Normally, March Madness in basketball would be reaching its fevered pitch right about now. But this year it has been replaced by another kind of madness, which we’re all fighting through together. But we were feeling wistful about not being able to build a 2020 bracket, so we decided to apply our bracketology skills to help solve a difficult challenge: how to choose an omni channel distribution partner. The wrong partner can do serious, lasting damage to your business.
It takes 6 rounds to crown an NCAA basketball champion, so we’ll provide a 6-part vetting process to get down to your ideal omni-channel distribution provider.
Round of 64 – Decide who gets invited
You’ll be starting with a lot fewer than 64 contenders, and your selection committee must make sure only the right ones get to the “big dance.” Your sales channels will have a lot to do with this decision. Are you selling through Amazon, through brick-and-mortar-stores, through online stores? All of the above? Or, are you a direct seller that uses independent agents?
Each sales channel comes with its own set of idiosyncrasies and fulfillment requirements. Ecommerce fulfillment demands highly efficient pick and pack services; retail distribution requires strict routing guide compliance to avoid chargebacks; direct sales fulfillment often involve kitting and meticulous final packaging; and, of course, Amazon has its own set of rules and requirements – for both inbound freight and outbound PRIME deliveries. Just because a provider is experienced with one channel does not mean it has the know-how to professionally handle the others. Make sure your initial bracket includes only teams versatile enough for omni-channel fulfillment.
Round of 32 – Check resumes closely
A basketball team can have an impressive 25–0 record, but if none of those victories is against a top-50 team, that basketball resume can be very misleading.
Fulfillment experience resumes can be equally misleading.
Just because a provider has had some big-name clients with significant fulfillment volumes, doesn’t speak to its current ability to meet your requirements. Oregon won the first NCAA tournament in 1939, but they haven’t won it since. Fulfillment rules and requirements change frequently, from channel to channel; and expertise, if unused, has the potential to atrophy quickly.
Sweet 16 – Look for proof of performance
In the end, the most valuable athletes, and teams, are usually the ones with the best statistics. Make sure your would-be providers have a strong fulfillment KPI management program in place. How, and how often, are those metrics reported?
Determine what metrics are most important to you and don’t be afraid to ask questions about performance in areas like chargeback control, damage rate, order accuracy and picking efficiency. Another relevant metric is client turnover rate. Does the provider hold on to clients for many years or do they leave more quickly and, if so, why? Don’t move forward with any provider that seems to churn through clients.
Elite 8 – Choose operators over marketers
Some basketball plays, like the slam-dunk, are fun to watch. But they still only earn their team two points apiece. Don’t assume 3PLs with the best highlight reel or the most automated facilities are always the best choice.
At this point in the process, sales presentations and glitzy videos should be replaced by discussions about operational nuts and bolts. Operators should be talking to operators about how the account would be executed. Respective systems teams should confer about how data would move seamlessly between organizations. It’s often at this stage that you begin to separate the experts from the imposters.
Final 4 – Is the provider adaptable?
A basketball team may win games with its fast, “run-and-gun” style of play, but what happens if that team is forced by an opponent to play a slower, half-court game? Can they adapt and win playing a very different style?
When you choose an omni-channel distribution partner, you’re (hopefully) making a long-term choice. Assume that your needs today will change (because they will) and choose a provider that is versatile enough to adapt to these changing requirements.
- If you expand into a new sales channel, is the provider well-versed on any new requirements? Can they guide you, instead of the other way around?
- If you need to expand your fulfillment network, can you do that with this one nationwide fulfillment provider or will you be forced to manage multiple regional providers?
- If your business experiences frequent spikes in demand, does the provider offer flexible space and staffing?
It’s time-consuming and costly to change fulfillment providers, so make sure you ask all those “what if” questions now. You don’t want to partner with a team that can’t adapt and scale to meet your needs well into the future.
The Championship Game – Meet the people and check chemistry
The most talented basketball teams, on paper, don’t always win. Why? It comes down to that intangible quality of “chemistry” – how team members work together and support each other. Don’t underestimate the importance of having a good culture fit with your omni-channel distribution partner.
It starts and ends with people. And not necessarily those you’ve interacted with during the sales cycle. You want to meet the folks you’ll be working with on a day-to-day basis – the distribution center manager, the lead supervisor, and the customer service representative for a start.
Let’s take the CSR, as an example. Amware clients have told us for years that having a great CSR is a real game-changer. Get to know that person and his/her working style. Find out how many accounts he/she handles (CSRs can only dribble so many balls at a time). Inquire about the process for backing him/her up to make sure nothing slips through the cracks.
Oh, and by the way, if you haven’t met the big boss by this stage, ask why not. If you’re not important enough to warrant that level of attention, you may be too small a fish for this big pond.
All of this due diligence takes time, but take whatever time is required because this is the last stage in the process. Just like losing that NCAA Championship game is tough, you don’t want to “almost” choose the right omni-channel distribution partner. Make sure your corporate and operational cultures align. It’s really the only way to ensure that the impressive things you’ve been seeing in proposals or hearing about over the phone are more than just talk – and that the best players on paper are just as well-matched for you in person.
Choosing a provider takes time – get a head start
Choosing the right omni-channel distribution partner is a process that should be well planned. Don’t put yourself in a position of having to rush. The best time to get to know potential partners is when you don’t need them.
Providers are happy to meet and share their ideas about best practices and their fulfillment experiences with companies similar to yours – even in the absence of an RFP. That’s all good learning for you in terms of your operation. At the same time, you’re learning about the provider. Down the road, when it does come time for a change, you can skip the “selection committee” step and start working through details with firms you already know.