Customer fulfillment, or order fulfillment, refers to business strategies used to get products and services to consumers. If your business is scaling for the first time, or if years of steady growth is starting to test your company’s ability to fill orders, it’s time to update (or create) your fulfillment strategy.
The good news is that the ever-evolving world of technology means you have lots of options. It comes down to choosing a strategy, and implementing it thoughtfully.
Choosing a Fulfillment Strategy
As your company grows, order fulfillment gets more and more intense. The first decision you and/or your executive team needs to make is how much fulfillment you are capable of handling in-house … and how much you want to handle in-house.
Fulfillment Strategy 1: In-House with CRM Technology
Customer Relationship Management (CRM) software is a tracking system used to organize customer data. CRMs are commonly used in sales and marketing to streamline and personalize communications, but they also ease the fulfillment process by:
- Processing orders.
- Storing shipping and tracking information.
- Creating and managing transaction documents.
- Tracking inventory.
- Running reports.
CRM software is a great option for small businesses, and even medium-sized companies who want to keep a close eye on a scaling business or product line. Most systems integrate well with existing software and, of course, offer benefits to sales and marketing teams as well.
If you decide to invest in a CRM to help handle fulfillment in-house, take it one step at a time:
- Assess the need—Before looking at CRM vendors, analyze your company’s purchase history and most in-demand products to determine the necessary CRM storing capacity.
- Shop around—Create a list of appealing CRMs, meet with vendors, and ask specific questions about key CRM functions, product implementation time, whether technical support is available, and transaction volume capacities.
- Talk with stakeholders—After narrowing down your list, bring all your internal stakeholders together for a final decision—IT, sales, customer service, etc. Everyone who is going to touch the system should have a say in the decision.
And remember that even the best CRM software can only do so much for fulfillment. Product still has to get sorted, packaged, etc., and as your company grows, even the best CRM might need help.
Fulfillment Strategy 2: 3PL Company Outsourcing
Third party logistics (3PL) providers offer solutions in warehousing, packaging, assembly, and distribution under one roof, so you can leave some or all of the order fulfillment to supply chain experts.
A 3PL can provide a range of fulfillment services, from setup, to shipping, to customer service. Most can integrate with existing e-commerce systems, manage inventory, optimize transit time, process returns and claims, and provide the data you need on your unique KPIs. You don’t need to invest in warehouse space or expanded technology, and you don’t need to hire and sustain more internal employees.
It’s important to consider a few well-established 3PLs before choosing a partner. Consider factors such as:
- Warehouse size and space
- Warehouse location in proximity to airports, ports, and railways
- Reputation with other customers they’ve helped
- Six Sigma, Continuous Improvement, and Kanban certifications
- Maintenance of OSHA requirements
- Warehouse Management Technology capabilities
- Flexibility for overtime during peak seasons
- Ability to communicate
3PLs aren’t cost effective for all businesses, however. Localized companies that handle their own distribution with ease may not benefit from outsourcing.
Creating a Fulfillment Strategy
Whether you choose to keep your fulfillment strategy in-house with a CRM system, or outsource at least some of it, setting up or updating a fulfillment strategy is a delicate process. You can’t shut down the business while you switch gears, so the transition needs to be smooth and as quick as possible.
The best way to ensure success is to plan as carefully as possible.
- Choose a strategy—You’ve tested some CRMs and Googled some 3PLs, now it’s time to decide. Which system is going to work best now, and scale easiest in the future? Decide what, specifically, will be done in-house, and what will be outsourced. Walk through the fulfillment process from each point of purchase, and make sure each step is covered.
- Set up your system—Whether it’s software or business partnerships, it needs to be in place and people need to be comfortable with it before it starts affecting the business. Also decide whether internal employees are sufficient for setup, or if contractors should be hired temporarily to get the system up and running.
- Select and set up KPIs—Be prepared to measure success from the start. Which metrics you focus on will depend on what the C-suite wants to see, and what problems you are trying to solve. In addition to hard data, consider implementing customer satisfaction surveys to see how customer needs are being met with the new strategy compared to before.
- Start small—Roll out the new system with one product line, and carefully track the progress. Work out the kinks and make sure customers are happy before moving over another process or product line, and then another, etc.
Fulfillment Strategy Resources
Customer fulfillment is the backbone of company success in the B2C industry, and there’s no one-size-fits-all strategy. What works best for your brand might be a completely unique combination of staff and business partners, but if you’re unsure, you can always explain your situation to a trusted 3PL partner and ask what they have done in similar situations.
Start by walking through your fulfillment process, honestly evaluating your needs, and putting together the plan that works best for your business and your customers.