MSC Industrial EVP: The pandemic has no bearing on how we define success

by Ernan Roman

posted on 11-03-2020

Steve Baruch is the type of executive who tends to think on the bright side – an attitude clearly put to the test given the worldwide pandemic. But he hasn’t wavered.

“The ‘glass-is-half-full’ optimist in me says, ‘Here’s a global crisis – let’s use this time to identify all the things we need to do to create significant improvements in the customer experience,” says Baruch, who is executive vice president and chief strategy and marketing officer at MSC Industrial Supply Co., one of North America’s leading industrial distributors and service providers.

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How is Baruch going about improving CX for the near 80-year-old B2B company? Read on.

You have deep and varied experience with the complexities of the B2B world. Can you share a little bit about your background?

I’ve been with MSC Industrial Supply for 12 years, serving in a variety of capacities that gave me exposure to just about every facet of the business. This spans the commercial and sales side to marketing, e-commerce, strategy, digital, and the famous MSC catalog, the “The Big Book,” with more than 4,000 pages detailing over 1/2 million products. This gave me a solid understanding of the company and the industry, in general, which was a good background for my position today. Previously, I held positions with other global B2B companies doing marketing, sales, strategy, and digital work.

How has the pandemic affected the way marketers think about the customer experience?

These tough times have forced marketers to think much more seriously about gaining a deep understanding of the voice of the customer, improving the total customer experience, and, based on those insights, rethinking their value proposition.

Historically, both B2B and B2C marketers espoused the notion that, yes, we want to know you and understand your expectation related to customer satisfaction. But marketers did not assign this the necessary importance or invest the necessary resources to make it a core competency.

COVID-19 has forced these requirements to the forefront. Customer experience management is now becoming a discipline, with enabling technology, and a process that has risen to the level of importance it should have been at all along.

How do you view digital in your complex B2B world?

For me, digital is an enabler … to bring a company’s value proposition to life, to save your customers time and money, or to make their lives easier. So back my earlier point, companies need deeper customer insights regarding what they want digital to really do for them.

What are you doing differently to better understand, engage, and serve customers given the pain points they’re feeling due to the pandemic?

You mentioned “pain point.” That’s an expression we use in marketing to try to put ourselves in the shoes of your customer and see life through their lens. I think it’s important, but we now need to dial it up several levels.

For us … it’s a matter of potentially helping a customer so they will remain viable through the other end of this crisis. For our smaller customers, it is particularly a challenging time, and helping them navigate through this is not just a matter of their businesses staying afloat, but for these family businesses, it truly becomes the difference between putting food on the table or not.

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To help in the most effective way possible, we have had to become more of a customer-listening organization. For example, on our website we have real-time surveys that give us daily feedback on how our customers are feeling and what their satisfaction level is. We have the ability to proactively respond to the website feedback. We similarly pulse our customers who call into our customer care centers or our branches with the same kind of questions and surveys, and we are regularly doing Net Promoter Score surveys.

We are also extracting data from our CRM system to understand what’s going on directly from the customers and from our sellers to understand, based on vertical markets or geographic areas, other data points we can triangulate to understand how customers are feeling.

And we also meet on a regular basis with cross-functional team members, from sales and marketing to category and supply chain, to share what we’re hearing directly from our customers.

What actions have you taken based on these customer insights?

I would say that historically we were an analog company, a direct marketing company. We have our iconic “Big Book” catalog. A few decades ago, we started to become much more omnichannel/cross-channel and invested much more heavily in digital and e-commerce. That takes us to this analog/digital universe where we provide the digital flexibility for a lot of the transactional needs of our customers, but still provide that analog, personal, high- touch experience with technical expertise and inventory management support and consulting.

Then comes COVID-19, and we were forced to think about those high-touch, high-value differentiators, and then challenge the team to devise digital alternatives to every analog touch we previously would have done in person or in an analog setting.

[That said], we are still working physically with our customers. There are still members of our team visiting with our customers, doing it in a very safe way for us and for them, because at the end of the day many of the things we do still require that physical presence.

Can you offer an example of a program that reflects taking the best of what was done previously in person but is now being done digitally?

One example is the BNA, or Business Needs Assessment, which we have done for years. They used to be in-person, whiteboard, walk-the-floor, learn-the-customer sessions that then informed the solutions MSC recommended. Having done so many of them, we now have the historical dataset to say, for example, customers of this size, in this space, with these issues have moved to certain types of solutions. With this historical perspective, we can essentially predict more of what we believe a customer may need by collecting information about them before we’ve even set foot on their floor … to hear about the nuances about their businesses, share with them what other like customers have done, and then make our recommendations for them with that same high level of confidence.

What are three key tips you can provide fellow B2B leaders for staying close to their customers during trying times?

The first thing I would encourage is to increase your level of communication. The stress and anxiety your people are feeling can be helped by open lines of communication. That also applies externally to communication with customers, suppliers, and stakeholders. For us at MSC, many of us feel that even though we’re more physically distant than we’ve ever been, we feel closer as a team, as a company, than ever before.

The second point would be to constantly think about the world through your customers’ lens. You need to understand the unprecedented stress and uncertainty your customers are now facing. And then, use those insights to see what extra level of value you can provide. This requires a whole new level of commitment, time, openness, and sometimes technology. To succeed at this, you have to suspend what you thought you knew about customers and listen with an open mind.

Third would be life balance. Many of us are working in this new work-from-home modality where the blurred lines of work and home have made balance much more difficult. The days fly by, and the weeks fly by and before you know it, another month is gone. Ultimately, we are learning that if you lose the balance, you’re less effective for your team, your company, or your family and your community. So finding ways to make that right balance is something we all need to figure out.

Finally, how will you be defining success for MSC going forward?

The answer to that question wouldn’t change now from prior to the pandemic because the way we think about our customers has always been long-game-focused. We think about the lifetime value of our customers, and it helps to point us, focus us, on our customers’ longevity.

So things like retention and loyalty and their satisfaction all lead to that long-game measure of lifetime value. This encompasses helping our customers remain competitive and financially strong and viable, and helping them navigate effectively through this crisis. This view will create even more of a connection between us and our customers, and more loyalty.

Topics: Leadership, Digital Transformation, Insights & Inspiration, Customer Stories, B2B, CMO by Adobe, COVID-19, Experience Cloud,

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