When you outsource product fulfillment to a third-party logistics company (3PL), you place your trust and your customers' satisfaction in its hands. Yet, it's shocking how many Etailers have no well-developed order fulfillment metrics to monitor performance.
That’s what this article is all about.
As a longtime fulfillment 3PL, we’ve logged thousands of hours creating, analyzing and reporting on a wide range of fulfillment metrics – including some you probably haven't considered. In the process, we’ve discovered 10 sensible secrets about what makes fulfillment KPI programs successful – and why it’s more important than ever that companies like yours begin to focus more time and energy on getting their order fulfillment metrics right.
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Many companies hastily decide upon KPIs just before the work starts, and sometimes after. Big mistake.
When outsourcing fulfillment services to a 3PL, it’s best to include KPIs in your Request For Proposal (RFP). Your RFP should reflect your specific needs and circumstances. The more clearly you can articulate your desired performance levels up front, the better aligned you’ll be with your 3PL partner – about expectations and what it will take to deliver to that standard. Keep these objectives aggressive, but reasonable. 3PLs expect to be challenged, but will want performance objectives to be realistic.
Does this mean that you’re stuck with these fulfillment KPIs ad infinitum? Absolutely not. In fact, once you’ve chosen your 3PL, one of your first action items should be to schedule a working KPI discussion to hash out the particulars. What it does mean, however, is that you’ve invested time to get your relationship started off on the right foot – with clear, objective expectations.
Many companies believe allowing 3PL providers to weigh in on what kinds of fulfillment warehouse KPIs they should use is like asking a den of foxes how to guard a hen house. But think about it: If you were weighing the pros and cons of two different medical procedures, wouldn’t you ask your doctors what they’d choose for themselves?
If you work with a B2C-focused 3PL, that company likely eats, sleeps, and breathes multi-channel fulfillment in a way that your company doesn’t. It can provide you with suggestions about performance metrics that are truly mission-critical versus those that are merely window dressing.
Just as important, your 3PL can provide some helpful reality checks on the quality and service levels that are actually impactful and achievable based on your volumes, timeline, and budget.
When preparing for your order fulfillment metrics journey, it’s best to pack light.
Reporting and monitoring too many metrics, early in the relationship, may deflect your 3PL’s attention away from actual execution and be far too cumbersome for your staff to review and make sense of. Too many companies are guilty of metrics overkill.
For the best results, focus on a few strategic metrics that matter most to your company and customers, bearing in mind you can always add more KPIs as your program and relationship mature. If you can’t answer the “So what?” question about why a KPI has been included, that’s probably a good indicator it doesn’t belong.
Make sure your metrics are simple to calculate. If your KPIs require people to take time out from productive activities to gather data and then calculate metrics using spreadsheets, they are too complex. Fortunately, software exists to process complex data sets and render them in an easy-to-understand format. If you can’t develop KPIs that are quick and easy to measure, invest in the right software technology to do the legwork – or lean on a 3PL to provide insightful data analytics.
Some KPIs will be more important to some companies than others, depending on their unique priorities. In Amware’s experience, the four most important order fulfillment metrics from a big-picture standpoint are:
Good KPIs require reliable, real-world inputs. When these don’t exist, for whatever reason, it’s best to wait before formulating KPIs.
Common barriers to setting realistic KPIs include:
If you know your company’s fulfillment operations data is outdated or incomplete, avoid the temptation to simply pull numbers out of thin air – or off the Internet – to create your KPIs. That will be counterproductive. Inaccurate numbers are much worse than no numbers at all because they will undermine your metrics dashboard and risk making all your measurement efforts an operational mess.
Just come clean and tell your 3PL. It may be able to recommend workable numbers based on its own expertise. Or you both may determine that it makes more sense to take a few months to work together to gather more meaningful reference points before signing a definitive Service Level Agreement (SLA). A good KPI program is a dynamic work in progress that’s meant to keep you, your staff, and your service providers aligned.
Shippers that expect 100% perfect orders all the time are unrealistic. Mistakes, while hopefully rare, are a reality in fulfillment. But companies often don’t deal up front with the issue of what will happen when such mistakes occur.
Because of this lack of planning, small failures escalate into larger ones and there is a lot of finger pointing. The right approach is to sit down with your 3PL fulfillment partner BEFORE orders start flowing and ask the tough questions related to every type of potential failure. Who owns it? What actions will be taken to remediate the problem? Who is financially liable?
No one wants to think about worst-case scenarios at the start of a relationship, during the honeymoon phase. But it’s far better to deal with these questions before the fact than while issues are happening.
You will never reach 100% perfect order nirvana, but having clear alignment about how to deal with mistakes when they arise results in fast action to fix problems and a better relationship with your provider based on open, honest, transparent communication.
Much like some job applicants, some 3PL warehouse KPIs have an uncanny way of looking better on paper than they do in reality – especially if they’re communicated solely in terms of percentages. For example, let’s say your company, which currently ships 100,000 items per year, has decided that 98.5% shipping accuracy is a reasonable KPI. It sounds great in theory, because it means 98,500 of your customers will get exactly what they ordered.
However, it also means that 1,500 customers won’t and that, according to some statistics on eCommerce shipping mistakes, you’ll wind up paying $43.23 per error or $64,845 each year to correct these issues. Based on these numbers, is that KPI really the one you want to hang your hat on? Or does a more aggressive metric make more sense, even if it costs more to achieve?
Don’t wait until problems – like dissatisfied customers or cost overruns – surface before paying close attention to the actual meaning behind your order fulfillment metrics. The best time to address this issue is when you are finalizing the SLA. Unless you understand the real-world implication of each and every metric you measure, they’ll have little business value.
In today’s highly competitive e-commerce sector, few things are more frustrating than hearing some variation of the sentence, “If only we’d known about this issue sooner.” Heading problems ‘off at the pass’ is a big part of what KPI management is all about.
But that can’t happen if businesses don’t require their 3PLs to update and refresh KPI data while tasks are being performed, or very soon after, and to make that data promptly available.
Let’s say, for example, that you have a 24-hour, dock-to-stock requirement. If items are getting scanned and time-stamped when they arrive at the warehouse and those scans are uploading to the 3PL’s system and captured in daily reports, you can quickly recognize when products start to take an extra day to become available. As a result, you can schedule a quick conversation with your 3PL team to discuss this trend and what is required to get performance levels back in range.
Make sure you’re holding your 3PL accountable for consistently updating KPIs in real time, using data from warehouse and transportation management systems or manually updating data in a timely way. Just as important, someone should be eyeballing this data to red flag any potential issues before they become problems.
When it comes to KPIs, some 3PL providers don’t have the capacity, capability, or desire to share regular KPI data with customers. To avoid this trap, look for a 3PL that readily and proactively shares performance data or makes the data easily accessible.
In fact, your 3PL should use advanced order fulfillment metrics to drive continuous improvement in operations. These KPIs help a 3PL make decisions, such as whether to automate a process or change an SOP to address ongoing warehouse issues. When updated data is available on dashboards for routine review and sharing, fulfillment operations can re-engineer solutions to improve efficiency on an ongoing basis. Comprehensive metrics allow a fulfillment provider to recognize negative trends and trigger continuous improvement projects to reverse them.
The business world is full of ironies. One of the most head-scratching is the fact that many online sellers will put a huge amount of time and energy into crafting a KPI management program up front only to let that program run itself from that point on. That is, until a problem arises.
When customer service issues DO surface, here’s what happens. The shipper calls its 3PL on the carpet and rails about service quality; the provider then pulls out KPI reports for the first time in months and explains that performance is at or above goal.
It’s a standoff. The 3PL uses the KPIs as a defense to justify solid performance, while the shipper is simply ticked off because customers are complaining. No winners here.
To avoid such situations, review performance regularly against these established KPI benchmarks. By monitoring and managing KPIs, even when business is running smoothly, you’ll be able to identify fluctuations, determine if they are moving in the “wrong direction,” and then take quick action to address the situation.
Sure, it’s tempting to do the management by exception thing because it saves time – “Okay, things are running well so there’s no need to dig into the metrics.” But ongoing monitoring allows you to ward off problems before they occur. It also removes some of the emotional response that is inevitable if you’re only looking at eCommerce order fulfillment metrics when problems occur.
Here’s some “inside baseball” for you.
3PLs have their own set of fulfillment metrics that suggest how well their operations are running. Don’t be afraid to ask about these internal metrics, either from existing or would-be providers – because performance in these areas will impact your business.
Here are a few key 3PL internal metrics, and why you should care.
KPI metrics appear as tiny numbers on a busy spreadsheet. And too often that’s where it ends. No attempt is made to make the numbers more meaningful to the associates who do the work.
For associates, mistakes that make up numbers on a spreadsheet they never see won’t get their attention. Mistakes that materially impact the profitability of the company or the client begin to have more relevance.
That’s why it’s so important to partner with your 3PL to make sure your KPI scorecard program has visibility and relevance for the associates picking and packing orders. The best fulfillment 3PLs will post KPIs prominently in the work area and note performance relative to goal (are we “green” or “red?”). But that’s just the start. Simply posting KPIs, without any context or explanation, could create a fulfillment team that is indifferent. Associates are less likely to achieve performance objectives if they don’t understand the KPIs or their value/meaning.
You can overcome this challenge by making sure associates understand how meeting and beating KPIs contributes to profitability and progress.
If you use an outside fulfillment partner, look for opportunities to talk directly to the people on the warehouse floor. For example, invest in workshops and/or brown-bag lunch meetings once a quarter, where you update your 3PL “team” on your business. They will appreciate getting direct insights from the end customer on the importance and impact of their work.
Use the meeting to explain the negative consequences of mistakes. But, more importantly, communicate how the fulfillment team is instrumental in helping your company achieve its sales and customer service goals. Provide concrete information about how and why the associate’s individual efforts will impact these performance metrics for order fulfillment. Equipped with that knowledge, they will be powerful advocates for identifying emerging challenges and opportunities.
When you follow the suggestions outlined in this article, the perception about order fulfillment metrics changes – from a hammer used as leverage against a 3PL to a positive tool promoting excellence through collaboration.
A robust warehouse KPI management program for product fulfillment can:
In the process, KPIs can pave the way to healthier, happier, outsourced logistics relationships and transform your fulfillment and shipping operations into a competitive lever. Any way you measure it, that’s a step in the right direction.