Uponor North America President Andres Caballero cuts the plastic pipe 'ribbon' to open the company's new Experience Center.

The Outstanding Customer Experience

Sept. 29, 2023
Manufacturers are learning what service professionals have known for a while now: customers want experiences.

Just this week I took a quick trip out to Apple Valley, Minnesota to attend the grand opening of Uponor North America’s new Experience Center. The 4,500 sq. ft. facility boasts interactive displays worthy of a big-city museum or high-end theme park. There are professionally produced videos that tell the Uponor story and illustrate the applications and advantages of various company products.

But the heart of the Experience Center is an education and discovery space that allows the company’s customers to get hands-on with the products. The space can be adapted to suit almost any type of work. You can layout radiant tubing in a mockup of a residential installation. You can perform a heat fusion on sections of large diameter plastic pipe in a simulated commercial installation. Fittings, manifolds, controls—it’s all there to play with.

Except no one is wasting your time. Uponor gathers as much information on the customer prior to their visit so they can tailor the experience exactly to the type of work they perform and the specific things they want to learn. For an industry that’s known for having people who learn with their hands—who learn by doing—it’s a fantastic approach to training.

Later, as I was taking pictures of the ribbon cutting ceremony (well, they’re a plastic piping company so they did the ceremony with a section of tubing) it occurred to me how many manufacturers are now offering their customers “experiences” to complement their products.

Oatey Co., for example, offers its Intern Experience program: a 12-week “immersive, multifaceted, and experiential program,” created to provide interns with a bridge from their formal academic education to a meaningful professional career.

Watts now offers instructor-led training either virtually, in person at one of the company’s training facilities, or via their “Lunch and Learn” program where the instructor comes to your facility. All of it tailored to the customer’s needs, all of it built around the customer’s schedule.

There’s the RIDGID Experience where attendees get a factory tour and get to make their own wrench. Bradford White has the For the Pro Training Academy. Lochinvar has Lochinvar University.

There are a few reasons so many manufacturers are offering experiences these days. I think so many people are working remotely—a trend the pandemic accelerated—that there’s a new premium on in-person interaction. Part of CONTRACTOR’s parent company’s business model is events—conferences, conventions and so forth—and if the uptick in activity that side of business has seen is any indication, there is real desire out there to get face-to-face with people.

Part of it is the skilled worker shortage and the training programs that have been built to address it. When it comes to the skilled trades there are limits to what can be taught with textbooks and screens. Sooner or later (but preferably sooner) you need hands-on, in-person instruction.

But I think, ultimately, manufacturers are finally learning what service professionals have known for a while now: customers want experiences. It is no longer enough to say, “here’s what I offer, here’s what I charge,” and have that be the reason a customer chooses you over your competition.

People want the feeling of a genuine, positive interaction with another human being. They want someone to listen to their problems and empathize. They want a customized solution, tailored to their individual wants and needs. And they want it all on their timetable, not someone else’s.

Companies—whatever their business might be—who can offer those things don’t just get to charge a premium; they establish long-term relationships with their existing customers while building a reputation that draws new customers in.

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