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Tom Taormina

Customer Care

Fulfillment Folly

Order fulfillment is more than just delivering a product

Published: Monday, October 24, 2022 - 12:03

We live in a rural area, and many of our nonconsumables are purchased online. We’re deceivingly spoiled living near an Amazon fulfillment center because we can order an item on Saturday, and it arrives on Sunday. To me, this is a masterful logistical feat of filling an order, getting it into the delivery system, and into our community mailbox the next day, especially on a Sunday.

Unfortunately, the glaring downfall in creating a satisfied customer comes at the final leg of the journey: getting the product into our hands. Amazon’s logistical prowess loses its patina when a desktop computer is shipped via the U.S. Postal Service, and we must make a 20-mile round trip and stand in line at the post office. If the package won’t fit in a rural parcel locker, UPS or FedEx are the logical choices. The question is who makes those choices—or any one of the many choices that affect customer satisfaction.

Better information upfront

I spent a year as a quality consultant to a large local fulfillment center. That was a unique learning experience in how these centers work. First, the call center was staffed by dozens of salespeople, who were trained in the exact messaging that each manufacturer required. There was absolutely no deviation allowed from the script. For each caller question, a precise answer had to be given. No ad-libbing and no interpretation. How, then, is the consumer able to ask meaningful questions about the product’s suitability? In fact, the scripted responses were written assuming that a certain percentage of products would be returned or discarded. This is the equivalent of volitionally building an unacceptable defect rate into the price of the product.

Currently, most ordering is done online. These fulfillment sites contain FAQs, customer reviews, and robotic chat hosts that can answer most questions. In this environment, it’s almost impossible to reach a human to get nonscripted questions answered. The customer then begins the buying process uncertain of receiving exactly what they need. On too many occasions, I’ve had to return products that didn’t fit my needs, making the overall customer experience unsatisfactory. The fault wasn’t with the product, but whether the product would meet my needs.

There must be a better way of determining functionality before online purchasing. Stores like Home Depot and Best Buy have salespeople trained with a basic knowledge of their products, who can advise how they can or can’t meet the customer’s requirements before buying. I recently had to replace a 30-year-old circuit breaker in my electrical distribution box. The online choice of an equivalent breaker was $75. A salesperson at Home Depot offered me an acceptable replacement for $12. Surely the online stores can provide this service to prevent distraught customers and avoid the cost of corrective action.

Handling returns

For a quality professional, one of the most unsettling aspects of the fulfillment process is the no-questions-asked return policy. Again, with Amazon, this policy is a huge magnet to buy from them. If I receive a defective or unwanted product, I can drop it off at a UPS store or Whole Foods, and have my refund by the time I get home. But I don’t want a refund; I want an acceptable product, delivered on time.

Amazon and other companies deal with refunds through massive return centers, where overhead costs are offset by additional upfront cost. In quality parlance, they know that they have an unacceptable defect rate reaching the customer (no matter what the cause), and they choose to create a Band-Aid solution rather than discover root causes and stop the cycle of buy and return.

By contrast, I was a consultant to Dell Computer’s refurbishment center. It was clear that a returned product resulted in lost profits. The leadership was, however, determined to create a profit center from the returned products. They did this by selling refurbished computers to an entirely different market of bargain hunters who wouldn’t have bought new products. Today, you can configure returned Dell computers and peripherals online and meet your needs while saving money. They’re inherently more reliable than new because they are tested many more times before packaging.

Others who get a substantial number of returns have a policy for the fulfillment center to destroy the product—another built-in cost. One manufacturer stated that returned items were to be put into a crusher so they wouldn’t turn up at flea markets. Again, this policy is a grim disguise for having an acceptable defect rate that isn’t, in fact, acceptable. Management makes the conscious decision to ignore the shortcomings of their products by assuming that many consumers are foolish regarding products that don’t perform as advertised.

Last-mile delivery

As previously stated, the final factor in customer satisfaction is getting the products into our physical hands. This is directly related to the packaging and carrier that are either chosen by fulfillment people or by some “intelligent” computer program. There’s apparently no way to specify shipping preferences with Amazon or other fulfillment centers.

I recently received a 23-inch stool that was in a 48-inch box. It was shipped via the USPS. I had to make a trip to the post office to retrieve it. On the same day, I received a book from Amazon that was shipped FedEx Ground. Who makes these decisions? Does management understand that its incredibly rich choice of products is meaningless without getting it into service by the consumer in a timely manner? At a minimum, large items that can’t or won’t be delivered to your doorstep by USPS should instead use FedEx or UPS. Smaller items could be shipped via USPS if necessary.

The carriers aren’t without blame in providing unacceptable customer experiences. UPS has a stated policy that it’s up to the driver’s discretion where to deliver. Some drivers bring packages directly to my house, while other drivers put parcels in plastic bags and leave them tied to a signpost at the end of the driveway. This isn’t delivery; it’s an abdication of service. Just today, a UPS parcel was delivered to the top of a trash can at the bottom of my driveway at 7:30 p.m. The fulfillment centers need to be aware of these factors that are making unhappy customers.

It’s the entire customer journey

All of these decisions, from how to provide product information, to returns and delivery, should be made with the customer’s experience in mind. Your customers should be your future referrals, not victims. If you are to be a brand leader, every aspect of the customer experience must be precisely and consistently executed to meet their expectations. Commodities from fulfillment centers must meet customer needs both in the product quality and delivery performance, or else the manufacturer or fulfillment center will be given bad reviews and lose customers.

Don’t disappoint your customers in any way, whether they are retail or industrial. In particular, don’t measure customer satisfaction by gloating that you never hear from them. That’s the definition of folly.


About The Author

Tom Taormina’s picture

Tom Taormina

Tom Taormina is a subject matter expert in the ISO 9000 series of standards, having written 10 books on the beneficial use of the standards. He has worked with more than 700 companies and was one of the first quality control engineers at NASA’s Mission Control Center during the Gemini and Apollo projects. He also is an expert witness in product liability and organizational negligence.


It's worse than that!

Last year I spent (10) days in the hospital and, upon release, I was to take two medications. As I was not allowed to drive, I had the perscriptions sent to a local pharmacy that advertises home delivery. When they did not arrive, I called and was informed that they were sent to my mailing address... a P.O. box twice as far from me as the pharmacy. Informed of this, the pharmacy promised to correct the matter. To make a long story short, they sent TWO MORE perscriptions to the same address. To add insult to injury, when I had the temerity to mention that this was not acceptable, they hung up on me. When I complained to their corporate customer service, after I finally found a number, their story to corporate was that I had been unresonable! 

I have since moved, but only even remotely close pharmacy is the same chain and, if anything, they make the first one look competent.