Several years ago, fulfillment was one of the hottest topics in logistics-and with good reason, because many retailers with new internet sales channels were having a tough time figuring out how to ship small quantities without giving away the store.
Today, it's a different story.
Since the demise of the many cyber-stores that brought this function to national prominence, fulfillment seems to have regained its long-held position at the bottom of many companies' supply chain agendas.
Perhaps this is because so many are focused on the complexities of moving their products from far-flung manufacturing venues such as Asia. But I think the main reason is closer to home: Companies assume that last-mile delivery is solely a tactical function with little potential for impacting company performance or market share.
Unfortunately for them, they couldn't be more wrong.
As a longtime logistics professional, I've had a chance to see a variety of fulfillment scenarios up close-most recently as part of a company that solely provides last-mile delivery service. In the process I've discovered that fulfillment has far more facets and strategic potential than many people give it credit for, provided companies are willing to go above and beyond-and to exercise best practices such as the following.
Think Brand Consistency
Product quality is only part of the reason people buy well-established brands. Most also enjoy knowing that they can expect the same purchasing experience regardless of whether they're shopping in Florida or Fresno.
The more your company can extend that consistency to the last mile, the more loyal your customers are likely to be.
This doesn't necessarily require a private or dedicated delivery fleet (although either can certainly help.) But it does call for a well-defined delivery protocol that's clearly conveyed to every player in your last-mile chain-and exercising quality control to ensure that any delivery provider you use has the necessary tools, training and personnel to follow this protocol down to the letter.
Aim For Better Timing
In today's two-income and single-parent households, many customers must take time off work to accept home deliveries. Acknowledge and minimize their inconvenience, and your company will be a hero.
For starters, be as precise as possible in terms of the delivery windows you give your customers. Asking them to sit around for half a day is a sure way to convey that your company is either too inefficient to plan ahead or too inconsiderate to care. And if you don't think your company or 3PL can time things that carefully, you may need to consider investing in better processes and technology.
Be vigilant about arriving within the delivery window-and quick to contact customers to let them know as soon as you realize you'll be running behind. (After all, we've all heard about customers canceling orders just because they're frustrated with a tardy delivery truck.)
And if you really want to get on customers' good side, make arrangements to contact them when your truck is 30 minutes away from arriving at their home.
When it comes to inventory visibility, most shippers have a disturbing double standard. They're more than willing to pay for sophisticated tools that allow them to keep a handle on inventory all the way from Asia to the Americas. Yet they're often working blind after products leave the DC to travel the final 50 to 100 miles-the time when most customers are likely to want very precise details about their shipment location.
A small investment in last-mile technologies could make all the difference in this respect, especially if you use these tools to connect all of your stakeholders.
For example, by implementing technology that sends real-time event updates at each "touch point" in the delivery process and then allowing this information to be visible via the internet, your customer service reps or sales associates could easily tell a customer who's expecting a delivery later that day exactly how far away the delivery truck is from his residence and whether or not it's on schedule-all in a matter of seconds.
The net result is a more secure customer and a lower overall customer service expense.
Offer Sound Counsel
Arranging deliveries is standard operating practice for most companies. By contrast, customers are novices at receiving them-which is why some deliveries wind up being more chaotic or disorganized than they need to be.
Consider bridging this knowledge gap with thorough written messaging that helps customers anticipate and remove any hurdles in advance.
This messaging-which could be handed out at the point of sale or sent via e-mail later on- might include reminders to measure items like doorways and the area where an item will be placed in order to be sure it will actually fit, because mismatches can be common. It could feature a checklist that prompts urban customers to reserve time on their freight elevators if they live in a large building. Or it might simply give customers a heads-up that they'll want to remove all toys and other obstacles that are in the delivery path before the truck arrives.
Your customers will appreciate the advice, and your driver teams (who usually have to deal with the on-site surprises) will appreciate the assistance.
Vary And Increase Communications
The dotcom boom may have come and gone. But it left behind a generation of consumers who like to use a wide variety of channels to purchase and communicate. Having the ability to use any of these channels to reach your customers between order and delivery is a fluency that really pays off.
For example, when you're making call-aheads the night before, consider sending the same notice via e-mail. Or send an automated text message in addition to calling when your truck is close to a customer's home.
While these extra communication measures may seem like added costs, they often result in a huge savings, because they reduce the chance that you'll have to re-deliver when a customer didn't get your scheduling messages.
Look The Part
Whether the drivers you use are on your company payroll or a 3PL's, your customers should have no doubt that it's safe to open the door when the delivery truck pulls up to their home.
Well-marked vehicles and uniformed drivers with properly branded identification can help your cause immeasurably-as can a driver team that clearly demonstrates a detailed understanding of the product it's delivering.
Customers also should feel confident that your delivery professionals are adequately prepared to handle their particular delivery. They're inclined to get critical if they see a single driver try to move a side-by-side refrigerator without the benefit of any special equipment, even if that driver looks like he routinely bench-presses 400 pounds. They take a dim view of drivers who are tossing their custom-upholstered sofa like it's a football instead of a high-value piece of furniture. And they're going to be less than amused if your driver asks them to help. Staff and equip your trucks with that in mind.
Make Life Easy
Taking receipt of a product should be cause for excitement, not stress. And yet many customers simply don't have the time, tools or know-how to get their new purchases up-and-running.
Offering services such as unpacking, installation, assembly, and product instruction can significantly improve the odds that your customers won't return an item because it's too complicated or more trouble than it's worth.
It's also helpful to clean up and haul away packing materials and the old product (be it a mattress, stove or television) the consumer is replacing.
All in all, the more seamless you can make the delivery experience, the more likely you are to see a customer again the next time he or she purchases a large or complicated item.
Head Contingency Off At The Pass
Finally, a word about Murphy's Law. Even the best companies occasionally have products with flaws-and sometimes these aren't evident until items reach the distribution center.
Savvy companies have the capability to catch and correct many of these flaws before the customer even sees them - repairing small scratches or reupholstering right in the warehouse for example, or calling headquarters and having them send an undamaged version of the SKU via expedited shipping to ensure the customer gets his or her picture-perfect product as scheduled.
They also empower their driver teams to offer pre-established damage allowances on those occasions when a slightly damaged but still-usable product is delivered.
Do these services and concessions cost extra? Most certainly. But these costs are nominal when you consider how much it costs to get a customer in the first place-and how much you stand to gain if their last impression of your company is a positive one.
Will O'Shea is chief of sales and marketing for 3PD Inc., one of North America's largest providers of last-mile delivery and logistics.
3PD Inc., www.3pd.com
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