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Voice of The Customer: Where Customer Management & Third Party Logistics Meet

On January 18 & 19, 2023 Sunland Logistics Solutions held its Voice of The Customer Event. This event provides Sunland’s team and customers the opportunity to learn about industry trends from expert speakers, share best practices, and engage in insightful discussions to help ensure strategic alignment.

This year included guest speakers such as: Dr. Tom Goldsby, Professor of Supply Chain Management and Global Supply Chain Institute at the University of Tennessee, Brian Devine, President & CEO, Ignite Industrial Professionals, Byron Miller, Chief Commercial Officer & VP of Marketing, South Carolina Ports Authority, Keith Huggins, VP of National Sales & Logistics, Southeastern Freight Lines, Inc, Jordan Quinn, Partner, Trinity Capital, and KG Ganapathi, CEO, Vimaan.

Elijah Ray, Chief Customer Officer, Sunland Logistics Solutions, has sat down to share some history on how this event began, what it aims to achieve and why it’s such a critical tool for ensuring that Sunland understands and meets its customers needs throughout the year.

Elijah, please tell us a little bit about yourself your expertise, and experiences within the supply chain industry.

I am Chief Customer Officer with Sunland Logistics Solutions. I’ve been with Sunland now for 10 years, in supply chain and logistics for about 38 and 35 years in third party logistics. Part of the uniqueness of my experience as a leader in the 3PL space is the fact that I spent considerable amount of time on the shipper side before coming into third party logistics. I also spent the early part of my career entrenched in the Total Quality Management movement.

What is ‘Voice of Customer’ (VOC)? Can you give us a brief description of what it means?

Voice of the Customer is the process of listening to customers to gain insights about their experiences with our services in Sunland. It’s a critical component of our customer management system. It involves systemically defining how we listen and learn from customers to sustain & improve client relationships. At Sunland we use & aspire to a process learned from years of adherence to the Baldridge Criteria for Excellence. The Baldrige Criteria of Excellence is a leadership framework used to create organizational excellence. Sunland’s Voice of the Customer practices originated from the third criteria of the Baldrige framework; focused on customer expectations and engagement. How we listen and learn from customers is a key output of the third category and, for Sunland, the Voice of Customer Event is a key tool we use to listen and learn from customers.

What were some of the main take-aways from your Voice of the Customer event?

There were many great things we learned from our 2023 VOC event. What resonated with me the most was Idea Management. The concept of Idea Management has kind of stuck with me from the session because of how closely it aligns with Sunland’s approach to continuous improvement. Customers unanimously emphasized the importance of Sunland Logistics Solutions bringing them ideas. This is foundational to our approach to helping customers do what they do better which is our company purpose.

Closely related to the concept of idea management and the need to bring them ideas is to always bring a proactive mind set to the relationship in order to lead our customers from a logistics and supply chain perspective.

Another key learning or take away was the importance of transparency in the relationship. While we hear that often, I believe it is taking on new meaning in this new era of supply chain. In fact, one of our customers said something like “never let a crisis go to waste.” Customers know issues will occur, but it is the transparency and how we work through issues to recover and serve them with excellence that count.

Further, I believe our keynote speaker and panel of experts on topics like real estate, labor, technology, transportation, and overall state of logistics were instrumental in creating a learning experience thus positioning Sunland as a Trusted Advisor to our customers.

Beyond events like VOC, are there any tools or processes Sunland Logistics Solutions has in place to ensure that the VOC principles are maintained as part of your day-to-day operations?

A great example of a tool/process Sunland uses is complaint management and corrective actions. Our customers know that every now and then we’re going to make a mistake.
Our processes to address, manage & resolve these mistakes are key to effectively employing VOC principles. The steps that Sunland employs are there to make sure that the corrective action includes a “Poka Yoke” element to help make it mistake-proof moving forward. If we do that well our customers are going to be pleased because, while we all know we can’t be perfect, we are actively working to be better than we were the day before.

Supply chain management has seen considerable changes in the last 3 years. How have VOC principles helped you navigate these changes/challenges in ecommerce, capacity issues and labor changes?

A year and a half ago when there were so many disruptions within the logistics industry, there was not enough inventory in the supply chain. Now there’s more inventory than many need. For Sunland it’s a matter of making sure that we are listening, hearing, and responding to the changes that are taking place. It’s the discipline to change and do something about what we’re hearing. By responding quickly and effectively we’re able to build more intimate relationships with our customers.

How are Voice of the Customer and the customer relationship related?

The Voice of the Customer is a strategy to create systems that help us have more intimate relationships with our customers. For example, if you think of it like a personal relationship, one of the things that helps to make those relationships successful is that parties really do have to communicate and be highly intentional about listening. The systems that Sunland has created are really about ensuring that there are processes to communicate and processes to listen to our customers like you’d listen in your personal relationships. When you do that both businesses can flourish and grow in a productive manner.

Has Sunland had to learn any hard lessons that impacted your customer relationships that a better Voice of the Customer process would have prevented?

Yes, of course. I heard someone say a long time ago the customer is not always right, but the customer is always powerful. And that is so true. There are times when a third-party logistics provider has to listen to the customer to manage the relationship, but other times, we need to manage the customer to maintain the relationship. As much as we want to do what the customer says sometimes, we have to take a step back and let them know that their idea isn’t the best path forward and explain why. There are a couple instances where we probably should have said; No, let’s take this direction instead. If we had it might have saved a lot of pain for both Sunland & the customer.

The VOC event has clearly been an effective and invaluable tool for Sunland Logistics Solutions. How did this event kind of come to be in the first place?

The Voice of the Customer Event really is an output of intention. Our customers want us to anticipate their needs. For us to really excel at that, it’s important for Sunland to understand their needs. The Voice of the Customer event is Sunland’s solution to drive understanding, anticipation, closer collaboration, and more intimate relationships with strategic customers while providing and educational opportunity to gain industry insight. It simply makes sense.

Can you give us a preview of some of the Voice of the Customer topics that we will see covered in the next blog?

Talent. Talent was the big issue we covered. Across supply chain & 3PL organizations nearly universally is an issue with gaining & retaining talent. There’s just not enough labor out there to get the jobs done that we need to get done. There’s a labor shortage which made it a key topic that needs to be addressed in a significant way.