Retailing on the Internet has its own unique challenges. In a conventional store the customer is influenced by the selection, service and decor. Companies can heavily influence the customer experience of shopping there. However, on the Internet, there is no physical space in which to establish brand identity or physical interaction to create a relationship with the customer.
Companies go to great lengths to attract customers to their Web sites. But as certain firms discovered last Christmas, sloppy deliveries hurt their reputations beyond repair.
In the online world, a company’s reputation is only as good as its last successful transaction. Web customers have extremely high expectations: Each order must be shipped according to their requirements, and it must arrive complete and on time. If a transaction leaves them unsatisfied, they don’t return.
E-businesses have created reasonably good order intake software on the front end that provides access to customer information and shopping cart information. But the remaining part of the order — the part after the customer pushes the “buy” button — is seldom clearly thought out.
To meet the demands of e-commerce while building customer loyalty, an ideal back-end system should contain the following elements:
* order personalization;
* sharing of up-to-the-minute order information with customers;
* company branding.
Online retailers now can use their fulfillment infrastructure to build a base of satisfied customers. A fulfillment system offers opportunities for order personalization, from gift-wrapping and cards to specialized delivery requirements.
Personalization must be flawless. Missing wrapping or a misplaced card can cause embarrassment or problems for the customer and reflect poorly on the retailer.
Web customers want to be able to check the status of their orders and modify them. Customers are happier when kept informed about the expected arrival date of their order and warned of delays or problems in a timely way. By automating this process, the company minimizes demands on the call center, reducing transaction costs and potential miscommunications.
Even with small Web businesses, a customer’s order may be picked, packed and drop-shipped from several different suppliers. However, getting the order right and delivering on time according to customer requirements are only part of the challenge.
Online customers value the potentially greater choices and time savings of shopping on the Internet. When a company makes delivery more efficient and returns easier, it adds value in the customer’s mind. But in order to do this, a company needs real-time information about its suppliers’ inventory, and it must be able to communicate this information to the customer.
The customer should have the ability to return unwanted merchandise easily over the Web and to the right location. By using the Internet to arrange pickup, generate accurate shipping labels and determine routing, the right back-end fulfillment system can reduce the costs of reverse logistics, save time and eliminate hassles.
The supply chains of most e-businesses include an inhouse distribution center, remote suppliers — large and small — and possibly third-party logistics firms or even retail stores. No matter how complex, however, the supply chain must be invisible to the end-customer.
An effective order fulfillment and delivery system enables you to do actual one-to-one marketing, even after the order is made, by personalizing the box regardless of where the shipment comes from.
The customer should be able to:
* rely on promises on product availability and delivery dates;
* be assured of order accuracy;
* specify accurate delivery instructions;
* be treated like your customer, not your supplier’s customer;
* cancel or modify the order if necessary;
* obtain accurate and timely order-status information;
* return products easily and efficiently, if need be.
Your suppliers are going to want real-time access to order information as well, to integrate carriers, maximize shipping efficiency, reduce costs and waste and provide for easy restock.
Integrated order management means that companies can leverage supplier relationships to grow fast. A back-end order management system offers the chance to coordinate suppliers and provide them with economies of scale.
For suppliers with additional integration requirements, you need to provide the means for those suppliers to work with you, no matter what their size or whether they are using XML, EDI or their own proprietary software.
The Internet now enables the construction of a virtual supply chain that can link the company to the supplier using a PC, the Internet and a browser.
An accessible back-end software system that uses the Internet as a backbone and integrates with other software and legacy systems can enable smaller suppliers to be on an equal footing with larger suppliers. No firm is frozen out because it cannot afford a complex software package. This is a vital feature, too, for those lucky e-businesses that achieve instant brand recognition — whose orders outstrip their infrastructure.
Finally, a few words about business-to-business marketing. While there isn’t the same need for personalization that comes with business-to-consumer marketing, shipping, order management and returns can be every bit as complex. The order management in a BTB transaction might entail tracking a transaction from an online auction, credit verification, shipping and reverse logistics. Well-planned infrastructure should be flexible enough to take your company into new markets, while delighting today’s demanding Web customer.