Guest Post: Guide to Automating Your E-Commerce Shipping for a Continuous Supply Chain
E-commerce businesses are built on the cloud. They benefit from the affordability and scalability of the digital world. A big online advertising campaign is no longer burdened by printing costs; your storefront can appear on screens all over the world.
But as supply chain issues have become a frequent news item in recent years, it’s become increasingly clear that online retailers are bound by the physical realities of supply chain logistics.
Small-medium businesses that need to scale find themselves wondering which is better: affiliate marketing or dropshipping? Depending on their business, they might need to focus on getting their logistics nailed down before they can focus on growing the customer base.
And logistics can become a headache if they’re not automated. This is problematic in any case, but worse for small-medium businesses where you need people focussed on high-value work like customer success or the SEO SaaS strategy. The stakes are high: if you can’t automate your way to a continuous supply chain, the growth of the whole business could suffer.
With high shipping costs being the #1 reason why customers abandon orders, it’s important to reduce your operating costs as much as possible with automation. This will enable you to pass savings onto your customer as well as pocket some for yourself.
The Challenges of Shipping
E-commerce shipping has a number of challenges, many of which feed into each other and create big problems.
Simple human error will always be an issue in logistics. From clerical errors that cause a minor headache to container ships getting stuck in the Suez canal, costing the world $6.7 million USD per minute.
Where supply chain decisions used to be made in meetings, the rise of cheap sensors and remote work have changed that. A virtual conference room setup might be faster and more flexible than the old model.
However, the people in those meetings still require more sensing and automation technology in an increasingly complex world, especially if they’re going to have time to focus on more high-level strategic issues.
Without the automation enabled by cloud and IoT (Internet of Things) devices, orders can be incorrectly processed and inventory management becomes more of a trial than it needs to be. In an automated global supply chain, container ships are even made to slow down at sea because their port halfway around the world will be busy at the originally scheduled arrival time.
Without automation, poor inventory management can cause problems for customers. And when these problems arise, without good data and insights, customer support agents are unable to give them a detailed picture of what’s going wrong.
1 in 3 customers say they’d ditch a brand after just one bad experience. A supply chain issue is about more than a late delivery. It has implications for the whole business if it’s not properly managed.
How to Automate Your E-Commerce Shipping
It’s clear that e-commerce shipping needs automation to prosper. With that in mind, here are some of the steps you can take to automate your shipping to create a continuous supply chain.
Integrate Your Warehouse With Your Checkout
The first step to automating your supply chain is on the demand-side: automating your e-commerce site’s checkout. If your customers’ orders aren’t going directly and automatically to the warehouse, you have a problem.
Staff should only have to intervene if and when something goes wrong, like a customer ordering something that’s out of stock. But if your logistics data is connected to your e-commerce site, the product page should switch to being “Sold Out” within seconds of the final item being purchased.
Because of the number of variables involved in an order – quantity, color, shipping options – you need to establish automatic shipping rules which will determine how orders of different weights and dimensions are prepared and delivered. In an efficient and continuous supply chain, you can’t have your warehouse staff dealing with any ambiguity that’ll slow them down.
Move to the Cloud
From simple file storage to cloud hosted PBX systems, businesses are moving more of their operations from on-site infrastructure to hosting services like AWS and Microsoft Azure.
By moving to the cloud, businesses are able to run on data centers run by dedicated companies that ensure near-100% uptime, faster and more scalable operations, and some of the best cybersecurity protection available.
On top of that, it puts all of your business’ data in one accessible place. Having a single source of truth removes some of the need for coordination among humans. This enables your automated systems – whether they’re IoT sensors, warehouse robots, or your own hand-coded automations between services – to talk to each other in a stable environment.
It also makes life easier when humans still need to coordinate. Not only are decisions made faster when everyone has the same up-to-date information, but decisions are made better overall as the chance for confusion and human error are reduced.
In a low-margin business like logistics, there’s a lot of benefit to choosing the most cost-efficient shipping option every single time. Automated systems can make those decisions quickly and consistently.
For example, Amazon’s “return-free refund” is often a nice surprise for customers – it is a refund that kicks in when their system analyses the shipping on a potential return and works out that it would cost Amazon more to take the product back than to just offer a refund. The return-free refund scheme is only possible because of Amazon’s cloud computing platform AWS, which integrates data from every purchase made on the site.
Automate Small, Specific Processes
Automating your e-commerce shipping will be a step-by-step process. Once you start automating, you should look for routine processes that could also be streamlined.
In project management terms this is called “process mapping”, and it just means writing out the sequence of steps you have to carry out to achieve a goal. Project management knowledge areas are important in this process, as they help to ensure the process is well-structured and optimized. Once you see it all written out, you might spot inefficiencies right away.
Process mapping makes processes specific and repeatable, which means they’re carried out exactly the same way every single time. (It’s not automation, but it’s the next best thing.)
Furthermore, if you map your processes in detail, you’ll likely find opportunities for automation. That could be pre-populating spreadsheets with available data, or generating orders from a list of SKUs.
No one efficiency gain like this is going to change the world. But if you can automate the most laborious and routine work in your shipping teams’ day, it means they can focus on their most valuable work. Across an organization, that can be transformational.
When you think of “warehouse automation” you likely think of robots and AI, but nobody can or has to go that far all at once.
If you have your warehouse data in the cloud, it’s not hard to automate routine admin work like reordering when stocks are low or clustering SKUs that are often picked for the same purchase orders. Whether that’s achieved with your own in-house software talent or outsourced to a SaaS provider is up to you. To learn more about the broader concept and benefits of warehouse automation, you can explore various resources and case studies.
Automating the production of labels and shipping documents, picking orders and packing lists are easy targets for automation. If you haven’t thought about it before, there are likely many tasks your warehouse team are doing that are secondary to their main job: getting products out the door as quickly and efficiently as possible.
Use Tracked Shipping as a Source of Data
Tracking all of your shipments is an easy way to improve your customer experience. When customers can check on the progress of their items, it reduces some anxiety on their part and saves them from needing to contact your support team.
But for the eagle-eyed e-commerce company, tracked shipments are also a rich source of data that can be monitored and acted upon.
Tracked shipping gives you an easy way to monitor what happens to your products once they leave the warehouse, giving you a whole new branch of the shipping process to optimize. You could start by monitoring which couriers actually get products into customers’ hands on the day you promised. That’s as easy as channeling the confirmation emails into a spreadsheet.
Automate Your Customer Service
The reduction in human error that comes with automation is good for productivity, but can also be a boost to your customer service.
One important step towards automating your customer service is switching from your traditional business phone system to a modern BYOC (Bring Your Own Carrier) solution. What does BYOC mean? It refers to the process of moving your operations to the cloud without the lock-in that comes with enterprise phone contracts.
With a business phone system that works with your employees’ device and carrier of choice, you can move your customer service operations to a remote-first world. By exposing your phone system to modern UCaaS (Unified Communications as a Service) software, you also open the way for integrations with the software your business is built on.
Once you’ve done that, the sky’s the limit for the automations you could build into your customer service workflows. From embedded analytics that empower your front-line support staff to make better decisions, to ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) integrations that have your logistics operation responding automatically to trends in your customers’ behavior.Once you have your shipping data in an accessible place, you can plug in other customer service automations – for example, an on-site chatbot that can tell customers where their package is or send instructions via email within minutes of delivery.
Automation: Once You Start…
These are just a few of the biggest areas for automation in your e-commerce shipping operation. Once you start automating and see the benefits it can bring, you’ll get into the habit of scrutinizing processes and finding ways to streamline operations across your whole business.
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