When you outsource fulfillment, you need to know what kind of service is being guaranteed to your customers. After all, if a problem happens during the product distribution / delivery or returns process, end-users will hold your brand responsible— not your fulfillment provider.
So what are the fulfillment industry standards? What are its best practices? And is your third-party fulfillment (3PF) partner adhering to them by providing competent, fast service? Here's what you should be asking:
What is the average time in which orders ship?
From order receipt to the product distribution hub door, how long does your 3PF provider take to pick, fill, box and load out? Is your provider open and operating 7 days a week? Timing is critical, particularly at the holidays— response times should be measured in minutes or hours, not days.
Even when customers opt for regular ground shipping, they expect that the process will be initiated as soon as they click the "Buy Now" button. If your fulfillment center lets it an order go unfilled for more than a day, your brand's image suffers.
How accurate is your 3PF partner's inventory control and picking system?
It's not enough just to get an order out the door fast. You need the right item out the door fast, and you need it to be packed and protected well for its journey. That's where an experienced pack-and-ship company can really help.
Most 3PF houses send out pickers with carts to find the inventory on its shelves and bring it in. If your providers storage system is chaotic, if it is relying on seldom-updated computer systems to track item storage, or if it lacks a competent, last-minute accuracy check / quality control step in its process, you could be setting your self up for a slew of improperly-filled orders.
Here's what can happen when your 3PF provider guarantees speed, but says nothing about accuracy.
Let's say that you sell college textbooks. You hire a 3PF house to manage your inventory of thousands of books and then pack and ship orders as they come in. At some point in the inventory logging and storing process, a sticker was misapplied to a music theory textbook. Instead, the palette of music theory textbooks received a QR-coded tag that was supposed to go to a stack of young adult novels.
A customer orders the music textbook. He's a college student and even though the semester is about to start and he waited until the last possible minute to order his books, he opts for "Regular Ground Shipping within 10 Business Days" because his budget is tight.
Your 3PF partner's picker duly fills the order the same day— but with the incorrectly-tagged youth novel. The picker doesn't actually match the title against what's on her scanner screen and no one checks for accuracy before the item is packed. Your customer is delighted to receive his package within a few days — earlier than he expected and a few days before class begins. But it's the wrong book, so he returns it. Class starts in 3 days, and now he's sweating bullets.
Your 3PF provider receives and processes the return very quickly. The returns manager queues up another picker task: pull and ship a copy of the music textbook. But they again fail to catch the system error. The picker is relying on her scanner and not on visual confirmation of the title. So she sends another copy of the youth novel. Now your college student customer is hopping mad. And he's going to hold you, the bookseller, accountable.
You need a partner that goes the extra mile in a guarantee.
When you are looking for a 3PF partner, make sure that it guarantees accuracy along with fulfillment speed. Mishaps will occur, but you want to know that your 3PF center takes steps to mitigate them. Make sure it has a critical quality assurance (QA) step in its pack-and-ship process.
At Aero, we guarantee inventory storage and order fulfillment will both be 99% accurate. We also commit to responding to customer inquiries within 2 hours, either by e-mail or phone. You never have to worry that your customer will be left feeling like he or she is in the dark about an order.
When you're looking for a pack-and-ship company to partner with, make sure that you check out its operation. Does it meet industry standards? Has it implemented best practices and is it adhering to them?
Most of all, does it hide behind its website, or will your business relationship be managed with a personal touch? Guarantees don't mean much without people who will stand behind them.