When it comes to out-of-the-box thinking, supply chain management (SCM) is right up there, and popular SCM concepts, including “collaboration” and “partnership,” should clue you in rather quickly that you are going to be spending some quality face time with “customers,” which, in the broadest sense of the word, can incorporate your employees and suppliers as well as the builders, subs, and remodelers that you typically consider your main clientele.
Just how much time, you ask? Well, the contractor cookout probably isn't going to cut it. Even longer, more captive strategies such as weekend fishing trips or loyalty vacations to Hawaii might not get you there, either. While great for building relationships, these affairs offer little occasion to truly gain an appreciation for the operational processes of your customers. Without that comprehension and understanding, SCM will ultimately founder.
What it takes, some companies are finding, is a little bit of shock and awe for boardroom executives, especially ones at larger firms who tend to be further removed from daily operations and the partner interactions unique to SCM. David McQuillen, an American working as head of customer experience for Credit Suisse in Zurich, Switzerland, calls the technique “experience immersion,” in describing, for example, how he has required 50 top managers to spend a day weighted down in a wheelchair or eating lunch in pitch dark to simulate the experiences of the bank's disabled customers. While not all of McQuillen's tactics are as dramatic, all of Credit Suisse's top executives have been forced to at least spend two hours visiting three branch locations, where they try to exchange foreign currency and fill out credit card applications. Back at the office, they take a spin on the company Web site and attempt to check interest rates on mortgages or find out which bank cards can be used abroad. Virtually every session has resulted in improvements to Credit Suisse's process interactions within its customer supply chain, McQuillen explains in “Talk to Our Customers? Are You Crazy?” an article on renegade customer research by Ian Wylie in the July/August 2006 issue of Fast Company magazine.
“You want to make sure you have the big picture of the supply chain—the homeowner, the contractor, the subcontractor, your operation, the manufacturer, and their component suppliers,” agrees Edward Marien, Ph.D., professor emeritus of supply chain management and transportation management at the University of Wisconsin at Madison School of Business. Marien, who has worked with Ace Hardware and John Deere on customer research, says that too many companies are still oriented to doing things for the internal benefit of their own firm. “Getting people to recognize the better long-term value of driving costs out across the supply chain for all partners is the tough nut to crack,” he says.
Tough, but not impossible, as John Deere has found over the past several years dispatching small supply chain–minded units—what Marien calls “SWAT teams”—to spend a period of time working alongside the equipment manufacturer's upstream and downstream partners to better understand their operational practices and the impact that John Deere policies and processes might have on those practices. For SCM-minded pro dealers, Marien suggests taking a location-by-location approach to any customer research that involves immersion tactics, specifically because of business variations in local markets, but also because of the inherent differences between management personalities at the branch level.
Most of all, relax. “You can do this stuff in two or three days—you don't have to spend half a million dollars on research,” says McQuillen. “Just go and observe.” Indeed, pro sales standouts for years have been describing hot-shot OSRs that operate as if they are full-time employees of their builder accounts. SCM immersion is no different—a successful partnership will always require each party to walk a mile or two in the other guy's shoes.