How do hardware businesses handle customer service?

How a hardware company handles customer care entirely depends on the cost structure and end user of the product.

On one extreme, consumer electronics products are purchased and used by consumers.  If the cost is low (for instance, below $300 per unit), the customer care approach is often similar to that of self-help SaaS based software products - customers are directed first to 24/7 self-help portals to see if a knowledgebase or a community forum answers their questions. If that doesn't work, they can call a customer support line.  A tiered service strategy is often used to manage time demands for highly skilled technical personnel. 

If the product doesn't work or is damaged, they are often shipped back to the manufacturer, and if the cost of manufacture is low enough, the customer usually receives a new replacement unit because the cost of fixing their product exceeds the cost of manufacturing a whole new unit.  The defective unit can then go back to engineering for root cause analysis.

On the other extreme, industrial automation products are purchased by managers and other higher ranking decision makers and used by skilled or non-skilled operators.  When something goes wrong, the product is usually not shippable (imagine having a 5-axis CNC machine stop working).  The only option is often to send out a field service team to diagnose and fix the problem on site.  This is very costly and usually the customer will need to purchase a field service plan or pay out of pocket each time the equipment fails. 

The exception is when a very high value product is placed - such as a traditional industrial robot - in which the integrator (a company that resells the robot and then performs months of integration to get the robot up and running) will provide a warranty and will execute a service level agreement that often specifies the maximum response time for a field crew to show up on site. 

When the cost of the equipment going down is extreme (such as in the case of factory automation) the provider for field service can potentially be charged a penalty for every hour that the equipment stays down.  This type of business usually drives the service provider to sell the customer a preventative maintenance plan so problems are prevented instead of handled.

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