Shipping and fulfilment seem easy. All you need to do is stick a label on the ordered product and hand it over to the shipper. It should it delivered to your customer, and world is a happy place. But anyone who has spent any time in the industry knows that it’s anything but that simple. It is one of the key components in the value chain and often can be a nightmare to manage. Imagine thousand of product going out in thousands of different orders in as many combinations, to thousands of locations with multiple shippers. Items will be out of stock, damaged, delayed, returned, sent to wrong addresses and sometimes, despite the best efforts not sent at all. The last one will do most damage to retailer’s reputation especially if he is new to business or has a small business. But all these problems can be handled. Let’s have a look at some of the top issues online businesses have with fulfilment.
- International Fulfilment: With internet the reach of businesses has crossed all oceans. It’s easier than ever before to get an order from across the border. But delivering your product across the border is not as simple as just packing and shipping. International deliveries involve tons of paperwork and rules that must be complied with. There are taxes and customs to be taken care of, which may be different for each country that you ship to. You need to account for extra time taken at the ports, customs and by other government agencies, both, foreign and domestic. But all is not lost. Build a repository of shippers for your most shipped to countries. These shippers should have experience in handling all the paperwork, taxes, customs and should be able to tell you the total cost and times involved, based on the product category. They also should be networked in those agencies and countries that can be leveraged, should a shipment be stuck somewhere. Use their services instead of handling everything on your own. They may charge you a little more for this, but it will save yourself tons of hassle.
- If you are shipping international, there is a very high likely hood that your product will be shipped in container, on a ship along with many other products, stacked somewhere in between them. This requires extra care while packing. Especially if you need to use ‘freight shipping’. You need to protect your product from damages and delayed shipping. Use durable packing material. This is needed so that products can handle extra stress put on it during international transport through sea. Remember, your box may not end up on the top of the stack and there’s nothing you can do about it. So make your packing extra strong. Use bubble wrap to fill up empty spaces and provide some cushion. Use proper pallets. You shipment should not exceed the weight restrictions of your pallet. The boxes should not be stacked beyond the edge of pallet. Use load protectors to prevent damage from chains, straps and other pallets. Remember, any money you spend on packing, adds to your reputation when product reaches the customer in mint condition, and it has come from abroad!
- Customer Trust: This one is a key success factor. If they trust you, they will come back to you and bring their friends and family along. To gain trust, you must reduce errors. Most errors can be attributed to administrative errors. These errors are spread along the supply chain. Wrong product, wrong order, wrong address, wrong delivery (missed delivery time) etc are most common. The error could be small, but may have a large impact. You made a promise to the customer about what he wanted, where he wanted and when he wanted. If you don’t deliver on it, you lose his trust, and potentially the customer too. Train your staff. Make them understand the true cost of errors. Let them understand how a small error can lead to losing customers and harm image of the company. Invest in automation and integrated systems. Correct use of technology can reduce a lot of errors. When the customer calls, be polite. Listen to him. He is calling because he has a problem. The problem is related to your product. Remember, you need the customer while he always has other options (your competitors) to go to.
- Customer communication: Once you have received the order, the customer expects the delivery on the right time. But that may be a few days away. Meanwhile, you are working on getting the product from manufacturing, assembling the order, packing the product, shipping and what not to ensure that customer has the delivery when promised. But customer has no communication about it. You should update the customer about status of his order at regular intervals. It could be periodic, or when the order crosses a stage. This is true especially during shipment. Customers like to track their orders. Provide them with tracking number. Make sure that correct shipment tracking code, provided by the shipper, is provided to correct customer. Wrong tracking codes create a lot of confusion when there shouldn’t be one. Test the code before you send it to the customer. It’s a simple thing, just check if the code shows the right address and right customer name.
- Stock management: You put up a product on your web store and promised delivery by certain date. You got the order, only to find out that product is out of stock. That is a very tricky situation to be in. Always ensure that you have adequate inventory for each product that you carry. Invest in a good inventory tracking system and automatic ordering system. Integrate your order acceptance system with inventory management system. If an item is not there in the inventory, the order should not be accepted, or at least inform the customer that order will be delayed.
- Communication with suppliers: Establish automatic communication lines with your suppliers. The product should be re ordered automatically when the stock quantity falls below a certain level. This is basic. However, it should be done automatically. Your supplier should be able to sense the speed at which your orders are moving and when you will need a refill, and be ready with a refill. Ideally you should never be out of stock for any item.
Establishing a fulfilment process with zero errors is impossible. However with careful planning and investment in technology and training, these errors can be reduced to a great extent. In a business world where 99.99% efficiency is not good enough, it is imperative that your processes are well designed to absorb errors before they reach the customer.