Getting Ready for Holiday 2007

This is the first in a two-part series. In this installment, we’ll address the data you’ll need for your assessment. Next week, we’ll address how to apply the data.

Promises, promises. All businesses make them, but the best actually deliver what the marketing department promises. This is especially true for merchants that do most of their business during the fourth quarter.

Now is the best time to start planning holiday 2007 because your people will remember vividly the good and bad anecdotal incidents from last year and you will also have the operational and benchmark data available. Some fourth quarter businesses experience a 10:1 peak to average daily volume in the call and fulfillment centers; that increase means you must be well organized and efficient to stay current.

At the heart of improving operations in the call and fulfillment center is conducting an operations audit. This involves combining research analysis and on-site fact-finding to determine exactly what your operational performance is now and what you need to do to meet or exceed your goals. Operations audits can help you improve productivity; use distribution center space more efficiently; increase the capacity of orders processed; streamline work flow by reducing steps, processes, and costs; and generally achieve higher profits and lower costs. You can tailor your audit to analyze any one of these issues or to tackle a combination of areas at once.

Assuming that the chief concern at the moment is keeping your customer service promises, the first step is to gather all the research you have and collect any information that you are missing. Among the data you’ll need:

• Internal operations reports. All departments—including receiving, quality assurance, inventory control, replenishment and picking, packing, and shipping—contribute to your ability to achieve the desired level of efficiency and service. Weekly reports can reveal which departments are reaching desired levels, which aren’t, and how they are affecting one another. Reports should include units of work processed per paid hour, as well as error reporting.

• Returns reports. Most fulfillment software systems produce a “reasons for returns” report, which analyzes customer returns by product vendor, item, reasons, and quantity returned as a percentage of units shipped. Typical returns reasons include duplicate shipments; late delivery; wrong item, color, size, or quantity shipped; and damaged or missing parts. Analysis of any patterns in these reports can help you identify operations, creative and merchandising areas in need of improvement.

• Call center customer reports. Most direct-to-customer order management systems can create reports that analyze customer complaints and inquiries. These aren’t limited to operations and fulfillment issues, however, since customer complaints often cover pricing, creative depictions of product in the catalog, returns policies, and shipping charges. Customers are likely to ask about everything from merchandise availability to size, fit, color, quality, and care requirements. And if a customer has any problems on the back-end — incorrect item shipped, slow returns processing, less-than-helpful customer service reps — you’ll certainly hear about those, too. Inquiries and complaints provide direct links to your customers; capturing what they’re saying and analyzing it can be invaluable in keeping your customer service promises.

• Call center monitoring reports. Catalog companies have historically monitored telephone reps during training, but monitoring can also yield valuable customer information. Even if you don’t have the resources or personnel to do “live” call monitoring, you can tape record calls for the supervisor to listen to from a remote location hours after the call. Whatever the method, call monitoring can help you find out whether your rep training is effective; if your processes, such as database system prompts, work; and if consumers are happy with your service.

• Customer satisfaction cards. Customer satisfaction survey cards included with merchandise orders also provide valuable information. These cards typically ask customers to rate their shopping experience, including the knowledge and courtesy of customer service reps, the promptness of deli, the condition of the package on arrival, the packaging quality, the product appearance, and service. These cards are most effective if you keep them simple by giving customers the choice of several responses, such as “excellent,” “good,” “average,” and “poor.” Prepaying postage can increase the response rate from an average of 1.5%-3% to as much as 5%.

• Secret-shopper studies. Designated “shoppers” from within your company who place orders by phone, by fax, and online get a firsthand view of how well the call center, order fulfillment, returns, and invoicing functions are working.

• Quality assurance sampling reports. Spot-checking outgoing packages provides information about picking accuracy, insertion of paperwork and promotional materials, and package appearance.

Curt Barry is president of F. Curtis Barry & Company, a multichannel operations and fulfillment consulting firm with expertise in multichannel systems, warehouse, call center, inventory, and benchmarking; learn more online at:

Click here to read Part 2

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