Written by 12:12 pm customer-centric supply chains, Demand • One Comment

Say Customer Service and Mean It

In my work with clients, customers bandy about the term “customer-centric supply chain.” I find most of these discussions are loquacious, even bellicose, but not actionable. As a pragmatic gal, they make me itch. I have a passion for clear and direct communication. I think that we should earn a five-star rating with customers every day.

At the end of every presentation, one of my clients always says, “Let’s fix the basics.” However, when I ask him what he sees as the basics, he responds, “Isn’t it clear? We need to improve the ability to serve the customer.” When I ask him, what this means to him, I get a series of frustrated looks and stammered half sentences. When he talks and refers to the basics, his team usually rolls their eyes. The reason? This is his code phrase for let’s fund my pet projects.

Another client wants to push the customer-centric concept in his organization, but his definition is to do whatever the customer wants. However, when I ask him to define the customer in a B2B context where corporations deal with multiple roles and personas, he struggles. The response is a long sigh. The organization is not clear on accepting special requests and expedited shipping policies, often resulting in a lower margin.

Many of my clients talk about a customer-centric supply chain but rely on useless metrics from an annual survey or a net promoter score. In this article, I want to emphasize that a customer-centric supply chain meets and exceeds the customer’s needs day-by-day based on a well-defined relationship against a brand promise.

My point? A customer-centric supply chain is easier to say than implement. A well-defined customer-centric supply chain starts with a clear definition of the organization’s strategy to serve a well-defined customer requirement.

What A Customer-Centric Supply Chain Is Not

Over the last month, I moved. The process of moving, no matter how well planned, is like a root canal. In the process, the only constant was disruption:

  • Appliance Failure. Six Weeks Without a Washer. I ordered an LG washer from Lowes. Will took the order, and Dan delivered the product. Dan, new to the job, failed to remove the shipping bolts from the back of the washer. As a result, when I turned on the new washer, I ruined the appliance. Lowes ordered a new washer, but due to replenishment issues and the lack of visibility in their system, they could not tell me when to expect the replacement. All Will could do was complain about his system. Eight weeks later, with weekly calls to the store, I cornered the manager Mike in the store, and I got the delivery. Buying a new appliance should not be this hard.
  • Food Drive-Thru Experiences. Wrong Stuff. Without a kitchen, I depended on the drive-thru services of outlets like Starbucks and McDonalds. Starbucks redesigned their cups for the Grande product, and the flimsy cups were a source of constant spills and burns. I now go to the local coffee shop. My local McDonalds installed an automated, but problematic, drink machine for the drive-through that constantly malfunctioned. My order of unsweetened ice tea was wrong 55% of the time. When I showed the statistics to the manager of McDonald’s, she raised her hands and asked, “What could she do? The machine design is bad and was dictated by corporate.” I smiled and thanked her for her contribution to my blog.
  • Customer Service Failure. No Ice. My new Thermador refrigerator stopped making ice. I called the customer service line for the manufacturer and was told that the only thing I could do was call a maintenance specialist. The local service company is available ten weeks from now, and I will pay the bill. No ice in my glass for ten weeks…
  • Internet and Cable Issues. No TV. In the process of the move, I had no cable for seven weeks. Daily I called Xfinity and begged for a repairman. The voice automated system offering me upgraded services took seven minutes of my time until I got a customer service representative. The policies of Xfinity in the times of COVID-19 are to have the customer service representative walk through potential repairs using your remote to try not to send out a repairer. However, due to a bad installation, I got to do this twenty-five times before getting a manager who agreed to send out a technician. The first technician went to the wrong house and left. The second was about to do the same thing until I met him in the street and waved him in. Yet, I get no relief for billing.
  • Warranty with E-Commerce Sales. No Bath. My new bathtub with Moen controllers did not work for ten weeks. The issue was a bad GFI switch ordered by the contractor from Amazon. We kept getting bad parts. I am unsure if it was a quality issue or a re-routed defective return. Moen refused to honor the warranty for items delivered by Amazon. My plumber lied to get help.

My point? All I want is a warm bath, a cold drink, the right order. and the ability to get TV.

Supply chain leaders need to deliver on the brand promise. An appliance that works. A delivery that is on time. A cup that does not leak. An order that is correct. A service ordered and delivered at expectations, and with quality parts. In this new world of COVID-19 service and repair, this is more challenging, making it even more important for supply chain leaders to take not only responsibility for the order to the channel(the first mile) but also the middle-mile process (distributors and service technicians), and the last mile to the home. Moen should not care that the part was ordered from Amazon, and Thermador should take responsibility for a working appliance.

At the Supply Chain Insights Global Conference in 2019, an attendee stopped me after the third case study of the Supply Chains to Admire award winner. His comment was, “Lora, these companies are taking responsibility for the entire supply chain.” As he spoke, I smiled. He got the point. In this blog, I share the case study of Sleep Number. As you read the case study, I hope you get the point as well. Foundational to supply chain excellence is the reliability of delivery, quality, and service. Defining the strategy and executing the processes requires leadership and organizational alignment. I commend Sleep Number for having the right stuff.

The Sleep Number Story of Supply Chain Excellence

Becoming customer-centric and building outside-in processes is tough for the traditional supply chain thinker. Historic processes are inside-out tightly integrated to orders and purchase orders. Challenging this paradigm is seen as just too risky by most readers. Perception is not reality: ironically, the riskiest path is doing nothing.

Today, I received this email from a millennial:

Supply Chain experts are expected to think out of the box and futuristic, but to translate the thinking into savings is a real hurdle. I recently moved from a workplace embracing Supply Chain principles for the first time in fifty years. What is your take on this?

Answering this type of question and being a provocateur keeps me going.

The Sleep Number Supply Chain Delivers on the Customer Promise

Sleep Number is a Supply Chain to Admire Award Winner for the past two consecutive years. The Company executed one of the most effective customer-centric supply chain designs while outperforming against its industry peer group, as shown in Figure 1. The Company built the supply chain from outside-in to focus on delivering its brand promise. Over 95% of companies, stuck in a supply-centric model, struggle to design and implement outside-in processes. I am hoping that by sharing case studies like Sleep Number that we can break traditional paradigms.

Figure 1. Orbit Chart For Sleep Number for the Period of 2010-2019. A Comparison Of Company Performance To Industry Average.

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Defining the Customer-Centric Supply Chain

Sleep Number may sell beds, but the Company’s focus is on health and wellness. For kicks and grins, when you meet a Sleep Number executive, ask, “What was your SleepIQ® score last night?” The question will likely spark a great conversation regarding sleep and the role that the quality sleep on a Sleep Number® smart bed plays in improving health and wellness. In the discussion, you may even receive insights from one of the world’s largest database of sleep data. And if you speak long enough, you will hear about a supply chain design that delivers growth at twice the rate of competitors while outperforming on cost, inventory turns, and Return on Invested Capital (ROIC). The Sleep Number supply chain design was created to keep the focus on the customer and delivering a good night’s sleep. As shown in Table 1, the results are impressive.

Table 1. Comparison of Companies in the Furniture Peer Group for the Period of 2010-2019

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The Company, now in its thirty-third year of operation, is growing at twice the rate of the industry due to its focus on the customer experience. Sleep Number’s award-winning 360® smart beds are the first commercialized smart beds, and effortlessly adjust throughout the night, sensing each sleeper’s movements and automatically adjusting to keep both sleepers comfortable. Additionally, the Company sells smart adjustable bases and bedding solutions that include customizable pillows, temperature-adjusting layers, furniture and more. The Company won the JD Powers customer satisfaction award for the mattress segment for the past four out of five years. Sleep Number has now improved the lives of over 12 million sleepers with its air adjustable beds.

With a headquarters in Minneapolis, MN, the supply chain supports 600 stores in 50 states. Sleep Number Labs, the Company’s technology center, is in San Jose, California and works on data analytics and algorithm development to gain insights from Sleep Number’s proprietary SleepIQ technology, which has created one of the largest sleep databases in the world. The two primary manufacturing sites are located in Salt Lake City, Utah, and Irmo, South Carolina. The focus of these facilities is core manufacturing, including sewing, electronic assembly, and packaging/shipping. Additionally, the Company operates several warehousing and assembly locations to over 100 core markets. In each of the core markets, the Company operates a service delivery system to ensure customer service.

Great Supply Chains Start With A Clear Mission

The design of the supply chain strategy is to deliver on the Company’s mission to improve lives by individualizing sleep experiences.

At the 2019 Supply Chain Insights Global Summit, when Tony Rossa, Vice President of Supply Chain, and John Brine, Digital Strategist, were asked why Sleep Number outperformed peers, their response was, “We believe that the secret sauce of being a Supply Chains to Admire Award Winner is a clear mission to drive alignment to customer experience. Our mission drives all of our employee’s behavior.” The purpose-driven company manufactures proprietary sleep products, designs, and executes white-glove delivery to build lifelong customer relationships.

The Company’s success starts with its products. The Sleep Number 360® smart bed redefined and disrupted the $30 billion mattress industry. The core innovation since it’s founding in 1987 – DualAir™ adjustability – allows each sleeper to adjust his or her own Sleep Number® setting to their ideal level of firmness, enabling optimal comfort and high-quality sleep. The beds are often recognized as the best beds for couples due to this individualized adjustability.

Figure 3. Sleep Number’s Focus to Deliver Superior Customer Loyalty

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The company controls the experience by owning the distribution channel. The brand is tightly controlled through the delivery experience to maximize customer satisfaction – the goal is a lifelong customer relationship. The Company estimates that over forty-five percent of sales are repeat and referrals.

Figure 4. The Sleep Number’s Innovation Timeline for Supply Chain Redefinition

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Innovation runs deep through the Sleep Number timeline shown in Figure 4.

The Company started by advertising in late-night infomercials. The target market was the customer that could not sleep due to back problems. The first store opened in a retail mall space in 1992.

Defining the Customer Experience Through Supply Chain Excellence

In the early 2000s, the Company began rolling-out “white glove” delivery service. Slowly the company built a supporting supply chain to support 400 retail stores by 2002. In 2017, with the 360 smart bed launch, the Company rethought bed fulfillment. The redesign included an ERP implementation to enable a core data model across functions. The Company also operated fifteen existing service centers to facilitate home delivery technicians’ access to parts and materials.

As the Company expanded, the smaller markets had a greater dependency on Less Than Truckload (LTL), creating the need to improve reliability. There was a need to improve flexibility for delivery to customers and visibility to ensure delivery. The answer? The Company deployed a customer scheduling system and a late-stage postponement network to improve inventory agility to help navigate large swings in demand associated with Labor Day and Presidents’ Day sales. Late-stage assembly in the warehouses enables five-day delivery. The Company uses a single piece mixed material flow line that can make any mix of mattresses at any point in time. To fine-tune the network, Sleep Number redesigns components of the network periodically. The Company also builds work systems for teams to see progress on delighting the customers. According to Tony, “Nothing gets to the customers without the right team members making it go every day.”

The digital transformation shapes the path forward. In this presentation, John Brine asked, “Who likes their ERP? Nobody. Who needs their ERP? Everybody.”

Figure 4. The Sleep Number’s Innovation Timeline for Supply Chain Redefinition

Brine continued, “There is a role for ERP. We need to track and account for our business transactions and have an understanding of material flows. Our goal is to simplify the flows. Using advanced analytics, we built a system on top of 6 specific use applications to answer the questions surrounding order tracking for our customers.”

Visibility An Essential Component

The first focus was on customer visibility. The process design started with the customer and then mapped back to manufacturing and transportation. The first stumbling block on the digital journey was not all processes were digital. Paper supported most of our processes, and there was no single system of record. Sleep Number partnered with suppliers and vendors to use material availability and in-transit data. The focus was not solely on data, but on insights. For example, the Company used intelligent alerting to drive action. Something like an email to the field team to say, “Hey, this order was missed. What do you want to do?”

To drive the digital transformation, the Company also created a virtual and mobile workflow from the customer’s home through the supply chain. This mobile application created a single gateway for communication. Along the supply chain, personnel can update order progress, push critical product updates, ask questions, and request information.

Looking Forward

The next step in the digital supply chain is enhancing the customer experience through continuous engagement. The future for Sleep Number is about outcomes and improving reliability to the customer. On-time delivery and hassle-free installation is part of the essence of our brand. To lower structural costs, the team is continually evaluating product complexity and the added value of each item, but also to continue to reduce the cost of delivery. Sleep Number takes quality sleep very seriously and is committed to improving the overall health and wellness of all by delivering proven quality sleep.


Let me end with a story. During my recent move, my nephew’s dearly-loved dog Rosebud died. Rosebud was a sixteen-year-old Bassett Hound. Chewy.com replenished Rosebud’s bowl for the past seven years. When the family called Chewy to cancel the automatic replenishment order for Rosebud’s food, the company sent flowers. When my nephew gets a new dog, he will call Chewy. In supply chain management, delivering on the brand promise and building relationships matter. Customer-centric supply chains are not about pretty mission statements or annual surveys, it is the delivery of the brand promise day-after-day.

Yesterday, I published the Shaman’s Journal. This book, now in its seventh year of publication, is a compilation of my best-read blog posts from the prior year. Editing and publishing 38,000 words of content is quite a feat. I feel accomplished when I hit the second button. The Sleep Number case study is in this publication.

I usually publish this book for my Supply Chain Insights Global Summit, but with the COVID-19 shutdown, I am sharing it virtually. You can access this publication using these links:

Slideshare link: https://www.slideshare.net/loracecere/shamans-journal-2020-238694349

Flipping Book link: https://online.flippingbook.com/view/945917/

(The Flipping Book publication is designed to give the virtual reader the real book experience. Let me know what you think.)

As part of my work, I am documenting the stories of the Supply Chains to Admire Award winners. This is quite tough as the list of twenty-two companies is limited, and most do not want to share their stories. However, I keep plugging away. This is the subject of my new book.

We Give to You. You Give to Us.

I value my relationship with my readers. Building content depends on a constant stream of research, writing, and sharing. If you value the content we share, we would love to have you participate in our new survey that is designed to understand the impact of planning excellence on supply chain performance during the pandemic. By participating in the research project, you will get the opportunity to share and discuss the results with other supply chain leaders in an open forum. As always, we will always keep your responses in confidence and promise to not share your contact information.

In closing, I appreciate your support of me and of Supply Chain Insights. During the fall, based on my work on Linkedin, I was awarded the Global Woman Supply Chain Leader Award for 2020 as the social media influencer. I am humbled and thankful for the 319,000 followers on Linkedin, the 19,000 readers of this blog, and the 22,000 listeners to my podcast. Thanks.

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