
Both safety and comfort were a concern for a group of operators whose jobs often require them to drive backward. Not only did they dislike having to twist their bodies to gain better visibility, but they also worried about having to take their hands off the safety handle in order to honk the horn. Toyota Material Handling U.S.A. solved that problem by designing a swivel seat that allows the back end to swing a specified degree but keeps the driver's feet in the same position relative to the pedals. A safety handle with an integrated horn button, mounted on the right back overhead guard pillar, lets operators hold on and honk without letting go or having to twist frontward.
Safety was also the issue in a number of retailers' storerooms, where personnel were concocting all kinds of hazardous ways to carry cartons up and down ladders. After hearing about the problem, Crown Equipment Corp. designed a unique, self-propelled "lift truck without forks" for use in congested stockrooms. Called the Wave, the vehicle allows an operator to safely grab a carton off a shelf and slide it onto a load tray, lower it, and deliver it to its destination.
Lift truck users don't always ask manufacturers to add features. Sometimes, they ask for features to be removed. For instance, when some customers told NACCO Materials Handling Group that they liked a new line of premium internal combustion forklifts but they didn't need and couldn't afford all of the pricey amenities, the manufacturer developed a stripped-down version that offers the most important features at a more affordable price.
Tell them what you really think
While lift truck manufacturers say they take customer opinions seriously, it's important to note that you can't always draw a straight line from customers' suggestions to a particular product feature. Instead, says Mallett of Cat Lift Trucks, the manufacturers think in terms of identifying a need or problem that requires a solution. Or, as Crown's Gallagher puts it, their aim in asking for customers' input "is not just to design and engineer a great product, but also to design and engineer a great experience."
So the next time a lift truck dealer or manufacturer asks you to participate in a survey or host a site visit, say yes. Although these visits can be time-consuming, you'll likely find it's well worth your time. Give them your honest opinion about their products and tell them what you'd like to see. The resulting improvements—in product efficiency, safety, accuracy, and quality—will not only result in a better product for all users but could also directly benefit your own operation.
Once lift truck makers have collected customer opinion data, what do they do with it? Although the protocols vary from manufacturer to manufacturer, their procedures still tend to have a lot in common.
At virtually every manufacturer, for instance, analyzing the data is a cross-functional exercise. A case in point is Cat Lift Trucks' New Product Programs office, where certified project management professionals lead teams that include sales, engineering, quality, service engineering, procurement, and manufacturing. "Everybody who has a stake in that vehicle at some point in its lifecycle is involved in the transition to a new product," says Director Fred Mallett. Some companies, such as NACCO, also bring their supply chain managers and component suppliers into the process.
For manufacturers that follow what's known as the Voice of the Customer research protocol, "brainstorming" is an important part of the analytical process. In this case, "brainstorming" means looking at verbatim comments from customers—often on Post-It notes stuck to the wall—and grouping them by such characteristics as source (operator, maintenance, shift supervisor, etc.) and theme (comfort, safety, maintenance, visibility, etc.). This makes it easier to identify recurring issues and possible solutions.
An adjunct to the Voice of the Customer process is Quality Function Deployment, a methodology for identifying customers' needs and systematically interpreting them for use by the design, development, engineering, manufacturing, and service functions. "It allows us to take Voice of the Customer data and prioritize it through cross-functional evaluations that assign numerical values to that information. We can then translate customer needs into the design characteristics we would accomplish most successfully," explains Susan Comfort, product manager, marketing, narrow-aisle products for The Raymond Corp.
The key word here is "successfully." Not every customer request makes it to the drawing board. On a major redesign, all of the functions work together to determine which requests are marketable and which are too expensive for the market to bear, says Martin Boyd, vice president of product planning and marketing for Toyota Material Handling U.S.A. Competitors' actions and the likely impact of design changes on market share also influence the final decision, he says.
The time it takes from data collection until a new (or modified) product rolls off the assembly line varies. Urgent upgrades may be completed in a matter of weeks, but most component upgrades take from three months to two years, according to Jonathan Dawley, vice president, marketing for NACCO Materials Handling Group Inc. The product lifecycle for a completely new model, including field testing of prototypes, is two or three years for most manufacturers. NACCO, however, is currently working on shortening the time to market for new models while improving delivered quality, he says.
About the Author
Contributing Editor Toby Gooley is a freelance writer and editor specializing in supply chain, logistics, material handling, and international trade. She previously was Senior Editor at DC VELOCITY and Editor of DCV's sister publication, CSCMP's Supply Chain Quarterly. Prior to joining AGiLE Business Media in 2007, she spent 20 years at Logistics Management magazine as Managing Editor and Senior Editor covering international trade and transportation. Prior to that she was an export traffic manager for 10 years. She holds a B.A. in Asian Studies from Cornell University.
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