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December 15, 2017
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Get to know your customer

If you want to significantly improve your chances of becoming a senior leader, getting to know the customer is essential.

When was the last time you sat down and talked with a customer? For many supply chain professionals, the answer is likely to be "not lately," or worse yet, "rarely, if ever."

That's not surprising, really; supply chain professionals are often considered specialists who aggressively pursue cost and efficiency primarily by working with suppliers and within their companies' four walls. Few companies, moreover, have truly embraced supply chain management's role in driving profitable growth and increasing sales.

But if you want to significantly improve your chances of becoming a senior leader—and perhaps lead an entire supply chain organization or even run a business—getting to know the customer is essential. After all, without customers, you don't have a business.

Let's say you are one of several executives being considered for a big promotion. Imagine that a closed-door conversation is under way about potential candidates for the job. After discussing the top three candidates, one of the key decision makers has this to say: "We are fortunate to have three strong choices; every one of these candidates has a demonstrated track record of success. However, Joe is the only one who has significant customer and market experience. A couple of years ago, he developed a performance goal that required him to visit at least one customer per month. In the beginning, Joe asked a friend of his in the sales organization if he could 'tag along' on a customer visit simply to learn and observe. I know for a fact that these days, Joe is being invited to attend customer meetings. This guy understands the customer and really adds value."

Are you Joe? Let's hope that you are, because this vignette is based on a true story. The real-life Joe is now a senior vice president of supply chain for a large company. Joe distinguished himself by getting to know the customer. Before that, he was seen as an "inside guy" who did a great job "behind the scenes." He knew, however, that to achieve his aspirations, he would need to broaden his experience. Although getting out into the field to meet customers was uncomfortable at first, Joe ultimately learned a lot about his company's customers and how a supply chain professional with passion can add value to the customer relationship.

Don't succumb to stereotypes
Now, with Joe's experience in mind, take a look at your own career objectives and goals for 2010. Are any of them related to enhancing revenue, customer acquisition, market share, or customer satisfaction? If you do have customer-related goals, that's great! Your company appears to embrace supply chain management's role in driving profitable growth. If you do not, don't worry; that doesn't mean you never will. The traditional role of the supply chain executive is evolving, albeit slowly, in many companies and industries.

To help push this change forward, it may be beneficial to ask ourselves, why do supply chain professionals sometimes believe that customers are "off limits"? After all, supply chain management embodies the entire business system. The last time I looked, the customer was a major part of this system. Are we hindered by the stereotype of a supply chain professional being primarily an internal player who is analytically oriented and maybe even introverted? Do we, perhaps, have a negative stereotype of the sales profession, which typically handles face-to-face customer meetings? Do we see them as nonanalytical extroverts who will promise anything to make the sale?

These are important questions. If you are candid with yourself, you can ask them with courage, face the answers objectively, and do something to dismantle the stereotypes that are holding you back from direct customer contact.

An important step is to recognize that stereotypes about sales and supply chain management being incompatible are not logical. The best supply chain leaders have terrific people skills that enable them to get things done, often without formal authority. Successful supply chain executives have great influencing skills, and they persuade others by connecting with their hearts and minds. Think about it: Doesn't this sound a bit like the description of an effective sales executive? Don't you "sell" your ideas and plans to other people every day?

Build your "brand"
Even after recognizing the similarities between sales and supply chain management, some of us may still feel apprehensive about engaging directly with customers. We may feel uncomfortable moving into an unfamiliar area. Maybe we are concerned that we might make a mistake and look bad. But taking this risk is worth it in the long run; it will help each of us build a personal "leadership brand" that includes a strong personal relationship with customers.

Your leadership brand comprises all the associations that people make when they think about you. Like any good commercial brand, it can be a source of great equity—or, if not developed and managed properly, a drag on your career. Think of a great brand that you admire. What goes through your head when you hear that company's name? What associations do you make with its products?

Personal brands operate the same way. Imagine that right now, 200 people who have interacted with you hear your name. What associations do they make? Are they associations you desire for yourself?

Certainly, you want those associations to be positive: "Jane is a strong leader and a risk taker; I'm confident in her ability to get results." Now, what if we add this association: "Jane understands customers." Imagine what will happen when all of the people who interact with Jane have that same customer-focused association whenever they think of her. My bet is that Jane's career will be a long and successful one.

If you want your personal brand to include a strong customer-focused association, then you will need to get out of your office and spend time in the market. Ask your supporters to look for opportunities to meet customers. Ask to attend sales and marketing meetings to observe and get to know the people who provide customer access. Open your mind to a new opportunity to grow. Most importantly, don't be afraid to venture into new territory.

It has often been said that what you conceive and believe you can achieve. If you believe you belong in the customer's office, you will get there. It is up to you to make it happen.

Tim Stratman is founder and president of Stratman Partners Executive Coaching Inc.

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