Here’s how your electrical distributorship can use technology and other strategies to put the power of supply chain visibility into its customers’ hands.
In the first article in this series, we looked at how Amazon and other e-tailers are ramping up their own supply chain, logistics, and delivery processes in order to meet customer demands for faster deliveries and higher levels of order visibility—from the point of manufacture right to the customers’ very doorsteps.
This may all sound unattainable for an independent distributor that grew up thinking that customers were working on its schedule, but there actually are some great strategies that these companies can use to meet their customers’ ever-changing expectations. According to Julian Wiles, VP of operations at M. Holland Company, a distributor of thermoplastic resins and ancillary products in Northbrook, Ill., it starts with asking those customers what they want out of your distributorship (as opposed to giving them what you think they want).
“We’re in an era where listening to the customer is more critical than ever,” says Wiles. “It’s about creating those engagements and having the right conversations with the people who really count.” Technology is another enabler for B2B distributors that want to make their supply chains more efficient without having to invest in more headcount or equipment. Much like a hungry Dominoes customer can now use a mobile app to track his pizza as it moves from the restaurant to his house—or, an Uber rider can literally watch her driver move from point to point, also via a mobile app—distributors can use technology to up their visibility games.
M. Holland Company, for example, recently invested in a transportation management system (TMS) that provides high levels of visibility over its delivery network (and other functions). A logistics platform that enables users to manage and optimize the daily operations of their transportation fleets, TMS can improve freight savings by up to 8 percent, with most companies shaving anywhere from 5-10 percent off their freight costs after implementing their TMS platforms.
Once the domain of large enterprises with millions of dollars in annual freight expenditures, TMS has become more affordable and accessible, mainly due to the advent of cloud computing. Companies like Kuebix, 3Gtms, and Freightview offer their respective versions of full-featured TMS on a subscription basis. “The resources it takes to get into a TMS today are down significantly due to the cloud,” says Wiles, who calls M. Holland’s TMS a real game-changer for the company on a few different fronts.
“We now have constant, reliable interfaces with our transportation suppliers/carriers/truckers, and are able to provide those real-time updates or ‘shipment status updates’ to our own customers,” says Wiles. “Having that is pretty critical in a high-pressure, high customer-touch business that we’re all operating in right now.”
Whether you’re running a midsized distributorship, a large retailing organization, or an e-commerce business, your focus is probably on improving efficiencies, saving money, and keeping customers happy (and coming back for more). In a world where the next buying opportunity is literally a single screen tap away, maintaining this balance and keeping customers loyal has become more difficult than ever.
But what if you could turn those “screen taps” into a competitive advantage by giving customers a way to track and trace their orders from point of origin to point of delivery? It can be done, says Jeff Newman, VP of supply chain visibility solution sales at CalAmp in Dallas, and it works. “We’re already seeing Amazon and some other players delivering full instrumentation of the delivery process,” says Newman. “It can start right in the manufacturing facility, flow through to the point of order, and right out to the point of delivery.”
Zeroing in on the delivery component, Newman says offering customers a mobile app that tracks shipments from the time they’re loaded onto the truck—and that effectively monitor those shipments’ real-time progress through the supply chain—is smart business in a world where consumers use mobile apps for pretty much everything.
“Amazon has created capabilities around the whole journey and is incorporating everything from the in-cab or in-trailer data right down to the parcel itself,” Newman explains. “This basically allows the delivery to be monitored, good decisions to be made, and customers to be alerted as their shipments make their way through the supply chain. It’s a complete ecosystem.”
Are Handhelds the Answer?
There’s no question that the technology needed to improve delivery visibility—and to get that data into the customer’s hands—is out there for the taking. Getting companies to invest in and adopt these tools isn’t easy. “Most of the issues dealing with delivery are not necessarily around technology; there are tons of technology options,” Newman points out. “It’s about understanding the impact of your operational processes, and then changing the operation to become more efficient. That’s the biggest stumbling block, and working through it takes time.”
Another challenge is that there is no one-size-fits-all model to fit every company’s delivery methods. A small, regional electrical distributor that uses only its own fleet to delivery locally, for example, will have very different supply chain visibility needs than a national company that utilizes third-party logistics providers (3PLs) and common carriers to get its shipments into customers’ hands.
At least for now, Newman says the distributor that wants to step up its delivery game can start using handheld apps to fill in any or all of the visibility gaps that exist within its supply chain. Much like companies such as UPS and FedEx have used for decades, these apps track the location of the delivery vehicle, validate what was delivered and when, and even include barcode (or picture) scanning capabilities.
Going a step further, distributors can then use the data generated by the handhelds to make better, customer-focused decisions going forward. This level of predictive analytics can help companies work smarter, better, and faster in a B2B environment that demands all three. “Handhelds are collectors of information,” Newman says. “We’re seeing more companies using predictive analytics and big data analysis on the backend to figure out what needs to be done today to improve efficiencies.”
Read more about optimizing delivery for your contractor customers in the June issue of tED magazine. Turn to page 24, or click here to read the Contractor Q&A.
Tagged with best practices, delivery, e-commerce