"Dude, where's my stuff?"

Tuesday 20 September 2011, 11:40AM

By Greentree International


How mobile and automation software can help keep the customer satisfied.

If you run a warehouse, how would you feel if a customer imposed a financial penalty on you every time you mucked up an order?

That’s actually happening now. A leading retailer is imposing a penalty of between $15 and $20 on its suppliers for each incorrect item they send it. The retailer asserts that’s fair compensation for the cost of contacting the supplier, re-ordering, and returning the unwanted goods – not to mention the frustration of having to tell a customer that the item they want isn’t available.

In the tougher economic climate, businesses are less tolerant of errors. If goods wanted can’t be supplied by one outlet, there are others which can be approached. And if they can fill an order that you can’t, they also get the chance to take more business from you. Prompt delivery is crucial to some retailers whose market is dictated by the seasons; clothing, for example. Winter goods not delivered before autumn are less likely to be sold, and could even be returned to the wholesaler for that reason.

Too often, such hiccups are simply the result of human error. People aren’t that hot at performing dull, repetitive tasks: keeping track of inventory, re-ordering before it runs low, or informing customers about the status of their orders.

Supply chain and distribution software takes over many of those dreary tasks, issuing alerts and requesting approvals as work is completed or goods picked & packed – it can also notify customers. But it’s mobile devices and automation that are revolutionising the supply and service chains; moving vital information in real-time, and freeing staff from the drudgery of paperwork.

Tracking the invisible

Keeping tabs on an order used to be a time-consuming chore, dependent on phone calls, scraps of paper and word of mouth. But while online processes have brought increased efficiency, they’ve also made tracking a bit trickier.

“You don’t have much visibility along the way, and people want to track where it’s at,” says Stephen Sims, Greentree’s Product Director. “They want to know the status of their order, especially if it’s coming from overseas.”

Automation can solve this problem. Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) means an order flows easily from a single entry. Built-in validation rules mean orders are prioritised, ensuring urgent requests are handled promptly, and automatic notifications mean the customer is kept informed at each stage. This kind of service is crucial for maintaining good customer relations, since electronic ordering means less personal contact.

Going mobile

The other major imperative in running a supply chain today is the ability to do more with less; in the warehouse, it’s storing, picking and packing large numbers of items, employing only what used to be called a ‘skeleton’ staff. Mobile devices are delivering better results.

In the warehouse, a staff member equipped with a mobile device can receive an order on their screen, then see where to find it. They can pick it, see instantly whether they have enough in stock to fill the order, and mark it for packing and despatch. The order is processed, the customer notified that their goods are on their way, invoicing is authorised, and the inventory is also updated so the warehouse manager knows whether it needs replenishing for further orders. These devices can scan barcodes, reducing errors, and simplifying both ordering and replenishment.

“Your accuracy of information to the customer is so much tighter because you’re collapsing the time to collect the information,” Stephen says. “You’re talking about small time savings, but they all add up.”

It’s in the plan

Of course, none of the above functions can be carried out properly unless the back-office knows what’s going on. Their tool for this is the graphical planner.

It can be configured to trigger alerts for such things as inventory shortages, or even to notify of special authorisations required. For instance, if a particular customer placing an order has an unpaid bill, an alert could pop up saying no further goods are to be despatched until the account is settled.

What you’ve just read is merely a brief overview of the sort of efficiencies possible from the latest supply chain and workflow software. A 2008 IDC survey of companies using mobile business applications noted a 15-20% increase in staff efficiency and a close to 100% reduction in data errors.

Coming soon

If that’s got you thinking, keep your eye out for some more in-depth articles about Greentree’s supply chain & distribution and mobile software. With so much competition out there, getting your technology up to date is key to keeping the customer satisfied.

Read more about Stephen Sims here