Customer 4.0: Winning the supply chain hearts of Millennials


The modern supply chain should focus on delivering exceptional experiences for the new generation of consumers and customer experience. Johnson & Johnson’s Neil Ackerman and Nitza Pierce explain how to change your mindset and operations to capitalize.

Everywhere we turn, there is debate about the rectitude and defining characteristics of Millennials. Even the age range of this generation is up for debate: some researchers say it’s anyone born after 1980, while others peg the bracket between 1977 and 1992. Whichever dates you accept, there’s little dispute that things are changing fundamentally with this generation. As we begin 2018, most businesses are still focused on trying to comprehend the technological, global and economic disruptions we are facing. But in 2018, the time of moving from comprehension to design and actual execution is upon us, and we need amazing people to do this.

People have the potential to make magic happen, and we must design our supply chains - and the work it takes to run them - with a focus on winning the hearts of Millennials. But how do we attract and retain these digital natives who have grown up with an abundance of options, all in an age of regular change and uncertainty?

The ‘one size fits few’ mindset of Millennial customers

As a generation defined by spontaneity and change, it’s not surprising that there is no “one size fits all’ approach to attracting the present-day customer or employee to your team. In 2017, we saw the magnitude of big data and analytics. Analytics has already changed from a competitive business concept to what is almost a standard requirement. It’s now ill-informed to make any significant decisions or develop strong insights without the use of data. We have perfected capturing masses of data, albeit not always the right information, and are now living with more data than we know what to do with. The efficiency of data collection and utilization needs to be a high priority.

Machine learning and intelligence have shifted the old shape of analytics to one that is immensely advanced. Through Advanced Analytics, we can sift through the noise, taking vast amounts of structured and unstructured data, and making it functional, allowing us to navigate the multi-enterprise ecosystem and global landscape.


There is no refuting that we are in the era of speed, where timing and agility have become major corporate battlegrounds. Faster, smarter insights are a competitive weapon in safeguarding customer satisfaction, risk management, and agile business decisions. The availability of real-time data, on-demand computing and machine learning enable a new level of insights, highlighting the importance of elevating our analytics from optional to essential, especially when creating the coveted personalized experience.

Know your customer needs - use data to target a meaningful journey and monitor your competition. Both cloud technology and advanced analytics are growing trends that support the demand placed on speed while providing affordable access to future digital innovations.

Attracting a new generation to supply chain

For Millennials, we win their hearts when we make supply chain a true science. Think of supply chain as the new marketing. Everyone wants to be (or thinks they can be) a ‘Marketer’. Recently, we asked a group of children what they want to be when they grow up. Typically, they said a firefighter, police officer, astronaut, doctor, work at Disney World (marketing!) and yes, they said, a computer programmer! No one said: “I want to be in supply chain”.

Think about how the supply chain impacts the consumer experience

Frankly, it is hard to tell children what we do for a living sometimes. However, we are a necessary component of the economy now and forever more. We need more Millennials and young people to embrace this field, understanding that it’s not just pallets and trucks, but also Artificial Intelligence, demand sensing, and even an opportunity with eCommerce to be a revenue generating machine.

It is an exciting time to be in supply chain, but how can we show this and recruit new blood into the profession? We have mentioned in previous articles that organizations need to think about the narrative they project to this generation. Younger people often seek out a mission that will have a big impact on the world. That should be front and center in your company’s recruitment process, as well as its talent development and retention program. It also means embracing new technology so that an innovative culture attracts them to your organization.

Fickle or frugal: meet the new customer

Attracting new customers costs is expensive, so it is understandable that the loyalty of our customer/audience is a large concern. Many Millennials are experienced with debt, as well as having lived through recessions, so these digital natives are no strangers to bargain hunting. With the high amount of student loan debt impacting spending confidence, and easy access to masses of information to inform their decision, Millennials are always on the search for a deal. And they know where to find them, so consider whether your company is visible in that physical or digital space, further evidence of the blurring or overlap between supply chain, marketing and consumer-facing activity.

This deal-hunting mindset is often perceived as brand disloyalty, but it ought not to be. Acknowledge the budget-minded approach and create a corresponding personalized experience. The modern customer is smart, they compare products and prices from anywhere and will know the history of pricing, so the permanent 20%-off price will be met with skepticism, not treated as a real sale offer. So, change your promotions frequently by creating dynamic pricing and loyalty incentives. These should not be limited to savings – the overall consumer experience is critical to the modern customer and should not be overlooked. Using the Starbucks app enables points accumulation, simplifies and speeds the payment process, and even provides access to bonuses like music. This creative approach is where innovative brands gain an edge on their more conventional competitors.

Constant feedback: the power of influence

Millennials have grown up bombarded by advertising and so are often suspicious of promotional claims. They have developed the capacity to ignore typical external marketing tactics. They are more likely to listen to the opinions of friends or past users, giving reviews considerable influence over purchasing. Bad reviews (or no reviews) can make or break the success of your commodity.

Seek out reviews, make it easy to share experiences or comments, and provide an opportunity for the customer to reveal that they chose your product or service. Trust protocols have made possible business models like AirBnB. The idea of letting a stranger stay on your couch is only palatable when the trust protocol creates that level of reassurance.

This is not just about product quality or branding. Think about how the supply chain impacts the consumer experience – the e-commerce portal, stock availability, communication from the delivery service, speed and convenience of shipping. Forget the notion of back office functions, this new era is a true reflection of supply chain as a consumer-facing discipline.

The age of connectivity

Individuals own more electronic devices today than entire households used to have. Customer expectations are to jump from mobile, to PC, to tablet, so the planning and effort that goes into maintaining all available platforms should be able to provide a seamless experience. Digital disruption and the IoT have taught us that we need to embrace change quickly, all the while supporting existing technology, and enabling future digital development.

We need to reshape and re-evaluate to provide new capabilities within our organizations. With the growing popularity of mobile analytics applications, natural language processing, pattern recognition and intelligence, to name a small fraction, we need to avoid being trapped by what can be, and unremittingly focus on the what should be.

Social media exposure unlocks extra marketing methods. With constant connectivity, there is always a platform for instant promotion. Tactics such as unboxing, where the customer captures the process of unpacking products on video and uploads to the internet, provides that honest and straightforward customer experience that this generation is looking for.

The potential opportunities that the constant connectivity can bring also produces vulnerabilities. Everything will be a broadcast. Buyer experiences from packaging to exchange and refund experience will impact your brand on a much larger scale than in the past. Creating online communities for Millennials to foster their collaborative nature will also increase brand loyalty. GoPro, the video technology manufacturer, is one company that has recognized the marketing value of creating a platform where the users promote the quality of their product by sharing their experiences. Cosmetics company Sephora has also created a BeautyTalk community to give its customers a platform for discussion and reviewing the latest products, elevating the connection to the brand.

It takes a village…

Millennials want to be heard by each other and by the business. Allowing your customers to engage will not only form a connection with the customer, but also create a pool of data for future insights. The past gave us the epicenter of data, where we could interpret volumes of data through query engines. Machine Learning and Intelligence will take analytics into the next generation of capabilities. We can provide real-time insights into the organization and merge the external variables that we could not access as easily a few years ago. Advanced analytics will automate discovery, unearth meaningful patterns and transforms the what “dids” to what “wills.”

Adapt or fail: the supply chain 4.0 challenge

It is no surprise that at the forefront of speed and convenience, Amazon remains on top. What is overlooked too easily is their adaptability. What once started as a bookstore now offers one-hour shipping and even produce their own electronic devices, seen in the Fire Stick and Amazon Echo.

Millennials have grown up in a time of rapid advancement. Not only do they have less fear of change than their predecessors, but they thrive in it. They want to see brands do as much soul searching and self-improvement as they’re doing themselves. Identify improvement opportunities to minimize the customer effort. The intelligence to anticipate demand and ensure stock availability sits in the masses of data that grow exponentially. Neglecting this opportunity will cause the customer to go elsewhere. Remember, values matter. Social responsibility can be the determining factor of whether a customer chooses your product or a competitor.


It takes one to know one

Business and technology are completely interconnected. We need to trust in technology and trust in our talent, because when we end up questioning both machine and human outputs, we only ensure we will fail at both. Machine learning is propelling the drift into widespread automation, but it is really a mutual learning. It orchestrates true collaboration between human and machine.

As human beings, we are constrained by factors like the amount of data we need to prepare and format prior to evaluation. Advancing our analytics is a key to processing the substantial amount of data available and to drawing conclusions that are not explicitly present. The art of analytics is really in creating the proper balance of automation and human intelligence – not an easy task. As the inevitable acceleration of analytics persists, organizations need to account for the necessity of automation across the enterprise and the accessibility of the data output.

As Millennials occupy the workforce, hire them for your supply chain. Who better to combine man and machine, and design a supply chain for Millennials than the technologically talented consumer base you are looking to attract. We must be smarter in what we offer, and how we offer it to have a chance of winning the hearts of a collaborative, pioneering, connected generation.


Neil Ackerman is the Senior Director, Global Supply Chain Advanced Planning, for Johnson & Johnson across all segments including Pharmaceuticals, Biomedical Devices and Consumer Products. He is responsible for accelerating supply chain innovation and enablement of advanced planning processes and technologies worldwide. His team is critical in bringing value-based prototyping to life.

Nitza Pierce is the Senior Manager, Advanced Planning, for Johnson & Johnson as part of the team accelerating supply chain innovation worldwide across the Pharmaceuticals, Biomedical Devices and Consumer Products segments. Prior to her current role, Nitza has held multiple positions within end-to-end global supply chain.