For all their expertise in wooing prospective buyers, luxury watchmakers have long been criticized for neglecting clients from the moment a purchase is completed.
“What we care about is selling a watch, not repairing a watch,” said Ricardo Guadalupe, chief executive of the Swiss watchmaker Hublot. He was referring to the industry’s collective tendency to ignore after-sales service, although, he added, that mind-set has begun to change.
Most collectors say they are used to the situation — and they’re dubious about much change, at least so far.
“When you drop off a watch through an authorized dealer or a boutique, you fill out the paperwork and off this watch goes into the black hole,” said Michael Haymond, a founding member of the Chrono Group, a community of watch collectors in Southern California, Arizona and Utah. “It’s a little disconcerting.”
Technology to stay connected with clients is widely available and used by online companies from Apple to Zappos, but only about 5 percent of all luxury watchmakers are exploring how to use it to “build stronger relationships, build revenue and delight their customers,” said Benedict Sheppard, a London-based partner at the consulting firm McKinsey & Company.
Mr. Sheppard referred to an article he co-wrote for McKinsey a year ago in which he skewered the luxury watch industry for its painfully analog approach to after-sales service.
In the piece, he described a client in London named Steven (a pseudonym) who took a $15,000 watch to a brand boutique for what turned out to be a costly repair and spent the better part of four months awaiting updates on its status.
“For a company that’s all about time not to value time for typically time-poor customers — it’s mind-boggling,” Mr. Sheppard said.
The article contrasted Steven’s experience with what it called a fictional “journey of tomorrow” in which every step of the after-sales process was designed to accommodate digitally savvy customers, complete with courier pickups, alerts, tracking functionality and video calls with the technician fixing the watch.
Many collectors say they are eager for such changes.
“I want to have access to an app or online site where I can log in and see where my watch is,” said Jasem Al Zeraei, a watch collector based in Kuwait whose Instagram alter ego is @Patekaholic, a reference to to his obsession with timepieces by the respected Geneva watchmaker Patek Philippe.
“I want to be able to see the watch has been received, see my estimate and see that the watch is being worked on,” Mr. Al Zeraei added.
“Maybe I can hit the button that says ‘Inquire’ and someone at Patek can reply and say, basically, ‘We haven’t forgotten you.’ Then I get notification that it’s en route to my dealer,” he said.
While video chats with watchmakers may be a long way off, a few brands have taken some initial steps.
Christoph Grainger-Herr, chief executive of IWC Schaffhausen, has made his contact information publicly available. “Go on my Instagram and see my email address and phone number,” he said.
“It’s a very visible sign that we stand behind the products and services we provide.”
Mr. Grainger-Herr’s approach represents one of the most personal examples of a digital-age customer service philosophy, perhaps shaped by the fact that he did not rise through industry ranks, but instead came to IWC, and watchmaking, in 2006, after an early career in architecture and design.
In November, the brand introduced My IWC, a digital platform that allows customers to register their watches and receive an international limited warranty, extended to eight years from the traditional two years.
That same month, Panerai — IWC’s sister brand within the Compagnie Financière Richemont stable — unveiled a similar initiative called Pam.Guard. It has a service interface (accessible across devices and formats, including desktop, mobile and WeChat) including personalized newsletters and reminders for some owners that it’s time for watch checkups.
Cartier and Jaeger-LeCoultre announced similar initiatives last year. And Hublot — together with its parent company, LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton — is working on a more sophisticated digital platform that will allow customers to get repair estimates on the spot, Mr. Guadalupe said.
“Before, it was easy — you bought a watch and you had a two-year guarantee,” said Panerai’s chief executive, Jean-Marc Pontroué. “You came to the store and we fixed it for you. That’s what existed for most watch brands in our industry.”
But many collectors are questioning the extended warranties that numerous watchmakers have been touting.
“This game that’s played — that any mechanical watch needs service every two to three years — the reality is, with modern lubrication and modern movements, they don’t need to be serviced that often,” said David Sharp, a Glasgow-based sales executive who runs the RedBar collector community in Britain. “Brands can confidently offer warranties for five, eight or 10 years with little risk.
“They’ve done it because they know they can,” he added.
And when it comes to customer contact, Mr. Sheppard of McKinsey said, even the most progressive watchmakers weren’t being proactive enough.
“They’re often doing it to address pain points” instead of actively trying to make things better by creating “a very real sense of human connection with the brand,” he said. “And not just to the salespeople, but to the engineers, to the heart of the brand, and the people who actually manufacture the watches. There’s never been a more important time to do it.”
As competition for disposable income heightens in the aftermath of Covid-19, companies will have “an opportunity to build digitally enabled customer service capabilities that support conversion and repeat sales in an otherwise difficult time,” said Victor Hoong, founder and managing director of Riverflex, a digital consultancy headquartered in London. “The speed and efficacy with which luxury brands can act upon this will be a crucial factor in determining the business winners and losers of 2020.”
Yet some collectors question whether a cutting-edge service platform actually would attract more prospective buyers and, ultimately, improve sales.
“When you go on a plane or drive a car, how excited are you about the seatbelts or airbags?” Brad Schwartz, a New York-based collector, said. “Not very. But they’re important. You already have an expectation that the car is safe.
“With watches, you already have an expectation of good service. If someone has a bad experience, it could be bad for the brand. But on the flip side, I’m not sure it will be the overwhelming factor to drive purchase.”