Chain of Thought

Wow Customers with What They Want Before They Want It

My blog post on identifying your 3PL pain threshold hit a nerve with at least one reader. Greg Riemer, social media strategist at C.H. Robinson Worldwide, responded that problems in relationships with third-party logistics service providers happen when either the 3PL or the shipper doesn't invest time on the front end of the relationship. He suggests forming a cross-functional team and measuring outcomes–not activities–in order to form a strong business marriage.

The problem with forming a cross-functional team, especially in smaller companies, is sometimes that cross-functional team is one person. Logistics professionals in many companies must be marketing professionals as well, and not just on the 3PL side. In fact, if you're going to hire a 3PL you need to help them understand your customers and their special requirements—even those they don't know they require.

It boils down to the golden rule. If you treat all of your customers the same, what right do you have to expect special treatment from a 3PL? Both the customer in a 3PL relationship and the 3PL itself should tailor their performance to the needs of their markets.

Allow me to shift the context of this discussion from matrimony to showbiz. The following excerpt could have been taken from a Marketing 101 textbook, but the source was a famous best seller written almost 50 years ago. See if you can guess who wrote it:

“We weren't an attraction that drew people to a theater, we were just a prop, a tool to open another man's show fast and lively, interchangeable with countless others just as fast and just as lively. … It's ridiculous! I can't do the same show for a dinner crowd that I do for the hard drinkers. Every audience is different. … I've got to have the flexibility to give them exactly what they want at that moment. But I can't know what it'll be until I get out there and feel them.”

Give up? That was taken from “Yes I Can,” the autobiography of the late, great Sammy Davis, Jr. As a huge fan of his, I saw him perform live several times in the 70s and 80s and can attest to the fact that no two shows were exactly the same. He really did customize his product to the needs of his customers—sometimes even before they knew they wanted it. He could do that because he had a vast inventory of talents from which to draw. Think that's a silly example?

Let me quote another late, great author: Oren Harari, Ph.D., professor in the MBA program at the University of San Francisco and a monthly columnist for Management Review. I saw Harari perform on the logistics conference circuit in the late 90s, and at one engagement, a global supply chain executive conference held by IBM in 1999, he told his audience how CNN changed the market for TV news by giving customers exactly what they wanted—before they knew what they wanted.

Ted Turner didn't take a poll to find out people wanted an all-news channel, Harari said. The nation's TV viewing audience didn't know they wanted it. Turner just looked at the demographics and figured out a lot of people got home later than the 6 o'clock news. There was also a huge audience at home in the early afternoon. Why not give them the news all the time?

Harari also cited Anderson Windows. Around that time this company wound up carrying a lot of finished goods inventory. Then someone at the company figured out that if they let customers design their own windows using an online design program available through their dealer network, they could eliminate finished goods inventory and customers could get exactly the windows they wanted but didn't know they could get.

Your organization must be a cauldron of ideas, Harari concluded. You need to be part of a web of relationships inside and outside your company. In fact, trillion-dollar enterprises will be replaced by an alliance of partners linked by the understanding that their survival is not compulsory. There are plenty of trillion-dollar companies out there to take their place, giving the customer what he expects. Your new job has to be giving the customer what he doesn't expect.

I'll sign off this post with a link to one of Sammy Davis's legendary live performances, where he gives his customers exactly what they wanted but at a level they never could have expected. Enjoy.

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