Not that long ago, supply chains merely had to contend with retailers, and it was the retailers job to deal with the consumer. This model doesn’t exist in the same way anymore, and increasingly, supply chains are businesses to consumer. As such, improving customer service is pivotal to supply chains success.
Nowadays, consumers are getting increasingly up close and personal with supply chain management, as well as the various steps in the process. Manage your supply chain well, and the consumer sees evidence of this, becomes loyal, and boosts your bottom line. Get it wrong, and you’ll fall foul of a competitor who doesn’t. Managing your supply chain seamlessly with customer service at the middle, will ensure the success of your business.
What Part Do Supply Chains Play in Customer Service?
Fundamentally, a well-managed supply chain will do a number of things to guarantee a high level of customer service to their consumers.
- Speedy, Reliable Logistics: They will deliver their products, whatever they are, in a speedy and efficient manner, with minimal error. A supply chain focused on excellent customer services puts a strong focus on their logistics. Some chains are doing this by bringing the logistics back in-house, rather than outsourcing them to a third party. It puts the business in control of the consumer relationship. Modern logistics are about strategy and how to constantly make improvements. A haulage company explains it thus: “When new drivers join our regional fleet, the importance of customer service is the second thing we talk about – after safety – because if we don’t satisfy customers, we don’t stay in business.” (Inboundlogistics.com)
- Insightful Tracking: They will track their product throughout the supply chain, right until it is in the consumer’s hands. Technology makes this seamless, and there really is no excuse for not doing it. This is about providing valuable insight that affects the customer relationship. By using tracking you inherently bring accountability to the entire chain, which in turn fosters trust. A consumer should be able to see what is in stock, and where it is on its process to reaching their hands. Furthermore, if a product isn’t in stock, they should be able to see accurate information feeding from higher up the chain so that they know when it will be in stock. Without this insight and tracking the customer will simply vote with their feet.
- Collaboration and Vendor Management: Throughout the supply chain it is imperative to focus on relationships, and trust within those relationships. You are not only outsourcing a part of the product development, for example, but at these points you are outsourcing part of your customer service. You rely on extremely functional collaboration and vendor management to adhere to your stringent standards of customer service. As always, you’re only as strong as your weakest link.
- Careful Inventory Management: Furthermore, customer focused supply chains will know how to maintain optimal inventory levels, so that there is a good balance between having items in stock to meet customer demand, whilst also minimising the risk of over-stock, goods becoming redundant, and wasting costly storage space.
- A Consistent Approach: The problem with supply chains is that there can be multiple steps of removal between the start of the chain and the consumer. This means that understanding, and vital information about the consumers wants, desires and needs, are lost as they travel through the chain. Instead, every facet of the supply chain needs to thoroughly understand their consumer to create the end product, which will meet their need. Supply chains that keep their customer profiling at the centre of everything they do discover they are more successful and able to adapt to market changes.
- Eliminate Inefficiencies: Once upon a time inefficiencies could be disguised in a large chain and no one was any the wiser. This simply can’t happen in a modern consumer supply chain. Inefficiencies need to be identified, and removed.
These different factors come together to create an overall relationship with the customer based on trust, and a belief that you will reliably, and consistently, meet their needs. This in turn builds loyalty, whereby they will choose you as a preferred supplier or retailer, as well as potentially bring more business to your door.
How to Ensure Customer Service in Consumer Supply Chains
There isn’t a big secret to successful supply chains. They do, however, take the latest technological innovations and use them to their advantage. Technology, and supply chain management software, allows you to reduce time spent on processes which are time consuming, and always operate at optimal levels and foster collaboration. This in turn ensures customer service is integral to every stage of the chain.
They also realise customer service as an integral part of the chain in and of itself, rather than as a by-product. Many supply chains have found this to work best, and be most cost effective, by outsourcing the customer facing part of customer service to another country. However, how this is handled requires a delicate balance of cost-effectiveness versus customer need, to make it improve customer service, rather than hinder it.
In order for customer service to be ever-present in every element in the chain it needs to work with a start to finish approach. Top management must be focused on customer service throughout the chain from manufacturing to distribution.
The Difference between the Past and the Present
Customer service used to be something very distinct, the holy grail of the retail industry. Now customer service needs to be in prime position from the very earliest point in the supply chain, and at every step thereafter – always in prime position. It’s not just about the retailer selling an item, but the entire chain leading the customer towards brand loyalty, and being able to adapt and flex to what is needed at any point. Customer service now needs to be integral every step of the way. It’s now about predicting the customer, knowing them even better than they know themselves, and constantly adapting and evolving the supply chain to meet this.