“Giving the customer what they want” has long been a hallmark of the sales and marketing functions of any business. But today, with a greater focus on (and expectation) of superior customer service at every level, the finance function needs to be squarely focused on the customer as well. This was a theme I discussed with Deidra Merriwether, CFO of the Fortune 500 industrial supply company Grainger. Deidra’s background in sales gives her unique insight into embedding a customer focus into every area of business planning. CFOs and finance professionals cannot be the people who just say “no” to important initiatives based on cost concerns, she says. They need to understand the importance of and help shape and drive a customer-focused strategy – or else they will be sacrificing long-term growth and financial value.

Jeff Thomson: Before becoming CFO at Grainger you worked in the sales function. How has the intense customer focus required of sales helped inform your approach as CFO?

Deidra Merriwether: In 2019, Grainger launched an inspirational company purpose – We Keep the World Working – that is more important today than ever before. We play a fundamental role in bringing the U.S. economy back online by helping our customers keep their operations running and their people safe. Given how integrated we are in customers’ operations, Grainger sometimes has been the only supplier allowed on-site during the pandemic to support customers.

We fulfill our purpose when the entire organization has a relentless focus on the customer. I led Grainger’s North American Sales and Service business before becoming CFO. Leading sales gives you a great appreciation of the customer. I spent a considerable amount of time with our customers – understanding their challenges, building relationships and discussing the opportunities we have to drive customer value.