One of the defining business impacts of the global coronavirus pandemic has been a remarkable acceleration in the shift towards shopping online.
Of course this trend has been underway for many years now, not just in consumer retail but also in B2B procurement. As existing businesses have moved online and new eCommerce competitors have arrived, so we have also seen the rise of the third-party order fulfilment service.
This is no surprise – order fulfilment is fertile ground for outsourcing. To do it efficiently and effectively usually requires a scale, specialist infrastructure and expertise that only the largest manufacturers and distributors find easy to deliver in-house.
As a result, there is no shortage of internet fulfilment services to choose from, all ready to store, pick, pack and send just about anything you can imagine, from niche craft products to the most mundane of business supplies.
But as technology manufacturers know better than anyone, not all products are created equal.
And that really matters for order fulfilment, where the nature of a product, its complexity, its application and context, its position in the product lifecycle, and its relationship to your customer base all have a critical role to play in deciding what kind of service you need and how best you can use order fulfilment to create value and competitive advantage for your business.
For a typical commodity or FMCG product, the basics of order fulfilment are fairly simple to identify (if not to always to achieve).
1. Goods in & storage / inventory
Secure and efficient storage is fundamental. Stock needs to be received; usually de-palletised or unboxed; checked; and the details imported into a stock management system to keep products organised and ready for the next order.
2. Order Processing
The core pick, pack and dispatch process needs to be fast, economical and, above all, accurate if you are to stand a chance of reliably meeting modern customer expectations.
Fast and reliable shipping is essential for modern ecommerce operations. It is vital that the most appropriate form of shipping is found for each circumstance, whether post, courier or other.
An efficient returns function is important for even the most basic of products, allowing for goods to be returned and either a refund or replacement product to be processed.
While these four processes cover the essentials of order fulfilment for simpler products, technology products rarely match this ‘send and forget’ model.
These are typically sophisticated and complex products for which customers – whether consumers or businesses – may need help and support from an initial enquiry right through to purchase, use and, ultimately, end-of-life disposal.
To build the kind of service that can support that entire lifecycle and deliver lasting customer loyalty and brand value, a technology manufacturer or distributor is likely to need much more than simply a pick, pack and dispatch model.
5. Technical support & helpdesk
Technical support for technology products is often much more than simply dealing with problems when something goes wrong. Effective technical support can start before a product is even bought, handling questions about specification and compatibility for example. It can also be there to help the customer set up and use their new product, and upgrade or modify it later on.
And yes, it will be just as important if something does go wrong – particularly in the 85% more of instances at Qcom where we find that telephone support can resolve problems without either a product return or a field engineer dispatch.
6. Assembly, configuration & testing.
While commodity and FMCG products typically come off of the pallet and into shipping, technology products are frequently more complex and customisable.
Many B2B technology products are offered in different configurations, which can call for panel and cabinet building, cable and wiring assembly, and/or software configuration before dispatch.
Products often require testing before they go out the door.
And critically, delicate and high-value electronics often require white glove handling throughout, with facilities such as isolated cleanrooms, anti-static protection, temperature and humidity control, and advanced security.
Many technology products can require specialist installation, either as standard or as part of an enhanced service offering.
This is particularly true of B2B technologies which may have to integrate with existing networks or equipment in the retail, hospitality or manufacturing environment for example. But it can also be true of some sophisticated B2C technologies such as smart home audio or air conditioning.
8. Product repair and maintenance
The returns procedure for simple commodity and FMCG products is typically a swap out or refund operation. Technology products require a significantly broader range of options.
While swap out or refund options will certainly be required for required for faulty equipment, it is likely that a combination of warranty and non-warranty repair options will also be desirable. In some cases a purely back-to-base workshop repair option will suffice; in others (typically fixed installation B2B equipment or premium consumer products) a field engineering solution will be required.
9. Modifications and upgrades
Few technology products, if any, operate in complete isolation from their environment. From firmware upgrades to new features and integrations, technology products often require modifications or upgrades through their life.
While consumers have become used to carrying out such updates on their own everyday technology, the volumes, size and complexity of B2B technologies mean that only a return-to-base or field engineering solution is of the only viable solution for business customers.
10. End of life
From legislation such as the WEEE directive to social and political calls for a more circular economy, pressures are growing on manufacturers to close the loop on their product lifecycles, and provide end-of-life options for consumers and businesses with redundant or no-longer-required equipment.
Options can include disposal and destruction, recycling, refurbishment and reuse / resale to extract any residual value in the equipment.
In truth then, order fulfilment is just one part of the whole-of-life technical service and support cycle which technology products require to meet the ever-growing expectations of both consumer and business customers.
By understanding order fulfilment in this way, technology manufacturers and distributors can transform the customer experience, giving themselves a vital competitive advantage and creating long-term reputational value for their business.
And by outsourcing order fulfilment to a full-service specialist like Qcom, they can achieve these strategic gains alongside significant efficiencies and cost savings.
The specialist provider’s investment in dedicated facilities, technology and skills lays at the heart of this.
Qcom’s multi-functional Technical Repair Centre (TRC) and specialist engineering team is a great example.
On-site warehousing means we can manage both product and spares inventory for our clients, including demo and even bonded new stock for resale.
Our dedicated inventory system ensures professional and fully-audited handling of stock, supporting a full pick-and-pack service for the order fulfilment of either components or complete technology products.
Crucially, our dedicated assembly, commissioning and testing stations allow us to support complex B2B and consumer technology product roll-outs and re-work projects.
All of this means we can offer the kind of white glove services require by delicate electronics, high-value technology, medical instruments, and other specialist equipment.
Beyond the TRC, we have an efficient and effective logistics operation, including a technical courier network and 15 forward stock locations.
And our field services from installation to repair are delivered by our exceptional team of field service engineers throughout the UK and Ireland, with joint venture alliances ensuring coverage across EMEA. Together with our state-of-the-art workshop facilities, this means we can support technology products with a truly comprehensive pan-European aftermarket service.
As we have seen, working with a specialist order fulfilment provider can be an ideal way for companies to leverage the benefits of business process outsourcing.
But to maximise all of the competitive, service quality and cost advantages, technology manufacturers should look beyond a simple ‘pick, pack and dispatch’ operation.
Instead, whether outsourced or delivered in-house, order fulfilment for technology products should be seen as part of a comprehensive whole-of-life service and support lifecycle.
To discuss the service and support requirements of your technology product, contact Qcom today.
Read more here about Qcom’s specialist e-fulfilment and full suite of services for pre-sales and sales support. You can read more here about the ways Qcom provides the people, processes and infrastructure required to deliver an exceptional whole-of-life product experience.
Or you can read more about our full-service technology support in these case studies: