Customers want to order whatever they want, whenever and however they want. Richard Marshall explains how you can adapt to meet this challenge
So the ‘connected customer is king’ (apologies, Elvis fans!). Demands for more choices, faster fulfilment, greater flexibility and a more personalised service are reshaping business. This creates new challenges for wholesalers that they cannot afford to ignore if they are not just to survive but thrive in today’s omni-channel marketplace.
There’s a lot to think about and a lot of challenges to be tackled if you’re to deliver a successful multi-channel service
Fundamentally, the core wholesale challenge is the same as it always has been. Service levels must be maximised and stock investment minimised if a wholesaler is to run a successful, profitable business.
What’s different now is the diversity of the choice and quality of the service customers expect. These are introducing new complexities to the supply chain and creating the need among all participants for a higher level of efficiency, particularly wholesalers who, as the middlemen in the supply chain, can find themselves increasingly squeezed from both sides.
Isolating the individual challenges isn’t easy, since success depends on a matrix of overlapping elements and the need for real-time data and new levels of visibility and flexibility previously unknown in the industry.
However, I think there are three main challenges we could consider: order management; fulfilment; and personalising your offer.
Order management; A unified experience in all channels
Adding new routes to market creates new challenges for order management operations, none more so than the introduction of e-commerce and the mobile revolution, both of which have been important factors in raising customers’ expectations of usability and service.
There are two challenges here. The first is to provide a unified customer experience for all channels, whether those are the internet, telesales or reps on the road. All these routes require equal access to account information, order history, customised pricing and so on, and the way in which this information is provided has to cater for multiple access technologies, from traditional PCs and laptops down to the smallest of mobile devices, using e-commerce sites offering a B2C experience in a B2B environment.
The second challenge – which is a big one for wholesalers – is successfully managing the diversity of orders coming through from the various different channels. Integration and transparency across all channels becomes vital to the success of taking orders.
For example, you don’t want to waste a telesales operator’s time calling a customer if the customer’s just placed an order over the internet. Telesales data must be updated to show when a web order has been placed and planned calls rescheduled.
Likewise, stock availability must be up to date for whomever is placing an order by any method – that is, it must be real-time, reflecting any transactions through any route – or fulfilment problems will occur.
Fulfilment; Information, operations and flexibility
Customers’ varied buying and delivery requirements mean it’s no longer just about having the stock available to fulfil an order. Now, it’s important to know, for instance, exactly where that stock is being held, whether it’s free for picking or has already been assigned to an order, and what new deliveries are expected – where and when. And this all needs to be in real time! Only a holistic view will give you any chance of successfully fulfilling your multi-channel orders.
Then, there’s the actual picking and assembling of orders with diverse characteristics. In an omni-channel warehouse, all channels share the same stock and picking systems, so you have to balance the needs of all of them. You must be able to efficiently pick smaller, one- or two-line web orders alongside larger orders of cases and pallets. You must be able to handle cross-dock and direct shipment options, and have stock available to fulfil an order as soon as it enters the warehouse and is registered on IT systems – not just from the pick face – and you must have efficient returns management.
Fulfilling orders across multiple channels also demands a new level of flexibility for wholesalers. This includes the flexibility to relocate stock to fulfil orders, to prioritise which orders should be fulfilled first and from where, to redeploy staff or adjust staffing levels to manage peak trading times, and so on. And this all has to be done efficiently and cost-effectively or your profits will disappear. The Warehouse Management System (WMS) becomes the key to your success or failure.
Personalising your order; Use customer data to create loyalty
The customer’s appetite for a personalised service, including customised offers that can be redeemed anywhere, is a growing trend that creates a great opportunity.
The information is there – online in general and mobile in particular, used alongside centralised customer relationship management systems, mean that much more customer information is available, including their preferences, buying patterns, and successful or unsuccessful purchases. All of this can be used to develop a more personalised, proactive sales approach and loyalty.
So there’s a lot to think about and a lot of challenges to be tackled if you’re to deliver a successful multi-channel service. How best to move forward to address these challenges to meet customer expectations is the next step.