Everyone knows that our watches need servicing every 10 years. But why do we wait to maintain them? In conversation with after-sales service advocate, Roland Hirschi, discover why we’re reluctant to preserve our timepieces, and in turn, the effect this might have on our future assets.
The name ‘after-sales service’ isn’t exactly enthused with glamor. “In fact, it’s not very sexy at all,” shares Roland Hirschi, leading the charge to make watch maintenance mean more and sound slightly less sterile. Arguably, the French translation, quipped under the acronym, SAV, meaning Service Apres Vente for the uninitiated, sounds slightly more provocative, notionally down to the fact the average Joe has no idea what it stands for. But is our ignorance to it forfeiting the exponential worth of our watches in years to comet?
Watch maintenance seems to have a bit of a bad rep. It’s regarded as the uneventful part of buying a watch that people don’t tend to talk about. Why not? We might complain about putting our cars into the garage for an MOT, but we don’t avoid doing it. So why the lethargy when it comes to maintenance? If we hark back to William James, one of the leading hallmarks on the development of psychology in the United States, “a man’s self is the sum total of all that he can call his.” So why sell yourself short by not taking care of it properly?
As humans obsessed with consumption, we operate on a very fine line between the timely adage, ‘if it’s not broken, don’t fix it,’ to the Magpie complex where we want everything shiny and new. It’s hard to position after-sales service into this pendulum. Put another way, humans tend to discount the value of later rewards in light of present gains. But if the objects are signifiers to ourselves, who we want to be and where we situate ourselves, after we’ve gone, and we gift them as heirlooms to our relatives, they become a part of our legacy of what we identified with.
After-sales service is the bit in the small print you wish you read beforehand. But the argument for its relevance in modern society is that it shouldn’t just be in the smallprint, suggests Hirschi. “It should be a main topic of conversation at purchase.” An advocate for shifting the narrative, Hirschi began at Richemont more than 20 years ago, at a time when everyone was talking about SAV. But one of the biggest hurdles they faced was the lack of emphasis on the end consumer. After all, after-sales service might state what’s on the tin, but you don’t quite know whose opening it. “We needed to put customers in the centre, which for a lot of brands today has translated into customer service. But in English, that’s problematic because it’s not necessarily linked to the technical operations” rather somebody behind a phone, undoubtedly placing you on hold to listen to glitchy classical music, before answering consumer problems or orders.
“Everyone understands what service means,” Hirschi offers. “You go to a restaurant, you might have nice food, but if you don’t have good service, then you don’t enjoy the whole experience. But I’m not sure the younger generation are exposed to this reality when it comes to watchmaking.” We’re entering the next chapter of horology whereby what it means to wear a watch means so much more than telling the time. In fact, wearing a watch has never held such cultural cool or relevance than it does today, expedited by the fact that we’re so immersed in celebrity culture of knowing who wore what, and how we can get it.
Not only are we seeing young people enter the watch space for this reason, but they’re also purchasing watches with the view to store their wealth and invest as both emotional and financial assets. So for the sake of reaping future economic benefits, prolongation of its quality is essential. Particularly with the retail influx of secondhand watches expected to reach $30 billion by 2025, according to McKinsey’s ‘State of Fashion, Jewellery and Watches’ report. For pre-owned watches, particularly those gifted as heirlooms, there’s emotion at stake. “Imagine your watch is the watch of your father, then you want to keep the value of this watch all your life and even for the lives of your children. After-sales therefore isn’t just about repairing, but looking after something, particularly for a generation who are growingly eco-conscious, looking to preserve rather than buy new things.”
The crux of watch maintenance is that you don’t really have to do anything. “When you bring your car for a service and to do maintenance on it, it’s usually for security reasons. You would be very annoyed if your car stops because it’s something people often use everyday. For watches, it’s a little bit different. Even though we often compare watches and cars, there is a key difference. There’s no risk if a watch stops. Instead, you take your phone and you can see the time. It’s normal in people’s minds that when they buy a car, they will have a service, even if it’s not broken, but in the watch world, there’s little explanation.”
“Salespeople are often afraid that discussing the after-life of purchase and any room for error in a watch will be a constraint,” reflects Hirschi. “If you suggest it might break, you’re ruining the dreams of your consumer. Watch owners will discover the information is out there on the internet and in their watch handbook, but people don’t talk about it. As a mystery shopper, only 1 in 10 spoke of the after-sales service when purchasing, and it’s because people are afraid. That’s not to say people won’t tell you it’s important, but very few people actually know the specific details from how it’s managed, to what’s expected at the service center.”
Tackling the fallacy, Hirschi launched his own company, SAVinsight early this year. Throughout his experience for the major conglomerate, Richemont, and the independent Swiss watchmakers, Breitling, he discovered that after-sales really fell into the distribution. “For these big brands and groups, it’s managed internally. SAVinsight is targeting the brands who don’t necessarily have their own distribution, they rely on agents or other distributors. So for them, you have a commercial relationship meaning that you give them a margin to sell their products but to manage the after-sales.”
Hirschi often finds himself asking brands one question: which level of service does your end consumer get? “There’s silence,” he notes. “They don’t know because they don’t get visibility on that. What we propose therefore at SAVinsight is to implement certified service centres around the world, where the brand and consumer get all the information on their product and services in real time. Perhaps consumers and salespeople alike are deterred from talking about it given the lack of know-how on resources and the day-to-day implementation of servicing, but it’s more than just a marketing tool to promote loyalty between the owner and the brand.
“For big brands, they know about it,” motions Hirschi, with 5-10% of a watch brand’s turnover. “They are organised about it, even if the size of the organisation can potentially be the weakness, in terms of it being the very last milestone to the end customer.” Smaller brands tend to focus on product development, marketing, and sales. Frequently they don’t have the critical size to have a proper after-sales service structure. We want to help play this role for small brands because we have the expertise of this industry and master the organizational and technical aspects behind” it,” providing a digital platform to oversee the process and consultant support throughout. “We are not working directly for the end customer but position ourselves as a key partner between these two players.”
There’s no doubt it’s difficult to get people to read the smallprint. But why not make the font a lot larger, so to speak, and start including the narrative as an integral part of the sales process? “Service and preservation has always been key, but never recognised as such,” Hirschi concludes. “But with the acceleration of pre-owned, with the second-hand market booming, you need to service these watches because when you want to sell, or trade your watch, then the person who wants to buy it will need confirmation on its quality and working conditions, according to the standards.” Surely we’d be shooting ourselves in the foot – and our wallet – otherwise?