From The Editor

Edward J. Lehner, CEO of Ryerson Holding Corp.

View from the Corner Office: Let’s Hear it for the Customer

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Let’s hear it for the customer (just in case the rest of this article somehow disappears in print or into the ether).

Something that has been flicking me in the ear for a while now made me want to do some research. So, I looked over the earnings releases in our industry last quarter, and lo and behold, the flicking sensation was not a nervous system disorder, but a subconscious reminder to never let the customer become derivative to the objectives of a business. Yes, for sure, the objective of business has to be profitability.

When we want to know which came first, the chicken or the egg, there might still be debate. But when we want to know which came first, the customer or profitability, we know it was the customer. So, as a friend of mine always says, “Remember what the main thing is, and make the main thing the main thing.” Or, make the main thing the customer.

Now, back to that research. I sampled more than 10 public companies in the primary metals and industrial metals distribution space, and nowhere did I find the word customer in their respective 2018 first-quarter earnings releases — not even a distant reference. The things discussed were all worthy, and some would say the audience for these earnings releases and calls is investors, but with all due respect, why is the customer omitted? How does the customer escape, let alone not deserve, a mention in an earnings release? 

You read about asset revitalization plans, expense controls, end markets, research projects, new investments, growth, margins, and a host of other things that may perhaps benefit a customer. So, I did some more research to see if any of the sampled companies talked about the customer experience, and I still couldn’t find any such reference. There was talk about 232s and 301s, but the customer was nowhere to be found.

What if we entertained, for just a fleeting second before getting back to 232s and 301s, the role of the customer experience and its waylaid primacy? What if we also stipulated for the record, so as to create no doubt, that price is really important when it comes to buying decisions. But what if the customer experience was so good that price alone became less important? What if the investment, attention and focus on the customer experience was so good that on-time delivery wasn’t the punchline of every industry joke. Still not willing to acknowledge the customer’s lack of primacy? How about some third-party support so that this article doesn’t become the written musings of an avowed customer sympathizer?

In a study by Bain & Company, Bain found that “Most companies assume they’re giving customers what they want. Usually, they’re kidding themselves. When Bain & Company recently surveyed 362 firms, it found that 80 percent believe they deliver a ‘superior experience’ to customers. But when we asked customers, they say only 8 percent are really delivering.”

Obviously, there exists a wide gap between supplier perception and customer-perceived reality.

But, let me conclude with this to make this article a bona fide conversation starter: As written by Jana Barrett in September 2017 and published by GetFeedback.com, “As customers, we have endless options. If a company isn’t meeting our needs, it’s pretty easy to find an alternative. Sometimes all it takes is a Google search. This tendency to jump ship is so prevalent that experts have dubbed it the ‘switching economy.’ What it means is that customers, by and large, are highly underwhelmed by the experiences companies are giving them, and they’re looking for better options.

“For companies, that means there’s more opportunity than ever to gain and lose customers at a rapid pace. It’s not about price or product, either. Customers are shopping for better experiences - for companies that understand their needs, make their lives easier, and treat them like actual humans. When companies prioritize the experiences they’re delivering, they’re already leagues ahead of their competitors.”

Prioritizing the customer and making the customer and the customer experience the main thing has to become a daily affirmation of the organization. Daily affirmations extoling the customer commitment also need to make their way into company cultures – what they talk about, what they write about, and most importantly, what they do. Customer commitment can’t be derivative or tangential to all the other things; it has to be the main thing. Then it is the company’s job to take that great customer experience and make it profitable to the company’s stakeholders. Then, and only then, can we say we really understand the true value of creating great customer experiences that are profitable for stakeholders. 

And that’s the whole main thing. Let’s hear it again for the customer.

Edward J. Lehner is president and chief executive officer of Ryerson, a global metals supplier and processor with operations in the United States, Canada, Mexico and China. He was appointed to the position in June 2015.