Customers must always come first

PUBLISHED : Friday, 05 November, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 05 November, 2010, 12:00am

If you manufacture and distribute some of the world's best-known consumer brands, it is a clear sign that corporate thinking must focus on one thing: what is best for the customer.

That is a point May Chung, customer business director for Kimberly Clark (Hong Kong), expects to emphasise at the 10th GS1 Hong Kong SCM Excellence Summit today. She is taking part in a panel discussion on how to achieve growth through enriched customer experience and will highlight ways her company - with its established brands such as Kleenex, Huggies and Scott paper towels - continues to develop product and service innovations.

'We realise that for any innovation you are planning, whether it involves product, process, systems or technology, you have to engage customers from the beginning,' Chung says. 'For us, this is very important because collaboration is the key to driving excellence.'

It is therefore essential, she notes, to ensure key users and other stakeholders are similarly included from the start of the design phase. Whatever the project, there should be regular dialogue across all levels and between different teams to share experiences and spark ideas. And, as case studies show, these basic principles can be used to great advantage by any kind of organisation or for any type of development.

'It is through listening and talking to customers that we find ways to anticipate their needs and enhance our performance,' Chung says. 'Across the business, that is the starting point for every new process.'

Of course, Kimberly Clark also invests heavily in research and development to make sure products are right for specific markets. And the company has never lost sight of the fact that customer satisfaction ultimately depends just as much on service and availability as it does on the inherent quality of products.

For this reason, there is a particular focus on logistics, enterprise resource planning (ERP) and the use of electronic data interchange for purchase orders. The objective is to have an integrated system and seamless supply chain. By helping to shorten lead times, speed up order processing, manage inventory and monitor transport, this creates greater transparency and efficiency for all parties involved.

'We consistently study the whole supply chain and have regular meetings with customers to identify areas to enhance logistics performance,' Chung says. 'It is not just a question of getting feedback from the big names such as the supermarket groups, but also from general trade customers and smaller retailers.'

She explains that the company has its own internal set of key performance indicators (KPIs) to understand how things stand and what needs further attention. These track standard measures such as in-stock rates, service levels and inventory days. However, they are deliberately designed to reflect customer objectives - not some self-defined targets - and are revamped when necessary to take account of sometimes fast-changing requirements.

To keep things moving forward, frequent KPI reviews incorporate feedback and suggestions from day-to-day interaction. The mechanism encourages customers to provide comment and input and, where appropriate, is quite open about what the KPIs actually are. This makes for closer co-operation, more fruitful discussions, and progressively higher standards that bring all-round benefits.

'For us, good logistics performance is all about providing the right product at the right time and in the right quantity to fulfil shoppers' needs,' Chung says. 'With innovative products and solutions, we can help stores and retailers better meet those needs and achieve better business results.'

To illustrate the extent to which the customer drives innovation, she recalls events surrounding the launch of Kimberly Clark's integrated ERP system in 2007. During preparation for the rollout, there was as much emphasis on interviews with external partners as with internal users. And it was clearly understood that, from a logical viewpoint, no business process could be a matter of in-house concern only.

That philosophy now extends to all change management initiatives, whatever the scale. It also informs the policy for corporate training, with regular refresher courses to ensure that staff are up to date with all of the latest developments, especially those resulting from customer feedback.

Linked to this, the company has created special ambassadors who are expert in the various systems, the applications of different modules and the implications of any recent changes. Their specific role is to keep customers in the picture and see if or where modifications may be required.

'We have to make sure we are changing with our customers,' Chung says.

She is understandably enthusiastic about what this year's GS1 Hong Kong summit has to offer.

'It is the perfect platform for exchanging ideas and learning about the best practices in different industries,' she says. 'We have been involved with GS1 since 2002 and, in past summits, have been able to share a lot of case studies on important subjects such as avoiding out-of-stock situations. This time, I will speak on uplifting customer satisfaction with process and product innovations.'