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Tube & Pipe
Monday | 30 April, 2012 | 3:09 pm

Satisfied customers keep coming back

By Lauren Duensing

Prolamsa USA relies on customers’ input to improve daily operations and service

April 2012 - Customers have a unique perspective on their suppliers’ operations, and listening to constructive opinions from trusted customers can help a business achieve its goals. Good, bad or ugly, if companies take the advice and use it to improve their performance, everyone wins.

ProlamsaButtonProlamsa USA, Houston, handles the marketing and sales activities in the United States and Canada for its parent company Prolamsa, which is privately owned and has manufacturing facilities in Escobedo, Mexico, and Laredo, Texas. The company is a producer of steel tubular shapes and has invested recently in a series of major capital programs, adding high-tech equipment and controls to ensure its products are produced to the highest possible customer standards. Its mission: “To anticipate, focus on and meet our customers’ needs so that we are recognized as the best partner in the industry.”

To improve its service, Prolamsa USA began surveying its customers approximately nine years ago to determine their perception of the company’s overall performance. The questions focus on product quality; on-time deliveries; responsiveness to inquiries, quotes and claims; technical support; and corrective actions. The survey also gauges customer awareness of improvements, such as new products, benefits and services.

“We wanted results directly from our customers so we could establish a benchmark and chart our progress,” says Jean-Marie Diederichs, commercial director of U.S. operations. “It has given us a lot of good feedback.”

An independent third party conducts the survey, sharing only the final results with Prolamsa, and customer input is anonymous. Diederichs points out it’s important not only to send the survey to customers but also to follow up and let them know improvements are being made, giving them a reason to participate.

The result of this philosophy is a “very good rate of return,” he notes, and the amount of customers responding has increased over the years.

Listening to customers’ needs
Once Prolamsa has the survey results, it can measure them against its established benchmark. “We can realize problems that we have, correct them and offer solutions,” Diederichs says.

Customers always have been satisfied with the company’s product quality. However, according to the survey results, Prolamsa needed to improve its on-time delivery and flexibility in orders.

“We really worked on faster delivery,” says Diederichs. Before the company established its Laredo facility, products had to be shipped across the U.S. border from Prolamsa’s Mexico operations. “This was difficult to do in a timely fashion,” Diederichs says. “Our survey emphasized how much we needed to add manufacturing facilities in the U.S. So, we added a facility in Laredo, Texas, and allotted a certain amount of space for warehousing, as well.”

Additional space allowed the company to achieve its goal of faster delivery. Products are in stock, so they can be sent out immediately. In addition, it now offers customers stocking programs—a service it wasn’t able to provide before. “Our storage space filled up, so we added a warehouse last year that allows us to basically double the size of the warehouse and the products we have in stock,” Diederichs says. “We have about 100 products available in the warehouse at all times.”

Prolamsa has facilities in two countries, both of which supply an extensive line of products. “We offer many more products than tube mills usually offer,” Diederichs says. The Laredo program focuses on mechanical tubing, cut-to-length for OEMs and also stocks HSS. The Escobedo plant includes HSS, mechanical tubing (rounds), metal building components, red primer coil and offers value-added processes such as laser cutting and bending.

The company serves both large and small customers, offering a mixed-truckload buying program from each plant. Customers can select multiple products or the made-to-stock products they need and fill up a truck that is shipped within 72 hours.

“We allow them to pick what they want on a daily basis for better inventory turns,” Diederichs says. “They don’t have to invest so much at one time. With the mixed-truckload program we have now, customers can mix different sizes and different lengths on the same truckload,” he continues. “We are trying to be as flexible as we can for our customers, mixing and matching products and shipping them quickly so they can adapt to the new market, which is much different than it was three to four years ago.”

Linking systems
Adapting to a changing marketplace also involves incorporating new technologies. Today, “products are tracked from a coil scan at the plant until they arrive at the customer,” says Diederichs. “We have the whole life of the product.”

Prolamsa developed ProLink to provide this information to customers around the clock. ProLink is an ordering and tracking system that provides data on order status, rolling schedules, inventory availability, invoices, mill test reports, bills of lading and certificates of quality as well as allows customers to place orders.

“We wanted to serve customers at all times—day and night,” Diederichs says, stressing that ProLink serves the needs of everyday users. Special requests still require one-on-one service.

“There are a lot of customers that need information all the time, and they don’t want to make a phone call for everything they need,” he continues. “So you need to have a service that’s not going to be a problem for them, one that will make their day a little more enjoyable because they will get an answer quickly.

“With the economy, we have more work but we don’t have more people in the office. ProLink is a solution that helps us to be cost efficient and to improve the service that we give to the customer. It works on laptops, BlackBerrys, iPhones, iPads. You can use it from home,” Diederichs says.

In addition to its portability, the platform can be tailored to specific needs of the customer. “We can show only the products they buy. We can prepare templates of their purchase order. They can use their old purchase order and copy them to place a new purchase order, and the price will be updated automatically. We are trying to simplify the work that they do as much as possible,” Diederichs notes.

Whether it’s a friendly voice at the other end of the line or around-the-clock accessibility, ongoing communication helps build a better business. “We’ve put a lot of things together little by little to make Prolamsa a good option for customers,” says Diederichs.

He notes today’s business environment is increasingly competitive, and “the ability to respond to customers’ needs is key to being successful in today’s marketplace. However, it isn’t enough just to meet their needs. We are trying to anticipate them.”

The surveys are one way to accomplish this, and the resulting programs help the company adapt. “We try to foresee what is going to happen,” he says. “How can we reduce our communication time, our delivery time, all while keeping the same high quality and service? We are trying to implement those strategies within our company and meet all of the needs within the market.” MM

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