If you’re anyone other than Amazon, it might feel like you’re constantly behind the curve of advances in fulfillment technology. Whether it’s robots and drones or Big Data and cloud computing, the rapid evolution of supply chain tech makes it tough to keep up with your reading on the subject, let alone actually taking action that could benefit your business.
We recently held a webinar to explore the fundamental elements of order fulfillment. Capacity’s co-founder and CSO Thom Campbell identified five key areas to focus on if you truly want to develop a fulfillment process that keeps customers coming back to your business time and time again.
To follow up on that event we’re unpacking each of these elements in more detail. Today we look at the importance of using the most suitable order fulfillment technology to ensure that you can deliver on your fulfillment promises to customers. You can read the rest of the entries in this compelling series under the tagFulfillment Fundamentals.
Before we get started, let’s clarify one thing: fulfillment technology is not going to trouble NASA. We’re not landing on the moon, even if we are getting an important package, your product, from A to B (and often in challenging conditions!)
What the tech in our industry must provide is a stable and consistent platform on which we can deliver the goods, literally, and delight customers with prompt service and clearly communicated tracking. That’s what makes it a fulfillment fundamental, and why we dedicated an entire section to the tech in our presentation.
When you consider a 3PL provider, the key is finding that appropriate balance between best practices in technology and a solid service platform.
Identifying the Appropriate ORDER FULFILLMENT Technology FOR YOU
Your business needs a provider who offers a warehouse management system (WMS), the foundation of any stock tracking and inventory control operations. These software platforms allow companies to track all inventory through bar codes and radio-frequency identification (RFID) scanning devices.
Some common characteristics of an effective WMS include the following:
End-to-end tracking through the key stages of your fulfillment process,
Easy to set-up, with a quick learning curve,
Integrates seamlessly with your own core systems,
Clear measurement and reporting,
Flexibility to scale with your business needs and upgrade alongside new tech developments.
An online portal is another provision of a 3PL service that is a requirement in most cases. You need to be able to access the information you need, when you need it and in a format that makes it easy to do your job. This tends to mean you’ll need close integration capabilities and custom reporting in any fulfillment solution, if your brand is to be truly tech-ready. Think about the key performance indicators that you’ll need to measure and the data points that must be captured to effectively track. Our ‘Unpacking’ article on supply chain metrics will also be helpful here.
So while your 3PL must be a partner in your order fulfillment, don’t rely solely on them to tell you what you need in terms of technology, at least in the first instance.
Any decision to outsource some or all of your fulfillment should be taken in the confidence that you know what you require from a provider, have communicated it clearly to them, and vetted their systems to confirm they can deliver what they say.
Expect, Accept and Improve on Errors
It’s tempting to think that the right technology will solve all our fulfillment issues and eliminate errors, but this is never the case. Errors are part and parcel on any system, whether they’re caused by human hands or ghosts in the machine.
It’s how you react and learn from them that counts. The right technology will help you to analyze issues that arise and identify the most suitable solution. You’ll be able to review the order’s movement through the fulfillment process, pinpoint exactly where things went wrong and identify contributing factors that can be remedied for the future. Here’s where a 3PL can again be a great help, as they’ll not only show you what to look for but also help you to come up with a solution for the future.
In a broader sense, the best way to handle errors is to think of them as an opportunity to get closer to your customer. If something has gone wrong, you have a chance to address the issue and solve a problem for your buyer.
All of us have had a negative customer service experience, whether it’s a car break down where we’re told that everything including the rear view mirror needs to be replaced, or hours on hold only to be told that our issue cannot be resolved over the phone. That’s what an error can turn into if the wrong attitude is adopted.
Conversely, we also all have customer service experiences which were real standouts. Occasions where the person on the other side of the counter or phone really makes you feel like they were a caring human being who wanted to help. These interactions can be deeply positive, no less so because they often come on the heels of a disappointment.
Being able to turn the former situation into the latter is a skill that requires both a deft, skilled human touch and the appropriate technology to deliver a solution. Much like the wider supply chain, when you have these two components working in harmony, errors are reduced and those inevitably occur are a lot easier to deal with.
All this week we’ll be bringing you a selection of the vast (and we do mean V–A–S–T) array of electronics on display at CES 2015.
Capacity LLC’s Chief Strategy Office and co-founder Thom Campbell left the wintry weather on the East coast and successfully made his way to Las Vegas yesterday, ready to talk logistics tech with anyone facing supply chain challenges in the coming year.
We’ll be bringing you his best photo-journalism here, but for the deeper discussion around supply chain technology you’ll need to track down Thom at the event itself.
“Planning is bringing the future into the present, so that you can do something about it now.”
More than ever, technology requires us to consider what will happen tomorrow, today. Though supply chain operations are rooted in proven, reliable systems, technology is inextricably linked to logistics and drives rapid change here just as much as it does in other industries.
Next week we’ll be at the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES 2015) in Las Vegas, all set to take in the next big trends in tech. We’re also eager to talk to technology-oriented companies about how our advanced EDI and order systems enhance supply chains just like yours, driving quicker delivery lead times and cutting waste from the fulfillment process.
Just as tech companies need to keep on the cutting edge of their market, logistics providers like us must stay up to speed on the latest, greatest ways to move your products seamlessly through the supply chain and out to your customers as efficiently as possible. It’s the base that great technology brands are built on.
What happens, for example, if your customer wants your product so much that they’re pay a premium to have it delivered to their door within the hour?
That’s not the future, it’s on offer today in New York City from Master & Dynamic, a top of the range audio technology brand with whom we work to satisfy customer demand almost instantaneously. It’s the cutting edge of order fulfillment technology that everyone from local business to global e-commerce companies like Amazon are eagerly pursuing as a standard service.
Same-day and even within-the-hour delivery?
That’s instant gratification for a grateful customer, but that’s the kind of spontaneity that requires extensive planning and precision execution on your part!
If you’ll be at CES 2015 as well – or if you could simply use some help bringing your supply chain up to speed for 2015 – we’d love to talk to you about the latest supply chain technology. Let’s have a conversation that makes you rethink the old adage “what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas.” These are solutions that you’ll want to take home and talk about.
Our recurring “Unpacking” series digs into the deeper meaning of commonly used terms and trends in the supply chain world that prompt a lot of questions. You can read all of the previous entries here.
Fulfilling orders can be smooth execution or hard duty. Which you end up with for your business lies in direct proportion to the software and people you bring together to perform the service. Both play a key role, but one may prompt more work than the other, depending on the technology you put to work.
Today we’ll focus on the order fulfillment technology that brings the best out of your team and delivers the most , based on an answer from our CSO and co-founder Thom Campbell on Quora.
For us it comes down to this (deeply mathematical) equation: Good software + well-integrated workers = fun, fast accurate work; bad software + workers = hard times on the production line.
This places a lot of emphasis on the quality of the technology you choose, and with good reason. A hard-working, smart and motivated team is always important and sought-after in the warehouse and beyond, but the software they use can easily be overlooked if you don’t know what works best.
When it comes down to it, we’re actually a software company that does some heavy lifting; a solution provider for challenges relating to efficiently getting orders to our clients’ customers, both individuals and retailers.
Of Orders and Acronyms
To follow an order through the supply chain, first you need to get it from your e-commerce platform or drop-ship retailer to your fulfillment provider, whether it’s internal or a third party.
The main means of integration are (apologies in advance for the government-like flurry of acronyms to follow):
FTP (file transfer protocol),
API (application programmer interface, or web services),
EDI (electronic data interchange), and
XML (extensible markup language.)
Most of our e-commerce integrations are via a secure FTP server we host. Capacity clients submit orders in batches at preset times and they are uploaded into our system. Our system screens for duplicates, items or shipping methods we don’t recognize, or other common issues which might cause the file to ‘bounce’. The next most common approach is API, where a client reaches out to our web services server with a real-time query. For example a query might be ‘here’s an order’, or ‘what is the tracking # for this order’, or ‘what is the inventory level for this item’.
So the order software has to have that ability to integrate and validate order data. Sometimes it’s important to perform address validation, sales tax calculation, and other services, but mostly we see that happening upstream, at the e-commerce platform level.
The system we use to provide dashboard visibility into our services is an internal proprietary order management software (OMS), which we imaginatively called ‘Intra’ because it is located on our intranet. Our clients get a ‘through the firewall’ version called, again with all our imaginative forces brought to bear, the ‘Capacity Client Center’.
Its purpose is much what it sounds like: providing clients with real-time online access to order status and inventory information, modifying SKU/product information, changing ship methods, creating and downloading reports, and many other aspects of our service. Intra is also very involved in how we integrate with retailers, housing the tables and rules for dealing with over 300 of the retailers we ship to who require EDI.
We’ll break off here to give you some time to digest how your order handling system stacks up against the ideas above. The next entry moves into how technology drives the physical fulfillment process, from picking to shipping and delivery. You can read part two here.
Read the rest of our Unpacking posts here, or connect with Capacity LLC on Facebook or Linkedin to let us know what you’d like to see next.
Contact us if you’d like to talk more about how order fulfillment technology can work for your business.