A 3PL provider is not just an outsourcing agency for your logistics requirement. They are more of a partner to your business. For manufacturing companies, you visit the manufacturing premises, meet and talk to the people working on your product and ensure that apart from your specifications, your core idea behind the product is understood by the manufacturing team, so that the spirit of the product along with the quality of manufacturing is maintained. Similarly, you should visit your logistics providers so that your logistics team understands your business values and helps you achieve them. You also need to be comfortable working with the logistics team of 3PL working on your project. Paying them a visit is a great way of achieving that mutual comfort. Let’s look at the objectives of visiting your 3PL provider in a little more detail.
Meeting the team: It is important to meet and understand the people who will be working on ground for your project. You might not meet every person on the team, but it is always a good idea to meet the key people, who will oversee your operations to understand how they work. Are they very formal or easy going? Are they relaxed and efficient or stressed and enjoying it? Are they laid back or stickler for the processes? While there is no right answer (you may not want someone to stick to the last letter of the process, when it is stuck, but just get the things moving), you may get a great understanding of their behaviour and see what works for you. Do you understand each other when you communicate i.e. In colloquial terms, do you speak the same language? Are they pro-active enough to spot the issues with incoming shipments and alert you before your shipment goes to the client?
The key here is to understand their personalities and build a rapport with them. You will be working with them every day. Knowing how they work and letting them know how you work, will make this relation more productive. Once back, you should be able to just pick up the phone and talk to them to get the problem sorted. Similarly, are you open to their suggestions? They might have some good ideas that you may have never thought of.
Understand the facility: You can’t put everything down on the paper. While you have read about their facilities, their equipment and verified that your needs are met, seeing the actual facility is something different. Especially so, if your product requires specific handling. For example, the ongoing cleanliness of the facility cannot be captured in a still photograph. For food products, how good is their cold storage? How do they arrange different SKUs in their cold storage? How is the meat and vegetable stored separately? (A well separated way of storing meat and vegetables could become another marketing plus for you). For fragile products, how sensitive is their handling equipment. Many times, packaging requirements of the product need to cater the requirement of storage as well. For example, if the warehouse does not stack your products one on top of other instead puts it on the shelves, then the packing material of your product can be a little less strong and thus save you some money. Similarly, a review of the loading facility may also help you optimize your packing needs.
Understanding their processes and procedures: During the contract, you stated your requirements and they are complaint with them. For example, if you are handling food items or medical supplies, they have the required certifications and thus will follow the strict procedures required for the continued certification. However, many well established 3PL players know that certifications ask for bare minimum. There’s a lot more than can be done, and some 3PL providers go beyond those minimal requirements, because they understand the benefits of doing so. Understanding their processes also gives you a chance to see if you can optimize any of your processes of packing and storage, during manufacturing. You can perhaps pick up a best practice that can be followed at your manufacturing processes (for product handling). How do they handle returns? How do they handle shipment of defective products back to manufacturer? You also need to know their systems capabilities and maturity. How deep or wide is their reporting capability? You can perhaps use some of the additional reports, that their systems offer, to your benefit. What will it take to integrate their systems with your systems, so that information can flow seamlessly. You are sure to get an understanding of such questions when you visit the facility.
Strategic fit: Every business has growth plans. They either want to grow rapidly in one vertical or one kind of product, or diversify to different products. Also, businesses usually set themselves a growth target i.e. how fast they want to grow. Personal visit will help you understand if your 3PL providers can support your growing needs. Are they large enough to handle your growing volumes? For seasonal business, can they handle the spikes in volumes? When you plan to diversify, do they have the storage facility for the different product lines that you are planning for, in future? What about transportation. Do they have tie ups with enough transporters to provide you with options (speed and cost)? What about backups transporters? How good is their service for your primary target market area/geography? What about your future market geography? Do they provide service in that region? You need to consider these questions if you are looking for long term partnership. Remember, these companies are also looking to grow and they too like to work with people who are moving ahead on their own growth path.
While choosing, a right logistical partner can be a critical element in your customer satisfaction, a right 3PL partner can also ease your own operations. Visiting the 3PL is important step not only to understand their facilities and operations, but it also ensures that you have done your due diligence, so that in an unlikely case, if things head south in future, you have your base covered. On the other hand, 3PL providers can be source of ideas that you might have not just thought of, but are good for your business.