Fulfillment can be a challenge for ecommerce companies, and startups in particular. When online orders pour in, it’s hard to keep shipments flowing out, especially if you are relying on a ragtag team of relatives like your kids, spouse, parents, cousins…
Don’t DIY your shipping and handling for too long.
Every successful ecommerce firm eventually reaches a tipping point where it must choose a fulfillment partner to work with or manage fulfillment itself at a more professional level. That entails hiring staff and finding warehouse space for storage, shipping and receiving.
Of course, we think it’s best for companies to work with fulfillment professionals like us. But, for those who want to do it themselves, we’d like to share a few best practices from April Barbour, our Fulfillment Manager.
We follow these practices in our fulfillment facility and they pay off for us with a fulfillment error rate that’s near zero, a lower rate of employee turnover and fewer on-the-job injuries. Many of these practices are simply good management, which can and should be applied across a business. If you’re considering a new fulfillment solution, take what we do at Bluegrass into consideration.
Five of our team members are in charge of particular facets like receiving and returns. But, all five are cross-trained so that they understand their fellow team leaders areas as well and can step in for them when needed.
Each of our customers works mainly with one team member to relay information about orders or shipments. Those one-to-one relationships are valuable–our customers especially appreciate the fact that the same person will be helping them. It allows our staff to take on more responsibility as well.
In fact, we try to constantly expand the skills and knowledge of our entire team so that they can easily shift from one specialty area to another. When your staff and business are relatively small, cross training is crucial; having one or two people out can really slow the fulfillment process down if coworkers aren’t trained to step in.
From a motivation standpoint, employees who become “experts” in particular facets take more pride and understand why their role is essential to the whole process. Broad training also gives our staff a larger skillset. Our fulfillment team can learn to use a computerized inventory management system, the ins, and outs of ground transport and the US Postal Services’ guidelines and requirements. We show them basics, like how to accurately measure a box (it’s length x width x height, by the way). If they need to move on to another job at some point, these skills will be valuable in some way.
April is attentive, always watching and listening to staff. She’s good at identifying the cues staff give that indicates they want to do and learn more, like asking a lot of good questions about something we do in the center. When she identifies what she describes as a “go-getter” she feeds them more and more responsibility, pulling back when she picks up on signals that they have all they can handle for the moment.
We communicate our expectations to staff. When new hires arrive, they receive a page of guidelines to follow. A number of them focus on appropriate dress and personal behavior (for example, cell phone use). In terms of dress, we aren’t being the fashion police but are instead ensuring that our staff stay safe. Flip flops are a popular footwear choice, for example, but they are dangerous in a fulfillment center, where employees walk on concrete, climb ladders and carry boxes. Our staff wears tennis shoes, which offer firm footing and toe protection and prevent foot problems.
We also keep our warehouse looking neat and tidy, and we’re always on the lookout for problems that could cause injuries. We encourage our staff to be on the lookout for things like box straps on the floor, which could make someone slip and fall, and boxes sticking out at end caps that could catch someone’s foot or leg. April leads by example, grabbing a broom and sweeping the floor when she sees a problem. We devote time each Friday afternoon to getting the warehouse shipshape–clean our work stations, the aisles, and shelves, restock shelves and make sure we’ve gotten all the orders sent out. It’s a good way to wind down from the week and it helps us take off fast on Mondays, which are always busy days because of orders that come in over the weekend.
We talk to our staff frequently, about successes as well as issues.
When we get a new client or when an existing client adds a new product or products, our fulfillment team gathers to talk about the client’s needs. We review reports from our inventory management system about how shipments will arrive, expected turnaround on orders and special packing requirements. We also pass products around so that we can see and touch what we will be shipping. We learn the product inside out.
There are many upsides of this level of communication. Employees who are educated and informed about a client are more engaged and they begin to understand their role and importance in the process. They feel more responsible. They learn they need to be observant. This work is all about the details–from getting inventory accounts exactly right to packing a product to customer specifications.
One tool we use to build awareness is a simple whiteboard. It has driven home the importance of paying attention to the details. When we do make a mistake with an order, the name of the person who picked, packed and verified the order is posted on the board. No one wants their name on that whiteboard. Using it made an instant, positive impact. Our error rate today is nearly nonexistent.
When we achieve a goal–whether it is working for a month or a quarter with no errors or accidents or shipping out a big order for a client on deadline, we often celebrate in some way. Bringing lunch in for the staff, for example, is a nice reward for work well done.
If you’d like to tour our fulfillment center and learn more about how we manage it, give us a call.
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