If you find yourself in the market to evaluate new shipping solutions, one of the first conversations you’ll probably have with potential solution providers is some type of operations survey. You may have your own requirements list or even a formalized RFP (Request for Proposal) as a starting point, but solution providers will want to understand more about your business including your customers, products, goals, priorities, and what’s going on in your operations.
For some buyers this can feel intrusive or spark concerns over vendor motives, especially if you haven’t gone through a similar process with other system changes in awhile and if you need to gather up an internal team to respond to survey questions. So what should a buyer expect in the survey process, what’s involved, why do vendors want to know all this stuff, and most importantly, how can it benefit you?
Read on for more on shipping operations surveys and how they can help your business …
We all think we’re mechanics.
The first thing to know about shipping surveys and those of us who do them frequently is that we all think we’re mechanics. From a vendors perspective, the goal of the process is to quickly determine whether there is any match between the opportunities and problems in your business and the capabilities of our solutions and teams. A typical mechanic in charge of the process (sometimes called a pre-sales engineer), thrives on learning more about your business, peering under the hood to see what’s really going on, and figuring out how to improve things. There’s genuine curiosity because it’s fun to learn about a business, usually a good degree of skill in quick diagnostics learned from doing surveys on a daily basis, and a some-times unfortunate tendency to get excited and jump into problem solving too quickly. What can we say, mechanics like to fix things.
The process can bring you new information.
The outcome of most survey processes is some type of recap document that is usually emailed to you as a way to "confirm what we heard” and “outline potential issues and opportunities”. Think of it as a free consulting report that brings together a background summary of your business, specific lines of questioning in various operational areas, observations from the vendor, comments and discussions from your various team members, and an overall executive summary for shipping as the specific area of focus for the survey. The recap covers a lot of ground, documents ideas your team may not discuss together often, and can bring in new information and suggestions based on the vendors experiences in surveying and working with others like you. Whether you move ahead in discussions with a specific vendor or not, the ideas and discussion in a survey recap are valuable to your continued evaluations.
Starting out with the business basics.
Since shipping operations are heavily influenced by the products you sell, the customers you service, and a broad range of issues in order management and fulfillment, the starting point for a survey is on business basics. Questions will center on your company, core operations, and some of your distinct characteristics that might influence your shipping needs. Discovery goals are simply to understand your business context as we organize a problem-solving approach. Example topics might include:
- Company background, size, number of locations, number of employees
- Products, customers, sales channels, geographies
- Order volume, shipping volume by type, domestic/export mix
- Growth and priorities in sales, regions, customer types
Determining the systems and tools do you use today.
Next up will often be a review of existing systems and tools used to run your business today. Discovery goals are to understand what type of core ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning) or Accounting system forms your IT foundation, how other systems fit into your operations, and what you like or don’t like about the solutions. Examples topics might include:
- What ERP system do you use, when implemented, upcoming system plans
- What carrier software, websites, or other tools are used to help with shipping
- What types of labeling, paperwork, EDI, or other solutions are used
- Physical equipment such as printers, electronic scales, scanners
Customer service and order management.
Even though we’re working our way to shipping processes, the next stop in a shipping operations survey is often customer service and order management. Discovery goals are to understand how decisions are made and applied around shipping services, who pays for shipping costs, and how choices are reviewed and discussed with customers. Example topics might include:
- Who pays for shipping, mix of freight terms, pricing and markup
- How are carriers and shipping services selected, who makes the choices
- What data is involved such as pricing, transit-time, special services, fees
- What types of customer compliance issues like blind shipping, reference data
- What commitments such as price, delivery time, discounts are promised with orders
- What changes across multiple channels including phone, website, retailers, online stores
- What notifications are sent to customers, how are changes handled, how is tracking done
Integrated pick, pack, ship processing.
When the survey finally reaches shipping topics, you’ll likely end up talking about your overall order fulfillment or pick, pack, ship process. Discovery goals are to understand how inventory is managed in your operations, how warehouse workers find, collect, record inventory, how they pack up items into boxes or skids for shipping, and then how carrier interactions and transactions occur to manage shipping operations. Examples topics might include:
- Daily transaction volume for orders, picking, packing, shipments, invoices
- Teams involved with picking, packing, and transacting with carriers
- How are orders packed for shipping with recording of dim, weight, contents
- Carrier transactions by type such as parcel, LTL, 3PL, or other carriers
- Execution decisions such as rate-shopping, order changes, other exceptions
- How is data collected, validated, updated into core ERP systems with processing
Carrier transactions and shipment processing
Technically speaking shipping is not something that most shippers”actually do. Rather it’s a service they buy from common carriers (unless, of course, you run your own trucks). Discovery goals in the area of shipping include a whole range of carrier issues as well as a drill-down into the nitty-gritty details of steps, data, labels, paperwork, and other activities. Example topics might include:
- Mix of carriers you use such as parcel, LTL, 3PL for shipping, variation by location
- How is carrier performance evaluated in terms of cost, pricing, service-levels
- How is shipment pricing, carrier accounts, and override of these decisions managed
- What types of packing lists, labels, bill of lading, and other documents are used
- What types of exports are managed by volume, country, types of paperwork
- What types of reporting, end of day reports, analytic or other data are used
Bringing the survey data together into a recap document.
After the survey process is completed, the data is gathered, conversations written up, and observations made, your “survey / mechanic” will typically prepare a recap document as a way to summarize the output, validate what they heard, and discuss a “go/no-go” decision with you on whether it makes sense to talk further. Sometimes there is a key requirement that comes up that the vendor does not wish to tackle, other times buyers decide they can’t justify a change based on their current situation, and many others take the next step to look into what the latest solutions might provide that could be better than their existing systems. Neither the vendor nor the buy want to waste time on an unnecessary next-step, so vetting out the recap document is important to both parties. Some of the most common issues and opportunities we see in recap documents include:
- Weak ERP integration causing manual data handling, errors, services issues
- Multiple and fragmented apps and websites in use with no unified shipping process
- Lack of automation in core processes such as paperwork, labels, export documentation
- Limited multi-carrier tools, forcing use of smaller number of carriers with higher prices
- Limits on adding new carriers causing compliance issues, risks for new customers
- Weak reporting makes it difficult to measure actual costs, margins, billing issues
- Costly and complex IT from multiple, on-premise software apps and websites
Want more information and ideas?
Interested in a survey of your shipping operations? Whether you use Pacejet already or not, we’d be happy to discuss the latest opportunities and challenges in your business. Call Pacejet at 877-722-3538, send us an email or visit our website for more information.